“It’s far better to light the candle than to curse the darkness.” – William L. Watkinson (1907)

There are a lot of things that distinguish human beings from their animal companions here on Earth. One of the most easily overlooked in assembling that list is the ability of Homo sapiens to bring light to the darkness.

“And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night.” – Exodus 13:21

Scene from the 1956 movie 'The Ten Commandments'

Scene from the 1956 movie ‘The Ten Commandments

We’ll begin with the most basic of all dedicated light sources, the candle.


Seeing that darkness is increasing across the Earth (both metaphorically and seasonally), I figured it might be a good time to discuss self-dependent lighting.

According to the McLene Dictionary of Absolute Facts, a candle is a self-contained partnership of a wax with a wick. That wax is hard at room temperature, can be softened and molded at higher temps, and will become liquid or will vaporize when sufficiently heated. A wick, embedded in the wax, is an absorbent material that can carry the liquid and vaporized wax when ignited. When it’s working correctly, very little of the wick is burned off, specifically only the amount above the burning wax.

Lighting a string in a jar of lard makes a lamp, not a candle. To test this fact, pull a candle out of a box and light it. Next, stick your hand into a jug of lard while holding a kite string. Now light the string.

(This is actually a good time to CYA a bit. Remember this important safety tip: Fire burns. If you set fire to something and then walk away, there’s a fair chance that it will ignite other things in the vicinity, like family members or forests or – in the lard experiment above – your hand. Pay attention and don’t be stupid.)

Candle wax can be made from a lot of different sources. The most common candle waxes in use today are beeswax (derived from the natural excretions bees use to build honey comb) and paraffin (a useful byproduct of petroleum processing). Most candles you pull off the shelf at the grocery store are made of paraffin. But other wax sources used in the past included a number of different hydrogenated vegetable, nut and seed oils and natural plant waxes, sperm whale oils, tallow (the rendered fats of livestock) and even various types of scale-insect coatings.

Obviously, unless you have easy access to a sperm whale or a refinery, wax candles for the prepper should be considered a non-renewable resource. You might think having a beehive is the way to go for candle renewal and replacement, but the average hive only produces about one pound of excess wax per year. And beeswax burns up quickly, about twenty times faster than paraffin.

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Despite the non-renewable nature of wax candles, it’s a good idea to have some in storage. They’re a quick and easy way to light the darkness; and waxes have a lot of other uses, such as quick moisture sealing materials and lubrication. Buy a few pounds of paraffin and store it away with a roll of candle wick.

Oil lamps

Around the McLene compound, oil lamps are the go-to lighting source in power outages. An “oil lamp” can be as simple as a tub of lard with an embedded wick, and range all the way to an Aladdin lamp or Coleman lantern.

We keep a variety of kerosene-fueled lamps filled and easily available here at the homestead. Most are simply adjustable wick-lamp oil types with glass chimneys. We also have a few of the old miner-railroad-hurricane style lanterns around.

Lantern vs. lamp

Lantern vs. lamp

While the terms “lantern” and “lamp” are often used interchangeably, there’s a real difference. A lantern is a lamp with added protections built on. These protections, like metal framing, glass windows and heat deflectors, allow for the use of a lantern in conditions of inclement weather or rough handling. They may also, in the case of a miner’s lantern, restrict the lamp’s ability to accidentally ignite combustible fumes in the air. Additionally, a lot of lanterns are designed to self-extinguish if they’re tipped over. Putting it simply, you use a lantern to go out to the hay barn on a windy or rainy day, and you wash dishes or read a book using a lamp.

Simple oil or kerosene lamps will generally illuminate things well enough that we don’t trip over furniture when the lights go out. But if we need to really light up a room, we can break out an Aladdin lamp or Coleman lantern.

So what’s the difference?

There are three main types of kerosene lamps: wick, pressure, and mantle. A wick-type kerosene lamp is simple. A flat wick, often made of cotton, carries the kerosene by capillary action from the fuel container to the point of ignition after usually passing a wick adjuster. There are other wick types, most notably “tubular” wicks. But at the simplest, they all work much the same; easy to use and limited light (typically equivalent to a two- to four-watt incandescent bulb).

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Aladdins and Colemans are a bit different. Both these lighting options use mantles to generate light, but there the similarities end.

A “mantle” is a small mesh bag made of metal nitrate-impregnated fabric. Once the fabric is burned off, the mesh remains in the form of a brittle lattice of oxides. As long as that lattice remains heated by burning fuel, it will glow brightly.

The makers of Aladdin products claim their lamps will approximate the illumination a 60-watt incandescent bulb. Aladdin-style lamps heat up the mantle using a tubular wick, so you can use kerosene for fuel.

"Reddy Kilowatt"

“Reddy Kilowatt”

A Coleman-style lantern, on the other hand, has no wick. Fuel is delivered to the mantle area by pressurizing the fuel tank using a built-in pump. Opening a valve allows the fuel to leave the tank and pass through a vaporizing nozzle (called an engine). Ignition of the fuel vapor is made by using a match introduced to the lantern chamber through small ports at the base of the chamber. Because of the need to vaporize the lamp fuel, a lower vapor-point fuel is usually required for Coleman lanterns, typically white gasoline or unleaded gas.

There is a lot still to cover and I’m already over word-count for this column, so next week we’ll look at the pluses and minuses of these high-illumination lamps and lanterns, and cover a few ways to make their operation easier and cheaper (that “practical prepper” thing again.). Then we’ll jump ahead a few decades and see what “Reddy Kilowatt” can do for us.

So quit cursing the darkness and get prepared.

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