Cleaning An Old Light Fixture

vjrntsNovember 24, 2006

My husband and I bought a really nice old light fixture very much like this one. It fits the age and style of our house much better than the generic chandelier that hangs over our dining table now. It's a little grimey though, and of course shows its age. How do I clean it without removing the patina? (When I was talking about cleaning it, and trying to determine the original finish, the lady at the antique shop looked very distressed. I assured her that I wanted to take the dirt off, not take the old off!)

So, what would you all suggest to clean off an old metal light fixture without stripping the original finish? Just good old soap and water?

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We just cleaned one almost exactly like yours. Get good old baking soda, add a bit of water to make a paste. Use super fine steel wool and start rubbing the paste onto the metal. Rinse regularly. The gook and grime vanishes. Once you are done, polish the fixture with one coat of paste wax. It will be gorgeous!

    Bookmark   November 24, 2006 at 7:35PM
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Oh, really, steel wool? Ha, I was thinking of a really soft toothbrush! I'm so afraid of marring the original finish; this fixture is really in good condition. It's old and dirty and has a few paint drops on it, a few scrapes and dings, but we knew immediately that we wanted it.

Steel wool? It doesn't scratch?

    Bookmark   November 24, 2006 at 8:01PM
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Really, steel wool it is! But you have to be absolutely sure that you get super fine. I think it's 000 (triple zero). It doesn't scratch at all. I'd post a picture of our light but my husband is sleeping now in the room it's in. I promise you, with the waste, it's gorgeous!

    Bookmark   November 24, 2006 at 11:29PM
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#0000 (AKA 4/0) is the finest grade.
I would test some paint thinner and use that if it did not damage the finish.

    Bookmark   November 25, 2006 at 1:15PM
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brickeyee, why would you use paint thinner? Doesn't that chance taking off the original finish?

    Bookmark   November 25, 2006 at 7:42PM
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Most finiahes are pretty immune to paint thinner. Even shellac.
Test in a small area with a q-tip. If ony dirt coes off use the thinner.
It removes grease and grime and is the least aggressive solvent.
Water can rust steel if the finish has any defects.
Even paint thinner soluble finishes usually need a lot of thinner and time to cause harm.
Mechanical cleaning (steel whool, non-woven abrasive) is almost alway smore damaging than mild solvent.
You can alo try denatured alchohol, but if the brass is lacqured it can remove the lacquer or soften it and cause wrinkling.

    Bookmark   November 25, 2006 at 9:09PM
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Lucky you to have found a real antique light fixture! Not that Rejuvenation's reproductions aren't gorgeous. When we moved into our 1910 house, most of the original light fixtures on the first floor were still here (talk about lucky). They were filthy, though, hadn't been cleaned in decades. My husband cleaned them. He used the finest steel wool on some of the brass parts, but can't remember what cleaning agent he used. Probably mild dishwashing liquid would be good. On some he just used a soft rag with soap. The patina was undisturbed but they were clean when he finished.

    Bookmark   November 26, 2006 at 12:41AM
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Ours didn't need paint thinner nor were we willing to use it on the fixture. The idea of testing is a good one but I'd avoid chemicals and, yes, I'm basing this on experience.

    Bookmark   November 26, 2006 at 7:01AM
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Watch out for that deadly chemical dihydrogen monoxide.
Kills hundreds every year.

    Bookmark   November 26, 2006 at 5:53PM
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I know all about dihydrogen monoxide. And to think that we let our babies play in it, just all willy-nilly, in the old days!

Well, you guys have got me going back and forth here, which is what happens when you ask for help on a forum where people have a lot of varied experiences!

Thanks very much. I think I'm going to try a drop of paint thinner and see what happens; I really am afraid of abrading the surface with steel wool, but I might give that a try too.

Who wants to see a picture when I'm done?

    Bookmark   November 27, 2006 at 8:26AM
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Here are (before( pictures. The shades are flawless, in perfect condition.

Here is a link that might be useful: Before pictures of our period dining room light

    Bookmark   November 27, 2006 at 10:15AM
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Very nice. There are plenty of these pan fixtures available on eBay. I did my house with fixtures from eBay, although not that early.

Ooo, I was a bad mom. Let my kids play in dihydrogen monoxide anytime they wanted.


    Bookmark   November 27, 2006 at 8:57PM
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Using a correct solvent is much better than anything abrasive.
Even fine paintings arecleaned with a mild detergent (a chemical!!!) and distilled water (often using q-tips).
A solvent that does not damage teh underlying material will remove dirt, grease, and grime with a minimal effect on the article.
Water and many old finishes are a bad combination. If tehre are any defects in the surface film rust can occur and cause serious damage to the finish and the article.
Paint thinner, denatured alcohol, rubbing alcohol, and very mild detergents are the typical itmes of choice.
Water an mild detergents work fine on surfaces and substrates known to be relatively immune to moisture.
I have earned more money repairing wooden furniture damaged by Murphy's Oil Soap than you can shake a stick at.
It works fione if the finish os perfect (and very few are).
As soon as there is the slightest defect in the finish filkm the water penetrates and starts lifinting more and more of the finish.

