Making Light, by M.E.

Artificial light is useful for extending working time beyond sunset, for providing comfort in the long dark hours of winter, and for finding one’s way in the night. Without electricity or batteries, solar cells or wind up flashlights, lamps and candles can be made just as they have been for thousands of years.

The cave paintings of the Upper Paleolithic were done by the light of lamps that used a lump of animal fat as fuel and lichen, moss, or juniper twigs as wicks. The light of these crude lamps was sufficient to produce some of the earliest known works of art in pitch-black caves. Some of these lamps were merely rocks with slight, natural hollows in them, others were carved from soft stone to form handles for carrying and bowls for the fat and wick. The carved bowl lamps are not dissimilar to lamps of pottery or tin used into the 19th century in frontier America. (I own a copy of one of these, called a Brown Betty.) As the wick burns, the fat melts and the liquid is drawn up the wick to provide fuel for the flame. The problem with these lamps is when the fuel runs out, the wick will continue to burn in an uncontrolled manner, destroying the wick and creating a fire hazard. Later, far superior designs addressed this problem, although the open bowl style of lamp can still be found today.

The ancient Egyptians and other Mediterranean cultures had a better design, a better fuel, and a better wick. These lamps, made of glazed pottery or metal, run a fiber wick through a narrow opening that snuffs out the flame when the wick burns down and keeps it from creating an uncontrolled blaze once the fuel is depleted. Oil, a far superior fuel to fat, can be added through the hole in the top of the lamp while the flame is still burning allowing for nearly continuous operation. The olive oil used in these lamps is an especially desirable fuel as it burns without smoke or odor. Anyone who has ever burned tallow candles or rushes (porous reeds soaked in animal fat) can understand the appeal of a less fragrant fuel such as plant oil, especially in closed in spaces.

Light From The Sea

In oceangoing cultures, whale oil came to be used for lamps, but this had the disadvantages of being dangerous to harvest and not especially bright when burned. For this reason, whale oil lamps usually had two wicks (I have one with three wicks) to produce more light from a single reservoir. Other fish oils, more easily harvested, have also been used. All had a strong odor when burned. The end of the American Civil War saw the introduction and spread across the country of kerosene lamps. Kerosene provides a superior quality of light compared to most oils and is less explosive that the briefly popular camphine, a combination of turpentine and grain alcohol. Camphine burned with a very bright white light, but required a specialized lamp with a strong draw to burn properly (occasionally antique shops will label a camphine lamp as a whale oil lamp because it has two wicks, but if the wick nipples are quite long and angled away from one another, that is a camphine lamp).

While kerosene is superior to its predecessors, it is not easy to produce at home, is derived from petrochemicals which may one day be difficult to access, and, when aerosolized, is explosive. It can produce an unpleasant smell as well, and if the wick is not tended, may smoke and produce soot. Having said all that, kerosene provides bright and reliable light when used correctly in a well-maintained lantern. Propane has a similar issue with being derived from petrochemicals, but is currently readily available. Methane can be produced from animal manure and other home-generated sources, but a certain amount infrastructure (biogas generator) is required, and the risk of explosion remains an issue. Propane and methane are both useful for cooking as well as lighting if a source can be assured and the proper equipment is available and maintained.

Wick Materials

For oil lamps and candles, wicks of cotton, linen or other natural fibers work well (I’ve even seen directions for using cotton balls to make wicks, but haven’t tried it), especially if they are treated (see next paragraph). In some lamps, the wicking, that is the drawing up of fuel, is so efficient that the wick burns little if at all as long as fuel remains in the reservoir. I own a lamp that uses a wick made of glass fibers enclosed in a glass tube that draws the lamp oil without the wick itself being consumed. It does not produce an especially bright flame, but never needs to be replaced. However, it only works with lamp oil (kerosene) and not with the more viscous oils.

