flt-wick-lmps-art - 8/4/00
"Experiments with domestic lighting" by Lord Migual Javier de Murcia (Gordon Reeder). (float-wick lamps).
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
NOTE: This article was originally printed in the "It Cometh in the Mail",
the baronial newsletter of the Barony of Bryn Gwlad.
Experiments with domestic lighting.
by Lord Migual Javier de Murcia
The coronation of Earl Kein MacEwan was an
unforgettable experience for me because it was the first SCA
event I attended. There are many things I remember about
the event. But the thing I remember most was the darkness.
After the sun went down, it got dark! I still can see all
the candles trying in vain to push back the darkness.
Period illumination is no match for modern electric lights,
but surely the dark ages weren't _that_ dark. Since then I
have attended many other events that have been just as dark.
The most popular source of light in the SCA seems to be
the taper candle. They are inexpensive, easy to get, easy
too use, and period. They are also available in several
colors that add a decorative touch that wasn't common in
period (the anachronism). Modern candles are much more
convenient than period candles, but they do have their
shortcomings. They tend to extinguish in the
slightest breeze, and many indoor halls have rules against
unenclosed flames. Being a Mediterranean persona I would
not have used candles. The climate was much too warm for
period candles that tended to have low melting temperatures.
What is a modern anachronist to do?
Dennis R. Sherman in The Complete Anachronist #68, page
27 has one answer. The oil lamp. On page 30 he describes an
interesting lamp called a float lamp.
"The float lamp, or more accurately, the float-
wick lamp, is a very simple oil lamp. Any
shape that will hold liquid will work. Small
bowls often found service as float lamps. The
wick is threaded through a thin disk which floats
on the surface of the oil. The disk is supported
by cork...." (CA #68 pg30)
Page 29 shows a picture and describes a variation of the
float lamp called a peg lamp. It looks like a modern votive
candle holder with a peg molded to the bottom so it can be
placed into a candlestick.
Mundanely, the bowls for a float wick lamp are not hard
to come by. A trip to Michael's and Garden Ridge turned up
a huge selection of bowls. Any votive candle holder will
work. In fact you can get votive candle holders that
will fit into a candlestick. The modern version of a peg
When I visited Mexico a while back I picked up a hand
blown glass bowl about the size of a baseball and an iron
tripod to hold it. At the time I didn't realize that it was
a float lamp. I saw variations of this lamp at both Garden
Ridge and Michaels. In choosing a bowl for a float lamp,
avoid bowls that have a wide middle and a narrow opening.
A float wick tends to float over to the side of the bowl.
On a bowl with a wide middle the flame would be too close to
the bowl's rim.
Having acquired a selection of bowls I set to work on
the wicks. It took some amount of experimentation to get a
good float wick.
For the first attempt I took a 1/4" slice off a 1"
diameter cork. I placed an aluminum disk over that and
threaded a piece of B-3 candle wick through a hole pierced
through the center. I then poured some olive oil into a
bowl and placed the float wick in that. Well it worked,
sort of. B-3 candle wick is braided much too tight for
olive oil. The wick could not deliver the necessary fuel to
make more than a paltry little flame. Cork is also very
porous. It soaked up enough oil that it began to sink.
Ok, lets do this right. This time the float was made
from a 3/8" slice of a 1 1/2" round cork. To keep the cork
from soaking up oil I coated it with carpenters glue
slightly diluted with water.
I covered the top of the cork with a thin piece of
0.005" thick brass sheet. Tin, aluminum and heavy aluminum
foil from a yogurt carton are suitable alternatives. A 1/2"
length of 5/32" od tubing was inserted through the float
with 1/8" protruding from the top. The wick was threaded
through the tube. This keeps the flame out of direct
contact with the float. This one worked. Placed in a bowl
of oil it burned with a bright flame for quite some time.
It didn't sink or tip.
The only thing left to do is find a suitable fuel.
Modern lamp or candle oil is not a good choice. It is way
too volitle. A small amount of fuel tends to find it's way
onto the top of the float. The close proximity of the flame
then ignites this oil. The fire then spreads to the rest of
the fuel creating a fine torch.
Taking a lead from history I tried several vegitable
oils. As I noted above, olive oil doesn't work very well.
Safflower oil is even worst, it's thicker and harder to
light. Corn oil and Vegitable oils tend to be smokey and
stink. The best fuel that I found was canola oil. In fact
Whole Foods has a Canola oil available in their bulk foods
section that makes a fine lamp oil.
If you are now thinking of making your own float wick
lamps, please learn from my experience and take the
1) Remember that you are playing with fire! You can get
burned. Keep proper fire prevention measures handy.
Even at events, do not leave your float lamps burning
unattended. Keep a metal lid that will fit over your
bowls in your feast basket or your pocket. If a lamp
gets out of control use the lid to smother the flame.
2) The cork float should be almost as big around as the
bowl. If you are using votive candle holders for bowls
you will need a float about 1 1/2" in diameter.
3) Any cork you buy will be too thick. Use a slice from the
large end about 3/8" thick. If you use a float that is
too thick it will look weird and be top heavy.
4) Coat the cork with something to keep it from soaking up
oil. I used a thinned mixture of carpenters glue also
known as aliphatic resin. Don't use white glue, it will
dissolve in anything. Cut the wick hole first and
don't forget to coat the inside of the hole.
5) Use a thin metal disk to cover the top side of the cork.
Anything from thick foil to thin metal sheet stock will
work. Be careful, it is easy to get something too heavy.
I suggest nothing larger than 0.005" thick. Brass sheet
and tube stock are available at King's Hobby on North
Lamar Bvld or Village Hobby on Anderson Lane.
6) Use the float as a guide and cut the metal a bit larger
than the top of the float. Drill or punch a hole for the
wick tube in the center of the metal. It should be a
tight fit to the wick tube. A bit of contact cement
keeps the metal disk on the float.
7) For a wick you can use B-3 braided cotton candle wick.
Because of the way canola oil burns, the wick will need
to be trimed to keep a good flame. A maintanance free
alternative would be a glass braid wick.
8) Don't use modern candle oil! It's a fire hazard! Use a
thin vegitable oil like canola oil.
9) If you are uncomfortable around homemade oil lamps you
can use a votive candle or tea light in a colored bowl as
a close approximation of a period float lamp.
Copyright 1996, Gordon Reeder. Permission is given to use these articles in any educational publication as long as you credit me for the authorship of the article and send me a copy of the publication.
greeder at worldshare.net (Gordon Reeder)
NOTE: The editor would also appreciate notification of the republication
of this article. He would also appreciate a note in the publication
indicating that this article was found in the Florilegium. - Stefan.