Winter is coming, so I have a couple posts on what I’ve decided to call “keropunk” - the art of kerosene fueled heating and lighting. This week’s focus is on the competent end of kerosene lanterns and lighting - so, mostly, cold blast lanterns of a range of models! I’ve been adding lanterns to my collection for a while…
If you’re not familiar with kerosene lanterns, fear not! You’ll be a lot more familiar after this post!
Light and Heat for Winter
This may seem a slightly odd series of posts for me. I normally talk about solar, electronics, and associated technologies. Why delve back into the archaic technologies of inefficient combustion light and heat?
Because the electrical grid is a mess, is getting worse, and if you’re not in agreement, the grid just keeps finding ways to prove the point - and “after things have gone black for a while” is not the time to be trying to obtain tools to help you out.
Texas is the normal punching bag here (sorry, as much as I like your standalone grid, it’s not the most reliable thing), but various other places have demonstrated grid issues, and there’s a decent chance we’ll see parts of Europe very cold and dark before the end of this winter. I tend to think that having at least some backup capability is useful, and I think kerosene makes for a nice solution. Also, it’s beautiful.
For lighting in a pinch, one can certainly use flashlights. LED and lithium have made for some properly insane flashlights by historical standards, and I have no shortage of them. They’re wonderfully useful, but they only provide (typically bright, white, quite harsh) light - not (much) heat. And while I’ve got a nice standalone power system over in my office I can charge things from, not everyone does.
Propane is another option for winter heat and light, and many of us have experience with it. It has the advantage of storing just about forever, though under pressure. But propane lanterns are the mantle type many of us grew up with camping, and they’re loud, very bright, and just somewhat unpleasant to be around.
Kerosene also stores for long periods of time if you keep it sealed, and there are several alternatives that burn a bit cleaner I’ll discuss later on. But kerosene lanterns and kerosene heaters are just something entirely different from propane. The lanterns are beautiful in design and operation, and they put out a wonderful warm light - while also being dead silent. You can read a book by them without any trouble, you can light a room with them, and they put out a useful amount of heat in the process. I’ve been using kerosene lanterns in my office for winter light and heat for a few years now, and I’ve recently expanded into some nicer looking ones for a range of reasons - so it’s fair to say, I like them. And my hope is that you decide they’re worth picking up too!
A (Brief) History of Kerosene Lanterns
Kerosene lantern tech has been around for a long while. Something recognizable as a modern kerosene lantern was developed around 1850, with the technology improving over time until around 1900, when it was largely replaced by a variety of other technologies that are more efficient - or, just, radically more convenient (as electricity is, at least when it happens to be around).
If you grew up with any sort of kerosene or oil lamp in your house, it was probably something that looked more or less like this - an oil tank, a wick, and a glass chimney.
These are called “dead flame” lanterns. The chimney helps improve airflow a bit over the wick, but they’re a slightly augmented airflow around a flat wick burner. They produce a fairly dim, orange light, and are certainly better than nothing - but they are also far from the best that kerosene lantern technology has to offer. Don’t judge a proper lantern by your experience with these (it was also likely running on the wrong oil).
The next development was the “hot blast” lantern. In this lantern (patented by John Irwin in 1869), a fraction of the exhaust flow (hot and going up) is routed down, through tubes, to provide airflow for the wick. This blast converges below the wick and more or less supercharges airflow to the wick, improving combustion. This represents a significant improvement on the dead flame lantern - in light, in efficiency, and in tolerance of wind/movement.
However, shortly after the hot blast lantern was invented, Irwin realized that performance would be improved even more if, instead of carrying a mix of exhaust gasses and fresh air, the lantern design were such that only fresh air were fed to the burner. This design, the “cold blast” lantern, was patented in 1873. Hot air flowing out is replaced by cold air, brought from outside, and routed down to the burner.
