A few years back I came across this old lamp in the lobby of my building which someone was giving away. I grabbed it when I saw the brass, because, at the time, I was thinking of making something steampunkish. I never did get around to doing that and the lamp sat in my closet for 3-4 years. Finally, I was fed up with the amount of room it was taking up in my closet and decided to do something with it.
At first I wanted to do something with the glass, possibly make it Tiffany-esque. But those white frosted squares and the ugly flowers would not come off without some heavy sanding. Also the dated look of the brass lamp base needed to go.
In this instructable I will describe how I madeover my rescued lamp and hopefully inspire you to save an old lamp from the trash and brighten up your home.
The first thing I wanted to change about the lamp was to do something about the brass, I am not a big fan of brass. My first thought was to just paint over it, first with a primer and then some colour. However I was thinking about going with a vintage look for the lampshade so I figured aging/antiquing the brass to give it a nice patina would be a better way to go than painting.
I dismantled the brass lamp to make it easier to handle and get into all the little nooks and crannies. I was able to take off the lampshade, remove the glass inserts, as well as disconnect the electrical cord. It is a good idea to lay down some newspaper to protect the work surface and wear gloves and a dust mask when sanding and scrubbing.
Before I could begin aging the brass I needed to remove the protective coating which covers most brass items and hardware which is intended to prevent it from tarnishing and corroding. The use of lacquer thinner, acetone and steel wool were some of the suggested ways of removing the coating.
I wanted to minimize the use of nasty chemicals in this process so I started by using nail polish remover (with acetone). I applied it to a rag and wiped it over the surface of the brass. I did not see an noticeable change to the brass so I went on to try the steel wool.
When scrubbing the brass lamp with steel wool I could see whitish flakes coming off of the lamp which I took to be the protective coating. I continues on scrubbing the entire lamp to get as much off as possible. The lamp did look pretty scratched up after this, I was hoping that it was just superficial and that it didn't damage the metal surface.
When researching how to antique brass I found plenty of different methods and chemicals to try, unfortunately a lot of the information was intended to be used on small brass items such as jewelry, hinges or knobs. (For example, one suggestion was to bake it in an oven). Though some methods and solutions can be used with larger items Here is a list of some of these: baking soda, salt, vinegar or vinegar vapors, ammonia vapors, Clorox, Liver of Sulfur, as well as commercial products (such as Jax Chemical Patina Kits, Patina Green Antiquing Solution and Brass Darkening Solution). All of these suggestions can be used with other metals as well.
I wanted to use something that was inexpensive, non-toxic and I didn't have to go out and buy. I started with baking soda. I used a small spray bottle that held roughly 2oz of water and added about 1 tsp of baking soda, and mixed well. I sprayed the baking soda water over the surface of the lamp and left it over night (I sprayed more throughout the day as it evaporated). The result was disappointing, there was no change to the brass at all and it was coated with a fine dust of baking soda. I wiped off the baking soda with a damp rag and moved on to the next solution; salt.
Using the same bottle I mixed 2oz of water and about a tsp of salt and sprayed it over the lamp. I sprayed on more throughout the day as it evaporated and left it overnight. I saw some tarnishing or patina on the lamp, but it was spotty and uneven. I realize gravity was working against me, the flat surface was being exposed to the salt water but on the vertical surfaces (like the stem and arms of the lamp) the salt water was running off. To overcome this I soaked some rags in the salt water and wrapped it around the vertical surface. I tried this for another 24 hrs and saw more aging on the brass but I was getting impatient so I tried the vinegar.
Filling the spray bottle entirely with vinegar I sprayed it onto the lamp and wrapped rags soaked in vinegar onto the vertical surfaces. Vinegar is the most effective treatment so far, after leaving the vinegar on for 24hrs I began to see very noticeable changes to the brass surface. Including something very interesting which I will discuss in the next step.
Note: It makes sense that saltwater and acids are effective in corroding metals (electrolytes and low PH hasten oxidation of metals). Whereas baking soda doesn't really make sense, I can't remember where I read that baking soda can be used to age brass, but it certainly didn't work for me.
When I was researching how to antique brass, there was a clear warning, make sure your item is solid brass, not plated brass. Well, after several sprays of vinegar it was obvious that I was working with an item that was definitely not solid brass. Rather than having a brown brass patina, the vinegar had removed the brass and there was a silver metal underneath, also the unmistakable appearance of iron oxide rust covered part of the surface.
This was not a bad thing, since as I've mentioned before, I really don't like brass and the silvery metal underneath looked quite nice. However it did take a few more sprays of vinegar and and the use of sandpaper to get rid of the rest of the brass. I was able to wipe away most of the rust with a rag and sand off the rest. Curiously, I also saw what looked like copper showing through the silvery metal (particularly on the top of the lampshade) which gave an overall mottled or variegated appearance to the lamp which I quite liked.
After all of that, I thought the lamp base had a nice vintage look to it. To prevent further aging I rubbed some Johnsons Wax on it. I also switched the bulbs with CFLs so that it was more energy efficient as well as give off a cooler (less orange) light.
As I mentioned a few steps back that I wanted to go with a vintage look and to compliment the (new) colour of the lamp base I figured that a white, off-white or beige lampshade would go best. I wanted to keep the shade somewhat minimalist to show the metal frame. When browsing for ideas (do a Google image search of "cool table lamps" -you will see some great ideas) I came across some button lampshades which I thought would look great with my lamp.
Bags full of buttons are not too hard to find, craft stores, dollar stores, fabric stores, even places like Walmart and Amazon sell them. You can even get bags in specific colours, which is helpful since I wanted white, tan, and clear buttons, I also used some metal and brown ones as well. How many buttons did I use? Well I made 24 strands of roughly 15 buttons each, so that's 360 buttons and yes, that does take a lot of time I will warn you now.
Strands of Buttons
I used crochet thread to string the buttons, I basically threaded them through the holes, leaving a bit of a gap between buttons. Since the frame of the lampshade is tapered, being wider at the bottom I placed bigger buttons at the bottom of the strand and decrease the sizes of the buttons towards the top. Once they were all done I tied the strand between the top and bottom of the frame (I reinforced the knots with glue to make it more secure).
With a finished lampshade I was ready to reassemble the lamp,and admire my hard work.