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Estate Sale Finds: Vintage Rain Lamps

You guys? I got a rain lamp.

This won’t mean much to some of you. But those who appreciate the glory that is a vintage rain lamp understand what an accomplishment this is.

What made the whole experience even more magical is that it appeared at an estate sale down the street from the EstateSales.NET office, but was not featured in any of the pictures on our site. So it was a surprise to me, and to all those who saw me walking around with it at the sale beaming with pride. They were clearly jealous of my discovery. 

And rightfully so. Look at it!

Did it work? I didn’t know. But it was only $10, so it was a chance I was willing to take. It was grimy. It was missing two strings. It was comically heavy.

It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

I brought it back to the office and immediately plugged it in to see if I could hear the motor. I couldn’t. But the lightbulb worked, so at least there was that.

I scrubbed it quickly with soap and water. I had to be gentle, because a firm hand resulted in the removal of the original gold paint.

I had two choices: repaint it, or just leave the discoloration alone. And knowing repainting a vintage piece would draw the ire of a small majority of the internet, I decided to leave it as-is and cover the imperfections with greenery (aquarium plants, specifically).

A problem plants couldn't solve was the broken filaments. A patient person would remove it all and rethread with new string.

I am not that person.

Honestly, restringing it wouldn’t have been that big of a deal. There are two sets of monofilament lines—the inner circle runs diagonally, the outer circle runs straight up and down.

For the inner circle, the filament is run from the bottom of the lamp straight up to the top, and then back down again, like a stitch. This creates the vertical lines. For the outer circle, the filament comes from the bottom of the lamp, and is threaded through the top, two holes right of the one directly above the bottom. This creates the diagonal lines.

Simple, right?

Right.

But it was also time-consuming. And to remove the string meant removing a lot of tiny pieces that I could easily lose—I know my weaknesses. So instead I chose to replace only the broken lines, which were on the outer row. I simply removed the couplings at the top of the lamp that held the strings in place, threaded both ends of a 50-lb fishing line through the two top holes, tied them tight beneath the base, and put the couplings back in place.

I suspect a slightly thinner fishing line—40 lb, perhaps—would have fit a bit better. It was tough to put the coupling back in place with the 50 lb. line. But the price difference between 40- and 50-pound wire was great enough that I took a chance. After all, the more I spend in repairs, the less impressive my “It was only $10!” announcement is. And besides, I’m a frugal gal—hence why I love estate sales.

I have only a few regrets about replacing only the broken wires. The original wires were filthy, and cleaning them could only do so much—wire filaments coated in oil, left to collect dust for years make for a very sticky situation. Right now you can see which lines have been replaced because they are considerably cleaner than the others. But soon, life will take care of that, and everything will even out.

I hope. 

Because I still don’t want to restring it.

And frankly, a few days later, I broke another string, and I was thankful, then, that I hadn't just restrung the entire lamp. Vindication!

One could argue that newer filament would be stronger and less likely to break. But then I would argue shut up.

The deed was done, and I wasn't going to go back.

The motor was a much trickier thing to repair. It was clogged with oil and unused for heavens-knows how long. We dismantled and cleaned it as best we could, then reassembled it. 

(I say “we” because when it comes to the inner-workings of any sort of technology, I am ignorant. But I’m also surrounded by brilliant mechanically- and technologically-minded, generally handy people, so connecting and reconnecting a simple motor was a breeze for them.)

It’s a basic pump. The oil is pushed through a tube, up one of the columns of the lamp. At the top, the oil spreads out and then slowly rolls down the wire filaments, into the basin, where it’s pumped up again. Circle of life.

When we finally got the motor cleaned and reassembled, we plugged it in to make sure we could hear the pump working.

And oh man, could we ever.

The pump is old, so we weren’t expecting silent technology, but this was distractingly loud. If you were hoping to create a zen, hippie-dippie plant-filled corner of your room to just like, you know, chill....this lamp ain’t it.

We poured pint upon pint of mineral oil into the lamp’s basin, hoping that once we actually got it pumping something other than air, it would quiet down.

Nope. 

Put your ear up to the photo. Can you hear the grinding whir of the motor? Can you feel the vibrations? I should probably type in all-caps just to make sure you can hear me over the sound emanating from this photo.

But the pump did work, which was the most important thing. I now had a functioning rain lamp.

Though it functioned, it wasn’t usable. My tranquil garden would lose all of its tranquility with Enya turned to 11 to cover up the sound of the motor.

Fortunately, the fix was relatively simple, with a new submersible fountain pump. You can find them online or at your local garden stores. You’ll need to be careful to find one with a high flow rate. They're made for water, and it's got to be strong enough to pump the mineral oil where it needs to go.

We first attempted to use a small aquarium pump (because we happened to have one lying around), but were certain it wouldn’t be able to handle the job. But our fountain pump had a max flow rate of 800 liters/hour. More than enough to make it rain.

Because of the size and style of the pump, we couldn’t simply fit it into the space where the old, loud motor resided. Which is unfortunate, because in an ideal world, I would have left the old motor in place, just so all the original parts would continue to be accounted for. But instead we had to cut the tubing down to a nub and clamp it onto the motor, which would then sit in the base of the lamp. 

We cut the cord to the motor, and pushed it through the appropriate column, then re-connected the wires to the pre-existing plug, which also controls the light.

The submersible motor we selected required us to pour even more mineral oil into the basin to work properly—around 10 pints total, I believe—but once it got to the right level, it ran silently.

So silently.

There is nary a whirr to be heard when the lamp is running now. You can do your goat yoga without worrying that the buzzing motor is going to distract the kids.

The new pump is also far stronger than the old, so the rain comes down faster than the old one, but not distractingly so. Ours has an adjustable speed, set at a relatively low pace. You might consider this for your own replacement pump, lest you get one that's too strong. 

I've spent a lot of time and money at estate sales. And I've gotten a lot of great deals. I remember walking into a kitchen with some pristine Pyrex dishes all marked for $3. From the cashier's table, I heard some poor soul just moments too late exclaim "Where's all the Pyrex?!" I walked very briskly to my car, to avoid a hot pursuit.

I bought a large, beautiful aquarium for $15, to put in my young daughter's room. For a brief moment, I was Mother of the Year, thanks to that estate sale.

For just $5, I bought a large and healthy Christmas cactus, which immediately died after I started to care for it. I guess they can't all be winners. #blackthumb

But this lamp. This buried treasure no one had even thought to dig for—this was my greatest discovery.

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