Oil Lamp Basics

As far as oil lamps go there are basically 3 or 4 different kinds:

  • Floating Wick Lamps
  • Mantle Lamps
  • Flat or Round Wick Lamps
  • Pressurized Lamps

For power outages it’s a good idea to own at least one oil lamp. Your personal family needs and economic considerations should influence the type of lamp that is best for your situation.

Floating Wick Lamps

Floating wick lamps are really just for decorative lighting and emergencies. The light is faint and soft.
For the most part they are safe to use and are based on a design that has been in use for well over 6,000 years.

Floating Wick Oil Lamp

A Floating Wick Lamp

The way that they work, is that a piece of cork, bent metal or other material is fitted with a small wick. The whole rig floats or sets on top of a layer of oil and water. Some people will just use oil in the lamp without the water. Olive oil works best – corn oil is almost useless.

Primative Oil Lamp

Copper Clip-On Wick In Oil & Water

The advantage of using oil and water is that if the lamp should accidentally over turn the water will extinguish the flame.

Floating wick lamps are very similar in principle to early American Betty Lamps.
Betty lamps burn animal fat, grease or oil with a simple cloth wick without the floating cork or water. Betty lamps can be difficult to light when the room temperature is below 45°F . They were usually made of wrought iron or ceramic so the container could be heated from underneath to melt the grease so it would burn.

Mantle Lamps

Aladdin Lamps are perhaps the best known mantle lamps.
In my opinion they are the most effective type of oil lamp for general everyday household non-electric lighting needs. You can easily read and work by them without eye strain. A properly lit Aladdin lamp produces the light equivalence of about a 25 -40 watt electric light bulb. However they are expensive.

Aladdin Oil Lamp

Aladdin Table Lamp

Aladdin lamp light is harsh and has a distinctive blue cast to it. They make a very faint humming sound when in operation.

The way that a mantle lamp works is by the combustion of volatile gases moving across the knitted webbed mantle via a round tube-shaped wick and flame spreader. I use only Aladdin Lamp Oil and K-1 Kerosene in my Aladdin  lamps. Liquid paraffin and dyed kerosene should never be used in a mantle lamp like an Aladdin.

Oil Lamp Mantle

Lamp Mantle

Mantle lamps are  safe. But as with all open flame lighting common sense and caution must be used. The top 18″- 24″ area around the chimney of an Aladdin lamp gets extremely hot and stays hot for a long time after the lamp is extinguished.
In fact the entire gallery assembly of an Aladdin lamp gets super hot. So be careful!

Like all mantle lamps, the flame of an Aladdin lamp will tend to creep higher if it is turned up too high and too fast. When the lamp is turned up too fast it can cause sooting and black spots on the mantle.

Black Spots On A Lamp Mantle

Carbon Spots On A Lamp Mantle

But sooting is an easy fix. Just allow the lamp to cool and relight it again and allow the soot to burn off.

An over-fired mantle lamp can be dangerous and lead to a “runaway” lamp. A runaway lamp is a lamp that burns uncontrollably. The best way to deal with a runaway lamp is to turn down the wick and place an empty tin can over the chimney. The can will starve the fire of air.

Tin Can Can Be Used For A Runaway Lamp

An Empty Tin Can Is Used To Extinguish A “Runaway” Lamp

Aladdin lamps need close supervision if used around children or people who don’t understand how they work.

A Lit Aladdin Mantle

An Aladdin Lamp Without Shade. The Mantle Is Being Warmed Up Before Being Turned Up To Full Light

Most Aladdin lamps benefit from a shade. A shade moderates the bright light and will direct the light downwards towards a work or reading area. Glass shades have the advantage that they are easily washed. The downside is that they are expensive and can be broken.

Non-Electric Task Lighting In KItchen

Glass Shade On Aladdin Lamp. The Shade Directs The Light Downwards Towards The Work Area

Cloth or parchment shades are affordable alternative. They are not as heavy as glass and can be easily covered with any fabric.

Fabric Covered Aladdin Oil Lamp Shade

Fabric Covered Aladdin Shade


Flat Wick or Round Wick Lamps

These are the type of oil lamps that most people are familiar with. The light is soft, quiet and soothing.

Flat Wick Oil Lamps

Flat Wick Oil Lamps

The way that a flat wick lamp works is similar to a floating wick lamp. The difference is that the wick is much larger and stationary; and is threaded through a brass or nickel burner.The flat wick burner is fitted with little “teeth” or gears that allow the wick to be turned up by a round knob.

Brass Burner From A An Oil Lamp

A Flat Wick Threaded Into A Brass Burner

The lamp fuel is drawn up through the cloth wick by capillary action and is burned off. The higher the wick is turned up – the higher the flame. Wick height determines the amount of light.

One problem with a flat wick lamp, is that the wick can be turned up just so far, before the lamp smokes and the flame possibly breaks the chimney. A flat wick lamp has the lighting equivalency of a small electric nightlight. Maybe a little less.

All flat wick lamps benefit from having their wicks occasionally trimmed of carbon deposits and cleaned.

Flat Wick Oil Lamp With Decorative Glass Chimney

Flat Wick Oil Lamp With Decorative Glass Chimney

A lot of people will use ordinary kerosene for fuel in their flat wick lamps without any problem. But kerosene can give some people a headache. Ultra Pure Liquid Paraffin, K-1 Kerosene and Aladdin Lamp Oil  are a better choice for sensitive people. Those fuels will burn cleaner and without too much odor. However sometimes there is a noticeable odor after the lamp is blown out.

Round wick lamps do seem to give a bit more light than flat wick lamps and can be turned up higher without sooting and smoking.

Round wick Oil Lamp

A Miniature Round Wick Lamp

Flat wick or round wick lamps are easy to use, but don’t give enough light to read by. And just so you know, there is a type of lamp called a double wick lamp.
It works just like a single wick except there are two wicks attached to the burner. In theory a double wick lamp gives off twice the light.

Pressurized Lamps

I have limited experience with pressurized lamps. They are popular with the local Amish here in Western Pennsylvania. Petromax, Coleman and BriteLyt are the two brands I’m familiar with.

Like Aladdin lamps pressurized lanterns are expensive to buy. But they are cost-effective to run; safe and very dependable. But there is a learning curve.

