By Sam Wasson
Updated Oct 10, 2022
Oil-burning lamps can add a rustic, old-world feel to your home, create a level of serene ambiance in your backyard patio, or function as a valuable tool during a camping trip. While not as universal today as they were back in the pre-industrial era, they still find niche use. Many homeowners and campers prefer oil lamps due to their reliability, consistency, and usability without the need for electricity or batteries.
Before trying out oil lamps, you should understand the two primary fuel sources for these valuable tools, kerosene and standard lamp oil or paraffin oil.
Kerosene is a clear, low viscosity liquid distilled from petroleum. It’s a commonly used fuel source that produces a bright yellow flame. Kerosene is technically a type of paraffin oil, but there are distinct differences between the two that you should understand before purchasing them. Kerosene has several grades, with some used as jet fuel, while others are more akin to diesel fuel. There are two primary types of kerosene for at-home use and camping lamps, K-1 and red.
Red kerosene is an industrial product intended for powering equipment like engines and generators. It’s a tax-free form of kerosene not intended for road use (as fuel in trucks and other road vehicles). To help identify trucking companies trying to dodge taxes by using this form of kerosene, it’s dyed red. Any kerosene rated K-1, including red kerosene, can be used inside lamps. However, the dye in red kerosene produces a foul odor when burned and damages or gunks up your lamp’s wick. There are also claims that red-dyed kerosene is detrimental to your health when burned in lamps; we could not find any evidence to back this claim one way or the other, so we recommend avoiding it to be safe.
K-1 kerosene is the most commonly available grade, found in most major retail stores and purchasable at filling stations. This form of kerosene is graded and intended for use in at-home products like space heaters and lamps. K-1 kerosene is also incredibly cheap, making it one of the most popular fuels for home use. The major downside of K-1 kerosene is that it contains elements like sulfur and other impurities that produce a powerful, foul vapor when burned inside a lamp. The scent is less noticeable when used outdoors, such as with a kerosene lamp or portable stove.
Different societies have been experimenting with extracting flammable oil since ancient times. One of the oldest examples is the Persian scholar Rāzi, who created a form of kerosene by filtering petroleum through an alembic with materials like clay. Other cultures throughout history were also able to produce kerosene through various methods. The modern version of kerosene we see today was invented by Abraham Pineo Gesner in 1846. Genser was a Canadian geologist and physician who discovered that by heating coal inside a device called a retort, he could produce a clear flammable liquid. He named the liquid kerosene but did not begin production until later, in 1854, due to patent disputes. Genser’s early form of kerosene was also known as “coal oil” because it was derived from coal.
While similar to kerosene and within the same family, lamp oil is an entirely different product. Lamp oil, also called paraffin oil, is an odorless, flammable hydrocarbon derived from petroleum. It’s a clear lamp oil but can be sold in a variety of colors. It doesn’t burn as brightly as kerosene but is designed specifically for oil lamps. Paraffin oil is more refined than kerosene and lacks many of the impurities kerosene has. As a result, paraffin oil is clean burning and produces fewer pollutants, and lacks kerosene’s unpleasant smell. Paraffin oil is available in most home improvement stores, hardware stores, and large retail stores across the U.S. – as mineral oil, it can also come in various scents.
Paraffin oil was created by a Scottish scientist named James Young in 1848. Inside a coal mine, Young discovered a type of oil seeping through coal veins. With further experimentation, Young realized that, by distilling and pressurizing coal, he could produce a liquid substance that burned remarkably. He named this substance paraffin oil, and he began mass production with some of the first lamp oil factories by 1851. Young’s oil was considered the most effective and highest quality at the time. Young obtained early patents for his oil production process in Britain. At the same time, in the U.S., the production of lubricating and illuminating oil was also taking place, with numerous figures like Gesner dominating the market. Young and Gesner were fierce rivals, and due to the problems Gesner was experiencing getting his patent confirmed, Young was able to get a British patent established first and began enforcing it. Young and Gesner had a heated legal battle, as their products were similar; eventually, Young won out, and U.S. oil manufacturers like Gesners had to pay him royalties.