    Bookmark   November 27, 2006 at 10:28PM
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I have used paint thinner and gotten off a lot of dirt, but the fixture doesn't look much better. The arms holding the sockets, the finial and the knob on the bottom are definitely cast iron that had at one time been bronzed, I think. (At least, judging from the faint traces of goldy-yellow gleams that remain. Most of the iron surface is rusty, though, and of course no matter how I clean it, the rust will reappear.)

I used 0000 steel wool too, in a couple of inconspicuous places, but I'm not sure if that's removing dirt or finish. I'm not sure if I want to remove only the dirt or a little finish.

Now I'm torn. I'm considering getting the arms, finial and knob re-bronzed both for looks and to protect the cast iron, but then the body of the light would look terrible in contrast, so I guess it's either restore completely or clean as best I can and use it in its antique state. Either choice is doable and I can argue either side.

What would you all do?

    Bookmark   December 3, 2006 at 9:51AM
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..."the rust will reappear."

\Not really. Rust requires mosite and oxygen. Restrict either and the problem stops.
If the article was painted and the rust is light surface rust you can restore the surface.
Naval Jelly will remove the rust and leave a chemcially clean surface. It is also likely to remove any remaining finish on the piece, so decide if this is a piece to be retored for use or left as is for collecting.
Once the surface is clean it can be primed, painted, and any other decorative finish re-created.
Any 'collector' value is likely to be gone already if most of the finish is destroyed (but some folks do collect weird things).
Unless the item is truly rare, I would restore it and use it.

    Bookmark   December 3, 2006 at 11:01AM
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Any chance you can post a couple of picture of what it looks like now?

    Bookmark   December 3, 2006 at 5:33PM
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Sure. Click on the link.

Here is a link that might be useful: Renovating lighting.

    Bookmark   December 3, 2006 at 5:41PM
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brickeyee, I say the rust will reappear because oxygen and moisture (that's what you meant to type, not "mosite"?) are always present. We live in WNY, and the humidity is high in the summer. I'm afraid that leaving those cast iron parts nice and clean will mean rust sooner or later; iron doesn't have to be wet to rust, it just needs moisture in the air. So, as you say, one or the other has to be restricted, and that is the problem, I guess.

There is a very little bit of the original finish on these parts, just a little, but it looks as though they were either painted gold or perhaps bronzed. (Although I have to ask what happened to the bronze if that is the case. The finish is left on some of the high-relief areas, not in the crevices, and you'd think it would wear off of the high points first.)

Argh. My husband just wants to hang it as is, but once it's up, it's up. And I don't like the rust.

    Bookmark   December 3, 2006 at 10:11PM
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If I may repeat my earlier suggestion, seal it with paste wax. That will prevent moisture from causing new rust.

    Bookmark   December 3, 2006 at 11:19PM
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I'm resurrecting this old thread to update it. I used a lotta Brasso and a lotta elbow grease, but this light fixture is gorgeous now. Up there where I say that there's little of the original finish left? WRONG! It was just so badly tarnished that it looked black.

Here it is:

    Bookmark   July 14, 2007 at 11:02AM
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The fixture is brass, it will not rust.

    Bookmark   July 15, 2007 at 4:46PM
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Um, yeah. At least, the brass parts won't rust. The cast iron parts that are brass-plated could, though, if the brass is breached. The finial, the nut at the bottom and the arms all are attracted to a magnet, so there is iron or nickel there somewhere.

The brass will tarnish, however, and I have no desire to repeat the scrubbing that took the tarnish off this time. I waxed the brass parts. I'm hoping that will hold the tarnish at bay.

    Bookmark   July 15, 2007 at 5:32PM
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I guess I was absent when your saga started. I've restored 3 light fixtures vert similiar to yours. I tried everything and Brasso with 4-0 steel wool is what worked for me. I did take each fixture apart first which made it easier to handle. After it was shiney clean, I heated and laquered one fixture to prevent tarnish. I'm glad I only did one since it tarnished under the laquer; I'm ignoring it and leaving it for the next owner to deal with. The others I swipe at with Brasso on a soft cloth whenever I paint the rooms they're in. I don't remove them and I don't work at it so they shine up at the high points and look really nice.

I'm interested in knowing how the wax works for you.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2007 at 11:16PM
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