Unlike Aladdin lamps, pressurized lanterns must be used with adequate ventilation. Pressurized lamps use a gas generator and gas mantle. They have to be pumped by hand to create the interior pressure and can be a little tricky to operate. Some people find the hissing noise that they make disagreeable, but some people find it soothing. The light is very bright and harsh.


The True Cost of Heating with Wood & Coal

I live in rural northwest Pennsylvania. In my house we heat and cook with wood and coal for about 7 to 8 months out of the year.
We don’t burn much coal, because for the most part wood works well for us. Only during the hardest and coldest part of the winter do we use a bit of bagged Anthracite coal for heat.

Wood Fire In Wood Burner

A Roaring Wood Fire in November

Solar heat or energy is not possible for us because we have too many cloudy days here. When given a choice I’ve always preferred affordable low tech options that I can easily understand.

Snow Storm

A Blowing Winter Storm In December


Where we live wood is very plentiful and there are few state regulations that govern the operation of solid fuel appliances. There are certain building codes and federal regulations regarding wood or coal-burning appliances but they are often ignored at the local level whenever possible.
Wood and coal have been an affordable energy alternative for us when compared to natural gas, electricity or petroleum.
Over the years we have literally saved tens of thousands of dollars. Our wood and coal stoves have paid for themselves at least four or five times over – and that’s including the cost of the expensive cook stove in the kitchen. This year alone (2012) we will save between $3600 to $3800 in heating costs contingent upon how cold and long this coming winter is.

What we will save this winter in heating costs is the price of a middle to top of the line wood stove or furnace and it’s much more than half the price of the most expensive cook stove that I know of.

So depending upon the brand and model chosen, a solid fuel stove at today’s prices will pay for itself in saved energy costs within the first year.

The money that we will save in heating costs does not include the money that will be saved over the next 6 months because the LP propane stove will not be used regularly for cooking again until next summer.
Back in the days when I had an electric range the savings averaged about a quarter of my total electric bill every month.
Here in rural western Pennsylvania free wood can often be had if families are willing to spend a month of long hard Saturdays or Sundays cleaning up slash wood from commercial logging operations. Gathering free firewood always seemed to me a better use of family time and resources than shopping, watching TV, going to the gym or hauling children to extracurricular “activities”.
All it takes is a few phone calls, the cost of a chain saw and a willingness to work hard.

For those who cannot cut their own wood, seasoned fire wood at present in my area of the country is running about $150 a cord delivered. Fire wood is measured in “cord wood”. A cord of wood is a stack of wood 4 feet deep by 4 feet high by 8 feet long. It takes 5 – 7 cords of wood for my house to make it though a winter.

My husband cuts and splits all the wood for our home.
It’s a big job for one man and usually takes him about 3 or 4 complete weekends working 12 hours a day.
Time can be saved if the trees are already on the ground. But if the trees need to be dropped it can take much longer. Felling trees and removing the branches takes time and planning. It can be dangerous, hot and dirty work.

Cutting A Tree

Using A Chainsaw To Cut a Small Tree For Firewood

The freedom of not being dependent upon the big energy companies and good weather for a hot meal and a warm home is a source of comfort and security for my husband and me.
Fact is nothing keeps you as warm as wood or coal heat.

But heating and cooking with wood and coal comes with other costs that are often unseen and unknown to the general public who are used to easy energy.
In my life there have been real trade offs in terms of time, labor, convenience and lifestyle.
No matter how you look at it – there’s no free lunch.
You either have to go out to work for someone else to earn the money to stay warm with easy energy if you live in a cold climate, or you have to be willing to adjust to a lifestyle of labor and discipline that many people find confining and sheer drudgery.

We have three wood stoves in our house and two of them have small fireboxes.
So that means that during hard winter I can’t be gone from home for more than 3 or 4 hours unless I’m burning coal because the fires will begin to go out.

Seasoned Fire Wood

Seasoned Fire Wood Ready To Burn

In the early 19th century when wood was the only option for most of rural America, someone usually had to stay behind at home “to keep the home fires burning”.
These days, to re-start a fire is not a hardship because of matches and newspaper. But before the advent of matches it was a small household crises to have a fire go out.
It usually meant having to strike a spark from flint and steel and hope for good luck. Often a child was sent to the neighbor’s house to bring live embers home with sometimes disastrous consequences. Many a child was seriously burned due to immaturity or carelessness while carrying hot embers.

Back then, to have a fire go out meant waiting in the darkness and cold until the fire could be started again. Without a fire there was no cooking or hot water for cleaning or personal hygiene. It could take an entire day to remedy the situation and get the household running smoothly again.

Now if I chose to burn coal I can be gone from home for a longer amount of time.
But bagged Anthracite coal costs money. At present bagged Anthracite is about $6 a bag or around $300 per ton.
If I were to choose to only burn Anthracite coal for heat I would use no more than 1 ½ tons of coal a year.
So this year my heating costs would be around $450 if I only burned coal.

Anthracite Coal

A Hod Of Anthracite Coal

If I were to select Bituminous coal my heating costs would be even lower. Bituminous coal is dusty, smelly and does not burn as clean or as hot as Anthracite coal; but it is readily available here in western Pennsylvania. In fact my farm has been mined for coal in the past and two generations ago a small family drift mine was in operation here.

If I supplement my wood burning with coal, I will typically use between a half to one full bag of coal a day depending upon how cold it is outdoors. The closer the thermometer gets to 0°F the more coal I would have to use.
But even at the price of $6 a bag or $300 a ton, coal is a considerable savings over fuel oil, electricity or natural gas.
If I lived in an area where wood was not readily available or if I worked away from home all day, I would choose coal as my primary heat source.

Because of my small fireboxes there have been many times that I have had to cut a trip away from home short because I needed to return to feed a fire. Those moments are inconvenient. But I’d not be telling the whole truth if I didn’t also mention that there have been times that I have used the excuse of tending to a wood fire to leave a tedious social situation early.

Heating and cooking with wood has many benefits. But one thing I have never been able to get use to and I consider a disadvantage is the sheer amount of dirt, snow, mud, bark, wood chips, insects and debris associated with wood that end ups in the house.
Coal is not so bad. But it takes a good started wood fire to make a coal fire. So there’s no getting around it.
Wood has had a direct impact on my housekeeping and has authored the interior design of my home.
Let me explain:
Wood and coal are very dirty alternatives to electricity, fuel oil or natural gas; but wood and coal are an important part of my everyday life.
So in terms of housekeeping if I want to stay completely happy and sane, the best I can do is manage the mess and realistically accommodate the life I chose to live.
Years ago I had to decline to follow the style of many middle class American homes.
That means painted walls, no carpeting or drapes, washable upholstery and a big red fire extinguisher in all almost every room of my home.

