Make a Lamp From a Can of Sardines and a Twig

No matter how many extra batteries and candles you stock, some day you might have to improvise a lamp. I’ve previously sung the praises of sardines as an emergency food stock, and while you’d probably rather eat the oil, you can burn it instead. All you need is a wick.

The easiest wick is a cotton string. If you don’t have that, you can braid one from a cotton sheet or T shirt, as I demonstrate in the video.

But even if you can’t find that, I found you can make a wick by plucking a twig from the nearest tree, and as long as you prepare it correctly, it will make a perfectly functional wick. You need a twig that will pound into a soft, cloth-like consistency, so avoid dry twigs, which crumble when pounded. In the video, I experimented with a piece of baldcypress and a piece of oak. The oak broke apart into shards and the flame went out as soon as the wood burned away, but the baldcypress worked great, once I softened it properly. I suspect that conifers in general will work well, but you should experiment with the trees available in your area.

How to Make a Wick From a Twig

  1. Start with a green twig. A dry one will crumble.
  2. Select a soft, flexible variety that bends instead of breaking. In this example I used baldcypress.
  3. Pound it gently with a pestle, a block of wood, or a stone until it is soft and cloth-like. You’ll notice in the video I didn’t have it soft enough at first. On my second attempt I squished it with the spine of my knife until it was very soft.
  4. Poke a hole in the sardine can just large enough to work the wick into the hole. Be sure to work it to the bottom of the can, bending it, if possible, so it lies along the bottom. This will give you enough wick to pull it up as it burns away, while still burning the last of the oil in the can. If it won’t bend, just have a couple of replacements handy, or go ahead an set two in the can and light the second one when the first one burns out.
  5. Light it. It should burn up to three hours if you keep the wick trimmed. Too large a flame and it will smoke, wasting oil.

I expected it to smell like burnt fish, but there was no unpleasant odor at all.

Sardine Can Burn Time

In the video I mentioned a total burn time of two or three hours. That’s the least I’ve seen using these 3.75 oz sardine cans, using large smoking twig wicks or thick braided wicks. Using the thin cotton wick, I planned to burn out the can in the video. Now, eight hours later, it’s still burning. So a CORRECTION is in order: Make that burn time at least eight hours with a thin wick.

In a previous test using the twig wick, it burned out after an hour and needed to be replaced. (Remember, the twig doesn’t easily bend down into the bottom, so as it burns and you lift it out, it eventually gets too short to reach the oil in the can). In all, I got two hours of burn time before I got tired of waiting and ate the sardines. There was still oil in the can.


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