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Old-House Online » Old-House Tips, Restoration Stories, & More » Interiors & Decor » Tips for Restoring Gas Lighting

Tips for Restoring Gas Lighting

Victorian-era gaslights were a major industry, and they can be a prime flea-market find today—if you know how to refurbish them.
By Brian Coleman

    A bronze gas fixture of cavorting cherubs, circa 1890, has been electrified to light a stairway. Wiring was concealed by threading it through the hollow newel post underneath.

    A bronze gas fixture of cavorting cherubs, circa 1890, has been electrified to light a stairway. Wiring was concealed by threading it through the hollow newel post underneath. (Photo: William Wright)

    Gas lighting was one of the major industries of the 19th century. First used for street lamps, by the mid-1800s, gas had replaced kerosene as the preferred source of lighting, as it was more economical and provided a more reliable, even source of light.

    Gas lighting became the third largest industry in the country, behind railroads and mining. Produced in municipal “gashouses” as a by-product of bituminous coal heated in airtight chambers, gas was driven off the coal, collected and purified, and then piped into homes and commercial buildings in nearly every city in the country. Gas was used to illuminate chandeliers, wall sconces (called “brackets”) and “portables,” which were table lamps that drew their gas from a flexible tube attached to an overhead light.

    But the era of gas lighting was to be short-lived, lasting just half a century. The invention of the light bulb in 1879 signaled the beginning of the end. As gas was initially cheaper and more reliable than electricity, transitional gas-and-electric combination fixtures were made at first (typically, the electric lights pointed down and the gas jets up).

    A lovely Grecian maiden "portable" table lamp has a rubber hose that funnels the gas from a chandelier overhead.

    A lovely Grecian maiden "portable" table lamp has a rubber hose that funnels the gas from a chandelier overhead. (Photo: Erik Kvalsvik)

    The introduction in 1908 of the durable, inexpensive tungsten filament light bulb, which is still in use today, was the final blow that recategorized gas lighting as old-fashioned and out of date, and relegated the energy source to secondary roles like the basement furnace and kitchen stove.

    Now with the rise of period home restoration, those old gas chandeliers and sconces are being rediscovered and restored. They can be found anywhere from vintage lighting dealers to local salvage companies, where simple gas fixtures can still be purchased at a reasonable price, usually under a few hundred dollars.

    Clean It Up

    If you’re thinking of installing a vintage gas fixture in your home, the first step is to make sure it’s in good working order. Start by cleaning it thoroughly—a straightforward process, but one that takes a bit of patience and the right materials.

    Go easy on intact finishes.
    If you’re lucky enough to find a fixture that has never been electrified and still has its original patina intact, gas lighting guru Paul Ivazes of Quality Lighting in Grass Valley, California, recommends using an all-purpose cleaner such as Simple Green, which removes dirt and grime but won’t disturb the original finish of the aged brass. Before starting, it’s important to completely disassemble the chandelier, which helps avoid leaving any excess soapy residue on the metal.

    An ornate, gilded bronze gas chandelier has been restored to its original glory, complete with flickering flames.

    An ornate, gilded bronze gas chandelier has been restored to its original glory, complete with flickering flames. (Photo: Erik Kvalsvik)

    Touch up spotty dirt.
    If the finish is in good shape but just needs a touch-up in a few spots, Paul suggests wetting a cotton swab with denatured alcohol and gently rubbing the soiled areas.

    Remove stubborn paint splatters.
    Old splatters from sloppy ceiling paint jobs are a common problem. Paul uses Green’s Liquid Paint Remover to remove any paint, lacquer, or varnish without disturbing the original color of the metal underneath. Often, a chandelier that’s been completely painted over is the easiest to restore, as paint can protect the original finish; once it’s removed, the metal can shine like new.

    If the fixture is spelter—an alloy of zinc made as a cheaper substitute for more substantial brass—and has a decorative painted finish, complete stripping and refinishing is often the only solution, as the underlying patina and color usually can’t be salvaged. To tell if the piece is spelter, lightly scratch the surface in an unobtrusive spot—spelter will look silver or white underneath.

    Rewiring Tips

    After cleaning, you’ll need to wire the fixture for electricity. (If you’re bent on authentic gas, be sure to check your local building codes, as today many cities don’t permit open-flame gas interior lighting).

    Wiring a gas fixture can be tricky, as gas chandeliers were designed for thin streams of gas, not thick, cumbersome electrical wire. Threading an electrical cord through a narrow gas arm can be difficult; you’ll need a steady hand and a good dose of perseverance.

    A small, beaded chain attached to the wire can be used to help pull it through the arm.

