Saturday, October 3, 2009

vigil lamp

Last year I spent some of my Christmas money on a hanging vigil lamp to replace the candle in my icon corner. I like the idea of leaving it lit all the time (or as much as possible, anyway), the labor involved with tending to it, etc. Also, from a practical standpoint, because I don't have a lot of space in my corner, it's nice to get the light part up off the shelf.

I had a hard time finding information online about how exactly to use a vigil lamp. One piece of advice I saw was that it works a lot like a regular kerosene lamp, but that wasn't much help since I hadn't used one of those either. I eventually did get enough input and try enough options myself to come up with what seems like a fairly effective way of doing things. It may be of some help to others if I write it up here online. (Though I would guess that it's always better if a parent or Godparent can show you in real life.)

  • hanging lamp - I got one of the less expensive lamps that I found online. It's pretty much your call. Since I've had only one lamp, I can't say much about different types. They all seem to work more or less the same way.
  • hook - The lamp probably won't come with its own hook to mount it. Anywhere that sells the lamps will probably also sell hooks. If you're more creative than I, you could probably also just rig something up yourself. I got a fairly short hook to conserve space. Obviously, it needs to be long enough so the lamp can hang freely and swing a bit without banging into the icons.
  • glass - Some lamps will include a glass or perhaps a choice of glasses. With others, you'll need to buy a glass separately. I was advised to make sure the glass could handle the heat of being lit all day, but I never got much sense of different types. Mine was pretty inexpensive and seems rather thin, but it appears to work fine.
  • float - There are actual cork floats that seem to be pretty popular--a cork ring with a metal cover and some kind of loop to hold the wick. I use an Old Believer "float" that consists of a hollow metal cylinder suspended in the middle of twisted wire. You bend it so the wire rests on the rim of the glass and the cylinder hangs down inside. The main difference between the two types is that the cork float rises and falls with the oil level, while the Old Believer style remains at the same height. There's also a trick to the Old Believer style that I missed initially.
  • wick - I use plain cotton wicking. You can buy it in long, three-ply strands. One ply fits just about right. There are also short, wax-covered wicks. I'm told they burn better than cotton, but I haven't tried them myself. The cotton seems to work fine, and you can cut off a long strand that will last you a couple of weeks.
  • oil - I've only used one type of oil so far. I read somewhere that you don't want extra virgin olive oil. Get the next grade down. It's supposed to burn better, and it's definitely cheaper. A five-quart jug from a warehouse club is pretty economical.
  • lighter - I use a regular disposable lighter because we happen to have a lot of them around. I assume it would work with matches or whatever your preferred method is.
  • container - You'll need somewhere to put the burnt ends that you trim off of the wick. I use a censer, but whatever is convenient for you (obviously, something that won't burn itself). Keep in mind that the ashes will tend to stick to your fingers. Sometimes you can drop them with a little light rubbing, but often I have to wipe my fingers across the edge.
  • rag - You'll get oil and ashes on your fingers, so keeping a rag handy for wiping them is useful. The oil will actually help get the ashes off if you do things in the right order.
Initial Setup

The best advice I can give about setting up the lamp is to study lamps at church. Pay attention to the height relative to the icons. With relatively small icons, you can't really avoid obscuring something; my basic rule is to minimize that as much as possible. For my eye-line and the angle from which I'm normally looking, the lamp blocks part of a larger Pentecost icon. Enough of the icon remains visible to get the general idea. Obviously, if the lamp hangs in front of an icon with a single figure, you don't want it blocking the face. Mounting the hook will probably be a simple job with a couple of included screws. Use common sense. Measure twice, cut once (so to speak).