All the modern lanterns (with one exception that I own, the Monarch) are the cold blast type, and at this point, if you refer to a “hurricane lantern,” you’re referring to a cold blast kerosene lantern. Those tubes aren’t just holding the thing together - they’re a core part of the design!
What else goes into them? I’m glad you asked - and I’ll answer it with a couple lantern teardowns.
The Dietz Blizzard
I’ll start with the Dietz Blizzard - an exceedingly good looking lantern that recently showed up. This is a cold blast lantern with the tall globe. This lantern has a 7/8” wick, and is one of the brightest cold blast lanterns you can find on the market. Lanternnet puts it at an average 12-14 candlepower, max 20, and about 1400 BTU/hr. It has a 31oz fuel font, which should be good for 27 hours of burning - not that I run my lanterns dry. That’s a thing for kerosene heaters, not lanterns.
This is just a pretty lantern. And I’ll suggest that if you are in the market, a Blizzard would almost certainly do everything you want a lantern to do, including looking classy on your shelf the rest of the year. That brass… not only does it look good, it reflects light out too!
The real functional core of a cold blast type is at the top of the lantern. There’s a central chimney going up and through to the top, with air intakes around the side that go to the tubes. The shroud gets warm in operation, but not too hot to touch. Don’t touch the actual top deflector with the lantern going - it will burn you. The little grip loop there is for removing the globe, not carrying the lantern - use the bail hooked into the side tubes instead for that.
You’ll find that this part actually pulls up - which is important for removing the globe. On all the cold blast types I’m familiar with, “pulling the top up” is how you free the globe. It’s sprung in there, somehow.
One of the common tasks with a lantern is cleaning the globe. If you’re not careful with how you start them, or you run them outside, they soot up the globe over time - and that reduces light output. Pull the top up as demonstrated previously (on a cold lantern - you can and will burn yourself in a range of places if you try this hot!), and the globe should be freed to tip out. Most lanterns will rock the air spreader plate backwards to free the globe, though some rock forward - it’s easy to see where the base plate pivots. Careful, it’s glass!
Lesson one of lab work: Hot glass and cold glass look identical. Hot glass will just etch your fingerprints into it. Once the globe is out, you can clean it. Water works, as does a dry paper towel. Every few weeks, it’s a good idea to clean the globe before starting the lantern - unless it’s obviously sooted up, then clean it. I’ve found that outdoors, a lantern won’t handle the same wick height it will handle indoors - try it, and the wind will disrupt the flame and you get smoke. Pull the wick down when you go outside, and it should still burn cleanly.
With the globe out of the way, the burner and base plate are visible. Notice the relatively few holes in the base plate - this is a difference between the cold and hot blast types. You’ll see how the base plate on the Monarch is far more open for air later.
The rod sticking out the side twists to run the wick up and down. The rest of the burner assembly serves to blend kerosene and air in a combustible mixture that burns and creates light.
The burner assembly on most lanterns is a twist-lock. Twist it into place, twist it out of place. Also notice that the shaft for adjusting the wick comes out through a gap - I’ve seen some lanterns assembled backwards, where this isn’t the case. They’re really hard to adjust, and just don’t work quite right. Flip the top around so the wire comes out where it’s supposed to, and all is well with them. If you get a new lantern, take a quick look down here - I’ve seen plenty of lanterns with only one tab actually secured in place where it goes.
Remove the burner assembly, and you’re left with this - the hole for the wick to pull kerosene, and the air plenum. There’s a decent cavity that the side tubes feed, and this routes air up and around the flame for the desired impact on how it burns.
If you ever overfill a lantern, there’s a very good chance that the lantern will leak kerosene out the air tubes. What’s happened is that the kerosene has flowed into this plenum space, and it will slosh around until it finds a way out. Just let it drain. A small leaf blower is good for drying off an overfilled lantern, though if you’re not careful you can just blow more kerosene out of the fuel font and make things worse…
The burner nestles in the center and provides for wick control and air delivery. Gear teeth turned by the control knob dig into the wick and raise/lower it. Air flows around the wick, and heat from the flame propagates back down through the metal around the wick, helping to heat the kerosene before it’s burned. Lamps very much have to warm up for proper operation.