    A small, beaded chain attached to the wire can be used to help pull it through the arm. (Photo: Paul Ivazes/Qualitylighting.net)

    Blast a shot of compressed air through the entire gas line to make sure the path is clean and free of debris and burrs.

    Freeze the gas valves shut so they don’t turn and cut the wire; a drop of Loctite 680 on the gas valve stem effectively stops the valve cock from turning.

    Use the correct wire
    —18-gauge stranded wire works best. Paul rubs it with a dry bar of Ivory soap to help lubricate its passage, then attaches the end to a small beaded chain to help pull it down the narrow channel of the chandelier arm. If the passageway is too small, sometimes the only solution is to run the wire unobtrusively along the outside of the arm.

    Published in: Old-House Journal April/May 2011

    { 10 comments }

    Lynn S February 28, 2011 at 6:53 pm

    Once electrification is completed, how do you mount fixtures? I’ve been told there are only two sizes of mounting nipples and neither fits my gas pipe. I’ve been told gas pipes are threaded identically to plumbing pipes and they’re different from electrical threading. OK, that rules out conventional mounting hardware. I have a three-pronged ceiling mount from another fixture that might fit, but what do you screw it into? Modern electrical boxes don’t have plates with attachment points that fit the old three-legged mounts. All opinions welcome!

    Tony Toland March 5, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    Looking for a Philadelphia style gas street lamp which has been or could be electrified

    Bruce Geoffroy March 10, 2011 at 10:47 am

    I had an old light fixture original ro my house that didn’t have the mounting bracket. New ones didn’t match so I contacted an older electrician. He had collected old parts
    over the years and had just the parts I needed.

    Ken September 23, 2011 at 9:10 am

    It’s a shame to convert an antique gas fixture to electric. It’s like installing battery powered candles into your antique candlesticks. Building codes will eventually prohibit birthday candles. Sorry, but I guess I’m just one of those “bent” people as you stated.

    Craig September 26, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    My 1902 house still has the unused old gas lines coming out of the wall. If I can find an old gas fixture would it be safe to re-install them on the existing gas line providing I can figure out how to get the gas to the lines? I think it would be awesome and romantic to occasionally have the house lit with gas lights. Would this present a fire hazard?

    cyndi September 28, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    hello,my parents home used to have pipes sticking out of their walls and they told me it used to have gas lamps.I thought …what a scarey fire hazard! So the other day my dad handed me eight of the brass shut off valves that belonged to them!Some of them are more ornate than others but three in particular are pretty neat!I was wondering if there is a market for them I certainly dont want to scrap for metal!!!!Anyone have any ideas sincerly,cyndi

    Lin F July 23, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    I’m kinda disappointed- I thought the article would be about actually restoring them. Our cottage still has all the old gas lights still connected, but none of the nice hardware and glass. I want to actually make them functional, again; functional for when the power goes out, and just gorgeous the rest of the time.

    Janet December 8, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    I have an old wall lamp that was wired for electric and I want to use it again. Re-wiring isn’t the problem, but a bracket to hold the piece to the wall is nowhere to be found. This is a hanging wall lamp with a double walled glass shade which is silvered. Smooth on outside of shade, fluted on inside. Very cool – just need that confounded bracket!

    Robert Colby February 11, 2013 at 6:20 am

    Disappointed! The title of this page gives the impression that the article is about restoring gas lighting – it’s not! It should be called “Converting gas lighting to electricity.”

    Ari May 3, 2016 at 11:38 pm

    I, too, am disappointed in the content of this article. Though I came here looking for answers, I will leave what I know for the next person.

    Open flame lighting is not permitted for good reason. It was common in the first half of the 19th century, but feel by the wayside as mantle gas lighting replaced it. If you want to know how mantle lighting works, look into Coleman lanterns. They use the same chemistry and technology, with the addition of a vaporizer, called a ‘generator’ in the liquid fuel types.

    Natural gas can be safely used for lifting in a modern home, with one big caveat. Natural gas is more prone to incomplete combustion into monoxide than the manufactured gas these lamps originally used. Of course, the manufactured gas was mostly monoxide, anyway, which is why ovens were once used for suicides. A drafty house would certainly help, but I intend to have monoxide detectors.

    I’ve done a lot of things in my house involving a has fired kiln that should have put out a lot of monoxide. I’ve only set of a detector once. Still, be careful.

    The early open-flame lamps are the most likely culprits for monoxide issues because of their low temperature. They worked by spreading the flame into a fan or hollow tube shape for maximum lighting. The later mantle lights seemed to have the mantle perched atop a burner. Some I’ve seen have a second screw, possibly for air adjustment? It should be similar to a Bunsen burner. Mantles are delicate, and can need replacement frequently. Again, just the same as Coleman lanterns.



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