Dirt and Debris on a Floor

Dirt and Debris Are Part of Wood Heat

I try to sweep my floors every day and two or three times a year all the walls in my home must be washed.
Windows must be washed at least 4 times a year. Soot smudges from fingers that end up on woodwork, the bathroom sink or on the refrigerator are a constant battle.
Soot transfers very easily and can be hard to remove. I keep cleaning rags and a spray bottle of ammonia and water handy for that purpose.

Heating with wood or coal is not as convenient as simply flipping a switch or turning up a thermostat.
The heat from a solid fuel appliance is much more comfortable, but is not as stable a heat as modern natural gas, fuel oil or electric heat.
Wood heat always needs to be fiddled with.

Wood or coal heat is a very dry heat. No matter how many pans of water I set out the relative humidity in my house rarely rises above 28% during hard winter.
That kind of desert like dryness takes a toll on wooden furniture, books and on skin.

Most days when I’m busy about the house I work in a tank top because the house seems over hot to me with temperatures averaging around 80°F -85°F. I’m most comfortable with interior temperatures of about 62°F when I’m active.

But on winter mornings when outdoor temperatures are in the single digits or lower, and the house has lost temperature overnight, it often is so cold that I can see my breath.

Cook Stove In Kitchen

The Cook Stove Is The First Stove Started Early in Morning

Leaving a warm bed behind on a frigid morning to rekindle or re-light a fire has often been a real personal challenge of will for me.

Many mornings I’ve lain in bed hoping in vain my husband or the Wood Fairies would get up first to get the fires going again. It’s mostly mind over matter.

Usually by the end of February I’ve had quite enough of wood and coal and all the things that go with them.

Wood Ashes On A Path

A Trail Of Wood Ashes Helps Make The Way Safe To The Barn

The end of March and April are challenging months to heat with wood because of the approaching spring.
Often the weather is very cold only in the morning and in the evening and fires do not need to be going all day. So that makes for starting two and sometimes three fires a day in the same stove.
When the weather is cold and rainy during the spring, it can be a difficult to know how long or how hot or how many stoves need to be fired.

When I first started to heat with wood it took me about three full years to understand all the variables in stove operation, in the weather, in my house and in my own personality and character.
When heating with wood or coal nothing can replace personal experience. You must live it to understand it.
In the beginning I had to learn a new way of living. I had to adjust my attitude and outlook to a new cycle of life centered around tending a fire. The notion of hearth and home took on deeper meaning for me.

Many years have gone by since then.
Now I’m old and well-seasoned just like good firewood and I have been heating with wood for so long I can hardly remember any other way of life.
In spite of the labor and mess involved and the sometimes terribly cold mornings, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Heating with wood and coal are right for me and my circumstance. It has made good economic sense over the years and brings with it a measure of independence and energy security that wasn’t found back when I was a helpless slave to the energy grid.
But believe me, all that said – the spring is always welcomed here.

Daffodils Blooming

Daffodils Blooming In Spring

Heating Your Home With Coal

During the coldest part of winter I often burn coal instead of wood in my stoves. To my way of thinking nothing keeps you as warm as coal.

Dog Next To A Coal Stove

Laying Next To A Coal Burning Stove

There are two main types of coal used in the United States for energy: bituminous coal and anthracite coal.
Bituminous coal is the most common form of coal. It is the type of coal that is use for electric power plants, but it is also used for home heating. Bituminous coal is dull and dusty looking and is easily burned. It is considered to be a soft coal and burns sooty.Bituminous coal contains 10,500 to 14,500 BTUs per pound.
Anthracite coal is a denser, harder coal that is found in the US, but only in eastern Pennsylvania. Anthracite coal is about twice as expensive as bituminous coal and is almost always used for home heating and not for electricity generation. Anthracite coal is shiny and waxy looking and burns clean. Anthracite coal contains about 15,000 BTUs per pound.

Anthracite Coal

A Hod Of Anthracite Coal

The advantages of coal for home heating are many.
Coal can be safely stored for an indefinite period of time and it never goes bad.
Coal doesn’t rot or draw insects like wood. Coal does not need a pipeline, or any type of special tank or container like LP gas or fuel oil.
Depending upon your location, coal is often a more affordable home heating option when compared to either fuel oil or natural gas.
Best of all, coal is not produced by people who want to behead you or hate you. Coal is a 100% American energy resource. Coal is abundant in the United States and many coal mines are still small mom and pop operations. Coal makes jobs for Americans.

The last I knew, Pennsylvania has enough anthracite coal for home heating needs for about another 150 years or so – maybe longer.
A coal fire puts out more BTUs than most types of hardwoods. Osage wood is the only wood I can think of that will burn as hot as coal. Coal is readily available in many areas of the country and is most often sold in 40lb. bags or in bulk.

Now before you rush out and buy coal for your wood burning stove there’s a few things you need to know.
To safely and effectively burn coal you must use a multi-fuel stove or appliance. Coal fires burn too hot for most standard wood fuel boxes. Burning coal in a regular wood stove or furnace can result in an overheated stove, a burned out fuel box; a warped stove or a house fire.
Coal or multi-fuel stoves or furnaces have a way to bring air to the fire from underneath. Coal appliances are designed with a cast iron slotted grate and have some way to shake or tip the grate to clear out ashes and leftover coal clunkers. Coal must have free circulating air from beneath in order to burn properly. Any buildup of ashes under the grate will inhibit a coal fire.

Coal Grate

Coal Grate In A Multi-Fuel Stove

How To Start & Maintain A Coal Fire
Coal fires unlike wood fires can be hard to start and need to be tended to differently.
I’m going to assume that if you’re interested in burning coal that you already know how to start a fire in a stove or in a  furnace.
I’m also going to assume that you have a multi-fuel stove or appliance.
Along with a poker you’ll probably want a coal hod and a small shovel to manage an indoor coal fire. A coal hod is also called a coal scuttle or coal bucket. Coal hods frequently have a pitcher-shaped end for pouring coal on a fire. Coal hods are usually made of metal and have a handle for carrying small amounts of coal.