Underneath, lots of space for air to flow through. They’re really quite simple, though the particular arrangement of parts certainly took some time to work out - and then, of course, to make cheap for mass production. Kerosene lanterns were insanely common for a long while!
Above the wick, this stamped assembly just routes air. Air flows down the tubes, through the burner base, and this ensures it gets blasted into the wick to vaporize the kerosene (which burns above the wick). If you raise the globe during operation, especially on the Comet, you convert the lantern into a dead flame burner and can observe the changes.
Nothing special at all on the inside. Just a nice metal dome with a slit cut in it. I don’t think the burrs in the center of the opening on either side are important for operation - just an artifact of how this was pressed and cut.
Finally, the fuel filler. There’s an art to filling a lantern, and I rather lack it at the moment. I just use a funnel (I’ll show you what I use later) to fill them, and try to avoid severely overfilling them. This is far easier with the big font lanterns than the smaller ones that will overflow if you look at them wrong. There’s no good reason to fill the lantern all the way unless you want it to leak, and “full” would be to the bottom of the threaded opening.
The Blizzard is the brightest lantern I own - a combination of the large wick and the tall globe seems to lead to the best combustion. If you want to buy a top of the line modern kerosene lantern, feel free to look around - but just get a Blizzard and you’ll be happy!
Of course, it does look very majestic next to a Comet or two…
The Dietz Comet
At the other end of the size scale, Comet is the smallest cold blast lantern you’re likely to find. It’s so cute! Lanternnet puts it at an average of 4 candlepower, with a 7oz font, and 750 BTU. But it still puts out a very useful amount of light and heat. On paper, it should burn for 12 hours, but I have my questions about that number - if you have it turned up high, it sure doesn’t seem to run nearly that long.
On my Comets, at least, the globe is somewhat hard to get out. There’s not quite enough room, so it requires a careful wiggle and pull - make sure the top is pulled absolutely as high as it will go. You’ll notice that the rounded airflow director is part of the base plate here - it’s not a separate item as one sees in the bigger lanterns, so with the globe raised it behaves exactly like an old dead flame lantern.
The burner is smaller and different in layout from the larger lanterns, but does the same job - airflow direction and wick control.
There’s still plenty of opening for air to flow. Getting a good flow of air to the wick and combustion zone is the fundamental job of any lantern!
The base is just a small, cute version of any other cold blast lantern. Nothing remarkable down here.
My understanding of the purpose of the holes in the base plate, at least for cold blast lanterns, is that they exist to provide cooling airflow to the glass. Here, a large selection of holes feed air that’s routed by the upper ring out and towards the glass. I’m not sure what happens if you block them entirely, but my guess is that you risk overheating the glass and that it soots up faster.
The Comets are small and efficient, but you can still crank the flame up and get a reasonable amount of light out of them. They’re a great gift for people, too!
But your first tank of fuel should be outside on a calm day/night. The paint on these, at least on the new ones, smells somewhat strongly of burning plastic while it settles in - the chimney deflector will darken, and the air director will get some white edges from radiant heat. Get it lit, let it burn for a bit to warm up, then crank the flame up as high as it will go without smoking and let it burn through most of the tank. This should get things burned in - but if the first time you use it is indoors, you will wonder what else is on fire. Quirks of the lantern. This isn’t an issue with the other lanterns, as they don’t have the same paint on the chimney, and they have a lot more room for the exhaust to cool before hitting the diffuser.
The Dietz Jupiter
The Jupiter is my first lantern, and I purchased it for some combined heat and light in my office. It’s notable among lanterns for having a gigantic fuel font - 84oz, or more than half a gallon. And it shows! This is a heavy lantern when filled, but you can also burn it for hours a night, for weeks on end, without having to bother refilling it. It casts a lot of light as well, though I believe it was designed for greenhouse heating over long weekends. Lanternnet claims it should put out about 12 candlepower, and burn for 75 hours.
