From Chapter Three, Vegetable Oil Lamps:

#1 — The World's Simplest Lamp

Pour ¼-inch of cooking oil in the bottom of a cereal bowl. A clear glass bowl is best — where light can escape through the sides of the bowl — but an opaque ceramic bowl or even an empty tuna fish can will suffice.

Soak up a cotton ball or puff (the kind with which m'lady removes her makeup) in the oil. Roll it around in the oil and make sure it is saturated. When I demonstrated this lamp to my sister she said, "Don't you need a wick or something?" Yes, you do. The cotton puff is the wick.

Surprisingly, a ball of paper towel (from a 2" x 2" square of toweling), rolled up between your palms like a child rolls up a ball of clay, also works. A puff made of synthetic fibers, however, will not work. Synthetic fibers (e.g. polyester) melt in the heat of the flame. The melting seals off the capillary action by which fuel is drawn to the flame.

After the puff is saturated with oil, pinch a small nipple or point on it and light the point with a match. (The base of the puff sets in the oil and the point or nipple is on top.)

Here you will encounter Problem #1. Vegetable oil is fiendishly difficult to ignite. This is not all bad. It makes a vegetable-oil lamp a very safe lamp. If you knock it over, it will make a mess but it won't start a fire. In your first attempt at lighting a vegetable-oil lamp, you will soon find yourself surrounded by an array of oil-soaked matches and oil-soaked matchboxes.

SOLUTION: Put a drop or two of a flammable or combustible liquid on the nipple, then light it with a match. The liquid flares up for a couple of seconds and burns itself off, leaving behind a small candle-sized flame from the now-burning vegetable oil.

"Flammable" includes gasoline, nail polish remover, dry gas, and cigarette lighter fluid. "Combustible" includes charcoal lighter fluid, kerosene, and diesel fuel. Whatever works.

Be cool. There are 76 drops in a teaspoon. One drop of gasoline is not going to explode and blow the windows out of your house.

How do you get one drop? With an eyedropper. Or with a tiny bit on the end of a teaspoon, dripped onto the puff.

Problem #2. After thirty minutes of burning, the vegetable oil begins to warm and volatilize more easily. The flame spreads, gets bigger, and begins to smoke.

SOLUTION: Put a metal collar around the flame. A ¼-inch washer from the workshop is ideal. Pull the oil-soaked cotton nipple through the hole in the center of the washer before lighting it.

You can also fashion a metal collar from a piece of aluminum foil, the size of a postage stamp. Poke a hole through the center with a pencil point. The objective is to prevent the flame on the puff from getting too big.

This lamp will provide light for many hours. It's cheap, simple, easy to make.

Its disadvantage lies in the struggle encountered when adjusting the size of the flame — pulling more cotton through the washer to get a larger flame or pushing some cotton back through the hole if you pulled too much out. The washer gets hot. The oil is messy. But despite any drawbacks, it does work.


Chapter Three gives six more vegetable-oil lamp designs. Chapter Four gives an additional four designs that will burn animal fat (lard, butter) in addition to vegetable oil.



From Chapter Six, Petroleum — Part 2:

Mineral Spirits

NOTE: Mineral spirits is a liquid, like gasoline, and is used in the singular. That being said, I agree it sounds funny and takes some getting used to.

Outside the United States, "mineral spirits" is often called white spirits. The term white gas, discussed in the previous chapter, is sometimes confused with white spirits.

Mineral spirits is on the borderline between gasoline and kerosene. Gasoline is "flammable" whereas kerosene is "combustible." Here's an interesting little experiment you can perform yourself to illustrate the difference between gas and kero. Just be careful of your eyebrows.

Clamp a metal teaspoon in a vise (bowl facing up). Using an eyedropper, fill the spoon with some gasoline. You can use either white gas (i.e. Coleman fuel) or automobile gas (i.e. petrol) — they both react the same. Light a wooden kitchen match. Bring the flame near the spoon. When the match-flame is ¼-inch away from the spoon the gas will burst into flame.

(Be careful how you extinguish the flame. If you blow on it really hard, you can successfully scatter burning droplets of gasoline all over your workbench. Trust me on this.)

Now try the same experiment with kerosene. The kero will not ignite even when the edge of the flame touches the spoon. Nor will it ignite for the length of time it takes the match to burn down.

So that's the demonstrable difference between gasoline (flammable) and kerosene (combustible). Where do you think mineral spirits fits in?

ANSWER: Mineral spirits is combustible. Like kerosene, it will not light.

