How to replace a light fixture

Most of us have grown up in an electrified world, so indoor lighting is no big deal. In the early days of electricity, though, light at the flip of a switch was magic. No wonder the fixtures that survive from that time are eccentric and lovely. They shed light on an age gone forever when most folks were farmers and most rulers were kings. So take down that old fixture—or drag it up from the basement—and give it a whole new life.

Mostly, refurbishing an old lighting fixture entails taking it apart, replacing tired wiring and nonfunctioning parts, polishing it all up and reassembling it. Pay attention and label parts as you go, and you’ll do fine. Though they seem complex, light fixtures are just collections of parts screwed together. Standardization came early to the lighting field, and modern parts often fit fixtures that are 75 years old or more.

125 year old light fixture
from twitter @spookperson

But, as we said at the start, they’re eccentric. Your fixture will likely be different from the one we’ve restored below, so be guided more by the process than the particulars. Our job on the three-socket hanging fixture is a good example of reversing the manufacturing process: unscrewing the bases and sockets, and then pulling out all the wires before you start restoring it. By the way, our instructions are useful for more than just hanging fixtures, with the power at the top and the sockets at the bottom. They’ll also work for wall-mounted fixtures, which are like hanging types turned sideways, and for lamps, which are like hanging fixtures turned upside down.

A Word About Parts

With a little digging, you’ll find a specialty lighting shop in your area that has all the replacement parts you’ll need—with the exception of rare colored shades and some sculpted metal parts. All the other stuff discussed below—locknuts, ornamental finials, chain loops, swag hooks, sockets and the like—you can easily buy, along with a dizzying array of shades and weird bulbs.

Step by Step

1. Disassemble the old fixture.

If the fixture is still up, test to be sure that it’s off, and then take it down. If yours is a hanging type, suspend it from a hook in your work area if you can; it’s like having a third hand. While you’re at it, clear some counter space on which you can lay pieces in the order that you take them off. This will save a lot of head-scratching later. To begin, carefully remove any glass shades and other fragile pieces, put them out of harm’s way and place their mounting screws and other small parts in an envelope or egg carton.

Many old lights are held together by a threaded tube running through the body, restrained on either end by nuts, ornamental finials, chain-holding loops, sockets and the like. The tube serves a dual purpose: it ties the fixture together mechanically, and it acts as a channel for the wiring running down from an outlet box into the fixture.

To disconnect the body or base of the fixture, unscrew the nuts or finials. But be careful not to scratch or mar the metal finish: use a rag or piece of inner tube to cushion the jaws of pliers and other tools you use. As you open the body of the fixture, you’ll expose the wires within. If the wiring is old, snip the wires and pull them out, noting how they’re routed. At this time, you may also find that some internal parts are worn or corroded. Clean them as best you can or replace them. (In our fixture, an ancient hickey joined threaded tubing and allowed wires to be accessed. It was a nifty old piece of iron, but it was shot, so we replaced it with a less glamorous modern one.) If any joints are frozen, use a penetrating oil like WD-40® to loosen them.

2. Disassembling the lamp

Stripping the lamp2. Clean and polish, or refinish. Most old fixtures can use a cleanup, and now’s the ideal time to do it. First, figure out what the parts are made of. Many “brass” fixtures are actually brass-plated steel. Test with a magnet to find out: a magnet won’t stick to brass. Solid brass cleans up nicely with a solvent such as nonflammable chemical stripper (check out at Amazon). W