Coal Hod

A Coal Hod With Small Coal Shovel

To start a coal fire, you’ll first need to have a good strong wood fire going.
Depending upon the type of coal you plan to burn you’ll need a bed of hot wood coals.
About 1”-2” of wood coals is a good place to start for bituminous coal.
With anthracite coal, about 2”-4” of hot wood coals is what it usually will take to get it started.
With both types of coal, the coal fire is started by adding just a small amount of coal on top of the wood coals.

Adding Coal

Adding A Small Amount Of Coal On Top Of A Wood Fire

Open the lower door or damper of the stove so that coal is being fed air from beneath. Wait about 5 minutes and add about twice as much coal as the first time.

Open Bottom Door Or Damper

Open Bottom Door Or Damper

After about 10 – 15 minutes add more coal and watch for the blue flame that is characteristic of coal-burning.
At this point you can close the bottom door or damper. Once there is a full bed of ignited coals on the grate an entire hod of coal can be added. The way that I add coal by the hod, is I open the bottom door, and then just throw or pour an entire hod of coal on the fire.
I wait to make sure that I see blue flames creeping up through the coal before I close the bottom door.

Coal Pile Burning

Coal Pile Burning

Many people who become frustrated with coal burning fail to appreciate the differences between the two types of coal.

With anthracite coal it’s important to neither rush the coal ignition nor to stir up or poke the fire like a wood fire. An anthracite fire needs to have the grate gently shaken or lifted slightly and moved every once in a while. If you disturb an anthracite coal mass by poking or stirring it, the fire will tend to go out and you’ll be left with unfired clunkers.

With a bituminous coal fire, the coal will tend to burn and lump together into a large solid mass. Bituminous coal fires need to be lightly poked and stirred up in order to burn completely.

The most important thing to understand about burning coal is that it doesn’t burn like wood.
Coal radiates and burns from the bottom to the top. The fire spreads upwards through the coal and one piece of coal will ignite another. When a coal fire is properly burning there is little flame. The coals just glow.

Glowing Fire

A Glowing Coal Fire

An entire hod of anthracite coal will keep my 1200 square foot house comfortably warm in -15F° weather for about 6 hours. In sub-zero weather I used just over 1 bag of anthracite coal a day.

I never burn bituminous coal in the upstairs living area of my house because of the soot. However I do burn bituminous coal in my basement stove to keep the plumbing from freezing in sub-zero weather.

Anthracite coal has a more complete combustion than bituminous coal. Anthracite coal leaves little ash and waste when compared to bituminous coal. Unlike hardwood ashes, I don’t spread coal ashes on my garden. Instead coal ashes are scattered in my driveway to melt ice and snow.

Some people prefer to start coal fires with outdoor charcoal briquettes. I don’t recommend the briquette method due to the costs of the briquettes and the lack of availability of charcoal briquettes in some areas of the U.S. during the winter months.

Steel Ash Carrier – Keeping Valuable Wood Ashes Safe Until You Use Them

Pictured below is a steel ash carrier sitting on my front porch.
The ash carrier is full of fly ash and cinders from the daily morning clean out of my cook stove and parlor stove. Believe it or not, seemly cold ash, cinders, embers and stove coals can sometimes keep heat and reignite for up to a week or longer.

Many an accidental house fire has been the result of the improper disposal of ash. The tragic 2011 Stamford, Connecticut Christmas fire in which a woman lost her 3 children and parents is a grim example of how ashes can seem to be cold but aren’t.

Steel Ash Carrier

Steel Ash Carrier On Wooden Porch

In my own life I’ve had a couple of close calls with ash and cinders sitting forgotten in a coal hod (scuttle) in the living room and on the front porch. There’s an indescribable horror to walking into a room filled with papers, books and cloth and seeing a coal hod glowing and cherry red next to a wooden bookcase.

Ash Carrier

Steel Ash Carrier Next To A Hitzor Stove

Steel ash carriers keep coals and ash contained and safe. Steel ash carriers can literally be life savers.
Ash carriers with feet keep the heat of the ash and live coals off the floor and carpet so there’s less chance of burning a wooden floor or carpet.

Some stove manufactures sell ash carriers as a stove accessory, and prices range from about $45 – $75 the last time I checked.
My parlor stove is a Hitzer, and the ash carrier fits the stove ash pan perfectly so that less fly ash blows into the room.

Ashes Being Emptied Into Carrier

Ash Pan Being Emptied Into Steel Carrier

Hardwood ashes are a valued commodity on this farm. They can be used to make soap, clean wooden floors, shine silver, melt ice and in the garden.
Without a doubt, the garden is my favorite place to use wood ashes. They are most often used in the garden to top dress the rows of asparagus . Hardwood ash is rich in potassium and calcium and other minerals.
Asparagus thrive when hardwood ashes are applied to the soil and tomatoes love it when they are put directly into to the hole at planting time.Hardwood ash should never be applied to a potato patch as it may contribute to the development of potato scab.

Non-Electric Drip Coffee Maker

I have hard water on my farm. Hard water has killed every electric drip coffee maker that I’ve ever owned. So years ago I gave up on electric coffee makers and switched to either range top perked coffee or the Melitta pour over system for coffee. Both methods make good coffee but both methods have drawbacks for my particular household.

Non-Electric Drip Coffee

Non-Electric Drip Coffee Maker On Cook Stove

Stove top perked coffee is wonderful but takes too long on most mornings. The Melitta system uses expensive paper filters and I’m not wild about buying disposable anything.
So a few years ago I bought a Lindys stainless steel drip coffee maker. The coffee maker consists of a two piece basket and lid and bottom.

Non-Electric Drip Coffee Marker

Lindys Non-Electric Drip Coffee Pot

Here’s how to make a really good cup of coffee with one:
Set a kettle of water on to boil. Place the basket on top of the pot. Measure ground coffee into the basket well and then place the basket top over the coffee. I use 1 tablespoon of regular ground grocery store coffee to 1 cup of water.
After the water begins to boil remove it from the heat and permit the water to just cease boiling. Quickly pour the water over top of the basket assembly and allow the hot water to drip through.

Coffee Driping

Coffee Dripping Through Basket Into Pot

After the coffee has finished dripping, remove the entire basket assembly from the pot and set aside.
I usually set the basket in the sink because sometimes it will still drip a little coffee.
Put the lid back on the pot and the coffee pot can now be set on the stove to keep it warm.

