How to make an oil lamp

14 July 2009
I mentioned a few days ago that I was working on a little oil lamp. Well, I fiddled with it for a few days, tested wicks and oil levels, I now have a perfectly serviceable oil lamp that burns clean for hours, with no smell. I was looking for a replacement for paraffin candles and saw a photo of a small oil lamp on a website somewhere but when I made my own version of it, it burned for a minute and went out. I never give up on these things so it was a battle between me and the lamp for a day or two. Let me tell you we both won. I won because the lamp burns as I want it to, the lamp wins because it looks good and gives a lovely mellow yellow glow, just like a candle.


All you'll need to make one of these lamps is a small glass jar with a lid that fits properly, a short strip of pure cotton or pure linen, a small amount of oil and water, and a plate to sit it on.
  • I used a small canning/preserving jar - the one above is about 350 ml (12oz) but when I make another, I'll use a smaller jar of 250 mls (8½ oz). The lid needs to attach firmly. You could use recycled jars as long as it's sturdy thick glass.
  • Poke a hole in the lid with a can opener or a hole punch.
  • Half fill the jar with water and then carefully pour oil onto the top of the water to fill the jar almost to the rim.
  • Push the pre-soaked wick through the hole and have it sitting about ½ inch above the lid.
  • If the wick goes out soon after you light it, add more oil so the oil level is almost at the top of the jar. Having the oil close to the lid seems to give the greatest chance of success.

A short pure cotton wick, with pinked edges.

Wicks: natural wicks work best. A polyester or poly/cotton blend will smell. Find an old piece of loose weave pure cotton or linen fabric and with pinking shears or scissors, cut a strip 1.25cm (½ inch) wide and 10cm (four inches) long. Soak the wick in oil before using it then poke the wick through the hole in the lid. Have it sticking up slightly above the lid top. I also tried plain kitchen string/twine, Lions knitting cotton - one strand and three strands plaited/braided together, and cotton dress fabric - all worked quite well. Don't forget to pull the wick up every so often as it will eventually burn down too low to work properly. Do this with a pin and while the lamp is not lit.


Using half water half oil means you have less oil sitting in a jar for long periods. The oil will warm up a little when the lamp is in use and this might mean it would go rancid over a period of time. The amount of oil in the lamp above burned for many hours.

Oil: I used olive oil because it burns clean with no smell and it has a high flash point. That means is won't catch fire easily, it just burns the wick slowly. You could also use rice bran oil, another clean burning oil with no smell. You could use old cooking oil but it will smell of whatever you cooked in it.

This is a nice little lamp that could be used for emergency lighting or could replace paraffin candles, which, if you burn them every night, cost a lot over the course of a year. Paraffin is made with petrochemicals, so you probably want to replace your paraffin candles with something that better suits your simple life.


Mother Earth News did an article here a couple of weeks ago about oil lamps that is worth a read. They did a different version of the lamp, which I tried and it worked well. I put mine in a recycled aluminium candle holder (above), they put theirs in a canning jar which I think would work better over a long period. I just wanted to test the idea of it.

This is nothing major, it's just another small step towards a better life and serves to remind us that we don't have to buy every thing we need. Many things can be made at home and used for their purpose without it costing too much at all.