Once the lamp is hung, the procedure is more or less the same as what you'll do routinely:
  1. Fill the glass with oil. Don't actually fill to the top! With the Old Believer float, you must make sure that the oil is up to at least the bottom of the metal cylinder; I would also make sure that it doesn't go higher than the wire support. (I don't know how much of a fire hazard there is if the flame gets too close to the surface, and I'd rather not find out.) The lamp will keep burning as the oil level descends, but it will not work if you try to light it with the oil too low. I don't understand exactly why this is--it has something to do with the flame drawing oil up the wick. I usually pull out the glass, set it on the floor (a table or shelf would be better, but I don't have one handy with enough room) and pour oil directly from the jug. If you're careful, spilling isn't much of a hazard.
  2. Prepare the wick. If it's a new piece of wick, wind it up and put it in the oil to soak for at least a few seconds. It shouldn't take long to saturate. Pull out one end and feed it up through the float. Holding the wick close to the end and twisting it between your fingers can help. The type that I use is twisted counterclockwise, so going in that direction will narrow it down to fit the end through the float. Once it comes out the top, you can grab it from there and pull it up about 1/4-1/2 inch. I would recommend twisting it a bit any time you do this, so the wick doesn't expand too much and fit too tightly. That seems to affect the strength of the flame. You'll learn through trial and error how much to have it extend out of the float. Too little, and you'll get a small flame. Too much, and it will tend to break as it burns. No big deal if that happens, but you'll end up with a small flame on whatever's left. If it's a used wick, the top will be charred from the previous use. You don't need to cut it. Just pinch it off with your fingers and discard in your container. No need to get all of the char either--a little bit on the end seems actually to help with lighting.
  3. Light the wick. The flame will slowly burn its way down to the float. If the wick was too long, it may break off above the float, but usually enough will be left for it to stay lit. If it burns all the way out, you're probably doing something wrong. This is what I had happen when I didn't add enough oil. If the flame is too small, sometimes you can pick up the float and feed through a little more wick.
There's not much to do while the lamp is burning. I haven't tried keeping it going continuously. Sometimes I'll let it burn all day without any real attention; sometimes, if everyone's leaving the house, I'll blow it out. I always blow it out before bed. Extinguishing the lamp is easy--just cup your hand behind it and blow.


I don't know exactly what's a normal amount of time between cleanings. I know some people do it weekly. If you make it part of your Sunday routine, it might be harder to forget. I just go by feel. Over time, you'll probably get oil drips and fingerprints on the glass. Also, ash will fall into the oil when you trim the wick or when it breaks. Once it starts looking a little scuzzy, I watch for a good opportunity. I find the easiest time to clean the lamp is when the wick runs out:
  • I pull out the last bit of unused wick and burn it in the censer. (Remember to treat it as you would anything holy. Burning it out is also a good idea since it's saturated with oil and flammable.) I would suggest burning it outside or in a garage or somewhere you won't mind a temporary burnt smell. Normally the oil burns, not the wick. You will smell a faint burnt odor after you blow out the lamp, but it's usually not too bad. Letting the last bit of wick burn itself out is another matter. It will smell pretty strong for a while. I burn it in the garage and try to pay enough attention that I catch it right after it goes out so I can close the lid on the censer.
  • I empty the oil through a strainer into a clean cup. If you have two glasses for your lamp, I suppose you can make this process easier by pouring through the strainer into the other glass. The strainer should filter out most of the small bits of ash that got into the oil.
  • I wash the glass and float in soapy water. The float will probably require some scrubbing. I find that my fingernail works fine to get off any stuck-on ash or residue. If there is ash caught in the wire, you might want to use an old toothbrush or a vegetable scrubber. Dry both gently.
  • I replace the oil in the glass and wash the cup and strainer. Add the float and a new piece of wick according to the instructions above, top off the oil, and put the glass back in the lamp. You're ready to go.
That's about everything I've accumulated. If anyone has corrections or other points to add, feel free. I doubt many people will run across these remarks, but if they do, I want them to be as useful as possible.


  1. It is also a good practice to pour a little salt water at the bottom of the lampada. The oil will float on top of it, and the salt will prevent some of the unpleasantness that will happen from time to time when you're burning rancid oil (which is, incidentally, the better kind of oil to burn, so I have often been counseled to just leave the oil container open to accelerate this process).

  2. Thanks. I had heard about that practice, though I haven't tried it myself. How does it behave when transferring the contents to clean the glass?

  3. Your instructions were very helpful. Thank you.