The manufacture suggests the use of paper coffee filters but I have found that with paper coffee filters much more coffee needs to be used. Without the paper filters sometimes grounds will get into the bottom of the coffee pot but it’s not too bad. I’d rather put up with some grounds than have to keep buying paper filters and extra coffee.
The non-electric stainless steel coffee pots are expensive. But they pay for themselves over time. We have used our coffee pot every day for well over 3 or 4 years without a problem.

Hand Protection When Loading Wood Stoves

Wood stoves and coal stoves are a big part of my life. I keep a pair of heavy welder’s gloves next to every wood and coal stove in the house and I never load a wood stove or open a stove door without wearing them.The gloves are a gauntlet length and stay within easy reach on top of the wood boxes both in the living room and in the kitchen.

Welder's Gloves For Wood Stoves

Heavy Welder’s Gloves As Hand Protection

I learned about hand protection and wood stoves the hard way 10 years ago when I suffered a 2″ long  third degree burn to my wrist while loading a stove. I use long leather welder’s gloves.
They’re cheap insurance.

Treadle Sewing Machine Advice

You love to sew.
Or perhaps you are looking for a sensible off grid sewing machine and think you’d like to buy a treadle sewing machine but don’t know where to start or what to look for?

Sewing Corner

A Sewing Corner With A Treadle Sewing Machine

Maybe you are worried that all treadle sewing machines are expensive antiques and you can’t afford one?
Or you’re concerned that you’ll have to do without a zigzag stitch or machine made button holes if you use one? Or maybe you don’t know how to sew but would like to learn?
Well grab a spool of thread and get ready to sew – because I’m about to give you some practical and very basic advice on one of my favorite off-grid topics – treadle sewing machines!

A treadle sewing machine is simply a sewing machine that is powered by what you ate for breakfast instead of electricity.

 With No Electricity

Working By Natural Light & With No Electricity

All Sewing Machines Have  Main Elements In Common
Sewing machines – electric or treadle – consist of a “head” and some type of mechanism that drives the head.
The machine head is the part of the sewing machine that actually does the sewing. A sewing machine head consists of precisely machined and tooled fitted rods, screws, wheels, springs, disks, gears and other parts. Some of those parts are hidden and encased within the head and some parts are visible on the outside of the sewing head.
Keep this information about sewing machine heads in mind because you’ll need it later.

The mechanism which drives a sewing machine head can either be electric or non-electric as in a treadle or hand cranked sewing machine.
An electric sewing machine usually has a machine head with an attached light and the sewing machine may or may not be computerized, and is driven by an electric motor.
Treadle sewing machines also have two main elements to them; the sewing machine head and the treadle base. The treadle base is the table or cabinet that the sewing machine sits in.

Machine Head Out Of Its Cabinet

Singer Model 66 Out Of Cabinet

Treadle sewing machines are powered by a drive belt that is most often made of leather and connected to a treadle assembly.

Singer Treadle

A Singer Treadle Assembly

The belt sits in a groove on the hand/balance wheel of the sewing machine head and is fitted down through the top of the table or cabinet base of the sewing machine in a continuous loop.

Drive Band Goes To Treadle

Drive Band Goes From The Balance Wheel To The Treadle Assembly

The leather drive band loop usually encircles a large metal grooved wheel under the base of the sewing machine that is attached by way of a pitman rod to a foot treadle.

Pitman Rod

The Pitman Rod On Minnesota Model “A”

When the foot treadle is worked, the attached pitman rod turns the large grooved assembly wheel which begins to move the leather drive belt caught in the sewing machine’s hand wheel and the parts of the sewing machine head begin to move.
The result is that if the sewing machine head has a needle and the head is properly threaded, when fabric is placed under the foot of the machine – sewing commences.
A hand cranked sewing machine is also a “people powered” sewing machine. Instead of being belt driven it has a handle attached to the balance wheel. As you turn the handle on the balance/hand wheel the machine sews. Hand cranked sewing machines are a good choice for people who don’t sew often. They can be quite a bit slower to sew on as opposed to a regular treadle sewing machine. Hand cranked sewing machines are usually about ¾ the size of a standard sewing machine.

In spite of the modern electric and digital age, there are millions of treadle sewing machines still in use around the world.
Thousands of brand new and not so new treadle sewing machines are used every day in private homes and in 3rd world garment and textile factories.
The odds are pretty good that if you are over the age of 35 at some time in your life you have worn a factory ready-made garment that was sewn in part on a treadle sewing machine.

A treadle sewing machine in good working order is a joy to use. The physical act of treadling can be soothing and relaxing. Many people who love to sew or quilt prefer to use only a treadle sewing machine. Many who sew professionally will keep a treadle sewing machine as a backup to their electric sewing machine in the event of a power outage or a looming fitting deadline. Believe me the drama of a two day power blackout during a final wedding dress fitting with a nervous bride and her mother will take 10 years off your life.

The needle speed on a treadle sewing machine is usually slower than that of an electric machine. The slower machine speed can be a real advantage for the novice sewer because it is easier to watch their fingers and maintain control of the fabric and seam width. I think a treadle or hand cranked sewing machine is the very best way to teach a child or a beginner to sew.

Learning To Sew

A 10 Year Old Learning To Sew

Treadle sewing machines are built to last almost forever and are actually very simple devices and lend themselves to easy home repair, service and  maintenance.

New Treadle Sewing Machines
Modern treadle sewing machines are available new but they can be very expensive. Janome makes a fair to good modern treadle sewing machine that is supposedly popular with the Amish and other people who live without electricity. The Janome 712T treadle sewing machine uses a top-loading bobbin and has 10 utility stitches and a built-in buttonhole stitch.

The last I knew the Janome 712T is made in Taiwan and has a limited 25 year warranty. The advantage of a modern treadle sewing machine is that service repair, bobbins, needles and parts are readily available. The disadvantages of purchasing a modern treadle sewing machine are lack of quality and price when compared to an older machine. ***See below for extensive sewing machine rant***

Necessity (and frugality) is most often the Mother of Invention.
If you want a modern sewing machine complete with decorative stitches, many vintage sewing machines (and some modern) can be easily converted into a treadle or hand cranked sewing machine.
If you are handy with a screw driver, drill, hammer, wire cutters and a jig saw; and have a dose of creative vision and aren’t a stranger at the local hardware store, then converting the right electric sewing machine may be a low-cost way for you to get a treadle sewing machine or hand cranked sewing machine.
Thousands of older treadle sewing machines were converted from treadle to electric. To reverse the process is not complicated.

