Dietz Comet kerosene lantern (this one from 1952) – the official lantern of the Boy Scouts of America. My favorite camping lantern!
Cabin or camp; moor or mountain; paddle or pack trail, some lantern models serve certain purposes better than others. For traditional camping, I prefer “short globe” lanterns and one model – the Dietz #50 Comet, is my favorite. Here is why I like ‘em and how they differ from other kerosene lanterns.
From their introduction, tubular lanterns from all makers used tall teardrop shaped globes. This globe shape has the advantage of creating good draft, which results in producing a tall flame by pulling the flame up with the exhausted air. All things being equal, a tall flame is brighter than a short flame of the same width (flame width is determined by the width of the flat wick). A tall globe also provides a large glass area and so, creates a relatively large amount of illumination for the overall size of the lantern.
Globes remained unchanged until 1912 when the short globe style lantern was introduced. The most obvious benefit of the short globe style is that it results in a shorter and more compact lantern, an important consideration when camping as it takes up less pack space. There is also less glass area and thus, less chance of globe breakage. Still, short globed lanterns have their downsides. For one, they generally aren’t as bright. A quick check of Kirkman lanterns shows that tall globed models average about 12 candle power while short globed models average just over 9 candle power (two short globed models, the Dietz #90 D-Lite and #8 Air Pilot lanterns both produce 12-14 candle power with a 7/8” wide wick). This difference would be most troublesome when using the lantern for interior lighting (where I suspect you would want maximum brightness) and/or any kind of use at higher elevations. According to Woody Kirkman (FAQ page) the “tall profile of the W.T. Kirkman Champion or the Dietz Blizzard lanterns (tall globe models) provides additional draft that helps compensate for the lack of oxygen at higher elevations. These lantern models will burn brighter than the “short globe” lanterns such as the D-Lite or Air Pilot, especially at elevations above 5000′.” (“Copyrighted Text by W.T. Kirkman Used With Permission, Courtesy of www.lanternnet.com “)
Yet, even with these disadvantages, I like the short globed lanterns best. To me, a tall globed lantern says barn lamp but a short globed lantern says camp and field lamp – and that’s what we’re interested in (all of the WWII era military kerosene lanterns I’ve seen are short globed types). To be faithful to turn-of-the-century camping, you’d have to use a tall globe lantern as short globed models hadn’t been invented yet. And even after their introduction they must not have caught on immediately as all of the camp photographs of kerosene lanterns I’ve seen up through WWI have been of tall globed models (and most of those are curiously hot blast lanterns). Short globed tubular lanterns were not regularly used in the field till much later, and were not specifically marketed for camping in the U.S. until the U. S. introduction of the Dietz Comet after WWII.
Dietz Comet recommendation from “First Camping Trip” by C. B. Colby (1955), Coward-McCann Publishing NY
The Dietz Comet was first marketed as an export model in 1934 and after WWII, as a low cost “economy” lantern in the States. As Dietz stated on the box – “A practical Dietz lantern at the price of a toy”. Just over 8 inches high, the Comet was the smallest cold blast lantern ever manufactured by Dietz. Using a 3/8 inch wick, it produces about 4 candle power of illumination. Shortly after its U.S. unveiling the Comet was chosen as the “Official” lantern of the Boy Scouts of America (see Boy’s Life ad here). Comets were popular and were produced in very large numbers. Interestingly, though intended as a low cost product, some of the the parts were asymmetrical, which made the lantern expensive to manufacture. As a result, Dietz wanted to end production of the lantern decades before they actually stopped making it. Only the extreme popularity of the Comet forestalled its end just a few years ago (the company has effectively ended production by requiring minimum orders of 10,000 units).
Because Comets were intended to be a low priced item, their pre-war tin plate finish was scaled back to the less rust inhibiting terne plating used for the rest of the production run (terne plate is an inexpensive alloy of tin and lead). As the terne plate was judged not protective enough, Dietz painted over the plating. Bright red was used for nearly the entire production run but Comets were also painted grey, blue and forest green at different times.
A boy’s first camp is lit by the Dietz Comet, from “First Camping Trip” by C. B. Colby (1955), Coward-McCann Publishing NY (colorization of illustrations for enhanced viewing by yours truly.)
If you want a truly appropriate camping lantern you can often find original Comets on eBay or Craigslist. In my experience, about half of the ones described as “excellent” end up with issues that must be addressed before use: cracked fuel filler necks, leaking tanks etc. So, if you don’t want to deal with these problems make sure to ask the seller if the lantern has been tested and suffers from any corrosion beyond surface rust, has a leaky tank (at the bottom crimp), cracked fuel filler, or any other flaw (if you’re handy, these minor problems can be repaired). If the lantern works, don’t worry too much about how the finish looks. It can be easily cleaned of all gunk, grime, rust and old paint by following the instructions for cleaning a rusty tubular lantern, under the “Soda Ash and Battery Charger Method” on Kirkman’s website (half-way down the page). You’ll end up with a perfectly cleaned, bare metal finish with the patina intact. The lantern can then be repainted or protected by being rubbed occasionally with light machine oil or Briwax brand creamed beeswax.
Old red Comet lantern (shown at top of page) after restoration using Kirkman’s soda ash and battery charger method.
Beautiful new-old-stock Comet lantern from the 1950’s
You could also buy a brand new Comet. Dietz began listing the Comet in their product line in 2013, for the first time in a number of years. I see that Kirkman Lanterns is selling them again (see my recent post on the subject). There are other Comet-sized clones on the market but BEWARE! These are poor quality Asian-made lanterns of flimsy construction (some are even made from recycled tuna cans – nothing like a genuine Comet). And none use strong, heat resistant glass globes. The only high quality Comet clone I know of, the Petromax hl 1 Storm Lantern appears to have been discontinued.