For candles, where the wick is consumed, the fiber should be treated with a solution of borax and salt. This makes the wick burn to ash and crumble in such a way that it doesn’t have to be trimmed as the candle burns down. It also stiffens the wick so it stays out of the wax as it melts. The treatment solution should be 1 cup of water, 1 tablespoon of salt, and 3 tablespoons of borax. This is brought to a simmer (not a boil) to thoroughly dissolve the salts, then cooled. Soak the fiber in the solution for 24 hours then let it dry completely, preferably by hanging the wick to keep it straight. Of course, wicking material is also commercially available and could be a useful addition to an emergency pantry.

Practical and Sustainable

I find oil lamps to be both practical and sustainable. Oil is readily available from many kinds of plants as well as some animals. Olives, corn, rape seed, peanuts, tree nuts, and many other oil sources can be used. In fact, nearly any kind of seed or nut can produce oil, though the extraction process may be less practical for some than for others. Anyone who makes their own peanut butter or buys “natural” peanut butter will be familiar with the oil separating out. This can be poured off and used as a fuel as can sesame and sunflower oils.

Candles are a wonderful invention and can use many kinds of wax. Beeswax candles are the gold standard for high quality candles. The wax is a useful byproduct of beekeeping for the purposes of pollination and producing honey that can be used for cooking, wound treatment, and making mead. Wax can also be gotten from plants like bayberry and coconuts, as well as from petrochemicals in the form of paraffin. Even animal fats can be used for candles, though the smell may be off-putting. The so-called candle fish, when dried, can be burned because of the high oil content in its skin, but the smell is unpleasant. Even fat from cooking could be used–I’ve often been tempted to sink a wick into my bacon grease can, but have so far resisted the urge. I suspect the smell of burning bacon grease would be a problem. I know that Crisco (hydrogenated vegetable oil) was once popular for sticking in a wick and burning for light, but these days the containers are cardboard, so if you want to try this, I recommend putting it in a metal can.

Candles can be made in molds, cans, tubes, even in hollows in wet sand with the wicks anchored on the bottom and held taut by being tied to a stick across the top of the mold. Alternately, layers of wax can be built up by dipping weighted wicks in melted wax or by pouring wax over the weighted wick, slowly building as long and as thick a candle as you have the wax and patience for (this is how huge candles were made for medieval cathedrals). Wicks for candles should be at least an inch longer than the final length of the candle and correctly sized to burn at the same rate as the wax melts. Candle-making guides can provide information on the ratio of wick size to diameter of the finished candle. If the wick is too large, the candle will burn too vigorously and become a fire hazard; if it is too small, the melted wax will fall in on the candle and snuff it out. A large candle can have multiple wicks to increase the amount of light. Mirrors and magnifiers can be used to amplify the available light from a candle or a lamp.

When I camp, I often use an ancient-Roman design olive oil lamp because it provides a pleasant and surprisingly useful level of light. I use it as a night light, but as with all open flames, I practice extreme caution. Besides the danger of fire, lamps and candles also present the hazard of consuming oxygen and therefore depleting it from the air in a closed room. Also, as with any open flame, there are the hazards of producing carbon dioxide and, if not burning efficiently, carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide binds strongly to hemoglobin in the blood making it impossible for oxygen to bind and causing suffocation, sometimes even after the victim is removed to fresh air because the carbon monoxide does not release easily.

Ventilation Required!

Because carbon dioxide is heavier than air, without proper ventilation, anyone at ground level including small children and pets can be at risk of suffocation if a lot of unvented flames are in use in a tightly sealed room. Homemaking books from the turn of the last century give guidance as to how much oxygen is used by various light sources. They note that electric light uses no oxygen at all, a modern marvel. I strongly recommend that if you plan to use any combustible material for cooking, lighting, heat, or any other use, that you test it in the circumstances under which you plan to use it. With as many people and animals as you plan to house and doing whatever you plan to do, monitor the space for carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide before you have to use your space for an emergency, especially if the space is tightly enclosed such as a bunker. Test for at least twenty-four hours and preferably on a calm, windless day so the results will not be skewed by dissipating winds that might not always be in play. I’d even throw in an extra dog and person, just to be sure.

