Daily Archives: November 4, 2011

Olive oil lamps for dark autumn nights…

Every once in a while I will repost an article that is appealing for a particular time of year. We are over the threshold of November and this Saturday night we set our clocks back for Daylight Savings Time. I thought it was a good time to think about how we can bring more light into our lives during the evenings. I enjoyed making my first olive oil lamps last winter and I think I’d like to recreate some more based on the open designs of the ancient Roman and Parthian lamps (pictured below). Olive oil has a low flash point and it has been used as lamp fuel for millennia. I had an olive oil lamp once that my Mom gave me and it made a nice, soft glow. (It was also healthy, unlike the fumes emitted when petroleum-based oils burn in hurricane lamps.) Below, I explain how to make an olive oil lamp out of clay. View the photos below for reference.

  • Mold Technique: Using a small bowl for a mold, make two halves that will fit together. The size is up to you, but most olive oil lamps are smallish. Join the two halves well, scratching the edges and using slip. After it’s almost leather hard, cut a hole in the top through which you will later pour oil, so make it big enough. After shaping, cut a smaller hole in the side from which you will feed the wick.
  • Pinch Pot Technique: Make a small pinch pot, narrowing the opening at the top. You will pour oil into the lamp through this hole, so make it big enough. After shaping, cut a smaller hole in the side from which you will feed the wick .
  • Shaping: Some of the shape the ancients used looked like modified Aladdin’s lamps…the vessel’s low, rounded body held the olive oil and a narrowed spout ended with a wick hole. You can fashion a handle, if you’d like, but it’s not crucial because the lamp doesn’t get hot and can easily be carried from the bottom.
  • Decorating: Decorate your lamp as you wish, using stamps, or by engraving, slip trailing or modeling. Apply decorations at the appropriate time, given the construction method you’ve chosen.
  • Usage: Place a wick in your fired, unglazed lamp. (Find wicking in a hobby store or use a snippet of cotton shoelace. Cut the wick long enough to have space to burn down.) Place the wick in the bottom of lamp, feeding the end out of the smaller hole. Leave about a third of an inch sticking out. Then, fill the lamp about three-quarters full by pouring olive oil in through the top hole.


Ancient Roman and Parthian olive oil lamps.


Candle wicking used to light the lamp.


My completed lamp makes a soft glow.


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