Basic care – Lamps and light fixtures

This is a complicated topic. Imagine the number of variations on the theme of lighting rooms over history. Where do you even begin? It will make things much simpler if you categorize the object by which materials it is made of, such as wood, metal, ceramics, glass, rubber and plastic. You can find advice on the care and preservation of these materials elsewhere on this website. For example, our sections on brass and copper, or glass and ceramics, will help you care for many 19th-century oil lamps. You can also click on objects made of iron, silver and wood, which may help with candlesticks, candelabras and so on. Try to think of the object in terms of its materials, rather than what it is, and let your mouse do the navigating.

Electrical fittings

Old electric light fittings must be handled with special care. When electric lights were first manufactured for domestic use, the insulating materials were not as stable as those we use today. Copper conducting wires were coated with natural rubber, sometimes with cotton wrapping. This material can become very brittle with age, causing the insulation to fall off, with the risk of short circuits and possible electrocution. Also, the design of plugs, sockets and other electrical fittings has changed considerably. The older ones might not be safe as the materials from which they are made may have deteriorated. Check switches to ensure they still operate with a positive click. Any softness in the operation of a switch may mean that the spring is damaged or missing. Such a switch is dangerous. Old bulbs are increasingly valuable. If your lamp has an early-appearing bulb, do not use it. Replace it with a new one, provided it fits, and preserve the original.

All electrical fittings have nuts and bolts and screws holding them in place and securing the wires to give good electrical contact. Always use a screwdriver that fits the screw head correctly to avoid damage. Screws made of brass (because it conducts well) are softer than the more common steel ones. Start turning the screws gently because there is a risk of snapping if they are corroded into their threaded counterparts. Sometimes it is possible to free a stuck screw by heating the head with the tip of an electric soldering iron. Heat for about 15 seconds, allow the screw to cool, and try again. A little light lubricating oil might also help, but be sure that it does not spread too far.

Making an old lamp work raises a dilemma – you cannot have the lamp working if it is unsafe, but it is not wise to destroy original material on a heritage item. If rewiring is considered necessary, remove the old wires and other fittings as carefully as possible, enclose them in a plastic zip-lock bag or other container, and put a written description or diagram in with them. In this way, any information on the original configuration is preserved. You'll never know if somebody in the future might find this interesting!

If there is any doubt about rewiring and using an old electrical fitting, consult a qualified electrician.

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These resources were published by the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI). For comments or questions, including reproduction requests, contact the CCI.

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