Buying an Old Lamp – Know What You Are Getting

I work on old lamps. That’s what I do, but what about buying an old lamp? Say you found that perfect lamp at a local flea market to sit on that table that has been begging to have something to show off. Here are some important points that will help you in your buying venture. If you are the wheeler/dealer type, you might find this information gives you some bargaining power in scoring the deal. Since there are more lamps that use a traditional socket/switch combination.  This first set of Tip’s are associated with these type lamps.

  • Try to use a standard incandescent bulb for your tests. Both floresent and LED bulbs can sometime flicker when turned on, but an incandescent is a lot easier to validate the switch and socket.
  • Does it work? Cycle it through the on/off sequence a couple of times. Is the light brightness between transition from On to Off crisp and intended? Or does the light sort of stutter between settings?  It should be crisp, but check or change the light bulb. Note: If it is a 3way switch, it will cycle an extra click before and after the bulb illuminates when not using a real 3 way bulb. That’s still okay. Floresent and LED bulbs may flicker when they are first turned on, so that is normal to.
  • If you don’t have access to power, turn the switch several times. Dose the switch have a nice positive “click”, almost like snapping your fingers? If so, that’s good! If it’s kind of mushy between clicks, the switch is showing some internal wear.
  • The cap and shell should fit together well and stay together. If it’s a loose fit between, it may need replacing.
  • Most table lamps are built with multiple pieces. Look to see that the lamp is solid and doesn’t act like it wants to do the hoola hoop. Even though this might seem like an easy fix, the entire lamp may have to be taken apart to be fixed properly.
  • Look inside the socket, it should be relatively clean, limited grayish wear to the tip. If its near black in color and the tip is noticeably pitted or miss-formed, it may  be time for a new socket.
  • Most sockets use a cardboard or paper sleeve and still do today. This keeps the wiring and socket from touching the shell. It also provides a bit of insulation so the lamp shell does not get too hot. Look at the color of cardboard. The darker the cardboard, the hotter it has gotten, maybe too hot. If it breaks by the touch, it is deteriorated beyond its usable live. It also tells us the internal wiring at the socket could be  in a similar condition. Meaning it will need a full rewire.
  • Look at the cord; it should not have any nicks, cuts or cracks in it. Most lamps have plastic cords and they should have kind of a satin luster to the finish, not dull or flat (almost chalky). The cord should be pliable and should (reasonably) spring back to its natural state.  Cord wear is usually in this order; 1)loss of pliability, 2)slight color change to dull, 3) cracking and breaking up. I typically recommend changing the cord if any of these signs are present.
  •  Plug: it should be solidly attached to the cord with none of the cord signs mentioned above and no exposed copper wires. No black electrical soot marks around the metal spades on the plug. The spades should also be clean and smooth, no nicks or gouges.
  • Plug II:  If the plug/cord looks like the un-polarized  one below, the plug and cord is almost 60 years old and should be replaced. After 1962 the US National Electrical Code standardized on the polarized style also pictured above. This was for a safety reason to better protect the consumer.

This covers most of the electrical issues, next time I will talk about looking at the body or fixture itself as all problems are not equal and may be a challenge, expensive or not worth fixing. 

Hopefully this will help you be an informed consumer and assist in scoring a better deal on that new find. If you find a lamp that needs some TLC, let me know as I can fix it.  Good Hunting.

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