Survival Skills: How to Make Improvised Grease Lamps and Torches

Late-winter storms are no joke. Just ask anyone who was pummeled by yet another round of nasty weather last week. These bouts of snow, ice, and wind can easily knock out electricity and leave us fumbling around in the dark. Happily, the average household has the raw ingredients necessary to restore light to the home.

Whether in a liquid or solid state, animal, vegetable, and mineral oil all are fair game for the production of grease lamps and oil “candles.” People have been lighting their way with lamps fueled by oils from plants (most notably, olive oil) for millennia. In addition to your fuel, all you need is a fire-proof container and a wick to draw the oil and vaporize it.

To build a quick oil lamp, first get a mason jar, can, or bottle, or mold a tin foil tray to hold your fuel. Place a wick in the container (cotton balls work great, but any natural plant fiber will work). Fill your container with about an inch of fuel oil. You can use olive oil, paraffin lamp oil, vegetable oil, or even used cooking oil. Pure olive oil and paraffin burn the cleanest, with the least smoke. Other types of vegetable oil and motor oil will make more smoke. Light the wick with an open flame, such as a lighter or a match.

To make a torch, you can use the same oils used in your lamp, but you must be more selective in your choice of wick material. You probably don’t have access to the Kevlar rags and petroleum FX fuels that are commonly used in movie torches. Toilet paper is the best torch wick I've found. Here's everything you need:

-One greenwood stick, about an inch in diameter and two feet long
-50 feet of toilet paper, any kind
-A cup containing 4 ounces of any cooking oil

Wind the toilet paper around one end of the greenwood stick. As you wrap it onto the stick, twist the toilet paper a little so starts to resemble white rope. Tie an overhand knot with the end of the paper as it runs out. The torch should look like a giant Q-tip when done. If you are wondering about the choice of green wood, it is to keep the torch head from burning. Using a dry stick, you run the risk of the torch head dropping off and rolling away. And, yes, I learned that lesson the hard way.

Now stick the paper-covered end of the torch into your cup of oil, letting the fuel soak in for a few minutes. After soaking, light the torch at any time with an open flame. Typically it will take about 30 seconds to light, but soon the entire torch head will be engulfed in flames. The average torch will burn about 20 minutes, and provide enough light by which to read.

Remember, though: Torches are for outdoor use only and that hot oil might run down the torch handle. When you’re not carrying it, secure your torch. I once had someone knock a torch over on me, and the hot oil left a nasty burn. Always use your oil lamps and torches with caution.