Striking the Spark – Constructing the Floating Wick Oil Lamp

This is the third in a four part series. Please read part one and part two before proceeding.

The floating wick oil lamp can be even easier than the standing wick lamp, depending on how it’s approached. And either way there are fewer steps!


The container for the floating wick lamp tends to be easier to find. Any wine glass works, for instance. Glass, ceramic, and metal are all appropriate choices, and I find glass particularly fitting because it doesn’t block the flame even when the liquid level drops. About the only real shape considerations are that a) you want it taller than it is wide unless you want more than one wick, and b) it needs to hold at least 1 cup of liquid. More is fine, but less liquid requires more frequent tending, which can be inconvenient.


These are instructions for building two different versions! Either way the first step is the same, though.

1) Assemble your supplies.

The container for this lamp is a red wine glass picked up on clearance. Also needed are a pair of duck-billed pliers, a pair of wrapping pliers, a pair of wire cutters, a cup of water (not pictured), about two feet of 14g copper wire, a cork wick float, and maybe a ruler. (The wire and the wick float make two different versions of the floating wick lamp, so decide which one you want before assembling your supplies. The wick float was purchased at the same supply house that provided the wicking.)


Again, any wire can be used. I stuck with regular copper for this lamp too.

For the Wick Float Version:

The wick float is a very simple little device. It consists of a piece of sealed cork with a metal shield on top. The cork is sealed to prevent it from absorbing oil and sinking, and the metal shield prevents the cork from catching on fire. For most floats all that remains is a hole in the center through which the wick is strung. However, I decided to go with the slightly fancier model that features adjustable “rabbit ears”. These are supposed to allow the user to raise or lower the wick without getting their fingers oily. In my experience they don’t work well for that, but they do provide convenient handles for lifting the entire float.


See? Bunny ears!

All that’s necessary to use this is threading the wick through the float and plopping it in the lamp. *shrug* Assembly done! Once the wick is saturated in oil it’s ready to light.

The only “trick” here is the composition of the lamp oil. First fill the container about halfway with water. Add a pinch of salt if desired (blessing it is entirely optional), then top off with olive oil. Allow the liquids enough time to settle out, with the oil floating cleanly on top of the water, before adding and lighting the float.

It’s a really ingenious system – the wick floats in the oil until the oil’s gone, at which point it absorbs the water and extinguishes the flame. It’s like a built-in timer!


You can make out the oil/water layers in this picture, and see the extra wicking swirling around in the back.

This version of the lamp cost me about $8, including the glass. I’m SUCH a big spender! *laugh*

For the Wire Wick Holder Version:

This is another holder made from bending wire, like the standing wick lamp, and there’s even less to bend with this style. However, the measurements have to be fairly exact to work because it has to balance on whatever vessel you’ve chosen. You can actually measure it out (with the ruler), or do it by eye with the wire in-hand. Whichever works for you.

1) Make a center twist.

Center the wire and make a corkscrew-twist with two rotations to hold the wick. Since this is designed to sit at the center of the glass, the two “arms” of the holder will each equal the radius of the vessel. Once you have that measurement kink the wire 90* as shown in the picture.


The measurements here are completely dependent on the vessel chosen. This measurement fits inside of the glass I used.

2) Make other bends as needed to fit your vessel.

As you can tell this whole technique is highly dependent on what vessel you go with. I kinked the arms above to fit inside the glass, but that alone wasn’t enough to properly balance it on the lip of the glass and make sure it was sturdy. So I bent it some more. Because the glass has a flared lip it was a bit more challenging, but I eventually came up with something that worked. Experimentation is key.


These angles will keep the center wick-holder centered as well as almost clamping it to the sides of the glass.

3) Finish off the wire ends.

Once you’ve got the wire holder done you’ve got to decide what to do with the remaining wire ends. I could have decided to just clip them below the lip part, but I wanted something decorative and pretty. So once more with the spirals! I spiraled the ends up, and made them large to help “seat” the holder over the glass. Once again the spirals looked bare, so I hit my bead stash and made pretty little dangles for the spirals. And here’s the final product!


As with the floating wick lamp, simply thread the wicking through the holder part, wait until it’s saturated with oil, and light.

At about $6 this lamp came in a little cheaper than the floating wick lamp, simply because wire is cheaper than the cost of the pre-made wick float. The only reason the standing wick lamp was $10 more expensive was because of the vessel I chose – change that and there’s not much cost difference at all between the styles, so it really is a matter of personal preference.

The next post will offer some tips and techniques for actually using the lamps we’ve made in this series!

Striking the Spark – Constructing the Standing Wick Oil Lamp

This is the second in a four-part series. The first post can be found here.

