Remember those revolving nail bins that were common in hardware stores years ago?
If you flip one upside down and add wiring and fixtures, you can turn the bin into a chandelier.
At least Dave Farmer can. And he has.
Farmer is production manager and a co-owner, along with John Hahn and Janine Vaughn, of Revival Lighting, an anchor on the bohemian retail block of Main Avenue just west of Division Street.
Revival offers everything from Craftsman and Art Deco to something called “steampunk” lighting – fixtures that would be right at home on the set of “Brazil” or “Blade Runner.”
Farmer doesn’t work in the store. He and his mad-scientist assistants conjure their creations in a converted warehouse at 2101 E. Riverside Ave., where customers bring assorted found or fabricated objects that become the bones of unique light fixtures.
As he discussed his business during a recent interview, a customer dropped off a 5- by 8-foot antique sign destined for her living room wall once Farmer rewires it.
S-R: What percentage of your retail inventory are lights your shop restored or built?
Farmer: I’d say 30 to 40 percent is restored old stuff, 30 percent are reproductions that we construct and the rest are new products from other manufacturers.
S-R: Where do you get the guts of old fixtures you restore?
Farmer: Initially, we looked on eBay and other places, but now it kind of filters into us. People locally know we buy, and we have a few pickers around the country who send us regular shipments.
S-R: What are you on the lookout for?
Farmer: Unrestored fixtures – floor lamps, table lamps, ceiling fixtures and sconces – from before 1940.
S-R: What distinguishes those from ones made today?
Farmer: Quality and materials – they tend to be brass, though some are cast iron or steel.
S-R: Were you a tinkerer as a kid?
Farmer: To some degree. My dad was an electrical engineer, so he got me into electrical stuff when I was about 10. He was also a ham radio operator, so I built Morse code oscillators, and by the time I got to college I was building stereo equipment.
S-R: What did you study in college?
Farmer: Philosophy, among other things. That’s what I ended up with a degree in.
S-R: What did you envision yourself doing?
Farmer: I didn’t have a clear picture, and somewhere near the end of college I discovered carpentry. I got excited about handmade houses, and I discovered Montana mountains, so I went off and built houses for eight years.
S-R: What caused you to change careers?
Farmer: Carpentry is hard on the body. And I met Geoff Loftin, who started Luminaria (a Spokane store that opened in the mid-1980s specializing in restored old light fixtures). I was his first employee, and worked there 12 years.
S-R: Did you mostly learn by doing?
Farmer: Yeah, but I’ve always been good with my hands, and I pick up (mechanical skills) pretty quickly.
S-R: Are your retrofitted lights as safe as new fixtures?
Farmer: We have the ability to certify stuff as UL (Underwriters Laboratories) approved. Anything we ship out of state or is intended for a commercial application gets UL’ed. Old stuff often can’t be certified unless we make radical changes, but (lack of certification) isn’t a big deal. It kind of depends on whether electricians are picky about that, and in this town they aren’t.
S-R: How did you qualify to certify light fixtures with Underwriters Laboratories?
Farmer: By spending a lot of money.
S-R: Are you a licensed electrician?
Farmer: No, but that isn’t part of UL certification. The ability to certify requires meeting their standards and doing specific testing on individual fixtures.
S-R: Did the recession affect your business?
Farmer: Oh, yeah, that was big. Sales dropped 20 to 30 percent, but we were very fortunate to recognize it early and cut way back. It wasn’t until the past six months that sales figures started rising again.
S-R: How much of your restoration business involves projects people bring you?
Farmer: Probably 25 or 30 percent.
S-R: Are there some projects you can’t do?
Farmer: It’s not that I can’t do them, but sometimes they’re impractical – they’d cost too much money. Yesterday a guy brought in an elaborate chandelier that he wanted wired and UL’d for a brewery he’s building, and it was too large for us to weight-test. He said the finished product would weigh 800 pounds.
S-R: When people bring you homemade projects they’ve become frustrated with, what typical mistakes do you see?
Farmer: The biggest one is they haven’t figured out how to route the wires.
S-R: What’s the most expensive light fixture you’ve made?
Farmer: We built one that was a series of large rings with sconces hanging on them that cost $5,000. And we restored much of the original lighting in the Fox Theatre, which was a great project.
S-R: Are most century-old fixtures worth saving?
Farmer: Yes, if they haven’t deteriorated to the point where it’s economically unfeasible.
S-R: Will today’s fixtures be worth restoring 100 years from now?
Farmer: There’s a tiny percentage of high-end stuff that’s pretty amazing, but I think it’s a much smaller percentage than what they were doing back then. Most of the stuff going into homes today is produced quite inexpensively, and no one is going to get too excited about it.
S-R: Which retro fixtures are popular?
Farmer: Art Deco was hot about eight years ago. Now the more industrial-looking stuff is gaining popularity, like the steampunk fixtures that one of our employees, Morgan Wren, makes. (For examples of Wren’s work, visit Revival Lighting or go to www.etsy.com and type “steampunklights” in the search box.)
S-R: What do you look for in potential employees?
Farmer: Someone with an artistic bent, mechanical aptitude and a passion for lighting.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Farmer: The people I work with, and the variety. I’m doing something different every day.
S-R: What do you like least?
Farmer: Nothing comes to mind. I have a great life, both in and out of work. I’m a pretty lucky guy.