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Rebuild A Carbide Lamp

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Carbide lamps have been around since the late 1800's and are still lighting the way in many mines and caves across the world to this day. While the introduction of LED's is changing the scene, these wonderful old lamps are still functional, practical and useful. (This isn't a polish them up and make them pretty Instructable but rather, a get them working again Instructable. Polishing metal isn't too mysterious if that's what you're after.) 

With a little creativity they can also serve purposes beyond what most flashlights can achieve. There's also just something cool about having a lamp that makes it;s own fuel via a chemical reaction. There are a lot of these old lamps to be had and many that may look down for the count can be resurrected with a relatively small amount of time and effort. 

If you are looking for a lamp, there is a good article at Caves.org. I do think they are a little prone to writing off usable lamps as throwaways or bad equipment when many can be repaired or tweaked a little and used just fine.  www.caves.org/member/mfraley/buying2.htm These are not complex machines once you understand them but they can be finicky and they do burn acetylene. So, be careful. 

I like old Auto Lights and Guys Dropper lamps but there are a lot of types to choose from. The only things I really avoid are lamps with plastic parts and Butterfly/Safesport or Minex brand lamps. Though, the Mike Light is a thoroughly modern lamp made from plastic and it seems to work well. Really popular with the Amish of all people. Good endorsement though. Those guys like their stuff to work. In the end it's all personal preference and even a bad lamp can be good for parts or tweaked and upgraded into something worthy. 

This Instructable will be updated. It turned out to be a bit more complex than I had originally planned. I've tried to note where certain things will be added or amended but please let me know if something is unclear or confusing so I can answer your questions or adjust the Instructable.  
 
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thall151 month ago

Thank you.

I am also the grandson of a coal miner and I've been wondering how to put Grandpa's lamp back into service. Unhappily, the mines killed him long before I was born.

Dad tells me that the miners - at least in Grandpa's mine - would routinely blacken the reflectors of their lamps. Evidently a brilliant white light was in the pitch black of the mines was thought too hard on the eyes.

Culturespy (author)  thall151 month ago
Wow, thank you for sharing that! Having used carbide lamps for caving, it makes perfect sense and also may be why it is so rare to see an antique lamp that shows any sign of a polished reflector. It's important to relate things like that so the collective "we" don't forget.
goriri9 months ago
Sorry, I walked away from the tablet for a couple of minutes and when I got back to it the display read "thanks for flagging".
Totally inadvertent. Great instructable.
ar_caver1 year ago
Great Instructable! I collect, and sometimes still use these underground. At last count I had around 40 including three of the large supervisors lamps. When the base is tuck I find a couple of days soaking in white vinegar can make a big difference. Really stubborn cases may require a little heating of the top, but you have to be careful or you'll un-solder some parts that are awkward to re-solder.