Finally, keep in mind that in using plant oil or animal fat as a light source, you are removing it from the food supply and the heat and energy provided by burning the dietary fat. Bee’s wax and other kinds of waxes are not digestible, so their use for candles is not a loss, but they can be useful for waterproofing. In an extreme survival situation, being in the dark may be preferable to freezing, starving, or being wet. Then again, the spiritual warmth of light may be the edge you need to survive.


  1. While the internet remains an investment in good quality solar lamps, rechargeable batteries and solar battery rechargers seems a good idea? I wonder how much Thomas Jefferson would have Treasured one given he was quite the reader and writer often by candlelight.

    Animal-seed fats are going to be greatly needed in our cooking and Diets more than for poor quality smoky Lung Damaging Lights during a COVID19 Long emergency? If the Spanish Flu is any clue we are apt to have COVID issues for two years or more?

    Beeswax is sustainable once you figure out how to keep the bee colony from collapse disorder. Maybe after folks stop using so many chemicals to keep their lawns “Free” from Dandelions (an awesome spring tonic plant IMPORTED by the colonists from the old country) maybe Beekeeping will be easier.

  2. “Without electricity or batteries, solar cells or wind up flashlights, lamps and candles can be made just as they have been for thousands of years.”

    Who knew that we’ve had solar cells and wind up flashlights for thousands of years!

    1. Obviously the punctuation prevents your interpretation. Take the part of the sentence out between the commas. It would read, “Without electricity or batteries lamps and candles can be made…”

      1. It is easy to be a critic and tough to submit a lengthy article for a broad audience without someone being snarky. I was being snarky. To the author, please accept my apologies!

  3. Thank you for the great info. I will commit much of it to my 3×5 card files. My father was a purchasing agent while I was growing up long before the computer and taught me the value of good reference files. He carried his files from job to job and was always able to find suppliers of strange stuff on demand and he maintained notes as to who was a reliable source. I a friend of mine, a hippy, could not find a source for bear grease to use in his leather work, good old dad came up with 2 sources the next day. If it is worth keeping be sure and maintain a hard copy, one small EMP and your computers are expensive door stops and the internet a fond memory.

  4. I have a really nice brass lamp with fittings for two wicks. Unfortunately, it does not have a chimney, nor what appears to be a brass fitting to secure a chimney. I have taken it to antique shops for advice about securing a chimney on it. No one seems to have a clue about this.

    I had no idea that the two wicks indicated that it was designed to use whale oil. As they say, you learn something new everyday.

    1. that lamp with dual wicks is probably not a whale oil lamp but a vesta lamp, designed to burn camphine, a mineral oil-turpentine mix that was big on the market for about a decade before kerosene became widely available. camphine gave a very bright white light and burned rather cleanly leaving a pine resin smell (ever burned turpentine , real turpentine from pine tree resin? smells like burning pine resin) , and cost about a third what whale oil cost. However the turpentine component made it extremely volatile and the lamps were quickly abandoned when kerosene showed up as only slightly less brightly burning but much safer (and just as cheap).

  5. Thank you, ME! An excellent and informative presentation, and an important topic. We rely on light in so very many ways. A focused conversation on this subject is timely, and valuable. Even in the current circumstances, there are ways in which we can continue to develop and deepen our preparedness.

    Among our objectives has been to live according to the light of the seasons, and to use very little supplemental light after the sun has gone down. Having said that, we haven’t yet reached that goal, and even at this point, enjoy supplemental light (and the use of electricity) during later hours for activities after other work has been completed for the day (and for recreation too).

    In addition to a supply of candles, we’ve also kept on hand oil lamps, torch lamps and fuel, and various flashlights and other lamps with a supply of rechargeable batteries.

