The oil lamp is a very old form of lighting. The original oil lamps could be as simple as a cup or bowl filled partially with oil, with a wick to soak up the oil. The wick can be as simple as a piece of twisted moss. More wicks mean more light.
You can use pottery to make more complex shapes. The general historical shape was much like a tea kettle, with a cotton, hemp, or other fibrous wick coming out the “spout”. The oil was poured in through the top. A saucer can be placed underneath to catch drips. All sorts of oil and fat are used.
You can also make a relatively safe improvised oil lamp like the one shown, derived from a design in Cresson Kearney’s Nuclear War Survival Skills (available online at: http://www.oism.org/nwss/).
Some sources suggest that olive oil and sunflower oil are the best vegetable oils for lamps, and corn oil is the worst.
For a long time, Europeans made tallow candles for their lighting. Tallow is simply rendered animal fat (fat with meat and other impurities removed by melting and straining). To render fat, the fatty animal tissue is boiled, and then cooled. A layer of fat forms on the surface of the water, which is scooped off and used for fuel. To remove all impurities, you may need to boil the fat/water mixture, strain it and then boil again repeatedly. After the mixture has been boiled, let it sit and cool. If you can get it cold enough, the fat will solidify and you can remove it in a block, and pick off any remaining meat from the bottom. Keep in mind that overheated fat may catch fire. Watch the rendering fat at all times, do not overheat, and keep a tight-fitting lid nearby to contain and extinguish the fire in an emergency.
Then, wicks are dipped in and out of a heated vat of tallow. Historically, this was smelly, unpleasant, and difficult. It could take 50 coats to make a decent-sized candle. Molds are easier, but more expensive.
Compared to modern paraffin (petroleum derived) candles, tallow candles smell bad, sputter and drip, produce sooty smoke, don’t burn for very long and melt easily at a low temperature (around 27°C or 80°F).
European colonists in North America found that bayberry or wax myrtle could be boiled to obtain wax, which had a preferable smell and could be added to the mix. Adding wild ginger and other spices also help.
Beeswax candles are preferable in smell and longevity, but it is difficult to get large amounts of wax.
To get larger amounts of lighting you can put a number of candles in the dirt in a flowerpot, with a reflector on one side. A plastic flowerpot is lighter, but also more likely to melt or burn if the flame touches it.
Another option for lighting is the “rush light.” Rushes are picked, and the husks removed to leave the soft inner pith, which is dipped in melted fat. The rush lights burn very quickly.
The “Buddy Burner” is a simple improvised candle or stove, which can be used for lighting or for heat. The housing is a tuna can or similar container, with a cardboard spiral inside. Melted paraffin, or other fat, is poured in to saturate the cardboard. Once it is burning, more fat or wax can be put on top, which will then melt and burn as well. Place this burner on the ground or on a hot-pad, since the container will get quite hot when the contents are mostly burned away. Placing a wick in the centre may help it to get started. This is an excellent way to burn up the ends or drippings of other candles without having to make whole new candles.
In all of these cases, reflectors can be used to direct more usable light onto the desired area. Reflectors don’t necessarily have to be shiny or mirrored, only light-coloured. Reflectors are also a good, simple way of getting more light indoors. At my home in the winter, sunlight reflects off of the white snow, and then up through the windows and off the white ceiling, and very deep into the house. During the day in winter, it is just as bright as it is in the summer, without any source of artificial light.
Assuming you live in a house, do you need to use artificial lighting in your house during the day? If you were making candles for all lighting yourself, you would probably want to save energy by only using them at night. Can you set up your workspace, position reflectors or paint surfaces white, so that you don’t need to use artificial light indoors during the day?
Can you improvise an oil lamp or candle out of materials that you can find in your home? What oils do you find work best? Would these oils be more valuable for food and cooking or for lighting? What materials work best for the wick? Is the smoke produced excessive or sooty? How can changing the wick or configuration improve those properties? What works well as a reflector? Experiment and have fun. Let us know what you find out.
As the culmination of these exercises, try taping all of the lightswitches in your house in the “off” position for a week. Use only reflected sunlight during the day, and only home-produced candles or oil lamps at night. How does this change your daily routine? Are there some tasks which you can only do during the day? Do you go to bed and get up earlier? Does it affect how you feel?
Caution: Please do not burn yourself or your house down while doing this. Candles or oil lamps should not be left burning unattended. Not only is it dangerous, but it’s a waste of wax, oil, and your working energy.
Obviously, for most cases a flashlight would be safer and simpler, although not as long lasting in some cases. You can buy flashlights that charge by solar power, cranking or shaking, which are suitable for off-the-grid use. You can also make a fairly simple improvised electrical system out of car parts and scavenged household electronics, but that is an extensive topic for later writings.
We’ll look extensively at this topic in writings on shelter.
In the mean time, though, you can use a Dona Justa or other efficient, improvised stove to heat your house. You can replace a window with a metal sheet, and run the stovepipe through it. However, if you burn anything larger than candles in your house, make sure to provide adequate ventilation. Try opening a window a crack on each side of the room, to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. If you feel drowsy or have a headache, your body could be warning you of inadequate ventilation.
When using a fire, someone should always stay awake to make sure that it does not get out of hand, and that ventilation is adequate. Keep fire-fighting materials at hand, such as buckets of water or sand, baking soda, salt, a heavy blanket or tarp, or a chemical fire extinguisher.
Wear as much extra clothing as you need, and use extra blankets on your bed. Sleep close to other people and animals.
You can also make “thermal curtains”, which are essentially thick blankets, to put over your windows. You can also put layers of plastic over your windows to have the same effect. This will reduce heat loss, especially at night. Try to find drafts and block them, but do not make your house air tight. You want to be able to regulate ventilation, but you need air to circulate to remove carbon dioxide and other gases that might build up and become toxic.
Choose one room to concentrate the heat in, and close off the others. You can use partitions made out of blankets, drapes, cardboard, plywood or several layers of plastic sheeting. Choose a room on the side of the house away from prevailing wind, and one that is well insulated and has few or small windows. An interior bathroom may work well, unless you are using a stove, in which case you need a window to vent. A basement may be a good choice, since the earth is somewhat warmer than the surface air in winter, and has an insulating effect.
If you do live in a cold climate, and have to go without a heated house, you will gradually get used to it. The colder temperatures will become more comfortable. (After spending six weeks in tents on a mountainside late one winter, “room temperature” in houses started to feel scorching hot to me.)
In cold weather, make sure that you get enough water. Cold air is relatively dry, and you may not be aware that you are becoming dehydrated. If you are slightly dehydrated, your metabolism slows significantly.
You will probably need to eat more fat and calories as well, to ensure that your body has enough energy to keep itself warm.
“Staying Warm in an Unheated House: Coping With a Power Outage in Winter,” University of Wisconsin Extension, 1996.
The Encyclopedia of Country Living, by Carla Emery.