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flt-wick-lmps-art - 8/4/00


"Experiments with domestic lighting" by Lord Migual Javier de Murcia (Gordon Reeder). (float-wick lamps).


NOTE: See also the files: lamps-msg, lighting-msg, candles-msg, candlesticks-msg, firestarting-msg, p-kitchens-msg, Med-Lighting-lnks.





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.


Thank you,

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

following advice.


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.



Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org