This is to report that I’ve accomplished one of my New Year’s resolutions: I made a ceramic oil lamp.
Regular readers will know that I’m a little obsessed with lamps that burn cooking oil instead of kerosene.
I like them so much, I made a little seashell oil lamp the very first project in our book Making It. As a child of the electric age it continuously amazes me that I can make light so easily with cooking oil. Also, in reproducing these lights, I feel a connection to history. I’ve no doubt that my ancestors gathered around fish oil lamps in the north and olive oil lamps in the south.
To add to their charms, they aren’t based on petroleum–as paraffin tea candles are, for example–and they’re non-toxic. They’re relatively safe, compared to kerosene, in that vegetable oil has such a high flash point. And finally, in their list of virtues, they’re cheap. They can be improvised out things like jar lids and Altoids tins, and I use rancid and otherwise questionable oils to fuel them — oils which I would otherwise throw out.
This ceramic lamp more fancy than the little lamps I’ve made previously. It’s based on the standard-model Mediterranean oil lamp which was ubiquitous throughout the ancient world. Ancient Romans had cheap terra cotta lamps in this shape which were stamped with the names of popular gladiators–the ancient equivalent of a 7-Eleven superhero cup. Nowadays I believe these lamps are standard stock in the Holy Land tourist trade.
At any rate, I’ve always wanted one, so I built one. Next I want to make more of them in more complex forms–designs with two and four flame outlets.
The workings of the lamp are quite simple. Inside is the oil reservoir. There’s a fill hole on the top, which I capped with a little leaf to keep the cats from sampling the oil. The top is convex, the slope leading to the fill hole, so it’s easy to top off without spilling oil. I fished a piece of cotton rag up through the “nose” to serve as a wick. The wick is long enough that it extends into the main body of the lamp. All ancient lamps are low-slung like this. The fuel seems to draw better when the wick is almost horizontal.
The lamp is smaller than you might think from the picture–it fits in the palm of my hand. Due to its size, and the fact that the walls are thick because I’m still pretty clumsy at the clay work, the reservoir only holds about 2 tablespoons of oil. Nonetheless, that much oil gives a strong bright flame for 4 1/2 hours.