Electric Motor Attached To A Sewing Machine

An Electric Motor Attached To A Minnesota “A”

Many good sewing machines made during the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and early 1960’s have heavy grooved balance wheels that are exterior belt driven. All that is necessary to do the conversion is to simply remove the electric motor and set the sewing machine into a treadle table or base.
A sturdy treadle table can be fashioned from an old treadle base and with a new top.
Craig’s List, eBay, yard sales, auctions, thrift stores, Free Cycle and plain old-fashioned asking around, are all good ways to find low-cost or no cost sewing machines and treadle bases.

Sewing Machine At Auction

A Singer Model 66 At Auction

Very often a simple classified ad in the local newspaper (old people still read newspapers) will turn up a gem of a sewing machine. Many people have old treadle sewing machines sitting in their garages and basements and would like to have them gone.

Sewing Machines At Auction

Three Treadle Sewing Machines At Auction

Often the sewing machine belonged to a beloved family member that has passed away and the family would be happy for the machine to go to someone who would appreciate it.
Depending upon the condition, such sewing machines can usually be had for $0 – $90.
A word of warning: A treadle sewing machine with a base or a cabinet is heavier than a dead preacher so be sure you bring help to load it if you plan on taking it home.

If you don’t have enough room for a full size treadle sewing machine a hand cranked sewing machine may be a really good low-cost non-electric solution for your sewing needs.
The Pfaff sewing machine below is a good example of a high quality sewing machine from the 1950’s that can be easily converted into a hand cranked or possibly a treadle driven sewing machine.

Pfaff Sewing Machine

A Pfaff Sewing Machine For Bought At A Thrift Shop for $3.99

The sewing machine is precision Swiss made, has a solid steel head and is built like a tank. That sewing machine was made when I still had my baby teeth and will outlast me.
I paid $3.99 for it last year at my local Salvation Army Thrift store. For about $6-$12 I can convert it to hand cranked or treadle operation if I find a balance wheel to fit it.
*** See extensive sewing machine rant below***

If your heart is set on an older or antique treadle sewing machine but you don’t know where to find one or you’re afraid that you can’t possibly afford one – relax – be happy and don’t fret.
If you really want an older or antique treadle sewing machine you can probably find or assemble one to call your own. It is much easier and more affordable than you may imagine.
If you know how to read and follow directions; and can work in an orderly, methodical fashion; and if you aren’t in too a big hurry and don’t mind some really grubby, dirty work – a beautiful old Iron Lady can be yours.
It is impossible to do antique treadle sewing machines the justice they deserve in a blog post – even a long post like this one.

Among collectors and aficionados of antique treadle sewing machines there are lots of  different opinions. So don’t take what I’m about to tell you next as the only gospel. I would encourage you to follow the hyper links located in this post and visit The Treadle Lady and other websites for more information.

In general, there are 3 considerations when buying an older or antique treadle sewing machine. You must keep all of them in mind.

The 3 considerations are:

The Sewing Machine Head which includes:

  • Bobbin Type
  • Needle Type
  • Feet

Base or Cabinet & Treadle

Availability of Parts

The Sewing Machine Head

When looking at or considering the purchase an older or antique treadle sewing machine, the head of the sewing machine is the most important part and requires the most consideration.
You will need to determine the condition of the machine head and check to see if all parts of the head are present with a visual inventory.
If all parts aren’t present – what parts are missing?
When examining a sewing machine head carefully and slowly examine the head moving from the right to left and from top to bottom.
Does the balance/hand wheel turn or is it frozen?Does the needle move?
What is the condition of the bobbin winder?

Bobbin Winder

A Bobbin Winder on a “Household” Brand Sewing Machine

What is the shape of the base? Are the feed plate/or plates present?
What type of bobbin is used? What type of feet? What type of needle is used?Who is the manufacturer? Is there a model or serial number?

Serial Number

Singer Model 66 Treadle Sewing Machine – Born October 31,1922

Are the thread pins intact and tension disks, springs or plates present?
What is the condition of the steel, chrome, the decals and how much dirt, grime or rust is present?

Household Sewing Machine

A “Household” Brand Sewing Machine Head

Sadly nothing can really take the place of  life experience when it comes to buying antique treadle sewing machines.
But luckily, eBay is a great way to see lots of treadle sewing machine heads, cabinets and treadle assembly bases.
The “zoom” feature on eBay auction listings can give a treadle sewing machine newbie the opportunity to look up close at many different types of antique treadle sewing machine heads.
Just be forewarned about eBay – often the description from the seller is wacky and inaccurate. Complete and intact treadle sewing machine prices tend to be wonky and are often outrageously high.
That said, the eBay prices for sewing machine parts are good and antique sewing machine manuals are plentiful.
Very often there are real deals to be had on sewing machine heads – especially Singer, White, New Home and Domestic.  eBay is my favorite place to buy antique sewing machine parts.
A word of advice:  antique sewing machines are just like coins, guns and rare books. Condition is everything.
Just because something is old doesn’t make it particularly valuable. People who don’t understand or know anything about treadle sewing machines will tend to over price them.

Singer 15-88

A 1953 Singer 15-88

At present (2013) here in western Pennsylvania, the going auction price for a complete antique treadle sewing machine in good condition is about $45 – $120 depending upon cabinet condition and who’s at the auction.

Lastly, keep  bobbin type and parts availability in mind when looking for an older sewing machine. In general, bobbins are divided into 2 types – a shuttle with a bobbin and a modern round bobbin. Shuttles and the bobbins that fit into them come in different sizes and are not interchangeable.

Shuttle & Bobbin

A Shuttle & Bobbin With Thread

This is an important consideration when purchasing an old sewing machine. Round bobbins are a more modern system and they are much easier to find and not as expensive.

Round Bobbin

A Modern Round Bobbin

When buying an old treadle sewing machine it is wisest to look for a sewing machine that was mid-priced and popular for its time.

Singer sewing machines were made by the millions and are still relatively easy to find and affordable.
The Singer model 15-88 and Singer model 66 are both good choices when looking for treadle sewing machines.

