Kerosene lamp

Swiss kerosene lamp. The knob protruding to the right adjusts the wick, and hence the flame size.

The kerosene lamp (widely known in Britain as a paraffin lamp) is any type of lighting device which uses kerosene (paraffin, as distinct from paraffin wax) as a fuel. There are two main types of kerosene lamp which work in different ways, the "wick lamp" and the "pressure lamp".

The first kerosene lamp was described by al-Razi (Rhazes) in 9th century Baghdad, who referred to it as the "naffatah" in his Kitab al-Asrar (Book of Secrets).[1] A more modern kerosene lamp was later constructed by Polish inventor Ignacy Łukasiewicz in 1853.[2]


Wick lamp

A wick lamp is a simple type of kerosene lamp which works in a similar way to a candle. This type of lamp is also known as an "oil lamp". (kerosene oil lamp) A wick lamp has a small fuel tank and a lamp burner attached to the top of it. There is also a wick, usually made of cotton. The lower half of the wick is dipped into and absorbs the kerosene. The top part of the wick extends out of the wick tube of the lamp burner attached to the fuel tank and (usually) a wick adjustment mechanism. There are many variations in wick lamp burner designs. The most common lamp burner is the hooded type, with four prongs which hold the glass chimney. Next would be the round wick lamps, such as Rayo-type, that have a flame spreader in the center of the round wick. Aladdin kerosene lamps burn with a mantle, give a brighter light, and are a bit more complex to use.

When wick is ignited, the kerosene which has been absorbed in the wick burns and produces a clear bright yellow flame. As the kerosene burns, capillary action inside the wick draws more kerosene up from the fuel tank to be burned.

The size of the flame is controlled by adjusting how much of the wick extends above the wick tube, (under the hood of a standard lamp burner) This is usually done by means of a small knob that operates a toothed metal disk that bears against the wick like a sprocket wheel known as a cric. If the wick is turned up too high, or extends beyond the burner hood the lamp will produce smoke (unburned carbon soot). It is very important that the wick burns below the hood of a standard lamp burner. The hood is located over the top of the wick tube. The wick tube surrounds the wick, and provides the correct mixture of air to the lamp burner.

The lamp wick should not extend more than a sixteenth of an inch above the metal wick tube that contains the wick. Note that I mentioned wick tube, and not the hood over the wick tube. The majority of people today do not realize this, and extend the wick above the burner hood, which is completely wrong, and could cause dangerous overheating of the lamp and produce a very inferior and odorous smoky flame.

Recently I have been greatly disappointed reading poorly-written erroneous instructions, by people with very little experience using kerosene lamps. I have tried other fuels, including expensive lamp oil, but I have the best results with plain standard K-1 clear kerosene, that does not contain dye or other additives. Before I continue,I would like readers to know that I have had over 65 years experience burning kerosene lamps. I was taught at an early age, by my grandparents, who used kerosene lamps exclusively. I am still using kerosene lamps daily, and following my grandparents advice, I never have experienced any trouble with them.

If you are having difficulty, such as black soot on your lamp chimney, and unsatisfactory results using a kerosene lamp, something you are doing is wrong. In most instances, the majority of problems occur when people attempt to burn the lamp wick above the hood of a standard lamp burner. This is INCORRECT! The wick should never extend more than 1/16 or so, above the wick TUBE. (The metal tube that surrounds the wick located UNDER the hood of a standard lamp burner)

Kerosene lamp wicks should be initially shaped using scissors, cutting it straight across parallel to the wick tube, then cutting the corners of the wick slightly to make it rounded, like the shape of a fingernail. Do not trim a lamp wick too frequently. Before lighting a lamp, raise the hinged or removable hood over the wick tube and examine the wick. If it has some black char, simply rub it off with your fingers, a cloth or paper towel. Only trim the wick if it becomes ragged or the flame becomes irregular shape.

To obtain the best results, lamp burners and wicks should be scrupulously clean. I suggest removing the burners and wicks every six months, and boiling burners AND wick, in detergent with some ammonia to remove gummy deposits. Once clean, rinse well with hot water and thoroughly dry. Assemble and place back on lamp. By following these instructions carefully, a kerosene lamp can produce a very satisfactory, clean and bright flame.

