Buying an Old Lamp – Know What You’re 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 or it could be a sign of broken internal parts that may be expensive to repair.
  • 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.
  • Also look at where the cord meets the plug, as this is a wear point as well. If the insulation is deteriorating or you can see strands of wire, the cord/socket will need to be changed.

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.      


2/17/2018 LED Technology, More Light, Less Wattage

Unless you have been under a rock for the past 3-4 years, LED light bulbs have been creeping into the stores for about the last 8 years. As with any new technology, the initial cost is higher than normal, however, as manufacturing processes are refined the prices start falling. As an early adopter, I started fiddling with LED bulbs in 2008 and wrote my first article on using LED bulbs in a landscape lighting system in 2009. Back then, a MR16 based bulb was about $25. Today that same bulb is  less than $6.  (See Whole House Landscape Lighting) Additional incentive to move away from incandescent bulbs driven by our government will result in incandescent bulbs being just specialty bulbs and less for general use. The prime directive in their initiative is to reduce consumption of electricity, and for the most part this is what most of the published propaganda supports. Most all written documentation shows you a comparison chart to reach a near equivalent lighting level with a huge savings in consumption.  HOWEVER there is a secret the government is not telling you. With this change in technology, many existing fixtures can actually supply more light (using LED’s), without being dangerous or exceeding the wattage limitations of the fixture design. So, what does this really mean; With traditional lighting, wattage limitation in fixtures are all based on using incandescent bulbs. In older houses, it can be difficult to get more light in certain places of a home without making major upgrades or adding more fixtures. If you live in a house built before the 2000’s there are typically fewer light fixtures and outlets causing it to be difficult to get more light in a room without calling an electrician by adding lights or outlets.  With an LED bulb replacement you may be able to get a lot more light out of the same fixture without risk and without exceeding the wattage limitation of the existing fixture. There is one simple rule: Never exceed the manufacturers wattage limitation of an outlet or fixture. This rating is usually stamped or labeled on the socket or fixture Just for a moment, lets get in the weeds to understand why this will work. Here are a couple of definitions that will help in understanding the concept.

  • Wattage: In simple terms, a watt is considered a unit of power. It is not really a measurement of light. But since the invention of the incandescent light bulb we have used the consumption of power (wattage) rating as a reference to the light output. As for an incandescent light it consumes a lot more power than  light produced. An incandescent light consumes (by generating heat) about 90-95% of its power to produce the amount of light it provides. In other words, its about 5% efficient.
  • Lumens: Simply put; Lumens is as a measurement of the total amount of visible light, regardless of the consumed power or wattage. So, even though there is a relation, they don’t exactly correlate.  

An incandescent bulb heats up a metal filament (tungsten) in a controlled environment (bulb). That metal turns super hot resulting in both visible and non visible light as well as a lot of heat. Where a LED (light emitting diode), radiates light in a narrow spectrum, without the high amount of heat found with the incandescent bulb. Heat: Since LEDs radiate light, they emit very little heat. In comparison, incandescent bulbs release 90% of their energy as heat and CFLs release about 80% of their energy as heat. LED’s use about 75% less energy to produce the same amount of visible light. This should be the  AH-HA moment for you.  LED Chart Taking advantage of the LED:  Lets say you have a fixture that is rated at 60 watts, like maybe an old recessed kitchen light found back in the 1950’s. Its in the correct location, but you want more light. So without changing the fixture (assuming the socket and wiring is intact), you can upsize the bulb to a 2600 lumens equivalent, and still only use 30 watts of power. As a measurement of light you went from 800 lumens to 2,600 lumens with an increase of over 3 times the light of the original 60 watt bulb!! Impressive huh!! Granted the government will recommend that you replace the bulb with the 7 watts (800 Lumens)LED bulb. By using the 2600 lumens bulb you can increase your available lighting without having to change the fixture or exceed the wattage limitation. Granted you will about 23  additional watts of  power, but I don’t even have to do the math to tell you its a lot cheaper than having an electrician add new fixtures. The chart to the left is a simple conversion of standard bulb wattage’s vs. lumens. 4/18/2016 Basic Lamp Inspection With all the Restoration, Repurpose and Reclamation programs on TV, its easy to get inspired to pick up an old fixture and bring it home. However, buying used fixtures/lamps that appear to be working correctly might still have hidden problems. I regularly get asked to look at a lamp  and “just check it out” to see if its okay. As with any of my projects, safety is number 1, and making sure the fixture remains compliant with the  electric code and the original UL listing  is very important. pre purchaseI have been on the hunt for several months to find my mother in law an old 70’s vintage swag lamp. It took a while and we crossed many state lines until we found just the right one. The picture is from the location we bought it. As you can see it was working. So why would I want to take it apart? Just to check it out!  So, I disassembled it to clean, inspect, repaint the metal surfaces and total rewire if required. As with most any hanging type fixture with the bulb below the socket, there is a natural tendency for the rising heat to make an impact on the above wiring. As expected, I found brittle and decayed bad wirewiring above the socket. After seeing the condition of the wiring  I wondered why the fixture was working at all! Overheated wiring is the sleeping giant of lamp and light problems.  Most wiring is rated at 105C (or 221F), and in most correct applications will be fine, however when a bulb greater than the lamp rating is used, the wiring will be the first component to suffer.  You may never know it until the wiring is disturbed. Once disturbed, the insulation can disintegrate and potentially cause the wires to touch each other. You know where the story goes from here. Always follow the bulb ratings requirements as listed on the fixture. After working on this fixture, I thought it would be a good time to review the basic inspection process that I do on a lamp/light fixture to insure it is in proper working order.

