What kind of oil do you put in lamps & lanterns?

Written by rich finzer | 13/05/2017
What kind of oil do you put in lamps & lanterns?
A common household oil lamp. (oil lamp image by Pierrette Guertin from Fotolia.com)

For a dependable emergency lighting source, many homeowners use oil lamps or lanterns. They are portable, relatively inexpensive and produce acceptable levels of illumination. In ancient times the Romans and Greeks burnt olive oil in their lamps. Olive oil will still work as a fuel source, but today's consumers have a variety of more practical fuels for their oil burning lights.

Lamp Oil History

What kind of oil do you put in lamps & lanterns?
Early Americans burnt whale oil or coal oil in their lamps. (oil lamp image by Aleksandr Ugorenkov from Fotolia.com)

During America's early history, people burnt whale oil in their lamps. But by the middle of the nineteenth century, many switched to "coal oil". It was a form of kerosene derived from cannel coal. However, after the discovery of crude oil, kerosene was produced by distilling raw petroleum. By current standards, early kerosene was of poor quality. As refining techniques improved, so did the quality of lamp fuel. Modern homeowners can choose from many highly purified oils for their lamps and lanterns.

Paraffin Versus Lamp Oil

Some lamp oils are labelled "liquid paraffin", instead of simply lamp oil. There is no difference between them. Both varieties are produced from highly refined blends of the exact same thing, kerosene. Lamp oils labelled as "ultra-purified" have also been filtered several times to remove any particulate matter and render them crystal clear.

Lamp Oil Types

Some lamp oils contain coloured dyes. The dye does not affect the burning characteristics of the lamp oil, it's added strictly for visual appeal. Other lamp oils are scented with the essences of pine, citrus or spices, such as clove or cinnamon. The most common variety of lamp oil is the clear variety. It is sold in many hardware stores and home improvement centres. Dyed or scented lamp oils are usually carried by retailers specialising in these products exclusively.


What kind of oil do you put in lamps & lanterns?
Old fashioned railroad lanterns burnt kerosene. (Oil lamp on a red wall image by Sergey Skleznev from Fotolia.com)

The K-1 formula of undyed kerosene is also a good fuel source for either lamps or lanterns. Compared to the price of dyed or scented lamp oils, it is very inexpensive. You can purchase K-1 kerosene at many gasoline retailers. It is the same fuel people burn in kerosene room heaters, or the "salamander" heaters used in unheated outbuildings or workshops. It was also the fuel source for the lanterns carried by railroad workers.


Like other products, the larger the container of lamp oil you buy, the lower price per ounce. If you have several lamps, purchasing oil in 1-gallon jugs can be more economical. If members of your household are subject to allergies, scented lamp oils might irritate their condition. Additionally, over time, the oil in your lamps will be drawn up through the wick and eventually evaporate. Check the oil reservoir on a regular basis. It's better to fill your lamps before the power fails.

Proper Adjustment

What kind of oil do you put in lamps & lanterns?
A lamp chimney coated with soot is a telltale sign of poor flame adjustment (retro lamp image by Aleksandr Ugorenkov from Fotolia.com)

Regardless of the lamp oil you choose, if you do not keep your lamps properly cleaned and adjusted, most will produce a sooty flame. Keep your lamp wicks neatly trimmed and the glass chimneys clean. Adjust your wick so that is even with the top of the burner or just slightly higher. You'll have plenty of illumination, no smoke, and your lamp oil will last longer. Because mirrors reflect and focus light, you may wish to acquire lamp brackets equipped with circular mirrors.

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