I've never heard of anyone spitting in the water reservoir but I know of many cavers who urinated in them to get by. I think the first time I heard of this was in the book "The Longest Cave" about Mammoth Cave in KY. Never had to try it myself.
pfred23 years ago
My grandfather was from coal mining country we used to have loads of these things. You do know that the old timers used to spit into them to generate the gas right?
(Last pic) Haha, don't sneeze! And yeah they are bright... I guess I'll settle for Carbon Arc Lamps since calcium carbide is a bit off my league.
xrickje3 years ago
things we do in holland with acythelene gas (carbide+ water)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kk5YUQPNkEw 3300 L of acytelene gas...
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jYrrMU7s_c
way more fun :)
Culturespy (author)  xrickje3 years ago
Dat is geweldig!
idd, ga het dit jaar ook zelf doen, maar dan gewoon met een melkbus
(gonna do it myself this year, but with a normal "milk can")
I just got one of these awesome little guys at work today. I knew that it was some kind of lamp but what a treasure!!!! I had no idea it was so cool a device.. now to get it working........
Darwinfish3 years ago
Cool stuff. This could be a very good addition to some kind of sculpture, or on a car... I imagine it would need some sort of shield on it, but the epic nature of a machine that creates light with little acetylene fires would be more than worth the tinkering. :-)
thelandlord3 years ago
It's easy to produce oxygen too - I wonder what the potential might be for a bit of small-scale 'survival' welding using easy to obtain feedstocks and no mains electricity or commercially-produced gases? I can feel a project coming on...
Culturespy (author)  thelandlord3 years ago
I'd really like to know how to do that. I think you'd need a custom rig rather than a standard lamp but it wouldn't be that tough to build. How would you produce the oxygen?
By far the easiest way without access to a store of chemicals would be to let nature do the work - a bathtub full of plants with a slack polythene 'bubble' over the top would collect oxygen given off by the plants, you could see how your harvest was doing by seeing the 'bubble' inflate. If the 'bubble' was gaffer-taped around the edges of your bathtub you could apply enough pressure to force it out of a jet by simply resting some weight across the top of the bubble. Something as rough as this isn't going to have a high duty-cycle - you won't be able to run for long before you need to let it rest a day or two to replenish, and the oxygen isn't going to be very pure either... but it should be good enough to neutralise the otherwise carburising flame from acetylene and make it possible to braze cleanly with it at very least - and once made it's completely independent of any outside feedstock. One furhter thought for anybody considering an experiment along these lines - acetylene safety... it's 'very' unstable if you attempt to store it under pressure and it will kill you if you let it... unless you you know what you're doing with it, Darwin will get you sooner or later... commercial acetylene is usually stored dissolved in something more stable like acetone to make it easier to handle. The Wikipedia page is well worth reading to see what else you can do with acetylene too... it's the basis of all manner of potentially-useful stuff. :-) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acetylene
SureShot3 years ago
My Grandpa has on of these old things just sitting on a shelf in his garage. I'm gonna have to rebuild it for him. Thanks for the info!
Culturespy (author)  SureShot3 years ago
Awesome! Feel free to pm me with any questions and post a photo or two.
kill-a-watt3 years ago
Nice. I have not fooled with mine since effective LED lamps became popular. My flame tip is a press-in. I got it to fit on my screw style lamp with some soft solder. I don't have a local source for the calcium carbide nowadays. Online order will require an extra hazmat fee. For a tip cleaner, we always just got a two inch length of lamp cord and cut through the insulation only about half an inch. This would free up a bundle of thin copper strands useful for tip cleaning. Make several. Remember not to venture underground without three working independent light sources and a few buddies to stick with at all times.
Culturespy (author)  kill-a-watt3 years ago
I have a half pound on order now. Wasn't too bad on eBay. Guessing that will last me a while but I was thinking I'd go ahead and stock up soon just so I have it. Putting a lamp in our disaster kit. I'll try to make a DIY cleaning tool and post some photos. Nice to know someone else in our community has used these. :)
j626no3 years ago
nice job. to help you out next time though, your vernier caliper has an ID gauge on the backside of the OD gauge. there is also a depth gauge usually on the other end of the caliper. (perhaps you knew this, but if you didn't, i;'m sure it will help you out in the future).
Culturespy (author)  j626no3 years ago
I was just being lazy and keeping the LCD upright but thanks! lol, I was only using the caliper because I couldn't find a tape measure. The tolerances on wool felt are pretty sloppy.
Punkguyta3 years ago
thats that giant little zippo, the silver one? how much is it?
Culturespy (author)  Punkguyta3 years ago
It's a "carbide candle" for blackening rifle sights, not a Zippo. Runs on carbide and would make a terrible lighter. Not sure if they even make those anymore. Might try eBay or check with Ray-Vin.com
why couldn't you use that as a lighter? Look at the flame on that other one!
Culturespy (author)  Punkguyta3 years ago
While you can certainly set fires with them they aren't something you can just grab and flick to turn on and off. Once you add carbide and get them going they generate acetylene for several hours whether you light them or not and there is no way to stop the gas or contain it. So, if you light them they burn for hours and if you don't light them they continue to pump out flammable gas. They also produce a sooty carcinogenic flame you wouldn't want to inhale smoke from. They also produce caustic lime as a bi-product of the chemical reaction that produces the fuel. Caustic lime can and will cause serious chemical burns if it gets on your skin for any length of time. It would also be expensive to operate for something as trivial as using it for a lighter. Precision shooters sometimes charge and use them intermittently on ranges during competition but they are still generating acetylene continuously the entire time. This is about a solid a caution as I can give. They aren't lighters and aren't suitable for use as lighters. Just don't, you'll quite possibly blow yourself up. Just buy a BIC or use a less cool looking but safe Zippo that won't kill or injure you.
Fair enough, I was not aware that they produced acetylene aswell!
Culturespy (author)  Punkguyta3 years ago
Yeah, they are totally awesome but they have some drawbacks. *** If you want to buy one and try it out for party tricks, go for it! Just don't want this Instructable to give anyone the wrong idea. *** On the up side, carbide lamps produce very bright white light and until LED's got cheap and plentiful you could get far more hours of light per oz from carbide versus batteries.*** LED's are still not very good at keeping your hands warm. :) *** Like I said, go for it but don't think you are getting a simple low maintenance tool. Thanks for asking though, I'm sure others will wonder the same thing.
chuckr443 years ago
Neat. I like certain old-time stuff. What type of fumes do these put out? Is it safe to use indoors for, say, 4 hours at a time?
Culturespy (author)  chuckr443 years ago
These lamps run on calcium carbide which produces acetylene gas when it comes in contact with water. It makes a very bright but sooty flame. It's also a fire the same as any other acetylene torch, it just makes it's own acetylene. In a typical well ventilated room. Four hours would probably be fine. That's about as long as one "load' or "charge" of carbide will run a typical lamp anyway. They do however produce a good deal of heat and in most cases the flame isn't covered. So, you could in theory run one indoors but it's probably not the best idea outside of an emergency situation like a power outage. ...in short, as safe as any small open flame can be inside.
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