  1. Physical Review of the Lamp: Is it relatively clean, does it appear to have been stored outside? Fixtures left outside can rust as well as rodents can get to places unseen to chew on the plastic wire insulation.
  2. Manufactured or Custom: In general, lamps that were manufactured in mass generally were designed and built to a specification. Typically they use standard lamp parts and overall meet the design criteria necessary for long term use. Custom lamps can be made from most anything (bowling balls, table legs, vases, etc.). Good custom manufacturers follow the same criteria. On the other hand, I regularly run across lamps that were hand built, but failed to ensure proper safety for long term usage. Many of them I can fix, but for various reasons a bad design can cause premature failure, in turn, it may not be a good lamp. The two most important items with custom lamps is 1)quality of workmanship and 2) proper heat dissipation.
  3. good bad wire comparoWiring terminations: Most failed wiring is at the terminations. Frayed/broken wires, premature insulation failure, loose connection can all impact the safety and performance of the light. In this picture the bottom wire has decayed insulation and has turned black in color due to excessive heat.
  4. Polarity: In a simply lighting circuit there is a “line or hot” side and a “neutral”. Those terminations should be consistent from the plug to the socket to ensure the hot termination is in the base of the socket not the shell. This is tested with a VOM meter.
  5. Polarized Plug: Similar to #4. The larger prong on the plug goes in the larger hole in the wall socket, which is the neutral side, maintaining the polarity through the entire circuit.
  6. Wiring Size: Not usually a problem with US manufactured lights, but most lamps/lights originally designed to work in a different country could have undersized wiring for use in the US. After determining the wire gauge, this can be addressed in multiple ways including, 1)rewiring the lamp or 2)simply lowering the wattage of the light bulb to be used.
  7. Bulb Sockets: Sockets show wear for various reasons, (metal contacts and cardboard insulator) regardless of the reason; noticeable wear in the socket can be resolved by replacing it.
  8. Grounding circuit: Lamps have polarized plugs, but light fixtures require a grounding circuit. This could be a green wire, or a small bare wire, or even a black wire with green tape that is attached to the body of the light fixture.
  9. Switches: Most switches tell you when they are bad and there is little indication they are going bad; not a lot of  in-between. They can be good today, and bad tomorrow.
  10. Dimmers: Inspect for 1)free movement, 2)ambient temperature to touch, and full range of light from the bottom to the top of the dimmer movement.
  11. Physical Integrity: Most all manufactured lamps include metal parts. Many of them are soft metals such as brass which can be fairly easy to bend or break. With that said it is not uncommon to have to occasionally tighten up some of the parts to keep everything in alignment.
  12. Top capVentilation: As you can see in this picture of the top cap of the same swag lamp; there is virtually no ventilation for the heat to escape. Just for safety sake, I added some ventilation holes in the top cover.
  13. Light it up: The final test is to power it up and let if run. Depending on the type of lamp, I may let them run for 30 minutes or so with the highest rated bulb. Mainly looking for heat problems with components and if it smells.