The flame is usually protected by a glass chimney. The height and dimension of a glass lamp chimney are important. Just because the base of a chimney fits the burner does not mean the chimney is correct for the burner. A chimney needs a "throat" or slight constriction to create the proper draft, to allow proper combustion for the burner to burn correctly. The glass chimney acts to prevent the flame from being blown out, and to enhance the thermally-induced draft. The draft carries more air (oxygen) past the flame, helping to produce a brighter, smokeless light than would be produced by an open flame. Wick lamps can also be quite odorous if the kerosene is old, or if the wicks and burners are not thoroughly clean. Often a smoking, odorous lamp, and blackened glass chimney are caused by using improper lighting, adjustment of the burner, or contaminated fuel. Lamps require and consume oxygen. If the lamp is used in a small room in an airtight house, a window should be opened. Oddly, different brands of burners are better than others. I had one lamp that emitted very strong smells, but after I changed the burner to a different make and style, the odor problem diminished considerably.

If a kerosene lamp is burning and adjusted properly, with not too high a flame, the glass lamp chimney will never get black soot on it, unless the flame is set too high. Sometimes, if a lamp is set at a high flame before it warms up, the flame will increase in size. Therefore, when first lighting a lamp, set the flame at medium-low, until the burner and chimney have had a chance to warm before turning it to full flame. Actually I never burn a lamp at full flame. I burn them set to medium or a bit higher, but never full flame. Should a lamp chimney become heavily covered in soot, the easiest way to rid the chimney of it is to allow it to completely cool. When cold, run cold water through it. The soot will be carried out. Then, wash the chimney in warm soapy water. Sometimes I use glass cleaner and a paper towel. Never place a wet chimney on a lamp and light it. The water on the chimney will cause the chimney to break.

A correctly burning kerosene lamp, will deposit a light hazy film on the chimney after a few hours of use, even when burning efficiently and correctly, but seldom any black soot, unless the flame is set too high, or something is incorrect.

Kerosene does not age well, and will deteriorate rapidly when exposed to warm weather and sunlight. Store kerosene in a cool dark place. At least once a year, kerosene lamps and lanterns should be completely emptied of stale fuel, thoroughly cleaned with ammonia, warm water and detergent. Do not use hot water as it could crack a glass lamp. The wicks and burners should be removed and boiled about 20 minutes in water, detergent and ammonia. (1 pint water, 1 teaspoon dish detergent, and 1/2 cup ammonia) Then rinsed and thoroughly dried, and re-assembled, filled with fresh K-1 kerosene.

Barn lamps (or lanterns) have several design variations. The earliest lanterns used the dead flame design where the flame was fed fresh air from beneath and warm air expelled above. Because this design does not feed air directly, this type of lamp produces only a dim yellow light and is not much brighter than a candle. Most Aladdin style lamps are dead flame.

Tubular lamps were invented in the later part of the 19th century when, in the late 1860s, Dietz Lantern designed the 'hot blast' lantern which recirculated a mix of fresh and warm air back to the flame through side tubes thus improving oil burning efficiency. By 1880 the 'cold blast' lantern was designed using a similar circulation system, but with only fresh air to increase the brightness of the flame. Cold blast lanterns are the brightest and most efficient of all wick lamp designs. Except for decorative purposes, emergency lighting, or in remote areas without electricity, kerosene lamps are rarely used today in countries with a developed national grid for electricity and natural gas but were popular before electrical lighting became widespread. In many countries today kerosene lighting and stoves fueled by kerosene are still in regular use; due especially to the relatively cheap cost of the fuel. They were first used by Abraham Gesner's Kerosene Gaslight Company in 1850 and replaced the Argand lamp which had been in widespread use for seventy years.

Mantle lamp

A variation on the wick lamp is the mantle lamp, which has a circular wick that burns below a conical mantle made of thorium or other rare earth material that incandesces when heated in a flame. Though it has a mantle, like pressure lamps and lanterns, it is not a pressure lamp.

A mantle lamp is considerably brighter than a conventional wick lamp, and often a lamp shade is desirable. They also consume much more fuel than other lamps and produce massive amounts of heat. A few operating mantle lamps can function to heat small buildings in cold weather.

Mantle lamps, because of the higher temperature at which they operate, do not produce much of an odor except when they are first ignited or extinguished. Like conventional wick lamps, they can be adjusted for brightness, and can also be adjusted too high, which will cause the lamp chimney and the mantle to soot up.

If a too-high adjusted lamp is caught quickly, it can simply be adjusted down and the small amount of soot on the mantle will soon be burned off. If it is not caught quickly enough, a "runaway lamp" condition can result.

A runaway lamp condition, with flames coming out of the top of the chimney can be dangerous and difficult to extinguish by blowing out in the normal fashion. Runaway lamp condition should be avoided if at all possible as it can crack the relatively expensive (and fragile) glass chimney, irreversibly soot up the mantle, and release large amounts of soot into the room. The best way to extinguish a runaway lamp is by covering the top with a non-flammable object such as an empty steel can.