This one has the smaller, round globe - as compared to the taller, (IMO) more stylish globe of the Blizzard. They share the same 7/8” wick, and are broadly similar, though the Blizzard does seem to put out more light by some useful amount.
Being a cold blast lamp, the base plate doesn’t have holes for a ton of airflow. It’s worth mentioning here that the globe has to be properly seated on the base plate: centered, not hanging up on one edge. Some lanterns, the Jupiter included, make it fairly easy to re-install the globe riding on the rim of the base plate instead of being centered - and if you do this, it will not burn right. There’s a huge asymmetrical air leak in the base, and the flame will flicker, waver, and generally not behave at all properly. Seat your globe right, and the problems go away. Yes, I’ve done this to myself…
The burner is just another burner. The wick, though, is definitely showing its age. I’ve put a lot of hours on this lantern over the years, and while I’ll clean the wick up as needed, I don’t generally trim it down that aggressively. I’ve found no reason to do so - it doesn’t make a difference. They’ll darken with age, but despite looking like this, the wick still works perfectly well. I did trim a half inch or so off, though, just to get some fresher wick up to the top for brightness comparisons. You can trim the wicks with sharp scissors or cutters while everything is in the lantern, though it takes some practice to get them even and burning as desired. This makes a great demonstration of just how far down the wick channel the heat from the flame will propagate, though!
As a general guideline, the shape of the top of the wick will be reflected in the flame. Trim the corners down, and the flame will be narrower. Do weird shapes in the wick, the flame will genearlly reflect those. I’m still working out all the details on how to best cut a wick, though. Ask your grandparents, and if they have advice, please, share it! I’ll talk about wick maintenance and shapes a bit more in another post, but I’ve found that “flat, with the corners nipped off if needed” works well for the big lanterns. If the flame has “horns” coming up the side (you’ll know them when you see them), trim the corners back a touch. Sometimes there’s a strand or fuzz that causes it, but I seem to end up with minor cuts to the corners to solve them frequently enough.
As long as you don’t mind the weight, the Jupiter will do everything you want in a lantern. It’s just a more utilitarian sort of styling, and it puts out a bit less light than the Blizzard does. On the other hand, it’s virtually impossible to knock over - the big, heavy base combined with the shorter overall height means it’s insanely stable on a surface. But I still think you’d be better off with the Blizzard if you’re new to lanterns.
The Dietz Monarch
Finally, for reasons that can best be summed up as “I was curious and couldn’t find much comparison information,” I have a Dietz Monarch. This is the only hot blast lantern still in production. Notice how there’s a gap at the top of the globe to let gasses out, but a fraction of the hot exhaust gets recirculated down and around. The advantage of this design is that, by recirculating the heat and exhaust, it supposedly burns a bit cleaner and more efficently. The downside is that you’re feeding the flame with exhaust, so there’s not as much oxygen in it, and the flame burns noticeably yellower than on a cold blast type. Lanternnet claims 5 candlepower, a 17oz font, and 23 hour burn time.
Instead of lifting the top to remove the globe, the wire “lever” at the front is pulled up, and as long as the base plate isn’t locked in the down position, the plate swivels enough to get the globe out. The mechanism involves (painted) wires sliding through loops, and it will get smoother over time as the paint is rubbed off the moving bits. But the mechanism still feels a lot sloppier than the other big lanterns.
Because the tubes aren’t supplying fresh air, the base plate has a lot more opening in it. Combustion air comes in here, is accelerated up by the rising heat, and then circulates down the tubes into the burner assembly for combustion. The flame is still supplied by the air coming down the tubes, but it’s mixed with the combustion products as well.
The burner is slightly different in that it lacks a top plate, but otherwise seems identical to the rest of the burners in the Dietz series. Wick, mix air, burn. Collect heat and run it down the wick.
