Nautical Lights Ahoy - Restoration & Design for the Vintage House | Old House Online
Mid-20th-century ship lights are rewired and polished up to become attractive wall sconces or lamps.
A variety of salvaged ship lights hang on a wall at Olde Good Things in New York.

A variety of salvaged ship lights hang on a wall at Olde Good Things in New York.

Ship lights used for illumination and navigation boast simple, durable design. As salvage, these lights are wonderful for use indoors and out, as a wall sconce in the bath or on the porch, as a table lamp, even as path lighting in the garden.

Once the fixture is rehabbed, you may need a shade; clear and frosted glass provide ample light. (You can always use a low-wattage or yellow or rosy-tone bulb.) For a table lamp, how about a shade crafted from a navigational chart, like those custom made by Skipjack Nautical Wares?

nautical lamp

Nautical-style lamp.

A Quick Rehab for Ship Lights

1. Blasting Away
Ship lights are often covered in thick marine paint encrusted with salt and debris. Big Ship Salvage prefers soda blasting (20 psi) for stripping: sodium bicarbonate shot with compressed air to remove paint, rust, salt, and mold. It’s much less damaging than sandblasting (120 psi).

2. Polishing Up
Once down to the brass or copper base, the lights are polished with 3M Polishing Compound (Brasso is good for smaller lights). Try a buffing wheel with an angle grinder and wool polishing pad. Car polishes such as Turtle Wax also make old metal sparkle. Dampen the pad before rubbing it in compound, and keep it moist so it doesn’t cause friction burn during application. Carefully buff to the desired polish. Bronze or brass wool pads can be used for a matte finish. Avoid steel wool as it will mark up the metal. Protect the finish with carnauba wax or seal it with a clear semi-gloss or gloss lacquer.

If you find an old lamp unpainted and in good condition, Skipjack’s Joe Elder says to preserve patina by soaking the lamp in a solution of 1 gal. white vinegar with 3 gal. water for 30 minutes. Finish with a clear car or furniture wax (like Briwax).

3. Rewiring & Hanging
You must rewire every lamp. Trick of the trade: Twist or electrical-tape the ends of new wire to old; as you pull the old wire the new cord is drawn into the fixture. A U.L.-approved porcelain socket is set in the fixture with screws or a stud in the base. Wall sconces may be direct-wired to a wall switch or a pull-chain and thumb switch. 

Old ship lights in brass and copper may be stripped and polished, or their patina left intact. They convert well to durable home lighting fixtures that come with an interesting history.

Old ship lights in brass and copper may be stripped and polished, or their patina left intact. They convert well to durable home lighting fixtures that come with an interesting history.

What Do The Ship Light Colors Mean?
Colored light is an important navigational tool, indicating position of boats and helping avoid collisions. They are required between sunset and sunrise. Red lights are fastened on the port side, and signify that an oncoming boat will be on your right, and so has the right of way. Green lights are on the starboard side, signifying that oncoming traffic will be to the left, and you have right of way. A white light is mounted on the stern to be seen from all directions. Yellow light means that a lead boat is towing another.

Unique Ship Light Resources

Shipyard salvage is a thriving industry; here’s where to look.

Big Ship Salvage
Nautical Antiques
Olde Good Things
Our Boat House 
• Shiplights
Skipjack Nautical Wares

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