Refurbishing Our Outdoor Lights

One of my husband Chris’s hobbies is to refurbish vintage Coleman lanterns.  He finds them through various sources, corroded and tarnished, and by the time he is done with them they look better than new.

Left to right: A kerosene-burning Coleman Model #249 from November of 1955 with a nickel-plated brass fount; a Coleman Model #L427 Quick Lite with a mica globe from March of 1926; and a Coleman Model #200A from August of 1962

But the steps he takes to transform them cross squarely into “mad scientist” territory, with cauldrons of chemicals bubbling away on the stove.

Still, there is no arguing with the results.  And recently he’s put his slightly terrifying talents to work on a couple of our home’s long-neglected light fixtures.

Our Sad-Looking Outdoor Sconces

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We found our two craftsman-style outdoor sconces years ago on a closeout table at Rejuvenation.  They were identical except that one had amber glass shade panels and the other had white panels.  But the price was right, and they were a great style for our old house.  So we bought them despite the mismatched shades.

They were lacquered brass, but over time the lacquer wore off and the brass became corroded.

One was hanging next to our back door,

And the other one next to the “people” door on our detached garage.

There is a fine line between a nice vintage patina and a finish that just looks tired and corroded, and to us they had crossed that line.

These fixtures had been bugging us for a while – both because of their sad state and because we wanted a back-door light fixture that matched our charcoal-colored door.

So Chris decided to try his hand at refurbishing them.

Disassemble, Submerge, And Dry

The first thing he did was to remove the sconces from the wall and then remove the glass shades from the sconces and any screws and other hardware that came off easily.

Then came the don’t-try-this-at-home part of the project:  He mixed a ratio of one teaspoon of citric acid powder per one litre of water and set it to boil in a large pot on the stove.

Then he submerged the light fixtures and small metal parts he’d removed (but not the glass shades) into this steaming witch’s cauldron and let it simmer for about a half hour to 45 minutes, turning the fixtures when needed to make sure every part had its proper boiling time.

This step had me Googling “Is breathing citric acid vapors safe?”  So is it? Not really, especially in large amounts (whatever that means).

I opened the windows and stayed well away.

(Health and safety concerns aside, Chris tells me that diluted citric acid is a great compound for removing corrosion from brass and some other metals, although he changes the water-to-citric-acid ratio depending on which metal he is cleaning.  Seems that further research is key here if you actually feel compelled to experiment with this compound.  Use caution! And one important caveat, when working with brass, is that the citric acid bath does turn brass pink, so the brass needs to be polished after its bath with brass polish and/or super fine grade steel wool.)



Anyway, he eventually removed the parts from the cauldron and rinsed them in fresh water.  Then he dried them in the oven at 200°F for about a half hour.

Finally they left the kitchen.

Steel Wool And Paint

The hot citric acid bath had removed much of the corrosion, but Chris still went over all the metal pieces with #0000 super fine grade steel wool.

This created a smooth surface on the fixtures. They were starting to look so much better.


Chris cleaned off the steel wool residue and spray painted the fixtures with Rust-Oleum Metallic Paint and Primer in One in Oil Rubbed Bronze.

Then, in another don’t-try-this-at-home moment, he put them back in the oven for 30 minutes at 200°F.

He let them cool and put the pieces back together, being very careful not to scratch any of the pieces in the process.

He also needed to re-engineer a bracket that held one of the glass panels on, as it had broken off. And, on one of the fixtures, he replaced a strange twist-and-pull socket, meant only for florescent bulbs, with a new socket that could accommodate LED bulbs.

The Glass Shades

The shades were the easy part.  They just needed a light cleaning with a spray-on window cleaner.

The Result

Before the refurbishing, these light fixtures were drab and easy to overlook.  Now they have more presence.  I love how well the new color works with our back door.

And the new color provides a nicer contrast to the shades.

I’m glad that we didn’t need to buy new light fixtures.  To me, it’s much better to refurbish what we already have.  As with his vintage lanterns, Chris made these light fixtures look better than new.


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