Now this is a good example of how confusing things can be. Having just said that both petrol and white gas are flammable, we look at a gallon of Coleman fuel (white gas) and it says…Fuel/Combustible. It does not say flammable. It says combustible. Geez Louise. Where did we go wrong?

We didn't. Coleman is not using combustible as an adjective to describe fuel. Their container is simply bilingual. Combustible is a noun; it's the Spanish word for fuel.



From Chapter Eighteen, Petromax

Petromax Basics

I used to have a friend at work who pulled into the parking lot each day in his clanking Volkswagen diesel. He would get out, shaking his head. "When you go to the dealer, they brag about German engineering. They neglect to mention that it's built in Mexico."

Petromax lanterns are like that.

On older lanterns you'll find, under the Petromax logo, "Made in Germany" on the left and "Regd" on the right. "Regd" stands for registered. But no Petromax lanterns have been made in Germany since the 1960's. So the newer lanterns say, under the logo, "Germany" on the left (with no mention of "Made in") and "Regd" on the right.

"Germany…Regd" doesn't mean the lantern was made in Germany. It doesn't mean the lantern was registered in Germany. It means the Petromax trademark was registered in Germany. Sweet.

The glass, etched "Made in Germany," means that the glass was made in Germany (not the whole lantern). My BriteLyt (a Petromax knockoff) came in a cardboard box bearing the sticker "Assembled in China." The cynical side of me, I must confess, wonders if the box was assembled in China and the lantern somewhere else.

The question keeps coming up on various Internet forums, "What's a Petromax? What is it really?"

In answer, please know that the Petromax brand name, the trademark, came first and the lantern followed. Today, after all, there are Coleman ice chests, Coleman collapsible marshmallow sticks, and all manner of other Coleman stuff. Petromax was no different.

Petromax was registered as a trademark in 1910 by Erich and Graetz, a German company. The trademark was used on alcohol lamps, electric lamps, kerosene lamps, wicks, chimneys, portable ovens, and many other items.

The Petromax trademark was allowed to lapse. It was subsequently reregistered by other companies. Today (2011), in the United States, BriteLyt owns it. Other countries, other owners. The lawyers prosper.

How about the lantern itself?

The first Petromax lantern patent was awarded to Max Graetz in 1912. But there were many patented improvements. By 1928, what we think of today as a "Petromax" was pretty much in final form and the patents were owned by four different companies: Erich and Graetz AG, J. Hirschhorn AG, Hugo Schneider AG, and Continental-Light AG. (The AG suffix stands for AktienGesellschaft and means that it is a shareholder-owned company.)

Each of these four made their own version of the lantern. Respectively, the lantern brands these companies sold were Petromax, Aida, HASAG, and Continental. The patents have long since expired so the Petromax design is freely copied by everyone.


In the USA, Coleman is the big name. But world-wide, many more Petromax lanterns exist than do Coleman lanterns. Petromax brothers, sisters, cousins, and clones include Butterfly (Cixi, China), Butterfly (Lea Hin, Singapore), BriteLyt, Anchor, Sea Anchor, Tower, Santrax, Egret, Solex (Italy), Aida, Geniol, Hipolito (Portugal), Fama, Primus (Sweden), Optimus (Sweden), Radius (Sweden), HASAG, Buflam-Petroflam (England), Aurora (Argentina), Big Wheel, Light, Red Heart, Silveray, Crown (Iraq), Kohinoor (India), Pochee (India), Prabhat (India), Petro Pintsch (Germany), Petrostar (Germany), Solar (China), Standard (Germany), Double Rabbit (Thailand), Cow, Bee, Eye, Glory (China), Yüksel (Turkey), Wenzel (Sam's Club), and Col-Max (USA). Col-Max? Yes. Just before World War II, Coleman began making a Petromax clone for export, intended to directly compete with Petromax itself.

All of which testifies to the excellence of the original Petromax design.

Many of these brands are no longer manufactured although most appear on eBay from time to time. All of the new ones (whatever they may be trademarked including Petromax itself) are made in the Far East and any one factory produces several different brands. Unfortunately, it's pretty typical that the tooling is old and worn, threads are rounded and don't hold, holes don't line up, pumps don't pump, and prickers don't prick.

There's a difference between the Petromax design and the Petromax specs (clearances, machining tolerances, and so on), just like there's a difference between an original Rolex wristwatch and a Rolex knockoff. And even amongst knockoffs, some are better than others.


The Petromax chapter is 13 pages long. Above are the first 2½ pages from that chapter.