Restoring antique brass light fixtures

Our 100-year-old house has me doing things I never thought I would have to do. Most recently, I have learned to restore antique brass light fixtures.

Before and after photos of sconce restoration
Before and after photos of sconce restoration

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The fixtures

In our very traditional dining room, there are four wall sconces. We wouldn’t necessarily choose to have wall sconces in this room, but it would be difficult and expensive to remove them (trust me, I asked the electrician). I spent quite a bit of time searching for the right sconces to compliment our new brass chandelier, but everything we found that we liked was rather expensive. We found several beautiful sconces that were $300 – $400 each, but couldn’t justify spending as much as $1,600 on sconces for a room that we don’t spend much time in.

So I was very excited when we were walking through an antique shop and Brian spotted four matching antique brass sconces for $50 each. The wiring was ancient and they were covered in dirt and soot, but they were really lovely and period-appropriate to our 100-year-old house. So we purchased them (after running them by our designer) and brought them home to restore.

Tools Used

The tools we used for this project are below:

  1. Lamp cord
  2. Dremel rotary tool
  3. Rotary tool metal polishing tips (I went through almost two packs on this project)
  4. Simichrome Polish
  5. Microfiber cloths
  6. Cotton swabs
  7. Dish soap
  8. Shallow tub
  9. Toothbrush
  10. Wooden skewers
  11. 18 gauge electrical wire
  12. Pliers
  13. Fishing line
  14. Eye protection

The first step was to test the wiring and components. We purchased a lamp cord we we connected to the existing wiring to determine if the fixtures were functional. Thankfully, we found that all of the sconces worked perfectly. However, we decided to rewire them because the original wire was ancient and cloth-covered. In addition, the sconces had to be taken apart anyways to allow us to properly clean and polish them.

Removing the original wires

Removing the old wire was a bit tricky. We carefully tied fishing line to one end of the existing wire. We then used pliers to pull the other end of the wire through the fixture arms with the attached fishing line. This left a piece of fishing line in place of the wiring within each fixture. We then tied the two ends of the fishing line together to the other so that the line did not accidentally get pulled out of the fixture. We knew we needed the fishing line in place to pull the new wires through once the metal was cleaned.

Unfortunately, in one of the fixtures, the fishing line pulled free and was stuck in the middle of the arm. After a brief panic attack, we were able to get the finishing line through the arm by using our air compressor. It turned out that some of the fabric from the existing wire had torn off and was blocking the fishing line. The air compressor forced the fabric out of the fixture arm, clearing the way for the fishing line.

Cleaning the fixtures

The next step was to thoroughly clean the brass. The fixtures were covered in dirt and grime. The edges had paint on them suggesting that in their previous home the walls had been repainted without removing the sconces from the wall. I soaked the brass pieces in hot soapy water in a shallow dishpan and then scrubbed them with a scrub sponge. I also used a toothbrush to get into the small areas around the decorative parts.

In order to remove the paint from the edges of the brass plate, I used a wooden skewer. I found that soaking the fixture in the hot soapy water loosened the paint and made it easy to scrape off. I originally considered using a screwdriver or paint scraper but decided against this because I was afraid it would scratch the metal.

Various phases of the polishing process
Various phases of the polishing process

Polishing the brass

After doing some research, I first tried polishing the brass using natural methods. I started with ketchup, but the smell made me gag, so I switched to the lemon juice and baking soda. While this method was effective at removing the topmost layer of grime, it was not effective at removing the film that covered the fixture. I even tried using our Dremel rotary tool with this mixture but it wasn’t successful either.

It was my father-in-law who suggested using Simichrome polish. He was visiting and told me that he had been using it for the past 50 years to polish and restore metal.

We got some and tried it out with the dremel polishing tips. The effect was amazing. Within a few seconds, the polished areas changed color from a dirty brown to a mirrored gold. So, I ordered bulk polishing tips and got to work. I used cotton swabs to apply a bit of the Simichrome to a small area and then used the Dremel to polish it to a shine. Because the design of the sconces was so intricate, it was difficult to get into all of the crevices. I wasn’t too concerned about this because I didn’t actually want the sconces to look brand new. (We just didn’t want them to look like they hadn’t been cleaned in the last several decades.) The polishing process was extremely time consuming. I spent about six hours on each sconce and had to order even more polishing tips for the Dremel. By the end, I was pretty tired of polishing, but I think it was worth it.

Project tips

I have a few tips for anyone considering a similar project:

  1. When using the Dremel and Simichrome, I strongly recommend wearing eye protection. Even at a low speed the paste can get everywhere.
  2. Likewise, you will want to wear old clothing as the polish will get on your clothing and make it smell like metal.
  3. I also kept the Dremel at almost the lowest speed. I found that increasing the speed did not increase the efficacy but it did cause more of the Simichrome polish to fly everywhere.
  4. Finally, I recommend having a microfiber cloth nearby. After polishing a section, I would use the cloth to wipe away the dirt and discolored paste so that I could determine which areas needed additional attention.
One of the finished sconces in the dining room
One of the finished sconces in the dining room

Final steps

I had to spray paint the metal tubes that covered the sockets. They were almost grey, so we chose an off-white color because they are supposed to look like candles.

Once the pieces were clean, we used the fishing line to pull the new wire through the arms. We attached them to the existing sockets and added new bulbs.

If you enjoyed this piece on antique light fixtures, you might enjoy my post on restoring an antique buffet or using a vintage radio to hide your smart home speaker.

What do you think? Was it worth the time and effort?

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