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DIY - How to Make a Clay Oil Lamp
Oil lamps are one of humanity's oldest inventions, dating back more than 10,000 years. The first lamps were of materials that formed natual bowls, such as seashells, coconuts and stones with natural depressions. Later, stones were carved to make lamps. Animal fats were burned as fuel and things like moss were used as wicks.
Over the centuries, humans learned to work in clay and, for thousands of years, lamps that burned pressed oils were used. The first of these were simple clay disks, slightly shaped to create a holder for the wick. Over time, they became more elaborate, formed in decorative molds with designs in various regional styles, though the simplest of lamps never quite disappeared.
Recently, I volunteered to work the craft station at our church's Vacation Bible School, which will take place this summer. We're still in the early planning stages, and this is something I've never done before; not even as a participating child. I'm looking forward to the experience!
The curriculum we are using came with craft kits available, but we weren't too happy with some of the crafts recommended, while others just weren't worth the cost of cross-border purchases. So we decided to come up with our own. One of the challenges is to find crafts that are both topical and can be adjusted for a wide range of ages, from 5-12 years old, and their accompanying skill levels. They also had to be quick and easy to make, as we only have 25 minutes per group to make them.
One of the crafts we've decided to do is clay oil lamps in the shape of fish. These simple lamps would have been common during the time of Jesus, the fish shape matches our theme, and they can be as simple or as elaborate as the child making them would like to do.
Of course, I had to make some test lamps myself. For this how-to, I am using an air-dry terra cotta clay. There are two versions - a more elaborate version suitable for older children, and a super-simple one for the little ones.
The olive oil burns smoke-free and has a pleasant scent.
The lamps pictures below hold enough oil to burn from 2 to 2 1/2 hours.
The clay is porous and will absorb some of the oil.
If you don't want to use oil, shape the bowl to fit a tea light or votive candle, instead.
Time required: About 15 minutes plus drying time
Cost: under $3 per lamp (1 per child)
- Terra cotta air dry modeling clay (choose a good quality clay!) - about 1/4 -1/3 cup clay per lamp
- light vinyl - cut a sheet into square of about 12-15 inches or use vinyl placemats
- pencil or something similar for shaping wick holder and marking designs
- small bowls of water to dampen hands
- damp cloth to moisten clay as needed
1. Choose a good quality clay for this project; this is one of those areas where you get what you pay for! I tested out a clay from a dollar-store type place, and it was completely useless.
This 2.2 pound package is enough to make quite a lot of small lamps.
A small sheet of plastic will not only protect your work surface, but make it easier to turn your work as needed, then move it aside for drying, without damage.
2. Take a small amount of clay (no more than 1/3rd of a cup) and knead it until it is soft and pliable. For a more elaborate lamp, begin shaping it into a vaguely fish-shaped oval.
3. Begin flattening the shape with your hands, defining the fish shape a bit more.
4. Smooth and flatten some more. For this version, the edges will be pulled up to form the bowl and handle, so the flattened shape needs to be larger than the intended width of the bowl.
5. Begin bringing up the sides to form the bowl and handle. The fish's mouth will form the wick holder and the tail will form the handle. Ensure that there is enough clay in between the body and the tail fins to keep it strong.
Dampen hands as needed, or use a damp cloth on the clay to keep it moist and to smooth out the surface.
6. Shape the tail fins to create a handle.
7. Shape and pinch the mouth portion to create a thicker layer of clay to support the wick holder.
Continue to use a damp cloth or wet fingers to smooth out the clay.
8. Use a dampened pencil to form the wick holder.
9. Once satisfied with the shape, use the pencil or another pointed object to add details to the tail fins.
10. Add more details to the sides.
11. Set aside to dry.
In this photo, the clay has been allowed to dry overnight. It still needs quite a bit more time to dry, but can be fairly safely handled to remove from the plastic at this point.
12. After about 8 hours, the underside is still quite moist. Gently turn the lamp upside down and leave to dry. Air dry clay should be left to dry for at least 24 hours.
13. For a simpler lamp, take a ball of clay (about 1/4 cup) and shape it into an oval. Use your thumb to create an off-centre bowl. On the thicker side, form a very basic tail shape and curve it to make a handle.
14. Opposite the tail, form the mouth portion, using a damp pencil to make the wick holder. Smooth the clay all over, then use the pencil point to make a shallow hole for a simple eye.
15. Draw on side fins.
16. Draw tail fin details.
Set aside to dry.
17. Here are both lamps after at least 24 hours of drying time. The smaller lamp has thicker walls; in this photo, you can see it it needs a bit more drying time.
18. Once completely dry, place a strand of cotton yarn or string for the wick into the bowl, with a small amount resting in the wick holder.
19. Add oilve oil and allow the oil to saturate the wick.
20. Light and enjoy!