Kerosene and paraffin-based oils are still the two primary lamp fuels used today. However, several other notable alternatives see some use. Each of these other alternatives is considered a niche choice, and not all kinds of oil lamps available support these alternative fuels. Furthermore, your mileage may vary depending on your location’s humidity and other environmental factors.
Canola oil is a natural oil created from rapeseed and is a viable kerosene substitute in lamps. The seed is heated, crushed, and processed into a semi-viscous liquid. Canola oil is used primarily as a culinary ingredient, but it can also be used as lamp fuel. Most survivalists tout the effectiveness of canola oil, stating that it’s one of the better alternatives to kerosene and paraffin. However, canola oil has two downsides. One, it contains several organic compounds that will coagulate as the oil burns, creating a gunky residue on the wick, which can eventually lead to clogging. And two, it makes a decent amount of smoke when burned, so it isn’t advisable to use indoors unless situated next to an open window.
Castor oil is a vegetable oil created from castor beans, and while not as popular in the U.S., it’s still widely used as a lamp fuel across different parts of the world. Different grades of castor oil are used in the culinary arts, soaps, lubricants, waxes, dyes, inks, and much more. Castor oil also biodegrades and produces a bright white light when burned inside a lamp.
While most homeowners know olive oil as a tasty ingredient in cooking, most don’t know you can use it as lamp fuel. Olive oil is one of the cleanest burning types of lamp fuel out there, as it is renewable, odorless, non-toxic, and smokeless. Traditional olive oil lamps are small dishes with thick, wide wicks. Today, commercially available olive oil lamps are much the same. They resemble small bowls with vertical wicks. You can also use olive oil inside traditional oil lamps, but some modern wicks have difficulty carrying the oil up. Tighter round wicks, or flat wicks like those found in kerosene lamps, seem to work best with olive oil.
Whale oil was one of the most popular forms of lamp fuel before the advent of kerosene and paraffin oils. Since whales are endangered, and whaling, in general, is internationally frowned upon, whale oil isn’t readily available or widely used anymore. However, fish oil is functionally similar to whale oil, is still available, and is still used as lamp oil in some regions of the world. However, it isn’t the best option as it doesn’t burn as brightly, can leave an unpleasant smell, and creates smoke if used for too long.
Kerosene and paraffin have a great deal in common, as kerosene is technically a form of liquid paraffin. But, there are several distinct differences between the two that you should consider before choosing one for your lamp.
One of the most significant factors to consider in lamp fuel is odor. If a fuel produces a foul-smelling byproduct, you won’t want to use it indoors. Even worse, the odor and fumes from kerosene can be very dangerous when inhaled inside a closed space, as it contains chemicals like carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide. On the other hand, paraffin is created with indoor lamps in mind and is free from odor-causing impurities.
While they have the same flashpoint, on average, paraffin will burn for longer than kerosene. This difference in burn time comes down to its viscosity and overall purity.
One advantage kerosene has over lamp oil is its brightness. While lamp oil may last longer, kerosene burns several times brighter. This brightness is one of the key reasons why kerosene lamps are often used outdoors, as they can be seen over longer distances, illuminate a larger area, and since they’re outdoors, the foul fumes are less of an issue.
Kerosene is a multipurpose fuel used in industrial equipment, from home generators to space heaters and lamps. It’s popular due to its broad applicability and low cost. Alternatively, paraffin lamp oil is only designed to function as lamp fuel.
When choosing the right fuel for your oil lamp, you have many options, from all renewable, natural choices like canola or castor oil, to animal-derived products such as fish oil. But there is a reason why paraffin lamp oil and kerosene lamp oil are the two most common selections for homeowners. They’re both readily available, reliable, and functional products. Kerosene lanterns should only see outdoor use, such as a backyard or garden lamp. Due to their fumes and associated dangers, kerosene lamps cannot be used safely indoors, but they can provide pristine illumination outdoors, especially when paired with the proper wick lamps. Paraffin oil is easily the better choice for indoor lamps due to its clear, odorless, and cleaner burn.
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