I have been restoring vintage lights since I was a teenager in the mid-1970s. An Interstate highway was being rammed through the city where I lived, and I ran (steps ahead of the bulldozers, and with my shag haircut flying) from one incredible building to another, and from one incredible house to another, and salvaged everything I could.
My poor, bewildered parents. Their garage was soon chock-a-block with what I thought were treasures beyond compare. And which they knew to be useless flotsam. (I did though once overhear my mom say: “Well, at least he’s not out doing drugs”). However, when all their boring lights were systematically replaced with the most stunning lights they had ever seen – and all for free, and rewired and restored – they soon had second thoughts about the flotsam. (I paid for new parts by mowing lawns!) A brighter light soon proved too alluring though: New York City!
After a few excruciating years, I founded my own architectural design firm in 1985. At twenty-eight! It was the heady 1980s, the city was going through a spectacular revival, and I was overwhelmed – quite happily, thank-you – with one project after another.
Then came the early 1990s crash, and a desire for a calmer life. Eventually rural Kansas beckoned, as surreal as this seemed. The peace I found on the prairie (golly, there really is a prairie) enabled me to get two books published, and when I found myself with way too many old lights in the garage (my parents’ garage redux), I listed a few on the newfangled Internet.
The rest, as they say…
TIPS TO BUYING VINTAGE LIGHTS
STYLE. People who own, for example, a Colonial-Revival style home will naturally want Colonial-Revival style vintage fixtures. But a great many pre-WWII homes originally had fixtures quite different than one would imagine. I’ve been in classic bungalows with original Art Deco fixtures, and recently I toured a Foursquare with original Spanish-Revival lights. All these fixtures looked very well. I always recommend that people buy what they love no matter the style of their home. My last home was a large 1915 Colonial-Revival. I filled it full of 1950s fixtures. It worked. The fixtures gave the classic house an unexpected zest. It was also common for people to update their homes by changing all the lights. So, your 1905 home may well have had all the lights replaced in the 1920s or 1930s. If you had these lights in place you wouldn’t dream of taking them out. So, buy what you love. Just make sure the scale is right.
RESALE VALUE. Recently a buyer contacted me. They restored a wonderful old home. All the original lights were long gone and they purchased very nice new fixtures in an old style. When they tried to sell the house there was no interest. For six months. The market is lousy of course but the realtor said that several potential buyers wished the house still retained its original fixtures. That is when they contacted me. Because I specialize in whole house sets, I was able to supply a matched set of fixtures for every room. The buyers were flabbergasted at the difference. They had an open house. The house sold ASAP. For above the asking price. “Best investment we ever made,” they gleefully reported. I do love a happy ending.
RESTORED? RENOVATED? If the distinction is important to you see the below for more information: A NOTE (or two) ABOUT MY RESTORATIONS.
WHY MY RESTORED LIGHTS ARE SPECIAL
1) Most importantly, I restore vintage fixtures. I do not renovate them. There is a huge distinction between the two. Please below for more information.
2) My lights are usually rewired and ready to hang; everything to do so is included. They also come with electrical mounting bars. You will thank me for this; it’s incredibly hard to find the correct size mounting bars for vintage lights.
3) Most electricians HATE installing vintage lights. They assume old, scary wiring, fixtures that will not mate with modern electrical boxes, and a whole host of other issues. But electricians LOVE installing my restored fixtures. I make the whole process effortless. See #2, above, and I also usually re-wire my fixtures, and ensure there is more wire than really necessary above the canopy to easily connect with your house wires (electricians particularly bless me for this). I even include the mounting screws and wire nuts!
4) My lights feature original or vintage canopies (the cup that goes against the ceiling). I never use modern canopies as they are not consistent with the scale and proportion of period lighting. A modern canopy is easily recognized. They are basically flat and quite thin (about an inch thick) whereas vintage canopies are like a cup shape and deeper (usually 3-inches or even twice that).
5) The chain on most vintage lights is corroded and I can rarely re-use it. The problem is that readily available modern chain is thinner, smaller, and not the same shape as vintage chain. Imagine my elation when I found one supplier who still made true vintage-style chain. Halleluiah!
6) Where appropriate, I use really lovely cloth-covered wire for all visible areas. If this supplier ever goes out of business I will have to shut down.
7) I work to retain original sockets if possible.
8) I am an incredible packer (see feedback). Worry-free shipping!
9) When necessary, I forward special instructions on how to hang your vintage fixture.
10) I answer emails! Quickly!
11) Read my feedback. You’ll know that if a problem should develop that I won’t disappear! Or snarl at you!
A NOTE (or two) ABOUT MY RESTORATIONS
Restore. Renovate. Two words with different meanings, and different results.
Restoring a vintage light will bring back its original appearance.
Renovating a vintage light will alter its original appearance. This can be done by changing its color(s), adding more colors than originally intended, and by combining parts from different fixtures/eras.
For me, I simply love the process of restoration. It seems like magic recreating something that has been near-ruined, eroded, or damaged. When each of my fixtures is restored I get such a thrill! It’s like time itself has been reversed! (Now, if I could just apply this process to my aging body/mind!)
A few things I’ve learned:
1) I work hard at respecting original finishes. When a finish is intact but faded, I essentially wash a new finish over the old. Thus, the original finish is still visible but looks wholly refreshed. In short, it simply looks as it did when leaving the factory many decades previous. Or, it’s very common that 90% of the original finish is intact. To me, it seems a shame to remove all this just because a tiny portion is lost. So I recreate what is missing. And you can’t tell that I did anything.
2) In order to restore a finish, it’s vital to use the same materials, colors, and techniques that were used originally.
3) Vintage fixtures used color sparingly and few featured more than three colors.
4) The original finish on vintage fixtures is entirely different than can be achieved with modern paints. Modern paints give the effect of a plastic film over the fixture whereas the original finishes were usually like a stain. The effect is quite a bit more subtle.
5) Vintage fixtures also have a subtle sheen, so I never spray on a shiny protective coating.
6) I don’t refinish the back of my fixtures. By doing so it is difficult to really know if the fixture is vintage (there are usually paint speckles, scratches, and age marks). Once installed, the back cannot be seen but you will know that your fixture is indeed vintage.
I’ve been restoring lighting since I was a teenager in the mid-1970s. One of my great discoveries was the finish material used by almost all lighting companies prior to World War II. This is a hand-applied and hand-burnished product and I use it on my fixtures that require new finishes. Significantly, the colors are also the same that were used originally.
Because of this, I can place a wholly refinished fixture next to one with a mint original finish and you will not be able to see any difference. I occasionally amuse (torture?) my friends with this. Not once have they been able to tell the difference. “Wow.”