Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Friday, November 16, 2012

Shedding a Little Light on a Favorite Subject

     I've been interested in early lighting devices for a very long time. Over the years, I've been lucky enough to find a few original pieces but I wouldn't claim to have a comprehensive collection. I recently decided to explore a few of the many styles of fluid lamps that existed just before the Age of Kerosene and blog on their use.

Original mid-19th Century Tinware Fluid Lamps
(not from my collection)
Image From Online Auction, Source Unknown

    As followers of my blog know, I love to practice my own version of experimental archaeology by reproducing past objects and learning from their use. For this fluid lamp exercise, I needed to put on my tinsmith hat and make a good effort with the minimal tools I have. If only I had a tinshop !

My Replica Lamps
Photos by Author 2012

     The key to learning about early to mid-19th century fluid lamps, is to study and understand their burners. Each type of  fuel needed a specific style of burner to give the best light. For this exercise, I wanted to explore Whale or Sperm Oil burners, Camphene or Burning Fluid burners, Lard Oil burners and Fat lamp burners. Even though some of these fuels are oblsolete, I wanted to faithfully replicate the burners, in order to understand how they evolved. For the time being, substitue fuels would have to do.

My Betty Lamp

     My quest started with the Betty Lamp. The classic Betty Lamp has an ancestry extending clear back to the Romans but had been improved on over time. The name "Betty" itself may have originated from the German word for "better". In this twilight period of its long history, it was still giving service as one of the humblest of lighting devices.

Nice Original Tinware Betty
Online Auction Source Unknown

     What I learned from my replica is that the wick channel has to be mounted to the inside bottom of the lamp only and not touch anywhere else. That way it transfers the heat of the flame down through the channel to the fat. By keeping the fat in a liquid state, it allows the wick to do its job.

Lid Open, Showing Wick Channel
On My Replica

      My lamp gave a constant, fairly bright light and wasn't smokey or smelly, even though the fuel I used was strained bacon fat. Maybe lesser quality fats gave the poor results that you read about. I think it's a great little lamp and will continue to use it.

My Whale Oil Lamp

     The Whale Oil lamp is probably the most recognizable lamp style that pre-dates kerosene. Whale Oil itself was the "first" commercially produced oil and was considered the premier fuel for illumination. This precious commodity was rendered from the blubber and parts of Baleen or other whales, whereas Sperm Oil was derived from the heads of Sperm Whales. Whale Oil wasn't cheap, running as much as $2 a gallon in the mid-1800's.

The Original Lamp
That Inspired My Replica
Online Auction Source Unknown

     The typical Whale Oil burner used vertical tubes that sometimes flared under their base mount and extended down towards the fuel. This extended length would transfer a little warmth to the fuel and help it to wick properly.

Whale Oil Lamp Burner
Note the Extended Tube

     Whale Oil burner tubes often have little slots cut in them, to help advance the wick with a pick. Most surviving original burners have two tubes but you do see singles. The rarest styles seem to be three and four tube burners. For my replica's pattern, I chose a Whale Oil  lamp version of a candle stick. The upright "candle" is actually the fuel reservoir, which extends into the base. To one side of the base is a matchsafe with a striker lid. Way cool !!

My Lard Oil Lamp
Note the Wick Pick on Chain

     Next in line is the Lard or Lard Oil Lamp, which in its time, was a cost-effective alternative to the Whale Oil lamp. Lard "Oil" was expressed from solid lard, but still needed to be warmed, to improve its fluidity. This need gave rise to many patented varietys of burners, each intent on improving the efficiency of the fuel. For my replica, I  made a version of  Archer's Patented Burner of 1842.

The Original Archer Type Burner
That Inspired My Replica
Image Courtesy The Old Time Lamp Shop

      A copper tube, mounted between the two flat burner tubes, transfers the heat all the way to the bottom of the reservoir. Many times you will see Lard Oil lamps mis-identified as Whale Oil lamps. The clue to their identity, is in the extended burner design.

My Replica Lard Oil Burner
Based on Archer's Patent

      For my replica, I ended up using canola oil as a substitue fuel.  I tried using solid Lard but it didn't work very well. Lard oil is a little hard to find, even though it's occasionally used by machinists as a lubricant. Just for fun, I painted the lamp with asphaltum varnish, a typical finish on tinware of the period.

