Lighting Restoration and Repair with Chris Ehrler
by Judy Gonyeau and Chris Ehrler
Antique and vintage lighting restoration and repair can bring buried treasure out of the dark ages and into the brightly lit rooms of today. In New England, especially in the Newport/New Bedford/ Providence area, the array of lighting found in homes and churches, by long-traveled roads and on the walls and ceilings of historic buildings is much broader in scope than many may think. According to light restorer and repairer Chris Ehrler, “A lot of the variety of lighting I see and work on is thanks to the seaports along the coast – especially having the Navy in Newport.” Chris, of Chris’ Lamp Repair in Providence, Rhode Island said, “From early on people and sailors were bringing in every type of light imaginable from around the world to this corner of America,” creating a sometimes challenging but always rewarding market to work within.
Coming from a background in lighting sales and service, Chris was drawn to the repair and restoration department and was surprised at the amount of work passing through its doors. “The amount of work was strong and steady and I learned this from the ground up,” said Chris. With experience and being licensed, Chris went out on his own and continues to have a steady flow of repairing lamps – sometimes up to 40 per week.
Living in Providence, Chris continued to gain expertise working on the variety of lights and lamps needing to be restored. This enhanced his interest and he was soon being called upon by designers, architects, and others to work on historic projects, including historic homes and buildings.
Lighting often creates that “ahh” moment a room comes together. When the early 1800s brought with it the era of bituminous gas enabling homes and streets to be lit during the night, lighting fixtures were often imports from countries with more experience making them because they started utilizing coal gas decades before the United States. These lights and fixtures tended to be ahead of the curve in design and construction. Restoring these to their “original beauty” takes layers of knowledge and sources who can create or provide the parts and pieces needed for the job.
It is important to be authentic to the project, but sometimes that is not possible. Working with a restoration professional on an antique you want faithfully restored may involve having a section such as an arm or base of a light re-created using a “creative genius of a metal worker and sometimes a foundry. This can lead to higher expense, and that is an investment decision the owner needs to make,” said Chris. At times, a replacement part may be available that will work out, but whenever possible it is good to use a matching part from the era. Replacement metal frames and arms of a chandelier are returned to Chris in the form of unfinished brass. This allows the finish to be darkened to match the rest of the piece.
The renovation of the three main foyer chandeliers at Newport’s Vanderbilt Hall required a different type of restoration to the finish. The chandeliers were original to the building and had been removed many years ago – the frames were not easily found. Luckily, during a renovation in 2006, the original frames were found in the attic but had suffered from rust and decay to the finish. “I carefully sanded and removed much of the damage to the finish. Once that was done, I had to restore the damaged sections with a faux-finish as replacing the entire frames did not make sense at that point. This project also involved complete rewiring and the replacing of most of the crystal. They are now hanging back in the front stairway of the building,” said Chris.
Glass: The Often Broken or Missing Element
Completing a restoration on a chandelier can involve even more than meets the eye. Often finding the glass to replace those that have broken or are missing can be no small feat. “While glass makers were creating the panes and pendants used on chandeliers and other fixtures, they were also polluting the environment, with the remnants of glass-making getting into the land and water. As the government introduced stricter environmental standards, many closed their doors rather than invest the amount of money they needed to comply to new regulations,” said Chris. And, since a great deal of lighting glass is imported, restrictions overseas also affect inventories. Vianne Glass in France was one of the biggest glass companies in Europe. At one time, they listed over 4,000 moulds that could make over 9,000 shapes in over 3,000 colors and tints. The company, founded in 1928, was forced to close its doors in 2005 due to environmental restrictions. As these items become scarcer, finding a match may prove more difficult.
That being said, there are many glass craftsmen who are able to re-create or fabricate glass that matches the rest of the light. Working on an outdoor torch lantern from about 1900 at a historic tavern in Newport, Chris noted that “Great care must be taken to strip and re-coat these properly. It is also important to try and use authentic frosted or seeded glass in these fixtures.” This is where the skill of a glassblower comes into play in order to make the right kind of glass and bring it to the right style of finish and color.
The Old Gas Lamp
While some may think the conversion from gas to electricity is a thing of the past, “they are still out there. I do a lot of gas conversions,” said Chris. Work on gas lights ranges from replacing the glass on a street lamp to converting an entire small Rhode Island theater’s lights from gas to electricity. Working on a gem like the theater, “is my favorite type of work,” said Chris. “This little theater was over 200 years old with a small stage and all wood floors and ceilings – and gas lighting. I like being able to make those beautiful original fixtures work again.”