No other lantern is as compact as the Comet. Other recommendations include the Feuerhand Model #276 “Baby Special” lantern. At 10 inches high and fitted with a 1/2″ wick, the Feuerhand is larger and brighter than the Comet, producing 7 candle power. The 276 is available in both painted and tin plated finishes, the Feuerhand is a beautifully made historic model as it dates from the early 1930s. These German beauties cost nearly double that of the Asian-made Dietz products.
The inexpensive Dietz Original #76 is another great camping lantern. Introduced in 1978 to replace the Comet, the Original #76 is very similar to the Feuerhand #276 (perhaps that is why it’s called the 76?). These lanterns are available in painted ($11.00), tin plate (approx $16.00) and rustproof solid brass (about $35.00) finishes. Though not commonly found, the Dietz #78 Mars lantern is another good choice. The Mars is a #76 with a larger fount.
For anyone living in or near Oklahoma City, OK, Nix Lumber & Hardware (5117 NW 10th Street, Ph: 405-942-5561) is a Dietz lantern dealer. Nix Lumber is an old fashioned store. They carry all manner of galvanized wash tubs and pails, new wash boards, cast iron pot-bellied wood stoves, and other esoterica. In addition to the lanterns, Nix carries replacement wicks, globes and lamp oil. I LOVE the place.
Using a Kerosene Lantern ~
To fuel these lanterns you MUST use only clear, unscented kerosene or “clear lamp oil” (such as Aladdin or Lamplight brand “Medallion”). Note that in Europe kerosene is called paraffin. But in this country, paraffin refers to solid or liquid paraffin wax. At every store where I’ve seen tubular kerosene lanterns for sale, they are marketed along with some sort of liquid paraffin wax fuel. DO NOT USE LIQUID PARAFFIN WAX IN A TUBULAR KEROSENE LANTERN!!! For more information on this please read Kirkman’s FAQ page here.
Note also that tubular lanterns do not have sealed tanks. Everything is crimped in place. So if overfilled or tilted, they will leak like a sieve. Do not fill the fount above the top of the air chamber (about 85% full according to Dietz) or fuel can spill into the chamber where it will leak out the side tube joint, giving the impression that the lantern is leaking (modern lanterns usually have a sticker on the outside of the tank warning you of the maximum fill line). Of course lanterns that are tipped too far over will also leak out of the burner socket as that is a hole. When camping, you must always keep the lantern in an upright position and empty any remaining fuel (back into your fuel bottle) before packing the lamp away for transport.
Improving lantern performance ~
Our knowledge of wick lamp technology declined rapidly after rural electrical service was established in America. Except for perhaps Amish or similar communities, wick lamps are no longer used on a daily basis and the regular routine of trimming wicks, filling founts, cleaning the globe, and other lamp maintenance disappeared. In order to gain the best performance from a kerosene lantern, you should familiarize yourself with these skills. As a first step (1) – Learn to select the right fuel – clear, non-dyed, unscented high-grade kerosene (K-1) or clear lamp oil (Aladdin or Medallion). NO paraffin, NO red dyed kerosene, NO scented lamp oil, NO citronella oil, NO other kind of fuel! (2) – do not leave kerosene in the lantern for long periods without using daily. Kerosene will degrade as it slowly evaporates in the tank and this will clog the wick. To store the lantern, pour out the kerosene, remove the burner and allow the wick to completely air dry – then reassemble before putting it away. (3) – Before the first use or after storage, fill the tank with clean kerosene and allow at least 10 minutes for the wick to become saturated before lighting. (4) – When using the lantern, do not allow the tank to burn dry. I’ve seen a few forum posts stating that the Dietz lantern can be burned till every drop of fuel is spent, leaving the reservoir completely empty. That may be true, but you should never allow a lantern to burn dry! When the tank is full, the wick is charred ever so slightly when the flame is burning. It is the vapor from the fuel that you are actually burning – not the wick. If you burn the tank dry, the wick begins to burn in earnest and is consumed at a rapid rate. Wicks will last a lot longer if you put the lantern out before the tank empties. (5) – Learn to properly trim and adjust the wick. The wick should be trimmed as required to maintain a smooth edge. If a new wick has a frayed end or any loose threads trim it back to a smooth edge before lighting. To relight a wick, pinch off any charred crust before use. Eventually the wick will develop a jagged edge that needs to be trimmed back to an even edge again. See here for an illuminating look (no pun intended) at how this little chore can really boost lantern performance. (6) – Learn to adjust the wick height and use the lantern. This copy of the Feuerhand lantern instructions, featured on the Blue Lantern website shows you how it’s done. In addition, the Dietz lantern instructions include the following recommendations:
- After the wick is lit, it should be adjusted to no more than 1/16th inch above the flame plate.
- As the lantern warms to operating temperature, the flame will increase in size.
- Five minutes after lighting (warming up), the fame may be adjusted to provide maximum illumination.
- If the wick is set too high, smoking will occur, which means soot will be deposited on the globe.
Transporting the lantern ~
I carry my fuel in a Sigg “heritage” vintage-style water bottle. I pack the lantern by first wrapping a piece of soft wool batting around the globe (between the globe and air tubes) and then wrapping the whole thing in a larger piece of wool batting and placing the padded lantern in a waxed cotton stuff sack.
Bring along one of these beautiful, historic lanterns on your next traditional trip and experience a cheery night camp that glows with soft light. I know you’ll quickly become a tubular kerosene lantern aficionado.