My Camphene Lamp
Note the Burner Caps on Chains

     The final lamp in this project is the Camphene or Burning Fluid Lamp. Camphene was the rectified oil of turpentine and was sometimes mixed with alcohol to make lamp fuel. Although Camphene gave a cheap bright light, it came with a risk. It was very explosive and needed a specifically designed burner. Camphene burners have long tapered tubes that when in sets, angle out from each other to dissipate the heat of the flame.

My Camphene Burner

      These tubes never extend down past the mounting plate and  never have slots for wick adjustment. Apparently, any heat added to the fuel caused an accumulation of gases and the possibility of an explosion. Yikes !! Most surviving original burners have little covers to snuff out the flame and keep the fuel from evaporating. The style of lamp I chose to replicate is sometimes called a petticoat lamp by collectors for the flared shape of the base. Camphene lamps are often mislabeled as Whale Oil lamps but the difference is obvious once you know your burners. In case you wondered, my lamp burns modern lamp oil as I don't need to kill myself in the pursuit of history.

A Classic Original Camphene Lamp
Online Image Source Unknown

     By the time of the Civil War, all of these fluid lamps were fading from the scene, as the Age of Kerosene began . Untold numbers of patented burner improvements would help make this "new" cheap fuel the most popular choice in the world. It's still the dependable choice I make every time we have one of our routine power outages but after this lamp project, that fat burning Betty Lamp is looking pretty sweet.

For more information on early lighting, I would suggest these great sites:

                      The Rushlight Club has been supporting the serious study early lighting

                       James and Beth Boyle have a lot of great info on their Rams Horn Studio

                       The Old Time Lamp Shop has a lot of great photos of rare lamps and well
                       worth the visit


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Carpentry Tools Revisited or Picking Up Where I Left Off

    Once apon a time, I felt inspired to craft my own set of traditional carpenter's tools. I'm not sure how far I expected to go with that notion but for some reason, my ambitions got the better of me. The sum total of my production ended up being one Jack Plane. It turned out to be a good project though, as that plane became a learning tool, every time I used it.

     The plane project started with the purchase of the book "How to Make Wooden Planes" by David Perch and Leonard Lee (of Lee Valley Tools). After springing for a good thick steel from Garrett Wade., I picked up a nice block of hard maple and went to work. One of the advantages of crafting your own plane, is that you can custom fit the Toat to your hand. I discovered that a comfortable fit contributed to overall performance. The only flaw in my plane was its propensity to clog at the Mouth. I finally solved that problem by reducing the opening with an inset piece.

My Jack Plane
Photos by Author

     Since it now appears I'm back in the Traditonal Carpentry game, I felt compelled to revisit that "craft your own tools" notion of a decade ago. All I needed was a little inspiration. The blogging world is a great place to find inspiration and mine came from the Frontier Carpenter Blog.. Ron had posted on a sweet replica he made of an original 19th century wooden brace. Lucky for him, he owns the original and could make a carbon copy. I'm not so lucky but his work convinced me that I wanted to make my own brace.

Ron's nicely done copy
Image courtesy the Frontier Carpenter blog

      Some of my tool books feature original examples of braces, from the very primitive to plated Sheffields, but nothing really grabbed me until I started  researching online. In the Crafts of New Jersey publication called the "Tool Shed", Issue 93 of Sept. 1996, I found an article by Ron Pearson called The Primitve Wooden Brace. In the article, several varietys of wooden braces are categorized by the author according to how the bits mount. After studying the photos in the article, I felt I had enough information to design and build my own version of this classic early tool.

A beautiful brace featured in the article

    The project started with the purchase of a nice block of maple from the Wood Workers Source and after the final shaping, lathe work and sanding, I decided to stain the brace to resemble a more expensive wood. To me, it made it feel a little less "primitive". From an online auction, I scored 3 original bits, then mounted them in their newly turned pads. I liked the idea of a thumbscrew to secure the square shaft of the pad but gave it my own spin with a brass plate mount. I was very pleased with the way it turned out and decided to keep the ball rolling by crafting a few more "necessary" tools.

My Version of a Mid-19th Century Brace

     When I retired from the Columbia Carpenter's Shop in 2008, I sold all of my Crown Tool replicas to a docent / carpenter. To make up for that loss, I decided to craft my own try square, mortise gauge and bevel from scraps of hardwood I had accumulated. The patterns for the three tools came from online sources like Google Images and my reference books.

My Gauge, Bevel and Try Square
Ready for Work !

     . For the moment my tool urge seens satisfied but that could change as we continue to develop the new interpretive Carpenter's Shop at the Angels Camp Museum.  So, stay tuned !