Saturday, February 23, 2013

Survival #5: Kerosene Lamps

For a number of years when I was a kid, my family lived without electricity and got most of our light from kerosene lamps. Okay, we got most of our light from the sun, but you know what I mean.

I met plenty of people who seemed to feel sorry for me, living like that, and I didn't understand why. Much later I happened to be with some friends when they lit a kerosene lamp, and then it all made sense to me. Their lamp wasn't much brighter than a nightlight, certainly nothing you'd want to read by, and that was just for the first few minutes. Pretty soon the clear glass chimney turned black, and all we had was a little glow.

It doesn't have to be like that. If you know how to use them, kerosene lamps give enough light for cooking, washing the dishes, doing homework and enjoying a good book. Sewing and mopping the floor may need to wait for daylight, though, not because there's not enough light, but because it's often hard to get the light where you need it.
Some tips:

Choosing your lamp: I like to pick one with a heavy base for stability. A large fuel reservoir won't help since it won't burn properly unless it's pretty full, anyway. Height is optional and depends on where you'll be putting it and what type of activity you're planning. If you're buying more than one lamp, I recommend buying both short ones and tall ones.

Preparing your lamp: We had a ritual in our house: every day, sometime before dark, we prepared the lamps. If they were going to function properly for the evening, they needed to be filled, trimmed and cleaned.
  • Filling: I always do this outdoors because it's very smelly. A funnel helps a lot unless your kerosene jug has a very narrow spout. Hold the lamp in one hand and grab the screw-threads with the other, and twist the top off. Never try to unscrew it by the wide part of the cap: I've broken at least one lamp that way. Let the cap dangle by the wick and pour in the kerosene beside it. Fill it up all the way to the bottom of the narrow part at the top where the cap screws on, then close it up again. Wipe off any drips with a rag.
  • Trimming the wick defines the shape of the flame and helps keep it from smoking. You'll need a pair of small, sharp scissors. 
    • Start by choosing a shape for the wick. Some people prefer a round shape and some a flatter one, and it's mostly a matter of what you find easiest to work with. I like to follow the shape of the cap.
    • Using the knob, turn the wick up until it's convenient to work on.
    • If it's a brand-new wick, light it with a match and then blow it out right away.
    • Photo:
    • Now it's time to attack it with the scissors. Your goal is to make it smooth and rounded, without any bumps or corners, and relatively free of crispy, charred wick material. The best results I've ever gotten were from leaving just a tiny bit of the crispy stuff and gently running my finger along the top of the wick to smooth it. But since I haven't been doing it every day, I'm afraid I'm out of practice and haven't managed to leave just the right amount of crisp for that lately.
  • Cleaning: A clean, dry chimney without water spots is essential to getting good light out of your lamp. This job is best done by someone with a small enough hand to fit inside easily, but if necessary you can use a wooden spoon. Don't use a metal utensil, don't clink the spoon around in there, and don't ever force your hand in! Lamp chimneys are delicate, and no amount of light is worth slicing a tendon. Clean the chimney as you would clean a window, with glass cleaner and paper towels. If it's very dirty, you may want to wash it in a plastic dishpan first, but not directly in the sink or together with your dishes, because it could shatter. Hold it up to a window to be sure you've eliminated all streaks and fingerprints, and then handle it only by the bottom.
Placing your lamp: Location makes a big difference. Here are some things to consider:
  • If that lamp gets knocked over once it's lit, it's a Molotov cocktail. Okay, so kerosene isn't as dangerous as gasoline, but you've still got a potential disaster on your hands. It's also very hot anywhere near the chimney, and especially above it. 
    • The temptation is always there to set a lamp on the edge of something where people are likely to bump it. It's just not worth it.
    • Don't put it on a tablecloth. If the cat gets playful or feels the need to scratch, or the tablecloth snags on your chair, you've got trouble.
    • Don't put it too close to flammable materials. If you have a hanger or bracket, be sure it's installed so the lamp will be far enough from the wall and ceiling. The first time you use it there, it's a good idea to keep checking the wall and ceiling to make sure they aren't getting hot.
    • If you have children or pets, don't ever leave the room with a lamp burning. I know it's a pain, but grab your matches, blow out the lamp, and relight it when you return.
    • Supervise children near the lamp, but remember they will never learn to be safe with it if you don't let them near it at all. To minimize accidents due to carelessness or curiosity, it's a good idea to explain to them how it works and where it is hot (the chimney and the air above it). If they want to touch it, they can do so safely if you're holding the lamp near the screw-threads to keep it steady. Just be sure they know to touch the base and not the chimney.
Can you find two things wrong?
  • Think about how to make the light shine where you need it most. You may need to rearrange your work area to safely maximize your usage of available light. Items that require electricity, such as small kitchen appliances or electric lamps, can be stowed elsewhere to eliminate unnecessary shadows.
  • Have you ever noticed how small and dim the bulb in a flashlight really is? It gets all that extra lighting power from the reflective cone it sits in. You can do the same thing with your lamp. Aluminum foil is wonderful, window glass is great, and even a backdrop of porcelain canisters helps a lot. Try to remove any objects that have a dull texture if they don't absolutely need to be near the lamp.
  • Remember that unlike an electric light installed in a ceiling, a kerosene lamp will not shine its light directly down. In fact, a lot of taller lamps will cast an annoying round shadow that pretty much rules out homework or reading. Placing a short and a tall lamp together in the middle of the table, or a tall lamp and some candles, will eliminate this shadow, especially if the table is lined with foil. 
Lighting your lamp: 
  • Be sure the chimney is clean and within easy reach, and turn up the wick until you can see it peeking out above the cap.
  • Light the wick with a match or lighter.
  • Turn the wick down again until the flame is very small but not in danger of going out.
  • Put the chimney in place, being careful to handle it only by the base. Check to make sure it's seated correctly and none of the little metal holders got stuck inside.
  • The heat of the flame will cause water vapor to cloud the inside surface of the chimney. Wait until this burns off before adjusting the flame. If the flame is too high before the vapor burns off, there will be water spots on the chimney and the lamp will not give off as much light.
  • When the chimney clears, turn up the wick until the flame is as big as possible without flickering or smoking. You should not be able to see the wick itself.
When you're done, turn the wick down, blow out the flame and allow the chimney to cool before moving the lamp. The wick will continue to wick kerosene even when the lamp is not lit. The difference is that without the flame, the kerosene can evaporate. So be sure to store the lamp with the wick turned down as far as it will go without falling out of its holder.

Coming up in this series:

  • How to heat, cook and bake with a wood stove
  • How to live without running water
  • How to get the most out of your food budget
  • How to keep your food from spoiling without electricity


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