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 the room that we likely won’t spend much time in.

So I was very excited when we were walking through an antique shop and Brian spotted four matching 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.

The tools we used for this project are below:

  1. Lamp cord
  2. Dremel rotary tool
  3. Rotary tool metal polishing tips
  4. Simichrome Polish
  5. Microfiber cloth
  6. Cotton swabs
  7. Dish soap
  8. Shallow tub
  9. Toothbrush
  10. Wooden skewers
  11. 18 guage electrical wire
  12. Pliers
  13. Fishing line

The first step was to test the wiring and components. We purchased a lamp cord and found that all of the sconces worked perfectly. However, we decided to rewire them because the original wire was ancient and cloth-covered and they 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. To keep it secure, we bent the end of the wire over the fishing line.

Unfortunately, in one of the arms, the fishing line pulled free and was stuck in the middle of the arm. I panicked slightly, but we were able to get the finishing line through the arm by using the air compressor. It turned out that some of the fabric from the existing wire had torn off and was blocking the fishing line. Once the fishing line was through, we tied one end to the other so that it did not accidentally get pulled out of the fixture as we would need it to pull the new wires through once the metal was cleaned.

Cleaning the fixtures

The next step was to thoroughly clean the brass. The fixtures were covered in dirt and grime and the edges had varying colors of paint were the surrounding 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.

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 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.

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

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. 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 also want to wear old clothing as it will get on your clothing and make them smell of 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.

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.

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

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