Once the runaway lamp has been extinguished and allowed to cool, the chimney can be cleaned with soap and water. A badly sooted up chimney may require the use of lye or oven cleaner. The mantle, if still intact, can often be salvaged by removing it from the burner and heating it in the flame of a blow-torch, propane torch, or a gas stove burner. This can be a difficult procedure and may result in breaking the mantle. As mantles are expensive, it is worth the effort to try, however.

Mantle lamps are still made by the Aladdin Mantle Lamp Company in the United States.

Pressure lamp

Tilley Lamp TL10 from 1922-1946

This type of lamp is far more sophisticated than a wick lamp and produces a much brighter light, although they can be quite complicated and fiddly to use.

This type of lamp is commonly known in the UK as a "Tilley lamp" after a manufacturer of the same name, and in North America as a Coleman lamp for similar reasons.

A kerosene blowlamp displaying the various aspects of the kerosene burner

A pressure lamp has a fuel tank at the bottom with a small pump to pressurise the kerosene. There is a narrow gap up to the top of the lamp called a flue, and at the top of the lamp there is a burner (gas outlet). Directly underneath the burner is the mantle, a fabric bag coated with chemicals which incandesce (glow brightly) when heated by the gas flame.

To work a pressure lamp the kerosene needs to be heated to the point where it is vaporised. This is necessary because vaporised kerosene burns much hotter than liquid kerosene.

The kerosene burner has to be heated by means of a primer, usually methylated spirit, which is burnt in a small tray underneath the burner to heat it. The kerosene in the tank is then forced into the burner, which is done by pumping up the air pressure in the fuel tank. This causes the kerosene to be forced upwards through the flue.

After the primer has stopped burning, the flames from the primer should have got the burner hot enough to vaporise the kerosene. When a valve is opened the pressurised kerosene is forced into the hot burner where it is vaporised. This kerosene vapour is then directed downwards into the mantle where it burns hot enough to make the mantle glow and produce a bright white light. The heat from the burning vapour in turn vaporises the liquid kerosene which is being forced into the burner. If the mantle is visibly damaged, heat may become focused and damage the glass surround(windshield). After the first burning of a new mantle, the size of the mantle will reduce significantly, and the mantle will become more fragile.

This type of lamp is popular amongst campers and people who like outdoor activities. Gasoline-burning lamps have also been produced; these do not require any primer liquid. However, both have lost out in popularity in recent years to portable lamps which burn butane or propane gas as these are easier to use, although more expensive to run. In the United States, the Coleman Company is perhaps the most famous producer of all four types of lamps.

There are portable kerosene stoves which work in much the same way as pressure lamps.


Hot-blast kerosene lantern

Pure paraffin (wax) oil (aka Ultra-Pure, Nowell's, etc.,) is marketed as "smokeless and odorless" lamp oil, but is improperly labeled in the United States for use in wick lamps and lanterns. In fact, it will not burn properly in lamps or lanterns with 5/8" or larger wick, and will create smoke and odor. Paraffin oil has a flash point in excess of 200 degrees Fahrenheit, and will only burn half as bright as standard lamp oil or kerosene, and will sputter in lamps with deep founts, or that have 7/8" or larger wick. It is suitable for use in candle lamps, similar to those used in restaurants. Paraffin oil is not recommended for use in antique lamps or lanterns as the higher ignition temperature may result in damage to the lamp. Pure paraffin oil can solidify in environments below room temperature, greatly limiting its suitability for outdoor or emergency use. Drug store mineral oil is paraffin oil. (NOTE: "Paraffin" in the UK is "Kerosene" in the United States, and should not be confused with the "Paraffin" wax oil sold in the U.S.A..)

Generic lamp oil is widely available in supermarkets and hardware stores. It is usually less expensive than pure paraffin oil, but costs considerably more than kerosene. Lamp oil burns cleaner and with less odor than kerosene. I find strong odors are sometimes caused by the design of the lamp burner and chimney. Generally, larger lamp burners emit less odor than very small burners. Stale fuel, gummy burners, and clogged dirty wicks are the cause of strong odors. If you are not using a kerosene lamp regularly, empty if of kerosene, clean and wash the font wick and burner. Store kerosene away from sunlight in a cool dark place, not longer than a year or so, as it will eventually deteriorate. Familiarize yourself with the symptoms and smells of fresh kerosene and stale kerosene. Stale kerosene smells like furniture polish, and takes on a deep yellow color, or darker.