Here is the finished lamp. I left the light off to take the picture. You can see the small holes I added to the top section. Additionally, I used an LED bulb as they drastically cut down the amount of heat. Look for a later post on LED bulbs. Finished Lamp 12/13/2015 Recent Lamp Projects: Before and after update on kitchy end table lamps Besides the normal repair and restoration of customer lamps, we also pick up lamps in our travels. Many times we use these to test new methods and processes. Or in some case, it’s just for the fun of it, just to get the creative juices flowing!! This one was just for fun. If you look around flea markets or antique malls, there are a bunch of ugly ones out there. It can be a challenge to figure out how to make them current. My wife picked up this pair at a local trades day. Looking at all the choices she had,  these would not have been my pick. Since she carries the “designer” title in this organization, She gets the first and last vote. The first picture is the before and after comparison of one refurbished next to one original. (Yes we have two of them). Follow the story to see the process. Lamp Assessment: The lamps were loosely assembled which can be an indication the base may be cracked (they were). Electrically, it didn’t mater as they would be completely rewired. We have sources for newly manufactured bases, but I try to use as much as I can of the existing fixture, unless we are going somewhere totally different. The decorative  base was a bit tarnished, and through my discovery, it is cast aluminum with a brass finish. Disassembly: Once taken apart, we discovered some  problems. As you can see, over the years of service, past owners have continued to tighten up the fixture head. In doing so, it caused the light aluminum base to crack. These cracks result in a constant give or looseness that will alway be a problem if not properly repaired. resurfaced basePer the Epoxy basedesigner, she did not want to fully respray the base as she wanted to retain the natural  petina of the base. Unfortunately, polishing did not work out since there was a loss of finish in some areas. So, we had to re-coat the bases to bring them back. The Restoration Plan:

  1. The base will be rebuilt using 2 part epoxy, to add strength to the original base
  2. The base exterior color matched to gold details found in the ceramic base.
  3. All exposed brass hardware will be replaced as to match the bright gold finish
  4. Total electrical rewire
  5. Replace base felt.

The Restoration:

  • As you can see, we rebuilt the base interior to add strength and support to the structure.
  • The base was refinished with an industrial grade material to match the gold highlights in the ceramic body.
  • We polished the exterior ceramic surface to reveal the natural highlights of the design.
  • The brass hardware was replaced with new parts. Harp saddle and final.
  • We replaced all the electrical parts including the socket, switch and cord. The wiring and cord were replaced with a period correct lamp cord and plug end.

During the dry fit process, I realized the base was uneven, so I had to resurface the base so it would sit flat on a table. Then I added a new felt skin to contain the exposed portion of the base.

As you can see in the final picture, the designer picked out a bright red shade with added trinkets around the lip. It may be hard to see, but there is a red detail in the ceramic body.  As she told me, the intent was to capture the kitschyness of the style and to not take it too serious, she did and I didn’t… Actually, in the right place, I kind of like them……… However, they can be yours:). 001 7/10/2014 Rodale Industrial Desk Lamp Model 87 Restoration While on vacation a couple of weeks ago, we were able to pick up a few lamps along the way. We typically look for the ones that appear on their last leg and are sitting off in the corner. Sometimes they end up as parts, other times they can be brought back to life. In this case, I found this Rodale #87 behind a display case. In the 30’s and 40’s, the American Industrial Age was in full swing. Several manufacturers made these highly durable desk (goose neck) lamps for businesses and manufacturing settings. The first picture is before we started.  Follow the story to see the process. Lamp Assessment: The lamp was intact and other than the cord, appeared functional. Electrically, it didn’t matter as it would be completely rewired.  The decorative base was a bit tarnished, and clam shell cover had a couple of “character dings” in it. Disassembly: I took the lamp apart and found it structurally sound. The goose necks are usually the problem in these types of lamps. Sometimes they can loosen up because the inner flange is just flared to keep them in place. This one looked good. These lamps were built tough. Per the designer, she wanted to leave as much of the patina as possible on this one. It had some white speckles, from some unknown source. So the plan is to just clean it as best as possible. The Restoration Plan:

  1. Use light bodied solvent to clean the surfaces
  2. Lightly polish
  3. Replace the electrical socket, switch and cord
  4. Re-surface the base so it will sit flat and not wobble and add felt to the base.

disassembledsurfaced bottomThe Restoration:

  • The cleaning and polishing proceeded as expected. I did take a little of the finish off, but not enough to change the appearance
  • We replaced all the electrical parts including the socket, switch and cord. The wiring and cord were replaced with a period correct lamp cord and plug end.
  • Using 80 grit sand paper combined with a flat surface, I was able to smooth the base. Then I added a piece of felt to the base so the metal surface would not scratch a desk top.

FinishedAs you can see in the final picture, the appearance didn’t really change much in the picture as that was the plan. If you look close, you can see the built in paper clip holder and pencil rest. To add a 21st century touch, I also dropped a 2g zip drive on the base as well.  I consider this a survivor project as it turned out to be a nice functional, safe working lamp that will give many more years of service.  I like the way this one turned out, I may actually keep this in my office for a while. If it grows on me, it may stay. If you have an old lamp on its last leg, let us help you bring it back to life or give it a new home. We can either keep them intact as we did this one or do a complete “like new” restoration.  

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