Woe to the caver who wanders into an antique shop and buys the first carbide lamp he or she sees. Many lamps are completely nonfunctional and are highly priced. You can wind up spending a lot of money on something that you cannot repair. Here you can learn about the different varieties of lamps, where to purchase one, and how much you can expect to spend.
First, you should be familiar with the different varieties of lamps. Not all carbide lamps are created equal. Furthermore, even a single company can produce lamps of varying reliability. These days, you are most likely to purchase one of six types of lamps: Guy's Dropper, Autolite, Justrite, Premier, Mike Lite, or Minex (in no particular order). You may perhaps find a Butterfly or even a rarer carbide lamp, but you will not want to use it underground. You can find pictures of most of these lamps in the Lamp Gallery. Take some time and familiarize yourself with the lamps before you make a decision to purchase one.
The Guy's Dropper is a widely used carbide lamp. It has carried an outstanding reputation through most of it's production. Guy's Droppers (often referred to just as "Droppers") were well made and kept a consistent production through most of the life of the company. Most notable was the excellent drip mechanism which has been recognized as one of the better drip mechanism of all common lamps. The valve allows for easy cleaning and very precise control of the drip rate. Unfortunately when the valve sleeve becomes worn, the drip rate is harder to control. Also, it is noteworthy that later Droppers were made of a thinner grade of brass, leaving the lamp prone to stress fractures. The Guy's Dropper design was loosely copied by Butterfly.
The Butterfly (A.K.A. Safesport) has been called a Hong Kong knockoff of the Guy's Dropper. The outward designs are very similar, however there is a world of difference in their operation. Where the Dropper has a good reputation of being a trustworthy lamp, the Butterfly does not. Though the Butterfly was fairly inexpensive, it was never a dependable lamp. Leaks abounded, gas tubes fractured or pulled free, and various problems arose. A Butterfly is easily identified by a butterfly stamped on to the water door. Regard this stamp as a mark of impending darkness.
Autolites are one of the most common lamps on the market. It is hardly insignificant that many of these lights were produced in the 1920's and are still used underground today. Autolites have a reputation of being sturdy lamps and dependable light sources. Many cavers depend on an Autolite because of their relative cheapness, availability, sturdy construction, and reliability. Today, few Autolites have their original mounting hook, which is a sign of an original design oversight. Autolite bottoms and Guy's dropper bottoms are fairly interchangeable.
The Justrite has a checkered reputation. A Justrite can be one of the best lamps you ever own, or a finicky piece of brass. Early in the company's history the dyes were new, profits were high, and the lamp had a high quality control. Later, the Justrate Manufacturing Company had aging dyes, and the lamps could not compete with their earlier performance. Unfortunately, it is difficult to tell how old a Justrite lamp is by looking at it. Some of the earliest Justrites are easily recognized, but are also somewhat rare and should not be used for caving (the "Horizontal Justrite" for example). The Justrite Streamlined is a series from when the dyes were good and quality was good. Otherwise, it may be hit or miss with the lamp. It is always good to know the history of the lamp when purchasing it from another caver. Still, you should note well that the Justrite was one of the most popular lights in the 1960's and is still very common today. The lamps, on the whole had a good reputation of being rugged, dependable, and could easily last decades. In the 1970's the Justrate Manufacturing Company committed a sin against the consumer that is still unforgiven: The Plastic Justrite. This was never a reliable lamp. It melted, cracked, and in some cased died a fiery death on the caver's helmet. The plastic was incapable of standing up to the wear, tear, and heat requirements. Should you find a Plastic Justrite consider it a collector's item.
The Premier is a British-made lamp that also has a shaky history. Some of the earliest of the production line are considered some of the better lamps seen underground. However, during the 1970's the lamp's features underwent a change for the worse. The manufacturer favored economy over quality, and the Premier became less reliable. Leaks are common among some of the late Premiers. Flimsy and inefficient reflectors made of aluminum replaced quality reflectors (however useful they may be to surveyors). Also, brass was replaced by brass coating. Some of the Premiers produced in the late 1970's and early 1980's have been known to have a pulsing flame for the first few minutes of operation. Though many Premier lamps are of high quality, it is advisable to check the lamp thoroughly before buying it.
Mike Lites are individually made, machined by an individual, rather than produced on an assembly line. The Mike Lite was relatively short lived on the caving market, though it has been used by the Amish for several years. The lamp is made of a rugged thermoplastic resistant to cracks and melting. Cavers have tested both of these dynamics by setting the lamp on a lit barbeque grill and running over it with a truck. The lamp keeps on going. An adjustable bracket is an additional plus. The lamp has had some criticism because the bottom is sometimes difficult to remove. The lamp also has its own personality, requiring slightly less water than most lamps. Feeding too much water has a tendency to clog the drip mechanism. The Mike Lite carries a hefty price tag of $90, but cavers are more than willing to pay for this high performance lamp.
