How to Refurbish an Old Lamp

Written by Mary Van Vliet of MaryOlive Design
Updated November 2, 2015
two vintage lamps behind couch
A lampshade should land at the bottom of the socket, so it doesn't obscure the vintage features of the lamp base. (Photo by Katelin Kinney

A New York interior designer shares details on restoring a vintage table lamp.

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I have been making lamps from recycled and vintage parts for a number of years, and love the creative buzz that comes from taking interesting pieces and making something unexpected, beautiful and functional. But sometimes you stumble on a vintage lamp that simply needs a little loving care and restoration, some updated wiring, and a pretty shade.

I found this lovely lamp (pictured below) while heading toward a dumpster. A house near me was being emptied for sale — its owners moving to smaller digs. I loved the classic shape of the light, and underneath the dirt and rusted parts, I knew there was an amazing lamp waiting to happen.

old vintage lamp
Old lamps for DIY projects are sold cheap at flea markets, estate and yard sales. I got this from a neighbor's trash pile when they moved. (Photo courtesy of MaryOlive Design)

Rewiring old lights

First, I ditch the cord. Chances are on a lamp this old the wiring is shot. My rule of thumb: if I bend the wire and it feels like it's going to crack, then I replace it — or, if it predates polarized plugs and both of the prongs are the same size.

I buy wire and plug sets from a parts supplier, but if you are doing it yourself, you can get wire and snap-on plugs from a hardware store. If you're not comfortable doing that, take it to a lamp store to have it rewired once you have refurbished it. You can find wiring diagrams online that make this a simple and easy task. 

Taking a vintage lamp apart

Looking at this lamp, I love everything about it and don’t feel much need to embellish the shape or change height, but I do see one area that needs improvement. The socket for this lamp is set right on top of the ceramic base. In order to site a shade properly, you might miss some of the prettiness of the full lamp piece — or alternatively, have some of the socket exposed.

Usually you want a lamp shade to come down to the bottom of the socket. Also, the harp saddle (which holds the wire “harp” that supports the shade) is the old fashioned type — it can’t be changed for size unless you take apart the lamp.

I replace it with a universal saddle, so I can change harp size without having to take off the socket. I take the lamp apart, unscrewing it from the top socket (on some lamps it's easier to get from the bottom) and disassemble.

My dad taught me this trick: if there are a lot of small parts — and there are with many lamps — line up the pieces carefully in the order you took them off the center rod. Then, after cleaning or refinishing each piece, put them back on in the same order. I hate getting a lamp all put back together and then finding another piece on my workbench.

When reassembling my vintage lamp, I find a rod from my workshop that is about an inch longer; when I am putting the lamp back together, I add a 1-inch brass “neck” to the top. This gives me a little clearance from the bottom of the shade to the top of the lamp, so you will see more of the lamp and it doesn’t “squish” the lamp shape if I want to cover the whole socket with the shade.

Cleaning the parts

While the lamp is apart, I scrub it thoroughly and let it dry. The old ceramic can take a lot of cleaning and is very durable. Sometimes, under all the dirt, you find a flaw. This time, I think it was probably a gap in the original glaze. 

I don’t want it to catch dirt, so after the lamp base is dry, I carefully put a little clear nail polish in the ding. It fills it nicely and evens the sheen so you don’t even see it.

Putting the finishing touch on your lamps

When you are ready to run the new wire, make sure you start through the “wireway” hole in the base, so the lamp will sit flat on the table. I also felt the bottom so it won't scratch the table.

I tighten with a socket wrench — tight enough so it feels stable, but with glass or ceramic you have to make sure you don’t put it together so tightly that you crack the pieces. Sometimes, where metal check washers meet the ceramic, I use a rubber washer to cushion it, so I can tighten it more without damaging the base.The only part left is finding the perfect lamp shade!

Have you ever fixed up an old light or made one out of old parts? Tell us about your refurbishing projects in the comments section below. 

This article originally appeard on the MaryOlive Design blog. 

About this Experts Contributor: Mary Van Vliet is owner of MaryOlive Design, where's she's been a Brooklyn, New York, interior designer and rescuer of vintage lamps since 1995. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

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