When your flashlight batteries finally die in the long dark night, it’s time to fall back on our oldest form of lighting.By using carefully controlled flames, we can provide enough light to see in the darkness – to work, read or scare away prowling critters. Just be careful, as these lights are all capable of starting a fire that’s beyond our ability to put out.
Make A Fatwood Light
If you’re unfamiliar with the term “fatwood,” or you’re just not sure where it comes from – it’s a great natural material to get to know. Fatwood is the wood of a pine or other needle bearing tree, which has become so impregnated with pitch (tree resin) that it cannot decompose at the same rate as other wood. It’s also so saturated with pitch that it’s relatively water-proof. You’ll often find fatwood in old pine, cedar and cypress stumps that refuse to rot away.
You’ll also see it in pine knots lying on the forest floor. Cut into a suspected piece of fatwood, and if a strong turpentine smell is present, you have fatwood. Carved splinters and split sticks can be used as excellent fire starters, especially in wet weather. Fatwood sticks can also make a very useful primitive light source. For the most basic approach, stab a fatwood stick into the bare dirt, away from other flammable materials, and light the end to make a handy little torch.
To enhance the burn, use your knife or a sharp hatchet to split the end of the fatwood just a few inches. Wedge a sliver of fatwood in the bottom of the split to hold it open – then light it. You could even make a second split perpendicular to the first one, wedge that open and create a four pronged torch. This will burn up faster, since you’ve exposed more surface to be burned, but it’s more wind resistant and much brighter.
Assemble A Grease Lamp
Generally speaking, if you were fortunate enough to have any edible grease available to you in a survival situation, it would likely be too precious to waste by burning it for light. That “food grade” grease or oil should go into your food supply. But if you were lucky enough to have “grease to burn,” or you came into some rancid grease, that fat can become a surprisingly bright oil lamp. All you need is a plant fiber wick, a fire-proof container to go with your grease and an open flame to start the wick burning.
Start by finding a fire-proof vessel to hold your fat. Strictly from nature, you could form a bowl out of clay (it can be used wet or dried, fired or unfired). You could also use a shells or a fortuitous rock with a depression in it. From civilization, you may find a castoff tuna can for a container. Glass food jars are even better. These are designed to handle heat, and the light will pass through the glass while the wind is somewhat blocked from blowing out your wick.
Whatever you choose for the lamp body, it should sit stable and be able to handle some heat. You‘ll also want to make sure it’s watertight. Any cracks or holes that won’t hold water will not be able to hold hot melted grease either.
Once you have your container, add the wick. This will need to be some kind of plant fiber material, capable of wicking hot oil up to the flame. This could be a piece of plant fiber string that you have sticking up out of the oil. It could also be a tuft or lump of material. Archeological evidence suggests that the Paleoindians of North America used little wads of raw cattail fluff for lamp wicks. Today, we can do the same – or drop a cotton ball into a shallow pool of oil. Luckily for us, most natural plant fibers will work as a lamp wick.
When you’re ready for light, place your solid or liquid fat into your container and insert the wick. Light the wick with an open flame, such as a burning match or flaming splinter from your campfire. It may take a minute or more for a brand new wick to light, but the open flame should begin to burn the oil soaked wick in a moment. You can adjust the height of the wick for more or less light. You can also burn almost any liquid or solid oil.
This could be animal lard, vegetable shortening or mineral oil. And while they will also burn, toxic petroleum products scavenged from vehicles should only be burned as a last resort and only in outdoor conditions. Motor oil, transmission fluid, power steering fluid and brake fluid (the most toxic of the four) will make a grease lamp, but the nasty black smoke should be avoided. On the flip side, pure olive oil and other cooking oils burn the cleanest, and you can use them indoors, or in your cave, just like the Paleoindians once did.
Torch The Place
Nothing says “ogre hunting” like a mob with torches, but how do we create these fiery Hollywood props? It’s actually very easy. You can use the same principle of the grease lamp (oil and a wick) to make a torch that looks like it belongs in the movies (without having to source Kevlar rags and petroleum FX fuels). Now keep in mind that the humble torch is one hell of a fire hazard. I’ve also been burned by them on more than a few occasions. But when you need a lot of light from a portable package – a torch is the way to go. Here’s how to put one together.