The Minex has been produced in India by J. K. Dey & Sons for the last 50 years. The original Minex import, the model 1302C, was widely disliked because of a lack of striker, very small reflector, and unreliable drip mechanism. The updated model, the 115C has seen some improvements, but has still received a mixed response from cavers. Some cavers use the Minex and consider it a usable lamp, others have quickly committed the lamp to the shelf or to eBay. The remaining problems include an irregular drip mechanism, cheap felt plate integrated into the valve stem, inefficient reflector, and heavy design. It is also worthy of mention that acetylene frequently percolates through the water door.
Deciding on a price
Next, you should know that the price of a lamp will vary based on a number of things. Where you live has a lot of bearing on how much a lamp will cost. In areas that have seen a lot of mining or caving you can often find lamps in thrift stores or antique shops for $10-$30 (depending on condition and type of lamp). In other areas an antique store may charge you $75 for a lamp that is completely non-functional. How much you wish to spend on a lamp is entirely up to you, and there is no set price guide to carbide lamps. The condition and rarity of the lamp help determine its value, but there is no fixed market price for a used lamp. To help you determine how much you are willing to pay for a lamp, look at the Rarity List on this website. It may help you get an idea of how much a lamp is worth to you, and the information may be useful knowledge to use as leverage in bartering a price.
Note that the spending doesn't end once you have your lamp. You may have some restoration ahead of you and you need additional repair parts before taking the lamp underground. Take a look at the Spare Parts page to get an idea of how much you are going to spend.
Finally, you will have to buy the lamp from your choice of vendors. Carefully consider your options before buying a lamp. If you are buying a used lamp you have to consider the trustworthiness of the source and the reliability of the lamp. However, you may find new lamps and used lamps from a variety of sources:
Inner Mountain Outfitters
Inner Mountain Outfitters carries new Mike Lites and a complete supply of spare parts. The Mike Lite are available for $90, but buyers are assured of having a superior quality product.
If you decide to purchase from eBay, you should also be familiar with how common your lamp is. The problem is this: because most carbide lamps went out of production, many dealers assume that it makes their Autolites and Justrites that much more valuable (despite the fact that they have been out of production for decades). This is also reflected on eBay, many times. You will see headings that read, "LOOK! RARE CARBIDE LAMP!" And bidding is for a Justrite, the second most common lamp. Extras such as cool grips, flame protectors, reamers, and tip cleaners will raise the price some. However, the buyer must always beware! E-mail the seller and confirm EVERYTHING! Does the spark wheel spark? Does the drip mechanism work well? Are all internal parts in tact? Are there any cracks? Is the bottom of the lamp frozen? Can the lamp be fired up? Cavers are the best people from whom to buy a lamp. Generally the lamps are in good condition and they also have a flat hook rather than a round hook.
Cavers prefer the blade style hook (also called the flat hook) because they are less fragile than the round (or wire) hooks. Miners more commonly used a round style hook. Round hooks look much like thick tops of coat hangers. The blade hooks are about a half an inch wide, and (in their most basic forms) look like they have been cut out of sheet metal. Only a blade hook will fit today's helmet mounts. A third type of hook called the spade or Michigan style hook is occasionally found on some carbide lamps. You can find examples all three hooks on the Lamp Gallery page.
Unfortunately, eBay has a reputation of being a bit pricey for thrifty cavers. It is advisable that you try another source first.
In addition to asking around in your local grotto, you can also find a number of online sources. The Caplamps Yahoo Group is a good place to start asking about lamps for sale. The members of the group are predominantly cavers and are very knowledgeable in carbide lamps. One specific caver from the group, Paul Lubaczewski has a small buisness restoring and selling carbide lamps. Another source for lamps carbide lamps is The Carbide Classifieds. The classifies are available from the aforementioned page, along with an FAQ and other helpful information. I have never used the Carbide Classifieds, but it seems as though several people have had positive experiences with it. Finally, Rocksports Emporium carries a limited supply of carbide lamps and parts. A caver runs the vendor, and he occasionally locates carbide lamps and parts.
If you are going to an antique store, check out the Rarity List on this page. Knowing about how common the prospective lamp is may help you talk down the price a bit. Also, it would be a good idea to keep an extra flint and spring so that you might test the striker rather than waiting to get home to find out that the spark wheel is too smooth to create a good spark. You can find more information on this subject on the Spare Parts page. Some store owners have even let me take the lamp into the bathroom to fill it with water and test the drip mechanism! As already mentioned, antique dealers and flea market dealers' prices from area to area. It also depends' on whether or not the shop owner knows what he or she has. Generally, if the antique dealer knows very little about the lamp, you will pay a lot more for a common lamp. However, estate sales and auctions are commonly a good place to get multiple lamps for a low price. Unfortunately, you have no way of testing the condition of the lamp before you buy.