“I love old outdoor lanterns. They are like an endangered species,” said Chris. “Those from the gas era are usually very well made from cast iron and brass, and I get great satisfaction when I can save a beautiful old lantern.”
Even as interior gas lights have gone out and are often replaced with modern lighting, the outdoor gas lamps and sconces continue to grace many homes to greet guests and show the way in. A large gas lantern in Fall River dating to the 1890s needed to be made useable so its owners could leave the fixture on all night. The restoration of such a piece that had been out in the weather and unused for decades started by stripping it to its foundation, priming and re-building the finish to a gloss black. One trick Chris uses for getting the right color and finish? Leather dye. “I find that I can carefully apply layers of dye to bring the metal to the color it needs to be. When you see a painted light you know its been painted. But using this allows me to maintain the detail and it looks truer to the original.” Matching the finish can be like matching a wood stain – it takes a trained eye to create a duplicate.
After refinishing the metal, new glass panels were cut out of old matching glass to preserve the original look. The old gas and electrical fittings were replaced with a new fluorescent system to save energy. “The frosted panels hide the modern guts and save the original look.”
Care and Maintenance: The Chandelier
Keeping these often high-hanging beauties looking their best is no small feat. “Chandeliers are cleaned in-place. And because it is seen as a painstakingly tedious task, it is important to do it correctly and with a great deal of patience,” said Chris. Often working from a ladder or scaffolding, it all happens with an easy, benign solution: water with a very low percentage of white vinegar. “If the chandelier needs a strong cleaning, I spray a large amount of the solution onto the crystals, with a large dropcloth underneath to capture the solution. Then I let it dry in place.” Using the weak solution will not affect the finish on the metal. The next step is to spray each individual piece of glass and gently wipe with a soft cloth, or use a lightly moistened soft cloth. “The first spray is to loosen the dirt and the second is to clean the glass.” From then on it is spray and wipe. Spray and wipe.
Favorite Restoration: St. Joe’s in Newport
“This was an amazing experience,” said Chris. This project was a master plan in organized restoration many years in the making. St. Joseph’s sanctuary, dating from 1919, was undergoing an almost total restoration. Architects, painter, electricians, historians and parishoners of this church came together to complete their work within the short timetable of six months. “My contribution was to re-wire and clean the original 11 bronze chandeliers. The three largest pieces were left hanging and completed in place. The scaffolding in place was intricate as this was taking place at the same time as other parts of the restoration. The other eight chandeliers were completed on-site in a large garage at the parish. It was with the help of several strong parishioners that all the chandeliers were able to be put back in their original locations,” said Chris. “It was a fantastic learning experience and a lot of fun.”
Look for the cloth cord and plan on getting it replaced. Also, if it is a plastic cord but shows any signs of being dry and starting to crumble, replace it. Is it necessary 100% of the time? No, but it is always better to have it replaced.
If you have a light you think needs to be re-wired, don’t be surprised if that doesn’t do the trick. A high percent of time it’s the socket that needs to be replaced because they tend not to last and succumb to heat.
When buying an older light, you want to make sure it is not made of white/pot metal but of brass or bronze, so bring a magnet with you. A magnet will not work with brass and bronze, but will with pot metal.
DO NOT use polish or any polishing spray on your brass and bronze lights as they may ruin the finish. Chris suggests using water and a small amount of silicone mixed with it if you need to get after some grunge or dirt that has accumulated on the surface, but otherwise a damp soft cloth is all you need.
Be aware of the state of the metal when buying that antique light. If you are buying “off the field” these have often been left in garages and sheds or even outdoors for decades. Check the finish. While a distressed style is in style, be sure to check just how much real decay is evident in the metal as the elements will take their toll.
The age of a light may not be what you think it is. This is because as innovation in lighting happened around centers of industry, other parts of the U.S. often waited a few decades to be brought up to the latest standards. It is not that they are not true to a certain time, it is more that they are true to a certain lighting delivery system. What one may think is a reproduction may not be the case.
Many calls are placed to Chris during antique show season and from clients around the world sending photos of lighting seen everywhere from Brimfield to Paris asking if it looks “right” or is “worth the money” the seller is asking. “It all comes down to what you like,” said Chris. “If you like it and it makes sense for you, buy it.”
Chris Ehrler is the owner of Chris’ Lamp Repair in Providence, RI. In the business for twenty-two years, he has and continues to work on repair and restoration of lighting for historic homes and buildings throughout the region. He works on lights from all eras and also does custom design work. Along with repair and restoration, Chris also does packing with custom crating, shipping, storage, and installation of lighting fixtures. Crystal chandeliers are a specialty. He can be found at chrislamprepair.com.