The flame burns yellower on the Monarch, and has a different shape, but the lantern burns well, and I tend to use it if I want some ambient background light in the evenings. The flame is far less stable, though - a cold blast, in indoor conditions, will generally have a rock solid flame. The Monarch, even in dead calm, has plenty of dancing in the top of the flame, and the light output is less stable as a result. Great for a soft flicker effect in the room, faintly annoying if you’re trying to read a book or something.
If you have a bunch of lanterns already, the Monarch is something different, with some different characteristics, and reflects an older style - but there’s no good reason to buy it as one of your first few lanterns. I’ve yet to find anything that the other lanterns don’t do better - though I do plan to see what fuel burn is for another post coming soon.
Lantern Lighting and Operation
Regardless of the lantern size and type, they all operate roughly the same.
Before lighting, check the fuel. I don’t care to burn lanterns down past about halfway - it’s harder for the wick to draw the kerosene up, and it can start to char the wick a bit more. A slosh check is fine, you’ll learn what it feels like.
Lift the globe with the proper mechanism, and light the flame. With the globe up, the flame will slowly spread across the wick, but will be burning with a very orange color, and not a lot of light. This is the “dead flame lantern” operating mode, because air isn’t being forced through the burner. Once everything has caught, lower the flame down and lower the globe.
The lantern will take some time to warm up - five minutes or so should do it. I try to have the flame just peeking over the burner shroud initially - 1/8” or so is fine. It should be a smooth, even burn. This will start heating the burner to preheat the kerosene, and while there’s a bit of odor, it shouldn’t be too bad with Klean Heat.
After a few minutes, you’ll see that the flame has risen - I didn’t touch the control between the previous photo and this one. The burner has gotten warmer and the heated kerosene is burning more efficiently.
Now, you can raise the flame! How well did you trim the wick? That will show up in your flame shape. You don’t want a pointed candle flame shape (unless you do) - you want a wide, broad, “fan” flame that puts out the most light.
Turn the flame up too high, and you’ll start seeing flame streamers rising up - and smoke coming out the top. Don’t do that. It’s inefficient and puts a lot of particulate matter out, smoking your globe in the process. For outdoors operation, you’ll need the wick lower than you can burn it indoors - the wind will make the flame less stable and it’s a bit more prone to smoking. Play around and you’ll figure it out quickly. No, this isn’t an ideal flame shape…
To extinguish, just turn the control down until the flame goes out. Make sure it’s actually out by turning the control back up - it’s easy to get a flame to look like its out while still burning low and blue. I’ve found that once it’s low, a quick “flick” of the knob will fully extinguish the flame. Keep the wick retracted - this helps avoid evaporation of kerosene and reduces the faint chemical odor around a shut down lamp.
Fuels: Klean-Heat for Indoor Use, 1K for Outdoor
Obviously, a lantern that burns fuel needs fuel - so you’ll need to stock up on something suitable to your lanterns.
There are a handful of fuels one can safely burn in a kerosene lantern, and they all very closely resemble kerosene. For indoor use, I’d suggest a couple gallons of Kleen-Heat, which is a highly refined kerosene that burns with almost no odor inside (a bit of odor on startup, a touch after shutdown, a faint chemical smell if you’re right next to an idle lantern, and otherwise burns with no smell in a properly adjusted lantern). You can find this at your local hardware store, hopefully, though you may have to shop around. Shelf life sealed is probably a few years, and I’ve not had problems with 8-9 month old fuel in my lanterns. Cost is high - about $12 to $14 per gallon, at least out here, but I don’t go through enough that it matters. I’ll burn two gallons a winter, using it for an awful lot of evening light.
You can also find regular clear 1-K kerosene at most hardware stores, hopefully for around $10/gal. This will burn with a bit more of an odor, and you’ll probably want a bit more venting to use it (it’s fine if you’re using it outside). It’s no real difference from the more refined stuff in how it burns, just a bit more sulfur and other such impurities in it.
