A Centuries-Old Way to Turn Booze Bottles into Mood Lighting

January 26, 2017

Sometimes, I'll come across a DIY that seems like the most inventive, adorable idea in the world—and then when I go to write about it I find that the tutorial exists in a million iterations all over the internet. (Old news, Sims! —my browser.) It happened to me recently: My friend Lucy mentioned, very casually, that she and her husband Josh turn their whiskey bottles into oil lanterns when they've drained all the good stuff. Cue the vinyl screech. It's resourceful, they're so pretty, and I'd never heard of doing such a thing before—win, win, win.

Photo by James Ransom

But this is the thing: The art of making oil lamps is... an old one. (We're talking BC.) So of course crafty folks have been turning vessels into lamps, by a similarly simple logic that was used thousands of years ago, in modern times. Empty vessel. Add oil. Add wick. Flame on. "Bottle oil lamp" throws a casual 70,000 hits my way on Youtube.

Does that mean it's not worth sharing how to turn a bottle into a lamp here? Pshh. I'm going to assume that some of you, like me, hadn't heard of how to do this—or maybe you'd like a refresher. Make them as a way to spare your favorite empty bottles from the recycling bin, or as candlelight that doesn't cost you a zillion dollars a pop. Here's how Lucy and Josh make theirs, which worked perfectly when we re-created it in our studio:

what you'll need

Photo by James Ransom
  • An empty booze bottle with a sturdy base (something squatty will be less likely to tip than, say, a wine bottle)
  • Smokeless, odorless lamp oil
  • A funnel
  • Flat cotton wick for an oil lamp—about a foot for each
  • A "bottle wick," which is actually the stopper that will hold your wick in place in the neck of the bottle (be sure the one you select is wide enough that it won't fall through the opening). For clarity's sake, I'm going to call it a "wick holder" from here on out.

how to make them

1. Clean your bottles.

Once all the good stuff has been imbibed, clean out any lovely-looking booze bottles you'd like to turn into lanterns with soap and water and let them dry. Note: Not only do squatty, or otherwise broad-bummed liquor bottles look a little more polished than wine bottles (in my opinion), they're also naturally sturdier—and therefore safer. You don't want these tipping over! (Renters: Check your lease to be sure candles are A-OK to burn in your place before proceeding. There, I said it. )

2. Fill with oil.

A quick internet search will reveal just how many lamp oil options are out there (a lot). What you're looking for is something specifically designed for indoor use, or indoor/outdoor use—and also nontoxic, smokeless, and odor-free. Firefly is a good brand.

Photo by James Ransom

Using a funnel, fill the clean, dry bottles about 2/3 full with oil. Clearly label and store any leftover oil far away from foodstuffs—you don't want anyone mistaking it for a beverage.

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Oh, you spilled a little? Fret not. Any small spills can be cleaned up with a solution of dish detergent and water (a water-based cleaner won't do diddly). And if you spill a lot of oil, there's hope for your carpet yet: Spread a layer of kitty litter, baking soda, or sawdust over the spot and let it sit for 30 minutes, till most of the oil is absorbed. Scoop it up and discard, vacuum the spot, then blot with some of the detergent solution and let it dry.

3. Prep the wick.

Cut a length of cotton wick so that it extends from the opening of the bottle down into a curlicue at the base (so, about 1.5 times the height of the bottle). A flat wick looks really nice, a little like ribbon, but nothing is stopping you from using a chunkier one—just be sure you can stuff it through your wick holder and that it's a tight enough fit to stay there.

Photo by James Ransom

Thread one end of the wick through the wick holder so that just a half-inch or so pokes through its top, then drop the long end in the oil, the wick holder into the neck of the bottle. Wait about ten minutes for the oil to soak all the way up the wick—you'll be able to see that it looks wet. Then tug on the exposed end until you see some of the soaked section emerge. Trim the exposed part of the wick to be 1/4-inch tall (any taller, and your flame might be unwieldy).

4. Find the perfect spot.

As mentioned, you'll want to put your bottle lantern somewhere kiddos and pets won't accidentally knock it over—where there are no fluttery curtains to drift into its path, no shelves above it to burn a spot onto. On a mantel, inside a decorative fireplace, or right on the tabletop would make sense (the whole short-and-squatty look doubles as a good idea in this instance, so dinner guests can see over and past them).

Photo by James Ransom

A few more things to keep in mind:

  • Some tutorials will advise using a mix of oil and water instead of straight oil, but my friends found that this almost always resulted in molding so they switched to straight oil. Feel free to try diluting your oil as a way to stretch it for longer.
  • In addition to keeping your flame size manageable, a shorter exposed bit of wick will make the whole wick last longer than if you let it burn large. Lucy guestimates that a full 375 milliliter bottle with a normal wick length exposed will last 15 to 20 hours before it needs more oil.
  • After about 6 to 8 hours of burning, you'll need to extinguish the flame, remove the wick holder, and push a bit of new wick up through it. (Pulling it, with tweezers, is tempting but it gets messy quick and can cause the wick to fall apart.)
  • Here's a larger size of the same non-toxic oil, if you become obsessed with bottle lanterns and don't want to keep buying tiny jugs of it.

Have you ever made an oil lamp before? Share your tips (I'm curious about using essential oils...) in the comments.

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Brian S. May 28, 2017
When you shop for parts to this inferno waiting to happen I suggest adding a fire extinguisher to the shopping list.
Nina A. February 8, 2017
Can't wait to try this out!
three P. February 1, 2017
I'm surprised that there is no desire to correct this blatantly fake story, despite a heads up. I guess the editorial standards at Food52 are really poor.
three P. January 28, 2017
Lamps like this were not made "BC" because the petroleum concentrates that they depend on have been available for a very short time, historically speaking.

You are probably thinking of vegetable oil lamps -- but a lamp like this would not work as an olive oil (or other vegetable oil/fat) lamp without design changes that would render it unrecognizable. For starters these lamps cannot draw more than a few inches up the wick (olive oil) or less (animal fats). The lamps found historically are shallow, open, clay vessels. They were also not such fire hazards as a modern "whiskey lamp" using petroleum fuel, since if you knocked one over it would just tend to go out (the flame from would wick NOT ignite the reservoir).
Sammy January 26, 2017
Where do I find a "bottle wick"?
Amanda S. January 26, 2017
Hi Sammy! I found the ones pictured here on Amazon, where there are quite a lot of options ( but you might also check your local wine store, or distillery! Some will sell kits.