Wednesday, July 4, 2012

How To Update Builder Brass Light Fixtures On The Cheap

A couple weeks ago I took our master bathroom light fixtures from brassy to classy for mere pennies. If you've ever wondered how to update builder brass light fixtures to oil rubbed bronze or another finish without running out and buying new ones, keep reading. But first, witness pretty much the best "before" picture ever. I promise we don't live in a crack den, but yes, this is what our fixtures have looked like for the past several months:

Brass PLUS Chrome!? Not In My Home!

Yes, we lived with bare bulbs in our combination brass/chrome master bathroom vanity light fixtures for the past six months while waiting for the weather here to get warm enough for spray painting. It was really even worse-looking than pictured; the fixture wasn't really attached to the wall. It was just dangling by its wiring (a big no-no, as I'm sure you realize). I didn't have a closeup before photo of the actual light, so I took one of the as-yet-unpainted light from our hall bath so you could see in detail how lovely the shiny chrome-brass combo really was.

Brass vs. Brass

Now don't get me wrong. I have nothing against brass. I have a sweet little collection of vintage miniature brass bells, for instance. I even considered brass hardware for my kitchen cabinets, and would have used it if I didn't think it would scare future buyers away. I bought a huge amount of ornate custom cast brass light switch plates and outlet covers at an estate sale - I'm hoarding them in my garage just waiting for the perfect place to use them. (Say, like, this li'l old house right here?) But those items would all be nice, real, heavy brass with some age and patina. Not these GOLD brass fixtures that were so popular in days gone fairly recently by.

(Note: I'm pretty sure oil-rubbed bronze is going to face the same fate eventually - we'll all be on to the next thing and scorning ORB as sooooooo 2000s. So be it. For now, it is a pleasant update from shiny brass. I also considered re-doing these fixtures in straight black, but I decided I liked the subtle shimmer and metallic look of the ORB.)

There's a genuine before photo of what they looked like in place. This is our master bathroom as it looked when we moved back from Pennsylvania last September. We've since repainted the walls and trim and put in new flooring. And now the vanity lights. You'll notice the lights also used to have the glass shades pointing down like bells, and when we put the fixtures back up we switched their orientation so the glass shades now point up like goblets. That wasn't really on purpose, FYI, but I think I like the change.

How To Update Brass Light Fixtures With Spray Paint: The Details

At first I wasn't sure how to spray paint my light fixrtures or if it would work, but then I remembered my sister had done it to hers years ago and that gave me the confidence to jump on in. With a little Googling I came up with some product recommendations and tutorials.

The standard recommendation was Rust-Oleum Universal Metallic spray paint in Oil Rubbed Bronze.

From the Rust-Oleum website

I simply took the fixture down, removed the bulbs, taped off any parts I didn't want painted, and followed the directions on the can. I put the fixtures down on pieces of cardboard and/or tarps, tucking the wires underneath so they wouldn't get sprayed. The screws I punched through pieces of cardboard  (styrofoam also works if you have any on hand), so I could have all the necessary parts exposed at once for spraying. If you were spraying something that was going to be touched and used a lot, like doorknobs, you would also want to sand first and possibly do a clear coat after, but since these fixtures will never be touched I just went straight to the spray paint.

Three Important Tips For Spray Painting

1- Wear socks or shoes that you don't mind getting overspray on.
2- For the best finish (both in looks and durability) do multiple thin, even coats with dry time between coats as directed on the can. Your first coat will look pretty ratty. Avoid the urge to keep spraying for better coverage. Let it dry and then go again.
3- Spray gently back and forth across your item at an even distance, keeping your hand moving. As Sherry from Young House Love once said, "If you're a-sprayin', your arm better be a'swayin'" Now try to ever, ever get that rhyme out of your head! Sorry, it's stuck there forever. But you should thank me, because it's good advice.

I'll add a bonus one: do multiple thin, even coats. Oh, did I already say that? Good. It's very, very important if you want your spray painted item to have a professional-looking finish.

My spray painting results may have been profesh, but my photography skills are not. Oh well, just keep swimming. I'm pretty pleased with the results, especially for the money ($5 bottle of spray paint that will still spray many more items). Speaking of many more items, the rest of the brass to be painted includes the vanity lights from the other two bathrooms, the hardware from the stair banister, the dining and living room light fixtures (if we decide not to buy new ones), and the door hardware throughout the house (if we decide we are that ambitious).

Next on the list, though, is installing the new microwave we just got for over the range, and finally installing the open shelving in our kitchen. I'll show you some of that later this week.

I'll also be back to show you the photos of another house I love. This one doesn't need any explanation and will all be in one post. Tyson doesn't really like to listen to my house-hunting talk, so I'll just blab to you all, okay?

So, I'm curious, what metal finishes do you have in your house, and how do you like them? Any mixed finishes within one room? Anyone else have a good spray-paint transformation story - light fixture or otherwise? Or perhaps a spray paint blooper? Do tell!


  1. You amaze your poor old out-dated grandmom. I hope you have INSPIRED me, as well, enough to make me do some updating! Great job!

  2. Grandmom, you have done plenty of lovely updates in your home! And some things I would never, ever want you to change...I love your house and the memories and warm feelings it holds.

    Do you think I picked up some of your thriftiness gene, though? :)

  3. Did you convert a 4 light fixture to a 3 light somehow??

    1. Right!!?? Um I smell Bull.....

    2. Oh! Good point.

    3. It's probably just that the longer light was in another bathroom, the triple lights were in the master bath.

    4. Did you not read the first paragraph? " I didn't have a closeup before photo of the actual light, so I took one of the as-yet-unpainted light from our hall bath" Geez!!

    5. Hi, I'm sold and I'd like to tackle this project. Did you sand the fixtures before spraying?

    6. This has decided me! I am in the process of painting our girls bathroom and I want a different light fixture as I hate the way ours look. I am going to save myself the $ and spray the one we have since I don't hate the actual shape, and be able to spend more on new shades for it!

    7. This is a great idea! I have been looking to replace all three of our builder-special silver globe light fixtures in our bathroom, but after much research, I did not find many that I liked enough to change them out. I finally figured that our best bet was to spray paint them--like I spray paint EVERYTHING--so your post helped me finally make that decision. Thanks, again, for assuring me that it can be done well. :)

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  5. The first paragraph states that the up close photo is from the hall bath, because she didn't have a before pic of the Master Bath.

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