The Singer 15-88 was the last sewing machine that Singer made for treadle use. Most were made in the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s. The model 15-88 uses a modern needle, low shank feet and has a reverse.

Singer 15-88

A Singer 15-88 With Attachments

The feed dogs can be lowered and it’s a good machine for darning or free form stipple quilting. There is a buttonhole attachment, a zig zag attachment and a walking foot attachment for the Singer model 15-88, along with the standard hemming foot, ruffler and other specially feet. As of today, I would expect to pay between $75 -$170 for a head in very good condition.

The Singer model 66 was made from 1902 to about 1960. It is uses a round bobbin and a standard needle. Singer model 66’s made before the early 1920’s have feet and attachments that are non-standard. They have a back clamp instead of a side clamp and don’t have a reverse. The Singer model 66 often has attractive and distinctive decals and is nicknamed a “Red Eye.

Singer Red Eye

A Singer Model 66 Or Sometimes Called A “Red Eye”

As of today, I would expect to pay $40 -$90 for a Red Eye head in very good condition. In fact Craig’s List and eBay are positively polluted with them.

Often times it is easier and more affordable to assemble an antique sewing machine from parts.
Old sewing machine heads tend to outlast their cabinets and bases and it’s very common to find a sewing machine head in good working order with a cabinet that is beyond repair.
If you plan to assemble an antique treadle sewing machine from parts it’s a good idea to find the base or cabinet that you want first, then buy the sewing machine head.

Mid-price Singer Cabinet

Standard Mid-Priced Singer Treadle Cabinet From 1920’s

Singer is my first choice for this kind of “parts & pieces” assembly. Singer heads will almost always fit in Singer treadle cabinets (never seen one yet that didn’t -but measure first to be safe); but don’t assume that other sewing machine brands are sewing head to cabinet interchangeable.
That said, sometimes cabinets and machine heads will fool you – but it is still safest to stay with the same sewing machine brand. That means a Minnesota model “A” should be moved to a Minnesota treadle or cabinet- don’t take a chance with a White or Domestic cabinet. When you go shopping for a cabinet take the machine head with you so you can fit it on the spot.
A good quality cabinet is scarcer than a good sewing machine head.

And just so you know it is possible to construct a new top for an old treadle assembly. Read more about it here.
When you buy your treadle sewing machine don’t forget to hunt down an owner’s manual for the one you are buying. Many old manuals are free online and many are available for purchase as reprints or on CD’s for under $10.

Tools You’ll Need to Clean the Sewing Head
A camera
Lots of clean rags
Sewing machine or household oil
Flathead screw drivers – large & small
Needle nose pliers
Air in a can
Liquid Wrench
Extra fine steel wool
Tooth brush
Small paint brush
Tin can
Small plastic bags
Paper towels
Car wax

NEVER EVER! use any type of household cleaning product on a sewing machine head. It is risky and you may destroy the decals. Household oil is the only product ever used to clean the exterior of an antique sewing machine head. Household oil will remove rust, layers of grime and dirt.

Grime On A Sewing Machine Head

Typical Grime On A Sewing Head In Good To Fair Condition

When I bring home a “new” treadle sewing machine the first thing I do is to set up a neat and orderly work space.
Before I start to disassemble the sewing machine and while it is still in the cabinet I begin by taking pictures from all angles. I photograph everything about the machine – the hand/balance wheel, the bobbin winder, the needle position, the shuttle, the tension disks; every screw, loop or spring.
I next take pictures of the cabinet from every angle too – the under carriage, the skirt guard, the treadle, the pitman rod, all hinges, springs, the drawers and top.
By keeping an extensive picture diary I have a record of what the machine looked like before I started cleaning it, but more importantly a I have a reference for how the machine is supposed to look like when I’ve finished. More than a couple of times I’ve been left with an extra washer, spring or screw from a sewing machine restoration that I couldn’t figure out or remember where it was supposed to go.
A photographic record will save you lots of reassemble headaches.

Cleaning A Sewing Machine Head

Carefully Cleaning A Singer Model 66 Sewing Machine Head

To clean a treadle sewing machine head it must be removed from the cabinet or base.
As I remove the head I set the screws or bolts on a paper or cloth towel and sometimes letter or number the towel to keep track of  the disassemble order. I take a picture of the towel for reference.
After the head is removed from the base I will usually remove the front plate, bobbin cover (covers) and any other chrome or steel pieces or fittings from the head that have screws in them. Those pieces are put on to a different towel which is also numbered along with the screws and I photographed them too.

Sewing Machine Parts

Some Of The Parts From A “Household” Brand Sewing Machine

Next the tension disks are removed and placed on another numbered towel in the order which they came off – and you know what comes next-…I take another picture.
I continue in this manner around the entire head.

Household Machine Oil Is Your Best Friend – You Can’t Use Too Much
When the head is complexly stripped of all removable parts I begin cleaning the head in earnest. I rub machine oil over the entire surface in a circular motion with my fingers and wait awhile for the oil to break through the dirt and grime. After about 10 minutes the surface is wiped with a clean rag. I continue “massaging” oil into the surface and wiping until there is no grime – just oil on the cloth.

Removing Dirt With Oil

Apply Sewing Machine Oil To The Surface Of A Sewing Machine To Remove The Dirt

It is important to proceed gently as too much surface abrasion will remove the decals.

I clean all the fittings the same way – with household oil and rags, Q-Tips or a toothbrush. Sometimes if I’m feeling brave I will clean the brass or metal fittings with Formula 409 and a toothbrush.
When the exterior of the sewing head is as clean as I can get it I then proceed to clean and oil the entire interior.

Anything that moves (or is supposed to move) will get a coat of kerosene with a small brush.
I let the kerosene soak into the grime and then wipe with a clean rag. Sometimes I will blow out the dirt or dust with a judicious blast of canned air – but not too much.
For a really filthy sewing machine head I will put it into a covered plastic tote tub outdoors and pour 5 gallons of kerosene over it and let it soak for a few days.

Machine Head Ready To Be Cleaned

The Underside Of An Old Household Head Ready For Cleaning

The grime will sometimes just dissolve in the tub.
Often a couple of squirts of Liquid Wrench or any other brand of penetrating oil product will be needed if the sewing machine head action or balance wheel is stiff or frozen.
I clean the forked bars under the machine head with a brush and kerosene first, followed by oil, clean soft rags and fine steel wool.