Summer 2009: Price of K-1 Kerosene price equates to .71 cents a quart, compared to lamp oil at $5.65 per quart.

K-1 Kerosene(clear as water, or slightly yellow) is more easily available in bulk than lamp oil in most countries and is typically much cheaper. I prefer it over other fuels. However, kerosene contains more impurities such as sulfur and aromatic hydrocarbons than lamp oil. Kerosene obtained from filling stations is more likely to be dyed red, or contaminated with water than kerosene obtained in prepackaged containers. The odors produced by burning kerosene in wick lamps can be quite objectionable indoors, unless the kerosene is fresh; the lamp, wick, and burner are kept scrupulously clean, and the lamp burner is adjusted properly.

Red Kerosene is slightly less expensive than K-1 Kerosene, as no road taxes are collected on it. It is generally available in bulk at filling stations in agricultural areas for use in farm tractors or Diesel generators. Never put it in your diesel car, as steep fines can result. I have not had good results with red dyed kerosene in lamps or lanterns, and prefer K-1 water-clear kerosene.

Kleen-Heat-a cleaner burning, nicer smelling Kerosene substitute, Sold at hardware stores during winter.

NEVER!!! EVER!!! use Coleman lantern fuel or gasoline in a kerosene lamp.

Biodiesel is a clean burning "green" alternative to kerosene. Biodiesel packaged for lamp burning is best purchased to avoid biodiesel / diesel mixtures available at the majority of biodiesel gas pumps. I do not recommend this for use in kerosene lamps, or stoves.

Citronella oil can be burned in wick lamps outdoors, but will produce some smoke and soot, and will foul the wick quickly, and may be easily extinguished by a slight breeze if flame is exposed (as in a yard torch). To improve wick life and make citronella burn cleaner, it can be mixed 50:50 with kerosene. The residue from burning citronella oil is difficult to remove, so it is not recommended for use in kerosene lamps or lanterns.

Motor Kerosene or Tractor Vaporizing Oil, very hard to find nowadays, try to find it at a feed store or near a farming community. This can be used, but use it sparingly, it may be expensive.

Sometimes dyes and fragrances are added to fuels which can increase soot deposits on glass globes/chimneys, and reduce wick life. Some manufactures have even created special novelty formulations that will cause the flame to burn a different color.

Emergency Substitutes

Kerosene lamps under ideal conditions should only be operated with kerosene or lamp oil, but alternative fuels may be used in an emergency.

Mineral spirits aka "Paint Thinner" has a flash point of 110 degrees Fahrenheit, making it highly flammable and possibly explosive. It should not be used in any wick lamps or lanterns.

Diesel fuel and home heating oil has a flash point greater than 200 degrees Fahrenheit, and will not burn properly in conventional wick lamps/lanterns. Most Diesel fuels have a fairly high sulfur content and contain fuel additives that produce toxic by-products if burned in a lamp. They also produce more soot than kerosene.

Jet A is safe to use, it is essentially kerosene with a few harmless additives, does burn great in wick lamps.

You can even use lubricating oil, use the oil in the bottle, not in the aerosol cans. Use Outdoors or in well ventilated area.

olive oil or canola oil can be used in lamps designed for use with such oils, but will not burn in conventional wick lamps or lanterns.

Charcoal lighter fluid usually is suitable for wick lamps/lanterns; most brands are kerosene. Be certain however to use only the type intended for starting charcoal briquettes. The lighter fluid intended for cigarette lighters is naphtha, which is highly flammable and dangerous in a wick lamp.

Hazardous Fuels

  • Gasoline There are some harmful vapors and aromatics that come with gasoline. There is a risk of house fire and explosion. Though this is common in some Third world countries, You should never attempt it.
  • Naphtha Naphtha is a very corrosive and toxic substance, is highly flammable and gives off nasty compounds when burned.
  • Rubbing alcohol Gives off a detestable odor when burned, and can cause respiratory distress.
  • Mineral oil Gives off toxic vapor.
  • Castor oil Burns at a very high temperature.


  • Abraham Pineo Gesner
  • Ignacy Łukasiewicz
  • List of light sources
  • Light Up the World Foundation
  • Gas mantle
  • Petromax
  • Citronella
  • Candles
  • Oil lamp
  • Tilley lamp


  1. ^ Zayn Bilkadi (University of California, Berkeley), "The Oil Weapons", Saudi Aramco World, January-February 1995, p. 20-27.
  2. ^ Warsaw University timeline

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