I am a sucker for most anything made in the 1800 and early 1900’s. Impeccable craftsmanship. Solid metal, solid wood. Durable and time tested. Simple, yet elegant.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy many of the luxuries that modern technology brings, but there is something intriguing and spellbinding about the stories and history behind many of these antique pieces.
For sure, this holds true for our ceiling lights. Each a small piece of history and beautiful piece of art in its own right.
Sadly, many of these pieces of history are tossed out and discarded like everything else in our materialistic and throw-away society. Used for a time and then discarded, even though they are far from useless.
We have, over the years, slowly collected a set of ceiling lights for our home. Most can be had for little to no money, especially when comparing to prices of new lights in any big-box store. Some were found on eBay, some at antique stores, some purchased through family, and others picked up along the roadside destined for the landfill. All of them unique, and combined, a compilation of hundreds of years of history. Each witnesses to different families and generations. Each serving their owners faithfully through discussions over the dinner table, Christmas celebrations, and family deaths. Like an old house, oh the stories these lights could tell if they could only talk!
Reclaimed wood, antique farm sinks, and old barn steel are all items that can fetch high prices lately as they become mainstream centerpieces in home decor. They bring a warm charm to any new house. But why are these older lights getting passed over? My best guess is it is due to the efforts it takes to re-wire them and make them safe to install in our modern litigious and safety-policed society. Although it takes a little work, but hardly more than it takes to pull off some old barn wood or move a heavy cast iron sink, I hope this post proves that these lights are not that difficult to safely restore, re-use, and enjoy (if you just want to see pictures of some of our restored antique lights, scroll to the bottom!).
This post is not intended to be a tutorial, but a personal journal entry. Don’t blame me if you rewire a lamp improperly and your house burns down!
Of all the lamps I have re-wired, this one was the most “difficult” as it had some soldering involved. All of the other lights I have worked with only involved the use of a screwdriver and wire stripper. Still, it was not that hard or time consuming to lend this lamp a new lease on life.
So, getting the tools together, I gathered up my:
I let the soldering iron warm up while I started the disassembly of the light.
I removed the ceramic bases. They are threaded and just twist off, no tools required.
Each ceramic base has two wires coming out of them. A “hot” and a “neutral”. The center one is the hot wire, or 120VAC wire here in the US. The wire to the side is the common or neutral wire. These wires need to come out so I can replace them with new wire. Most had bare wire exposed and were cut short when pulled from the house they were originally installed in.
So before starting to remove the wires, I had to bend the center contact inside the bulb socket with a flat screwdriver to expose the solder on the middle wire. Once the new wires were installed, I bent this contact back into place.
I then used the soldering iron to heat the solder that held each of the two wires in place. I used one hand to hold the socket and pull on the wire from the back side. I used the other hand to hold the soldering iron and heat the solder. Each wire pulled out easily once the solder was heated.
I then prepared the new wire by first “tinning” it. This process involves touching the wire to the tip of the hot soldering iron. I then held the solder to the wire. When the wire heats up enough, it in turns heats up the solder and a bit of solder melts and absorbs into the wire. My old shop tech in engineering school once lectured us students: “You never touch the solder to the soldering iron! You always touch the wire to the soldering iron and let the heat in the wire melt the solder.”
Once I was done preparing the wires, I inserted the tip of the wires into the holes where the old wires used to enter the socket. I then reapplied the soldering iron to the inside of the socket while at the same time pressing the wire into the socket. Once the wire slipped into the heated solder, I removed the soldering iron and let the solder firm up.
With both wires firmly soldered in place, I was left with this:
A quick note, most new wire comes with several ways to mark or identify the hot wire from the neutral wire. Commonly, they are color coded. Black=hot. White=neutral. Others print the wire specs and branding info on the insulation of one of the two wires. As was my case, one of the wires was flat on one side while the other was completely round. This becomes important to note as later in the process, these wires will need to be grouped and connected together.
I then installed the sockets back into the lamp.
Once they were all re-wired, I cut another piece of wire that will be used to connect the lamp to the supply wire in the ceiling. Then, I applied the wire nuts, one to the “hot” wires and one to the neutral wires. Once the nuts were on, I did the “pull-test”, ensuring I could not pull out any wires from the wire nut, thus ensuring I had a good and safe connection.
I like to top off the wire nuts with some electric tape to ensure they stay in place.
Easy enough, right?! Now, the hard part… I just need to complete the ceiling installation so I can install the lamp in place!
As promised, here are pictures of some of our restored antique house lights:
Kitchen (above the sink):