Cleaning Grime

Cleaning Grime From Under The Head With Fine Steel Wool

After the last bit of grime or dirt is removed from the sewing machine head I will dry the head with a clean rag and apply 2 or 3 coats of a high quality car wax and buff it.

Using Car Wax On A Red Eye

A Singer Red Eye Is Protected With A Coat Of Car Wax

The sewing machine head is ready to reassemble after it has been completely cleaned, oiled and waxed. This is where the pictures and separate numbered towels come in handy. The parts are carefully reassembled in the order in which they came off. Once the head is reassembled I usually will oil it with a good grade synthetic oil.

If the treadle base is in very good condition often all that will be needed is a thorough cleaning with mineral spirits and a coat of paste wax.
But more often than not, the wood finish will be bleached, dark, dry, cracked, stained or peeling or a part of the cabinet will be in need of repair.

Repairing And Restoring A Tp

Cabinet Restoration

If the finish on the cabinet just looks dirty and not in need of complete removal, I will usually try to clean it with Murphy’s Oil Soap and water and lots of soft rags. I apply the soapy water with a soft cloth and then dry the wood with a clean rag. I repeat the process until the wood is clean.
When the wood is clean and dry I like to apply 2 coats of Milsek Oil or Old English Scratch Remover over the entire cabinet and allow the product to soak in. I remove the excess with a dry, lint free cloth.The metal treadle assembly can be cleaned with a bucket of hot water and diluted white vinegar. Be sure to dry the metal parts after they are cleaned.
If the cabinet finish is completely hopeless and beyond the powers of ordinary soap and rags, I usually will remove it. I have had good luck with fine steel wool and an acetone based furniture refinishing product like Formby’s. But I will use standard paint remover like Zip-Strip in a pinch.

Cabinet Is Refinished

Refinishing A Sewing Machine Cabinet

I refinish bases and cabinets by removing all hardware and working in small 6” X 6”sections using a pad of fine steel wool that has been soaked in Formby’s or paint remover.

After the old finish has been removed, I will go over the wood surface with rags and a small amount of mineral spirits before I finish and seal the wood. Sometimes I will apply 3 coats of Johnson’s paste wax, buffing between coats. Other times I mix paint thinner with polyurethane. I have also used Danish Oil with excellent results. The type of finish that is chosen depends upon personal taste and preference.

When the base is clean and presentable, the sewing machine head is finally ready to be reinstalled.
Hopefully by the time you are done cleaning the machine head and treadle base you took my advice and found an owner’s manual. The manual will give the proper threading sequence, bobbin winding procedure, needle placement and other important information.
All you’ll need to do next is to prepare yourself for a lifetime of sewing joy.
Good Luck!
Strong opinion below-read at your own risk

What the hell is wrong with people living in a country who will pay more for a Big Mac and fries than the used Swiss made sewing machine in the above post?

Not a month goes by that I don’t come upon a vintage used Swiss or German manufactured sewing machine for sale for under $30. That’s less than a six pack of beer, an order of cheese sticks & a large 5 topping pizza.

Swiss, German and some American Singer sewing machines made prior to 1960 or so, were for their time and still are, some of the finest household sewing machines ever manufactured in the world.

Less than 60 years ago it was not uncommon for a regular blue collar American family to spend 3 – 5 months of the family’s entire income on a household sewing machine. And that money was very well spent.
That’s because at one time in this country Americans actually produced some of their own clothing and household needs instead of sitting on their fat asses and watching television or screwing with their phones and tablets.

Let’s face it, the vast majority of Americans are happy to wear cheap underwear and ill-fitting clothing made by essentially slave labor in 3rd world sweat shops instead of sewing it themselves.

What really gets me cranked, is that so called “public education” (funded by a coercive shake down of property owners), believe they are doing children and society a favor by “teaching” correct & hygienic condom use or SAT test preparation to teenagers instead of basic sewing or cooking.
Yeah that’s right…like I’m so sure every young person in this country can’t wait to get laid or plans on wasting $35,000 for a useless college education.

The fact of the matter is that with sound and basic sewing skills, the $3.99 Pfaff pictured above, along with a pair of scissors, chalk, thread, a yardstick, tape measure, an iron & ironing board and some old-fashioned common sense, is the start of a lucrative home based business.
Think I’m kidding?

How many of you reading this have wanted new custom fitting slipcovers for your ratty looking furniture but couldn’t afford them or couldn’t find someone to make them?
Well guess what?
Slipcovers are easier to construct than a dress or a pair of pants and you’ll find a leprechaun faster than you’ll find someone to make a custom slipcover or lined drapes.
How many of you are a specialty size or have a clothing need that ready-to-wear cannot address? Lots of other people have the same needs too and would love to find someone to help them with their apparel requirements and concerns. That’s a business opportunity just waiting for you or your child.
Enola Gay’s Naturally Cozy is a perfect example of a successful home based sewing business meeting a need.
So the next time you order a Big Mac and fries or kick back with a pizza and a 6 pack, consider that you could have started your own business with a Swiss sewing machine or saved your son or daughter from the heartache of being “college educated” and unemployed.

Don’t Buy A New Sewing Machine

I have never bought a new sewing machine – electric or treadle and don’t recommend that you buy one either.
I know that new treadle sewing machines are being manufactured at present but don’t waste your money if you can help it.
Buy a good Singer model 15-88 or Singer model 66 if you want a treadle sewing machine.

If you are determined to buy a new treadle machine because you don’t want to deal with a restoration project please buy it from the Amazon link below and help me pay for this website.

Here’s a blanket statement that you can put in your pipe and smoke: Modern household sewing machines electric or non-electric are not as well made as older sewing machines made before 1965 or so.
This is especially true of current Singer and Janome sewing machines on the market.
Don’t ever pay more than $200 for a household sewing machine. Always buy a good used sewing machine.
The Singer model 201-K or a Singer 401-A are both excellent electric sewing machines and I recommend them.

Singer Model 401-A

Singer Model 401-A

Pfaff, Elna and Bernina have always made good sewing machines.
The older vintage Pfaffs, Elnas and Bernina machines from the 1950’s & 1960’s are superior in every way to the newer computerize bells and whistles sewing machines that cost an arm and a leg. Sure the old machines may not look as snazzy as the brand new computerized sewing machines. But believe me, a brand new sewing machine will not make you any more skilled and you’ll never be sorry that you didn’t spend an extra $2000.
End of story.