Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Use Luscious Lighting to Liven Livingrooms

By Matt Cantor
Friday January 12, 2007

I am something of a purist when it comes to our older housing stock. Well actually, let me revise that. What I really am is a lover of old houses and all the bits of antiquity that inhabit our cities. Buildings, signage, concrete sidewalk stamps and vintage cars.  

I guess I’m just permanently nostalgic and in love with a time before my birth. It’s not fair, really. I don’t genuinely believe that the past was uniformly preferable and Polio was no walk in the park. But there is something sweeter, more innocent and more cherishing of who we are that seems to inhabit the articles of our past. Modern buildings don’t seem to care who they sell to, who lives in them and whether they’re burned for firewood or just e-traded in on some junk bonds. A 1920s house would refuse such a sale. It would just lock itself up and grow vines. 

Ah, but as usual, I utterly digress. The reason I make the point about older homes is that I do, in point of fact, believe that portions of them tend to need revision. Despite the umbrage the old girl might take, I think that there are a few innovations that might make her a smidge more habitable. 

The one I’d like to tackle today is the matter of lighting. As anyone who’s ever owned a home from before 1940 will tell you, the built-in lighting leaves much to be desired and owners of older homes often salivate amidst soirées in modern homes. While the fenestration (window placement) in older homes is often quite good, electric lighting was quite new in the first half of the 20th century and builders didn’t know much regarding what could or should be done with this newfangled stuff. Most houses from before 1950 have a single junction box at the center of each ceiling and thus rely upon the single fixture to provide for all the needs of a room, large or small.  

A few homes featured wall-set junction boxes that allowed for, mostly simple, sconces to be placed upon walls. These fixtures usually had their own switches and lacked any sort of wall switch to operate them singly or in groups. Wall switching did come along after a while and the occasional clever electrician did manage to add well-placed switching. In the 1950’s an odd thing happened and ceiling lamps went missing altogether. 

I’m not sure if someone misplaced them, forgot to put them in or simply decided that nobody of any aesthetic metal would stoop to installing a fixture on that serene white speckled landscape. I fear the latter must have been the case. Those houses were fitted with switchable outlets where standing lamps could be installed and, clever as that was, the absence of a permanently installed overhead light source was soon recognized for it’s inherent retardedness and rectified by nearly all subsequent parties. 

One nice thing about old houses is that, with a little respect for their dignity and richness, many modern accoutrements can be added without deeply damaging their appeal. I’ve seen many fitted with sprays of recessed lighting to very good result and have a particular favor for this choice. The latter requires access to the ceiling space and is easiest when installed below an attic of moderate size. 

If installed in the ceiling below another floor, the ceiling will generally have to be removed to accommodate the installation. Wires can be pulled through joist spaces but this is quite difficult and often not worth the hardship. In my experience, it’s better to remove the drywall or plaster from a trapped ceiling prior to the installation of more than one or two lighting fixtures. By the way, replacing a single ceiling with drywall is not all that difficult or expensive and is hugely liberating in terms of the work that one can do in a short period of time when things have been opened up. 

Even if you’re not in the mood for the more arduous task of adding a field of cans to your ceiling there are so many ways to improve lighting without touching a single foot of Romex. Simply changing the fixtures on the ceilings or walls can increase luminosity, improve the directing of light and add some flair for amazingly little cost and complexity. This is actually a job that many individuals can manage on their own. Here are a few tips: 

Changing a light fixture usually involves the simple removal of a pair of screws on the old fixture, disconnecting a pair of wires and reversing the procedure with a new fixture. There are some problems to expect. First, removing the old screws often means clearing the paint from the screw heads. I have found that a slotted screwdriver and a small hammer work well to “drive” the wafer of paint out of the slot of an old slotted screw. Place the screwdriver on a steep angle and tap sharply to force the paint free. Once done, it’s a simple matter to remove the screw. I suggest running a utility knife with a fresh blade around the base of the fixture if it is also painted into place (most very old light fixtures have both these problems). This will allow the fixture to practically fall into your hands. Careful with the blade knife. They’re particularly well suited to slicing hands wide open. 

Regarding ladders; If you’re a cheapskate like moi and are still using that rickety fright of a wooden ladder. Get down, bust it into pieces and go spend 50 bucks on a nice ladder. It’s best to do electrical work on a fiberglass ladder since it can’t conduct electricity and deprive your darling children of that parent they so badly need. Go borrow Ed’s ladder. He’s not using it and you can buy him a bottle of Chianti when you’re done. 

Replacement fixtures don’t always have the screw holes spaced the same as the original but there are a range of solutions. The best one, in most cases, is to use an adapter that allows for this difference. The adapter gets screwed onto the old junction box in the walls first and then has several screw holes in the adapter itself to allow the fixture to be screwed into it. This works well for lightweight fixtures but not for behemoths. If you have something huge, get help. That’s not the beginning course.  

The adapters come in different types but all require a second set of screws that are the right length. A nice trick to know is that many wire splicing tools have a screw cutting feature. This proves quite handy in this particular situation wherein you may need a screw of a specific length to get the fixture to lie nicely against the ceiling (or wall). This is the central problem with these adapters. If not used properly or if used with a certain type of fixture, they can result in a fixture that doesn’t lie flat. Not to worry. Most problems resolve themselves with a bit of head-scratching and this is a very worthwhile starter project that more than earns its worth despite the few difficulties that are sure to arise. 

When you swap the fixture, you’ll want to be damned sure that the power is off. I’d acquire a non-contact voltage tester. They’re commonly available at most hardware stores for roughly 15 bucks and they make a sound (most do) when they’re near hot current. They don’t need to be on the hot wire. When you turn off the power, you can use this device to be sure that the wire is actually dead before handling it. I’d test it against a known hot wire just to be sure it’s working. I’d also use a common wire tester before handling any wire. 

When you replace the lamp, use a new pair of wire nuts and be sure that the old and new are nice and tight. 

When you replace a light fixture, consider the total wattage of the fixture as compared to the original one. Most wiring is not suitable for a fixture that adds several powerful bulbs. Try to keep your fixture down to 200 watts or less, unless you’ve checked with an electrician. That means 3-60 watt bulbs or a pair of hundreds at most. Low voltage halogens rate in a different way but you can just read the package to see the total wattage.  

This brings me to my last tip, that being an upgrade to something high-tech for your senescent dandy (your house, not your husband). I’ve seen cable lighting in older homes (and done this myself) and it can look just great in the right room. Aside from being really fun, it’s pretty easy to install and most kits are pretty low in total wattage. Ikea has some nice sets for a pittance. They have quite a range of lamps for very small sums, not that I’m trying to push Ikea. There are lots of great places for fixtures. 

Our own Metro Lighting of Berkeley makes delicious lamps, many of which harken back to our own Craftsman roots and fit our Bay Area style with great aplomb. They’re on the web at metrolighting.com if you want to take a look. 

Lighting is such a bargain and certainly one of the first things I’d do to any old house if I were pinching pennies. If you’re looking to spruce up or to try a first project, add some lighting to your old gal. She’ll just glow with pride. 



Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor at mgcantor@pacbell.net. 


Matt Cantor owns Cantor Inspections and lives in Berkeley. His column runs weekly. 

Copyright 2006 Matt Cantor