Reason No. 346 Why I Love the Net - The Lava Conspiracy

"Lava is a philosophy. The primordial ooze that once ruled our world has been captured in perpetual motion. Lava is the moment. Its ever changing patterns are hypnotizing yet invigorating. Lava is an art form. Classic and at the same time... progressive. Lava is pre-historic and post-modern. Lava is here to stay."
--Lava Lite® instructions blurb

I was hanging out in Cliff's Variety, hardware store of the stars, with my rich friend Dana on a too beautiful Saturday afternoon, when I noticed that they had some lovely over-priced Lava Lite® Lamps. For a long time I've coveted Dana's own Lava Lite®, a gorgeous red and gold gleaming tower of strangeness; but although I wanted one bad, it seemed too lame to pay such a high price for what essentially appears to be wax and oil stuck in a jar. "Appears," being the operative word.

I decided I would make my own.

Perhaps it was the fact Dana is so rich that he owns his own house! and has the ability to buy anything his heart desires, that made me want to prove that often it's much more fun trying to make something yourself instead of just paying up the wazoo. Maybe it was his teasing scepticism that made me wish to rise to the challenge and crush his doubts like a bug. Or maybe it was because I resented the Lava Lite® monopoly Lava World International has enjoyed for over 40 years, especially distressing in light of the fact the man who patented the contraption, Craven Walker, didn't even INVENT the damn thing, he just copied one he saw in a bar and brought home. The original was created by some artist/guy who never saw dime one of the millions garnered from acid-flashin hippies over the last decades.

So why should I put more money in their over-stuffed pockets?

Together we combed the aisles at Cliff's, buying various components that could be adapted to the purpose. An Italian canning jar, oval with a beveled magnifying "window" and a vacuum-tight lid, was to be the receptacle. A small hand-held flour sifter (complete with fly-wheel and screen) would be the bulb-case, with a heavy black plastic pipe join as the base. We grabbed the necessary 40-watt appliance bulb that the typical LL® utilizes.

For a socket, since there were so many to choose from, I thought we should consult the services of the electrical expert at Cliffs, an over-tall, emaciated Kris Kringle-alike in a red apron.

"Hi, I need a bulb socket for a lamp."

"What kind of lamp?" Kris Kringle asked suspiciously.

"Well, uh, it's just a lamp," I said cleverly.

"You do know, don't you, that you could be charged with ARSON if a fire should result from an improperly constructed lamp?" He frowned at me with his fluffy eyebrows. It was sorta terrifying.

"Really, how fascinating!" I tried to look trustworthy and electrically talented. This I achieved by frowning back and pursing my lips.

Whatever I did did the trick, because he stopped going on about arson and house fires and started pontificating instead on the variety of sockets and their uses. I laffed appreciatively when he made a joke about ceramic insulation. Eventually I settled on a pull-chain socket because I love that little "click-snicky" noise they make.

Finally, it was time to get the soupy ingredients that are the lifeblood of a LL®. I thought: Mineral oil for the fluid, and parafin wax for the lava. (Stop laughing. That's what it LOOKS like.)

We took the bundle of materials home to Dana's place and settled on the back porch with a screwdriver, a wire shear, a hammer and a nail. In endeavoring to attach the electrical wires to the socket, I made the terrible mistake of unscrewing the base of the socket. The spring loaded click-snicky mechanism exploded outward showering the porch with little boingy pieces. We struggled for an hour or so putting the thing back together, only to discover the resulting doohicky would click but refused to snick back. So back it was to Cliff's, where I effected an exchange of the "defective" item, then I hunkered down to put the thing together.

I punched holes in the sifter to allow heat to escape, attached the pull-chain of the socket to the handle of the sifter so that instead of sifting, squeezing the handle pulled the chain. I removed the fly-wheel and dropped it into the bottom of the jar so it would act as a heating coil, conducting heat to the lava for a more even flow. I poured the estimated amount of mineral oil into the jar and dropped in some chunks of wax.

It was time to give it a try.

We plugged the lamp into a socket in the garage, and sat and watched it for about 10 minutes to make sure it wouldn't spontaneously combust, condemning us to a 10-20 year sentence for arson. At that point the oil was heating up nicely, and we decided that a watched lamp never lavas, so we went out to grab a bite.

Upon our return an hour later we were not surprised to discover that the wax was simply melting into the oil. As well it should: both are petroleum-based. We weren't suprised because we had noticed that the parafin floated annoyingly on top of the oil instead of sinking to the bottom until it heated up.

At the time, in a foggy, satiated state of mind, I decided the problem was the lava: we needed a denser wax. Dana suggested that I check the Web for a formula, certainly someone else had tried to do this. I told him don't be silly, who else would try to make a lava lamp?

So back to Cliff's (did I mention it's the hardware store of the stars?) where I purchased a variety of candles (beeswax and other) and a pack of Crayola Crayons. I tried the crayons first, and they sank nicely to the bottom. We played Demolition Derby while waiting for the stuff to melt. Eventually the crayons started to behave strangely, shooting off hot bits of colored wax "streamers" to the top of the jar. They looked not unlike brightly colored semen.

Dana mentioned that this was identical behavior to his own lamp when it first heated up, so we were hopeful. However, half an hour later the crayons had melted enough to color the oil a shimmery purple, and the little waxy semen loitered at the top of the oil, doing nothing spectacular for minute after tedious minute.

It was late in the day, and disappointment sapped my problem-solving skills. I was downright depressed, as any scientist would be, and I decided I would continue the project on Sunday.

On Sunday, I awoke with a fresh perspective: surely I couldn't be the only person in the world who had tried to make their own lava lamp. Surely there were thousands of enterprising folks on whose dismal failures I could capitalize!

So I hit the Web. Sure enough, a Lycos search revealed a number of excellent pages on making your own lava lamp, including a paranoid page about the great Lava Lamp Conspiracy (excellent reading at

I was, of course, working with all the wrong materials. As it turns out, you can make quite a nice lava lamp using isopropyl alcohol as the fluid and mineral oil (as the lava this time.) Since I conveniently happened to have mineral oil of a spectacularly nice bluish hue in my possession, all I required was a quick trip to the drug store for varying concentrations of isopropyl alcohol. Within an hour or so I had my lava lamp happily blurbing away. Its light blue fluid and whitish lava are hypnotising. And it was half the price and only took two days' fun labor!

So there ya go. I got so carried away I made a mini-lamp out of a salt-shaker and a night light. But that's another story.

"Craven Walker, 77-year-old inventor of the lava lamp, told People magazine that people who don't like them are `frightened of sex.' The lamp, he says, 'starts from nothing, grows possibly a little bit feminine, then a little bit masculine, then breaks up and has children.'" (from Leah Garchik's Personals, 9/9/96)

the beanie cam 9-5pm
(I have my SGI indy-cam trained on my workmate's lava lamp)

benzyl alcohol/brine solution plans
(for a more realistic lava lamp)

the self-made lavalamps page in germany

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