Constructing this style of lamp is dead simple. All of the work needed to create it is done to one length of copper wire. I broke it out in steps, but once you get it down you can churn one of these out in less than half an hour easy. Talk about instant gratification!


By far the easiest choice for this style is a ready-made ceramic vessel. Other materials are possible, of course, but most require a bit more tending. Ceramic comes in a wide variety of colors and styles, is not itself flammable, is durable, and as long as it’s properly glazed it doesn’t leak. It’s also easy to find styles that are wider than they are tall – this style works best with shallow containers. Feel free to use other materials as long as those points are considered.

Should you choose to make your own ceramic vessel firing it is optional. However, lamps made without firing will only last for a couple of uses because they will be very fragile. Similarly, most ancient lamps were not glazed. Glazing is what prevents liquids from seeping through the clay. If using an unglazed lamp it should be emptied between uses and placed on a saucer of some sort to catch drips.  


This lamp only has eight steps! How cool is that?

1) Assemble the supplies.

The container I chose for this lamp is a pillar candle holder that stands six inches tall. The “bowl” is five and a half inches in diameter and one and one-quarter inches deep. Also assembled are: a pair of duck-billed pliers, a pair of wrapping pliers, a pair of wire cutters (not pictured), about five feet of 14g copper wire (available in jewelry stores), and a small piece of wicking (available from this site). You’ll also need olive oil. All together the supplies cost about $16 even with the fancy holder (thank you Pier One). I already had the pliers so that cost was not factored in. However, they can be had cheaply in craft supply stores for about $2 a pair.


Any wire can be used, of course. Copper’s just easy to work with. You can even find it in a wide variety of colors. I went with natural here because the vessel is already so colorful!

2) Curl the wire to hold the wick.

Make a cork-screw-style loop at one end of the wire that is just big enough to hold the wick, with two turns in it as shown.


Make it tight enough to hold the wicking.

3) Continue the spiral

Smoothly begin to spiral the wire around in ever-increasing loops. This provides a solid base that enables the cork-screw part to keep the wick standing upright – hence the name of this lamp style.


Here is where you start really appreciating copper’s workability – this can be difficult with stiffer wire. *grin* Ask me how I know. On an unrelated note, repurposed coat hangers suck for this. Just sayin’.

4)  Watch the spiral become a spring

As you spiral the wire it will begin to look like a spring. That will be worked out later, so don’t worry about it now. How many times you want to spiral the wire around to form a base is largely up to you. Since wicking is so light normally just a few spirals will keep it upright. I decided to make this one larger strictly for aesthetic reasons – with this vessel having straight sides I thought it would look better if the spiral filled the bowl. That’s not necessary, though, and the decision depends on the shape/size of the bowl and your own personal taste.


Boing! Boing!

5) Flatten the spring

Once the spiral is to the desired size begin working it flat. Basically massage the wire, starting from the outside and working in towards the center. Gently press it with your hands to the level of the bit of wire closest to the outside. Do not flatten it all the way, however – leave just a bit of height in the center (about a quarter inch or so) to provide clearance for the wick. Remember the wick will not burn if it is submerged in oil!


This part can take a bit, depending on how tightly you spiraled the wire. If it doesn’t seem to be flattening well, try putting something like a phone book on top for a bit.

6) Begin the handle.

At this point the spirals are flattened and we are ready to begin the handle, which lets you do things like adjust the wick without getting oil all over yourself. Put a kink in the wire after the spiral, so the remaining wire sticks straight up.


If you look at the right side of the frame you will see that the wire has a 90° kink in it. This is the start of the handle.

7) Spiral the other end of the wire

Once the wire is kinked start another spiral at the other end. This spiral should be 90° offset from the bottom, providing a comfortable handle. The size of this is again a personal choice, depending on both aesthetics and the size of the hand using it. For a holder with a smaller number of spirals around the wick balance can also be an issue, as a large handle and small bowl spiral will tip over. Once done you simply thread the wick through the wick holder.


So pretty! But something’s missing…

8) Decorate!

Technically you can stop at step 7. It’s perfectly functional. But… doesn’t that spiral handle look a little stark? I thought it did! So I hit my bead stash and dressed it up with three matching beads strung on a thinner copper wire. The beads catch and reflect the light, and if you like they can also be a place to add some additional correspondences. Don’t limit yourself to beads, either – charms, crystals, etc all work well. I’d just avoid anything flammable. NOW you can light it! Done!


The vessel was filled with olive oil so that the oil level hit mid-range on the wick holder. This kept the wick about ¼” about the oil, and as you can see it is burning beautifully. Just remember that the wick has to be saturated to burn properly, so give it a bit to properly absorb the oil.

And there it is – a fully functional standing wick lamp! How gorgeous is THAT? And simple too!

In the next post I’ll provide another tutorial on the floating wick lamp, and the final post of this little series will go into how to use them.