Marine Oil Lamps: A Traditional Look

Updated on September 20, 2019
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Adam is an avid amateur astronomer, sailor, archer, and theatrical enthusiast.

Nothing beats the ambiance of a true oil lamp after the sun goes down.
Nothing beats the ambiance of a true oil lamp after the sun goes down.

Marine Oil Lamps

Oil Lamps have been used for centuries as a source of light and heat. Before the advent of electricity, oil lamps were the most efficient source of lighting after the sun went down. Unlike a candle, an oil lamp doesn't burn down and spill wax everywhere. The soft, warm light from an oil lamp comes from a wick, normally a type of woven fabric, dipped into a vessel filled with oil. The wick absorbs the oil and becomes saturated. When lit, the wick itself doesn't burn, just the oil it is infused with. This creates a constant and consistent flame that is much more easily controlled than conventional candles.

For centuries, oil lamps were the mainstay of all nautical lighting. Because of the way the fuel for the lamp was held in an enclosed container, oil lamps were impervious to the rolling and pitching of ships at sea. Many different types of oil lamps were designed and many could function even out in the midst of a storm at sea unaffected by the wind and rain. This made oil lamps ideal for use as anchor lights and navigation lights.

Inside the ships, marine oil lamps could be suspended from the cabin top or affixed to the bulkheads on gimbaled mounts which allowed for a consistent light below decks on even the roughest of passages. Today electrical lighting has replaced the need for oil lamps onboard ships. However, most modern day mariners keep at least one oil lamp onboard as a backup incase their electrical systems fail. Nothing can top the true sailing ambiance of going below decks after a long day sailing and lighting up the cabin with a traditional marine oil lamp. Most sailors view their oil lamp as the prized centerpiece of their boat's decor.

Oil Lamps Today

Many different types of Nautical Oil Lamps exist. Some are for interior lighting. Others focus on function lighting such as navigation lights, anchor lights, and hurricane lights. Oil lamps can hang from the ceiling over the center settee, or be affixed to the walls to provide light to read by while laying in your bunk. Here is a look a some of the different types of oil lamps available.

Marine oil lamps are also a wonderful addition to any home, providing a candle lit ambiance to any room as well as creating a source of light incase of a power outage during the cold winter months. It's always nice to be the only house on the street that still has light (and some heat) when the rest of the neighborhood is left in darkness.

The warm ambiance of a burning oil lamp speaks of an age gone by.
The warm ambiance of a burning oil lamp speaks of an age gone by.

Wall Mounted Oil Lamps

Most wall mounted marine oil lamps come with a gimbaled fixture to allow the lamp to remain upright while the boat rocks and rolls with the sea. They also come with a glass chimney and a soot catch which is positioned above the flame to keep your ceiling from turing black. Generally these oil lamps are smaller in size and create a wonderful source of light for reading or other small tasks around the cabin. Reflector plates can be added behind them to increase their lighting effect.

Hanging Trawler Lamps

Larger marine oil lamps are often hung and suspended in the middle of larger areas inside the boat. These "trawler" lamps put out a lot of light in all directions and even give off a bit of heat to help break the chill at night. With the increased size comes an increase in the oil capacity allowing these lamps to burn for up to 24 hours straight depending on how large you make the flame. Most come with a mechanism for controlling how much of the wick is exposed which will change the size and brightness of the flame. No boat is complete without a brass trawler lamp hanging over their main settee!

"Hurricane" Anchor Lights

Oil lamps can even be used outdoors in all types of weather. "Hurricane" lights (or anchor lights) are able to keep their flame going even in high winds and rain! Their ingenious design allows for a bright and constant flame which is unaffected by the weather. This makes the perfect for use in outdoor activities and for hundreds of years sailors used them to mark their ships at night. Some sailors today still use these outdoor oil lamps as their overnight anchor lights because they are so reliable and don't drain the batteries while the boat sits idle at anchor at night.

Caring and Maintenance For Oil Lamps

As you'd expect - there is a downside to using oil lamps VS. electrical lighting. The most obvious is that the lamp must be continually supplied with fuel or it'll stop burning. Most lamp's reservoirs can hold enough oil to keep it lit for at least 12 hours. This means that most lamps will last throughout the dark of night and you can easily refill them during the daytime to ready them for another night. Most people don't leave their lights burning all night long though, so most lamps will go for a few nights before they need a refill.

Using the correct type of fuel will also help your enjoyment of your marine oil lamp. Most will run on kerosene, but this can be smelly and put off a bit of soot. Paraffin oil is the preferred fuel to be used and can be bought at most stores like Walmart or Target. They make odorless and smokeless oils that work fantastically in most oil lamps.

The wick will need to be trimmed occasionally. When your oil lamp runs low on oil, it'll begin burning the fabric of the wick. Occasionally trimming off the burnt portion will increase the quality of the flame and help reduce the soot output of your lamp. However, after trimming a few times the wick may no longer be long enough to soak up all the oil from the reservoir and will need to be replaced with a new, full length wick.

The glass chimney stock on most oil lamps is very susceptible to cracking and damage if not taken care of properly. Glass cracks when it experiences fast temperature change, so lighting an oil lamp in a cold room before warming up the glass is a great way to shatter your chimney stock. Always be sure to warm up your chimney on a cold day before lighting and start with a small flame after lighting for a minute or so before turning the oil lamp up.


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