Whether you spot it at a garage sale or find it in your own basement, an early 20th-century light fixture is a real find. Even one that’s filthy and missing parts can be restored with a little patience, some skill, and a few components from a good hardware store or parts supplier.
At the very least, an old fixture should be rewired to bring it up to modern electrical codes. It’s possible to tackle the new wiring yourself, but when in doubt, have a professional do it.
Before touching the fixture, take photos of it. Even a simple cleaning usually requires disassembling the entire light, so take photos at every step. “Sometimes there are multiple ways a fixture can go together,” says Christina Jones, co-owner of Historic Houseparts, an architectural salvage and renovation dealer in Rochester, New York. “You must have that record of how it was put together.”
Once the fixture is broken down into its individual components, remove all the old wiring, but keep original metal or Bakelite switches or flat key sockets.
Most Arts & Crafts fixtures are made of lacquer-coated brass. These are usually safe to clean; you can even soak the metal components in water with a gentle cleaner such as Simple Green. “That will take the dirt and nicotine off,” says Jones. Wipe the cleaned parts with a soft, nonabrasive cloth, such as an old T-shirt. Avoid using paper towels, which can burnish surfaces.
When dry, protect exposed surfaces and even out the finish with paste wax or a metallic wax. (Jones recommends Rub ’n Buff, a blend of carnauba wax, metallic powders, and pigments offered in 12 metallic colors.)
If the fixture has a painted polychrome finish, it will be difficult to clean safely, she says: “Any cleaner may dissolve the paint.” For that reason, do not wash or soak the pieces. Instead, use Q-tips or cotton balls dipped into a dilute solution of cleaner to remove nicotine or other grime.
To remove paint from a fixture that was not originally painted, apply a soy-based stripper such as Blue Bear Soy-Gel. Using anything stronger will remove the original lacquer finish.
If the fixture is steel, copper, or cast iron, do not use the soaking method to clean it. Since cast iron rusts when exposed to water, wax it or apply tung oil after cleaning. Many cast-iron fixtures were painted, so finishing with a coat of metallic paint is another option.
Once gently cleaned, a steel fixture, especially one with a copper-flash finish, should be given a paste-wax finish and a buffing to preserve the original appearance. Since copper reacts with water and cleaning it can remove the patina, clean only if absolutely necessary. Wipe down with a soft cloth with a dilute solution of Simple Green.
Glass panes or shades may be soaked in water with a tiny amount of dishwashing liquid, provided they have no decorative paint or other applied finishes, Jones says. Wheel-cut and etched glass may be soaked in dish detergent and water. If they’re really dirty, they can even be cleaned in the dishwasher.
Old Shade, New Fixture
Got a vintage shade? Create a pendant fixture with historical cloth-covered wire using simple components and basic wiring skills. As with anything involving electricity, follow the correct steps and know what you’re doing.
You will need lamp cord, a socket, a strain relief collar, and an UNO
(threaded) fitter sized for the shade (2 ¼", 3 ¼", etc.), plus the following tools:
• reversible screwdriver (with Phillips and flat heads)
• utility scissors
• fabric scissors
• self-fusing silicone tape
• retractable knife, such as a box cutter
• wire stripper with slots gauged to the wire you will use
Disassemble the socket into the cap (the bottom of the socket), the interior (the working parts, sometimes covered with a sleeve), and the outer shell. Cut the lamp cord to the desired length (from ceiling to 36" above a table, for example), plus an extra 6".
To assemble, remove the set-screw on the side of the collar, then slip collar onto lamp cord. Next, unscrew the set-screw on the socket cap just enough that the lamp cord can easily slip through it. Pull a few inches of the lamp cord through the lamp socket.
Cut away about 2" of the cloth covering the wire with fine scissors, snipping incrementally. Take care not to cut or nick the plastic insulation; if you do, you will need to cut off that part of the wire and restart the process.
Once trimmed, apply 1 ½" of self-fusing silicone tape over the end of the fabric to bind it to the insulation jacket, keeping the taped area narrow.
To expose wires under the insulation, slice upwards from the tape with the box cutter, without nicking the wires. Tape over the edge of the cut plastic jacket. Using the wire stripper, separate the hot and neutral wires (usually contrasting colors) for at least 1", removing any insulation from the wires after separating them. Tie an underwriter’s knot in the wire. Trim and strip separated wires as short as possible (about ½") to fit inside the socket.
Wrap the neutral wire in a clockwise direction over the silver screw in the socket. Tighten the screw, pushing the wire under it as you tighten. (Use your fingernails or a small screwdriver.) Repeat the process with the hot wire and the gold screw.
Put the socket shell over the interior and attach to the cap. Screw the set-screw back into the strain relief collar and tighten the set-screw on the cap. Your new pendant is ready to hang.