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Renovating a Light Fixture

By J. Patrick T. O’Toole

At the meeting of the Building & Grounds Committee convened on Wednesday, July 7, 2021, discussion turned to two damaged entry lights. One of the lights hung above the door to the parish offices. After a brief history of how the light was damaged, Rev. Dr. Scott White asked, “Would someone please fix that light?”

I saw this as an invitation. Repairing antique light fixtures was a bit of a hobby. I always had a penchant for this work. During my service in the U.S. Air Force (1983-1991), I was trained as an electrician. I earned my wages as an electrician for quite some time once I took a civilian job. And I have repaired more than a few antique fixtures. I guess I am drawn to them.

With the help of Glenn Childes and Art Garst, I removed the damaged fixture on Saturday, July 24, 2021. I took it to my workshop for assessment. The light fixture dated to at least 1961, when the new parish offices were constructed. I found an Underwriters Laboratories sticker on the fixture with a date of 1959.

The fixture was in poor shape. A troubled individual had struck it with a stick in or about 2018. Glenn recounted the event for me. When they struck the light, they broke four of the five art glass panels, and they bent one of the housing’s corner stiles.

The sixty-year-old paint had failed. Little evidence remained that the light was even painted. Bare copper showed through in a few places. The brass finials were so corroded that I thought they had been painted.

Lacking glass, the fixture became a haven for wasps. Immediately behind the lamp, a hardened mud wasp nest filled a considerable portion of the conical top. The old interior aluminum paint had failed and was flaking off the rear reflector sheet.

Electrically, the fixture needed help. The socket was original. When the light was struck, the hickey (i.e., connector between the central nipple and socket) was bent. Someone straightened it a bit, but the metal was broken. The wiring was original. It was brittle from being overheated, and the insulation had begun to fail.

At some time in the past decade or so, someone modified the light to work with a photocell. The photocell’s wiring had come into direct contact with the lamp, and it was baked brittle. The insulation was cracked,

and it had fallen off in places. Electrically, everything needed to be replaced.

And so, I carefully disassembled the fixture. I scrubbed the copper frame and found a few loose joints. I sanded, filed, and resoldered the questionable joints. They were square and solid when I finished.

With the damaged corner stile on the housing, I had to fabricate a metal brake out of pieces of beveled oak. I clamped them to the back side of the stile and re established the correct appearance to the corner. It looked like its siblings once again.

With the housing restored, I sanded the metal gently and prepared it for painting. I painted the back reflector panel with two coats of high heat white. I wanted to brighten the interior as much as possible. I

then applied two coats of high heat primer, sanding between coats. And I applied two coats of hammered finish high heat topcoat.

My wife hates me for this, but when I rebuild an antique like this, I always bake my painted pieces in the oven. I have found that baking a fixture for about twenty minutes at about 150 degrees after every painted coat helps to create a durable finish. The oven smells funny for a day or two, but the fixture looks beautiful. This light received four low heat baking sessions.

While I was building up the painted finish, I scrubbed all the brass finials in a mild acid wash. I carefully removed as much corrosion as I could, and I gently buffed the unfinished brass to a pleasant luster. I had to search the catalog of my favorite antique lamp supply company to find two brass finials that matched the originals “close enough.” I could not find the urn-and-cap style selected in the 1961 original. So, I selected a “good enough” replacement that matched the overall dimensions.

I then reassembled the fixture, beginning with the electrical components. The light received a new socket, new wires, a new photocell, new connectors, and a spiffy new LED bulb. Electrically, it was a new lamp. Structurally, it was still sixty years old.

When I reassembled the fixture, the difference was remarkable. With glossy fresh paint and polished brass, the fixture was handsome once again. But it lacked one of its most distinctive features: Art glass.

Shortly after I brought the fixture to my workshop, I took the one remaining piece of glass to a local shop that specializes in art glass and stained glass. The 1961 original glass had a distinctive rippled surface, and

the glass had a pearlescent quality. The craftsmen at the glass shop were able to find a near-exact replacement. While I was rebuilding the light’s housing, my friends were cutting replacement panels for the lantern.

And so, on the cool afternoon of Wednesday, August 4, 2021, I returned the renovated light fixture to Trinity Episcopal Church. It had been in my workshop for ten days. Glenn Childes helped me to reinstall the light, and we tested it. Just as in my workshop, it produced a warm, welcoming glow. With the hint of autumn in the air, I knew this light had a lot of work ahead of it. As I make my way in an out of the church for the Celtic Service on Sunday evenings, I know this light will keep the entry bright.

Sixty years old on the outside and brand new on the inside, this light is ready for continued service to Trinity’s community. Gosh, I’m sixty years old on the outside. Perhaps there is a craftsman who can help me to feel brand new on the inside? If so, I will continue to seek this skilled individual.

Each of us receives gifts we do not anticipate for fully understand. Isn’t life amazing?

Patrick O'Toole


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