    These items referenced above are largely bridge building supplies (and may or may not be renewable depending on conditions). We also believe strongly in sustainable, renewable resources, and may return to beekeeping for many reasons and certain beeswax for candle making among those.

    This article and topic is a great reminder, and we hope it generates lots of important conversation among readers who are coming into new awareness about the value of preparedness, and for those who are deepening their levels of preparedness.

    Remember too that although great focus is now on the pandemic (and understandably so), there are many potential threats. The coming GSM is just one among those, although we may face others (including cyber war, economic war and even kinetic war) between now and then.

    We hope everyone will use this time for good and productive purposes. Down the road just a bit, we may look back and realize that the “all stop” related to usual activities was the precious gift of time. With this in mind, let’s try to see the gift in the present, and honor it in every way we can.

    1. With this in mind, let’s try to see the gift in the present, and honor it in every way we can.

      Wise words, Tellisila. Even as I read them, I draw a deep breath and remember we were made for these times.

      Carrry on in grace

  6. I’ve never done it, but powerful spotlights can be made using carbide tubes and an electrical arc.

    Second point, homes are built much more airtight (efficient) these days, so there is quite a bit less passive ventilation. Point being, I wouldn’t take those old calculations on ventilation requirements at face value.

  7. Wow M.E. great article, very informative. Let us know when you’re open for tours, I’d love to see your collection. 🙂

    “In an extreme survival situation, being in the dark may be preferable to freezing, starving, or being wet. Then again, the spiritual warmth of light may be the edge you need to survive.”

    I agree with you on this. I think post-TEOTWAWKI we’ll all be adjusting our daily schedules to fit sunrise/sunset more than the time on those devices formerly know as cell phones. Due to some health issues last year, I was not able to get all the firewood put up for the winter that I wanted. I was able to compensate for it by sleeping an extra two hours in the morning, saving me 300 hours of time I wasn’t heating the house. I haven’t slept until 8 AM since I was a kid but it was quite doable once I found a good reason. In the wintertime when most of us have less work to be done, we’re sitting around at night just wasting resources like light, firewood, and food and we’d be better off learning to sleep more and conserving those resources which will be much more precious post-SHTF.

    Your article really brought home the point that I hadn’t considered a long-term plan for light. I better build more beehives…

  8. Another timely and important article. Hopefully they can keep the lights on. Even if one has a solar system, eventually the storage batteries will be reduced in capacity in time. Typically, the life span of deep cycle lead acid batteries averages 3 to 5 years. They only have so many cycles, and some much time. They are consumed with use and disuse. Even batteries that have normal voltages can be reduced in storage capacity. If we cannot replace our batteries as we descend into the future, those of us already off grid, can use alternative lighting to extend the life of our batteries. Although LED lamps are very energy efficient and easy on the batteries, during the winter, we may have to conserve and manage the power produced via PV panels, and stored in older batteries very carefully. The bright LED lights good for area lighting can draw more power than is desirable during long winter nights.

    This is a rare video produced by a woman who grew up Amish. She discusses the precautions, methods of use, maintenance, and Kleen Heat as an alternative and desirable fuel for oil lamps.

    Amish 18th Century Lighting ,WHY I recommend them ,And How to Use them

    I have plenty of kerosene. It was purchased at a bargain price in bulk. Because my long term requirement is met, any additional fuel purchased would be worth the extra price if it were Kleen Heat. I am somewhat tolerant to the smoke and smell of kerosene, yet most are not.