Depending on the area, you may also be able to find red-dyed kerosene in pumps. This is off-road kerosene, intended for use in agricultural equipment and heaters. It will work, but I understand it tends to crud up the wick, so you’ll be trimming the wick more regularly if you use this stuff. Usable, but best avoided if you can.
You should NOT use various creative alternatives. Paint thinner, gasoline, diesel, etc, are all not kerosene. They are all burny liquids, but shouldn’t be used in a kerosene lantern because they’re all rather substantially different in flash point, vapor pressure, and other important things from kerosene. If things go wrong, you can get a lantern runaway with those, in which the tank gets hot enough to start producing lots of vapor. Kerosene will produce small quantities of vapor when running, and the tank is vented through the burner, which will consume the vapor. However, with the wrong fuel, the tank can get hot enough to produce enough vapor to dominate the combustion process. At this point, the wick isn’t controlling fuel delivery, the vapor is. Hotter flame, more heat in the tank, more vapor, more flame. And that, friends, is the sort of positive feedback loop best avoided! Use kerosene or something chemically identical in behavior.
I use the small orange funnel pictured above for filling the big lanterns and it works fine. For smaller lanterns, I’ve been experimenting with a Seafoam bottle that I’ve carefully flushed out with kerosene several times. It’s still tricky to avoid overfilling a Comet, but it seems to pour well enough, and is better than trying to fill a small font with the gallon jug and funnel.
If you don’t have a seafoam can laying around, bug your local car nut and tell him you’ll buy his next empty seafoam can off him for a few bucks. You’ll get a weird look and a prompt seafoam can.
Lanterns in Use
I’ve gone over a lot of details of construction and operation, but what are they like to use? In a word, beautiful! I’ve taken some photos of them all burning next to each other, adjusted for maximum light output, and you can see some of the differences. From left to right, Blizzard, Jupiter, Monarch, Comet - brightest on the left. They all put out useful amounts of light, but the Blizzard is the brightest by a good margin, followed by the Jupiter. The Monarch has a yellower flame, but it will also run a rather large flame without smoking and puts out a lot of light, and the Comet is just cute.One of the most common questions I get about lanterns is, “Sure, but can you read a book by them?” And the answer is an absolute “Yes, of course!” Curled up on the couch with a lantern near me, I don’t even need any of the big ones at full blast to put out enough light to read by. It turns out that you can read a book with a lantern quite a bit further away as well - though as this post is already past 5k words, I think I’m going to move some of the detailed comparisons to the next post…
I mostly use the Blizzard and Monarch in the house now - the Monarch is good on a low flame for some ambient background light if watching something (it doesn’t reflect on the screen), and the Blizzard is good for reading or other work around the living room in the evening. I’ll use the Jupiter if I need a bunch of light somewhere else as well, but it’s mostly going to live in my office this winter for heat/light. It’s good at that. The Comets… get used at the market, but I honestly don’t use it in the house much. I have better lanterns that I don’t have to fill nearly as often.
You Should Get One!
You really should consider a kerosene lantern if you live anywhere that gets cold. Yes, you can use LED lanterns, and recharge them, and so forth… but they don’t put out heat. A kerosene lantern is a way to light that also puts out a very useful amount of heat. The fuel is quite storable for reasonably long periods of time, and even if the power is on, I’d encourage you to just curl up by a lantern with a good book, preferably an old one, in the evenings. It’s just such a joyous experience! You also get a proper incandescent light spectrum, which may be a bit more important to humans than we’ve generally realized, especially in the evenings. But if you have one, find excuses to use it - don’t just let it sit idle.
They also make for great outdoor decorations if you happen to be selling fire equipment! No, that’s not me. But if you happen to wander by the Nampa Farmer’s Market this fall, find the Idaho Pyro booth and there’s a very good chance I’ll be there as well!