Improvised Emergency Oil Candles

“It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.”

(Just for a change, a practical post.)

Several people asked me about the oil candles I referred to in Perfect Whole, Superstorm Sandy Edition, so I thought I would post some pictures and directions for anyone who also finds herself running out of candles at a crucial moment.

These worked so well that I am putting cotton twine and vegetable oil on my list of emergency supplies for the next time the lights go out.

Here’s how you make them. 

1) Gather supplies. You will need:

  • Scissors
  • Cotton kitchen twine (a.k.a. beef twine)
  • An empty tea light OR a piece of aluminum foil OR something else to stabilize the wick
  • Vegetable oil
  • A heat-resistant glass dish, such as this Pyrex dish (a thin glass votive I tried shattered from the heat, so avoid those).
  • Something to pierce a hole in the tea-light foil. I used a corkscrew.

2. Cut a piece of twine a few inches long.

3. Pierce the center of the tea-light foil.

4. Pour an inch or two of oil into the Pyrex dish and saturate the twine in it. The more oil in the dish, the longer your candle will burn.

5. Remove the twine from the oil and thread it through the hole you made in the tea-light foil. Leave about 1/4″ poking out of the top. This is the wick of your candle. The length of this portion will determine the height and brightness of your flame. (The ancient admonition to “trim your lamp” will suddenly make sense when you experiment with wick length, just as all those agricultural proverbs start to mean something when you begin gardening.)

6. Place the foil and wick in the center of the dish and light it.

Voila! Light!

You can also use this trick to extend the lives of candle stubs. Under normal condition, you might just discard a leftover candle, but when you don’t know when you’ll have electricity again, every bit of light counts. Pour enough oil in the Pyrex dish to level with the candle stub, and soak the remaining wick from the candle in the oil. Stand the stub up in the center of the oil and light the oil-soaked wick. As the candle melts, the wick will burn the oil instead of the wax, and it will last for some time. I burned a two-inch stub this way for hours, and the red wax looked pretty melting into the golden oil.

Before a storm and during a blackout, stores frequently run out of candles, but I have never heard of a store running out of kitchen twine and cooking oil.

Our electric lights are on now, but I burned our leftover oil candles while I was cooking the night after the power returned, just because they were warm and cheerful. Five days of candlelight was, apparently, not quite enough.

If you have any good blackout tips, please post them in the comments.

File:William blake ten virgins.jpg

“The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins” by William Blake, 1822

Nota Bene: As a responsible blogger, I should probably point out that things you light on fire get hot. Please be careful.

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About Julie Goldberg

Julie Goldberg has lived a life entirely too entangled with books. She is a school librarian, former English teacher, compulsive reader, occasional jazz singer and the author of Lily in the Light of Halfmoon. You can email her at perfectwhole@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @juliegoldberg.
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14 Responses to Improvised Emergency Oil Candles

  1. fransiweinstein says:

    The girl guides have nothing on you.

  2. DM says:

    Reblogged this on I also live on a farm and commented:
    Great post on how to make your own emergency oil candles…in a pinch when the lights go out (like recent hurricane Sandy) Thanks for writing this one Julie! DM

  3. shoreacres says:

    Lovely candles, but here’s what we do down here in hurricane country. I have three Coleman battery powered fluorescent lanterns. Each one has two tubes, and you can light either one or two. A single lantern with both tubes lighted will do a great job of lighting a full room, Close by, you can read by them.

    And, if the power goes out when it’s hot, they’re cool – very important. Besides that, there’s no danger of fire.

    Of course they need batteries, and it’s an investment to put all those D-cells in them. But, during hurricanes Ike and Rita, they worked for a week and still had power left. In fact, I think I still haven’t changed the batteries in a couple of them!

    I love your illustration. Candles are a MUCH better accompaniment for that! (Oh – I found you over at DM’s)

    • We had a Coleman lantern we had used in other storms, but while we were getting ready for this one, my husband couldn’t find it, and it was too late to go out and get another. All the D batteries were gone from the stores three days before Sandy blew in. Next time…next time…

  4. Pingback: Perfect Whole, Superstorm Sandy Edition | Perfect Whole

  5. Dear Julie,
    If Ugg send you plodding thumbsucking directions for Ugg’s sprinkler system could you make blog post from that so Ugg might finally come to understand how friggin’ thing works? Just a thought.
    Head scratchingly yours,
    Uggswell P. Gravel

  6. leroy says:

    this was great but let me ask how much aluimun foil would you use and do you need to make it round or just leave it as a flat piece?

    • I did it with the foil from a tea light, which is thicker and more stable than regular aluminum foil. If I were doing it with foil, I think I would fold it up into a few thicknesses (flat, but several layers), then punch a hole through all layers.

  7. i’m trying to visualize the vegetable oit lamp in action. you say to put the wick in the center of the dish of oil . . . but wouldn’t the aluminum foil just sink? or do you make a hollow “boat” shape to float it?

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