Source Your Stick The stick is the backbone of your torch. Cut a green stick about 1 inch in diameter and two feet long. It can be hardwood or softwood. Ideally it should have a fork at the end, to better affix the torch head and keep it from flying off when you are swinging it around (which you will not be able to resist doing).
Pick An Oil and Wick You can use the same oils you would use for a grease lamp – but you have to be more selective about the wick choice. Most wick materials tend to come apart while burning, dropping little bits of flaming material all over the ground or floor beneath. That’s a major fire hazard in dry conditions. I have tried many natural materials and man-made ones over the years, but none are better than ordinary toilet paper. It shrinks as it burns, but it stays on the handle. You’ll need about 50 feet of toilet paper for a good sized torch head. You’ll also need a cup with about 4 to 6 ounces of any cooking oil or melted lard.
Make The Torch Start building your torch by wrapping the toilet paper around the end of the green wood stick (hopefully, you have a fork – so use that end). Twist the paper as you wrap it around the stick, so it looks more like white rope than a flat ribbon. Once you have a fist-sized TP blob on the end of the stick, tie an overhand knot with the end of the paper so that it doesn’t unravel, and leave a little “flag” of paper sticking out. This makes it easier to light. Next, soak the head in the cup of oil for a few minutes or until it is absorbed. Finally, light the torch with the open flame of a lighter, match or camp fire. It will take a moment to light, but after that – the torch will burn for roughly 15-20 minutes and provide a startling amount of light. Keep in mind that hot oil may run down the torch handle, so hold it carefully or stick it into the ground.
Create A Candle
Yes, they are susceptible to the wind; and yes, they’re almost as bad a fire hazard as a torch, but we still love those candles. For over 5,000 years, wax candles have been a valuable item for homes, workplaces and houses of worship. The ancient Egyptians made dipped wax candles with a papyrus core, and across the Mediterranean, the Romans were making similar lights with a string as the wick. Since wax has only been cheap and abundant in modern times, those early candles were valuable commodities and rarely wasted. Today, candles are still too valuable to ignore, and we can build upon history’s lessons – making candles in several different ways.
Method 1 – Dipped Candles Tall or small, dipping your own wax candles is easy. You’ll need a metal or ceramic container of melted wax. You’ll also need some wax and plant fiber string. For the wax, you can melt down old wax drippings and candle nubs. You can also try to collect beeswax (it had the longest burn time). It’s even possible to boil several pounds of wax myrtle berries (bayberries) and scoop the wax off the top of the water once it cools. However you get your wax, melt it down to a liquid in a deep container and start dipping a cotton string into it. The wax shouldn’t be so hot that the string sizzles and bubbles, like it is deep frying. The wax shouldn’t be so cool that a skin keeps forming on the surface either. Dip the string and pull it out quick to harden. This works best in cooler weather or cooler times of day. Dip it quickly again and remove it to thicken the wax skin without melting off the previous wax layer. The string will often be crooked for the first few dips, but with a few layers of warm wax – you can pull it straight. Keep repeating this quick dip and letting the candle cool in between dips, until you’ve got the diameter you want. You can even use a long string bent over double, or several long strings draped over a stick to make multiple candles at once.
Method 2 – Rolling Candles For those with limited amounts of wax, there is a simpler technique than dipping. If you have a flat slick surface, pour melted wax across it, peel up the wax in strips, and roll the strips into little cylinders. Start each roll around a plant fiber string, and the wick will naturally be at the core.
Method 3 – Pour A Candle For large cylinders and other shapes of candles, special molds are used. And while you could likely improvise some kind of mold in the field, the easiest candle to make is the container candle. Using a tuna can or glass food jar, pour in your hot wax and insert a fiber wick once the wax begins to stiffen. That’s it! These are the easiest candles to make, if you have a heat resistant container you can spare.