A ceramic oil lamp

oil lamp

There is not an ember burning on the table top! It just looks that way.

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.

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  1. oooooh lovely! the design features are awesome – the concave no-spill top + the “cat lick” deterrent decorative lid 😉

    Commissions?????? 😉

    • Commissions? Har! 😉 It took forever to make this thing, not the least because I don’t know what I’m doing yet. If I wanted to make multiples, I’d have to figure out how to make a slip casting…hmmmm… the wheels turn. But I doubt I’d have more than a market of one!

  2. Beautiful! Congrats on doing this. What kind of clay did you use? Is it a high fire and where did you actually do the work? Are you now into having a clay studio at home complete with kiln? Or did you go to an outside studio? Anyway I love the clay and glaze you used. Tell us more.

    • Thanks! The clay is Soldate 60 (which I keep thinking of as Soledad 60, and had to look up to get right!) The glaze was in the bucket called “green matte”, I believe…but I’m not sure that is its whole name. Gotta do better with the notes.

      I should have mentioned that I’m doing the work at Xiem Clay Center in Altadena–they have classes and studio memberships. It’s a great place, and my teacher, Titia Estes, was wonderful. I took a 6 session clay construction class, and will do more, because there is so much to learn and so many possibilities.

      And gracious no–there will be no home studio here! It’s bad enough to have acquired all these clay tools and worse, all these lumpy badly glazed pots which were my first efforts. What do I do with them???

  3. “lumpy badly glazed pots which were my first efforts. What do I do with them???”

    You could:
    Bury them and plant plants that tend to stray – mint etc
    Smash them and use shards in the bottom of pots with plants that need well drained soil

  4. I’m impressed! That’s really nice and I either want to make one myself or yes, commission one. So, there you go, two customers waiting for you! 🙂

  5. Beautiful!

    You should definitely work out a production method. I would buy one from you!!!

    Love Xiem (I did a stint there where I threw *tiny* perfume bottles). You could start out by selling in their next popup shop.

  6. I am so happy to see you kept at the ceramics! It is so wonderful working in clay, on or off the wheel. We are closing on a house soon- house itself is pretty eh, but we were drawn to a bonus room attached to the garage for ceramic studio space. I can’t *wait*. I would love to make oil lamps and adorable ceramic chicken feeders. Will have to do some thinking on the latter.

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