    I also believe it is good to have several forms of lighting, as redundant means, and for special circumstances. For example, should there be a medical, or other kind emergency, it would be good to have lots of bright light that is also portable and can survive rough treatment, such that is designed for an outdoor environment. It is good to have propane and white gas lamps for such an occasion. The filaments are delicate, and the mechanism is more complicated, so it is not my primary means of lighting. The propane version is perhaps the best choice. However, I have a penchant for old Coleman lanterns, and can repair them, and they were once found for only $5 or less in my area. And the fuel purchase for them was less than $6.00/ gallon at the time. It lasts for 20 years or more. My favorite is a 1952 model that works like new. If one can afford a multi fuel gasoline version (Coleman type), those can broaden your fuel options as well. The Amish in my area use propane for lighting their homes. Propane lighting is the most convenient. Use propane hoses with Coleman fittings that can be purchased at many hardware stores has a built regulation that allows the use of 20lb barbecue tanks and larger for use with a standard Coleman, or other brand propane lamps. Propane suppliers can make high quality supplies lines to order in longer lengths. Propane is less costly, or the least expensive fuel for lighting and the fumes are usually not objectionable. And propane may be dropping in price soon. However, the filaments are delicate, and we would need a life time supply or enough to consume the stored fuel, and then switch to kerosene. Or we may opt to use propane in the winter, and kerosene in the warm months when windows can be left open. Opening windows on opposite ends of the house to provide ventilation for lighting an the wood stove. This also reduces the humility created by cooking and showers. I conserve my propane for the purpose of lighting, and emergency heating and other contingencies. For example, should winter temperatures drop to below zero, it might be necessary to furnish an OP (Observation Post) with heat. One 20lb tank can maintain the temperature of a small OP closer to 32F for many days, if used during the night when temperatures drop to dangerous -20 or so. Using a wood stove for cooking, reduces my winter consumption of propane to less than 5 gallons of propane or approximately, to one 20 pound tank. Propane is very useful fuel, and should be conserved if at all possible. I would use it for lighting only if I had plenty, and would reserve a quantity for a contingency, or emergency use.

    There are other options as well, but even propane can not compete with the humble oil, or kerosene lamp for simplicity and reliability. And one can create their own blend of fuel, or oil to burn in home made or standard oil lamps. For example, blending commercial oil lamp fuel, or Kleen Heat with kerosene, makes using your kerosene supply more tolerable. I suspect that even a small amount of diesel could be mixed in with Kleen Heat, or kerosene, in lamps that are not indoors or used in the warm summer months would be tolerable. A blend of less desirable fuels can extend your supply. Many lighting options provide an opportunity to use many source of fuel as they come available in a future when they will be in short supply.

      1. Pricey for me! I’ll be reducing the load on my batteries and extend their life by only running electrical devices during the day when the panels are producing. For example a radio can transmit on 5 watts using less than 10 watts of PV panels in full sun, and 50 watts using a 100 watt panel. The storage batteries therefore discharges very little during the process if any. A laptop can run directly off a 100 watt panel in full sun. It is better however to use all the panels you have to run a laptop or radio, if there are no storage batteries in the circuit, so that a minimum of 5 amps is being produced by the array, even if a cloud passes overhead. Doing this sort of thing reduces the depth of discharge on the batteries. There is also power consumed and lost when charging and discharging batteries as there is the conversion of electricity into a chemical form, and then back into an electrical form when demanded. It is approximately 30% more efficient to run directly off the panels. Inverters can be horribly inefficient as well. Most of my devices can run on 12vdc, or small transformers that step down 12vdc. A transformer for laptop steps up the voltage from a 12 volt system to 19.5 vdc that laptop generally require. Get one of these adapters for the car to avoid using an inverter. Much more efficient. Increases in efficiency can help prolong the life of batteries. It’s good to know how and why to this sort of thing if your batteries are more than few years old.

    1. TR and other smarter than me folks, how feasible is putting regular alkaline flashlight batteries in the battery charger?

      Carry on in grace

      1. It would damage the alkaline battery. I have an unusual battery charger that does charge alkaline batteries, but it doesn’t do a very good job. It is better to use Eneloop rechargeable batteries. These are excellent and cost effective, and far better than the Energizer rechargeable.

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