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Keeping Up Appearances

Brent Stainer • Light On The Subject • October 2, 2008

Fresnels continue to be useful for a variety of soft-edged applications. These maintenance steps will ensure they are running at peak efficiency.

Get the Most out of Your Decrepit Archaic Old Fashioned Experienced Lighting Instruments

In my world, all of my lighting instruments are less than three years old. They might be new Source Fours, or Strand SLs. Perhaps Altman Shakespeares. Unfortunately, this world exists only in my mind.

I’m not alone. Approximately 98% of us face the reality that new lighting instruments are still hoped-for goals. They are “in the planning phase,” or “awaiting funding,” or perhaps “as soon as we get the lobby remodeled.” Waiting for these new lights may take years — or decades. In the meantime, lighting designers and master electricians have to make their existing inventory work as best as possible. Looking back on my career, some of my best work has been with lighting instruments older than I am.

My goal here is certainly to not dissuade you or your theatre administration from purchasing better quality lights — rather, I want you to recognize that the old lights we have hanging around our grids are often not as efficient as they could be.

With basic maintenance and a little TLC, these old lights can perform very close to their original specs. We all can benefit from a simple maintenance schedule and a little effort with stage lights.

The first task would be to acquire manuals for the lights. Information and manuals can be found on the Internet for old Strands, Altmans, Colortrans, Kliegels and a variety of others. Altman produces a shop manual for their entire line of lights. Although fairly expensive (in the $100 range) this manual has paid for itself in my experience. At a minimum, get photometric data. One excellent reference is Photometrics Handbook by Robert Mumm. It contains data on literally hundreds of old lighting instruments that you may come across.

Altman 360Qs were a staple for countless theatres. They are simple to maintain and are still very useful lights.

Lenses / Reflectors
Certainly some of the most neglected parts of a stage light, the lenses and reflectors are also the easiest to maintain. It is a simple matter to use a little Windex and a lint free cloth to keep them free from dust and debris. The method for removing the lenses depends on the brand of instrument.

On Altman 360Qs, for example, you simply remove the front retaining ring, and the first lens falls out. Remove the spacer, and the second lens (if there is one) can be removed. Many brands are similar to the ubiquitous Altman 360Q. Opening the instrument grants access to the reflector (an Altman 360 has a thumb screw that can be loosened to allow the instrument to hinge in half). Remove the lamp assembly, spray a bit of Windex onto a cloth, and clean the reflector. If the reflector is damaged, replacements can be purchased, or you can use a less-damaged reflector from your scavenged parts. Usually, a good cleaning does wonders!

Sticky shutters are tiresome and frustrating. They are also one of the most successful repairs you can do for yourself. First, open the light as you did to access the reflector and observe how the shutters are held in place. Again, using an Altman 360 as an example, there are four sheet metal screws from the outside of the housing into the shutter ring. Removing this ring (and subsequent rings) will open up each plane in which the shutters travel. If you need to completely remove the shutters, drill out the rivet that holds the fiber handle, save the fiber disks, and you can pull the shutters out from the inside of the housing. Use OOO steel wool to polish all metal surfaces. Burned shutters are candidates for replacement. Reassemble the shutters in the same order in which they were removed. Reattach the fiber disks, and give them a try. If they are still too sticky, give a little squirt of liquid graphite into each shutter’s plane. This will work wonders if the corrosion and dents have been removed.

I am not going to pull any punches about this next point — adding WD40, 3-in-1 or any oil is a death sentence to your shutters. Oil retains heat, warps metal and is a serious fire hazard. Don’t do it. Invest the $1.98 for a can of spray graphite and save your instruments! Look for spray graphite in a hardware or automotive store.

Older lights, with just a little bit of maintenance, can be restored to nearly new performance levels.

Aside from reflectors, sockets are the other part that needs semi-regular replacing. There are a few times in theatre where you can skimp by — this is not one of them. Sockets don’t have an indefinite lifespan. If you are getting flickering lights — fix it. Remove the lamp and inspect the pins. Any arcing or burning is an indicator of either a socket becoming bad, or the lamp not fully seated. If you can rule out the lamp not fully seated, replace the socket (which usually entails replacing the two leads as well).

Keep stray fingers off the glass bulb! This is the leading cause of premature failure. When you replace a lamp, it is a wise idea to make note of the instrument that went dead and the date. By keeping track of how often a given instrument needs a replacement lamp you can identify a bad socket. If a socket is making poor contact, it can wear through lamps incredibly fast. This rapid destruction of lamps may be the only indication you have of a bad socket. Keeping accurate records could potentially save you hundreds of dollars.

To replace the socket, you typically remove the connector (plug), remove the base unit and then remove a couple of screws to withdraw the socket. Of course, each brand is a little different, but they are all fairly straightforward. Again, refer to your product information.

Connectors have a few common problems. Stage pin connectors that have signs of arcing or are intermittent may need the pins to be split. This entails pressing a knife, or a pinsplitter, in the split of a pin to widen the pin and thereby increase the contact area. If corrosion is present, the pinsplitter has a wire brush orifice that quickly cleans the pin. All connections need to be firm. Poor strain relief will loosen electrical connections and cause arcing or intermittent contact. Keep your strain relief! And don’t remove connectors by yanking on the cords! For safety sake, also ensure that the ground wires are present and intact. The need of a ground wire is simple: If there is a short in the light, the electrical current will find a new path. It can either be the ground wire, or one of your volunteers. If the short can’t find a ground and chooses one of your volunteers, you may have some explaining to do.

I have to tell you, the aesthetics of a lighting instrument aren’t usually too important to me. I’m a bit pragmatic. As long as it performs well, I don’t care what it looks like. Anyone that has seen my truck would agree. However, there are times when an instrument is visible to the audience, and a clean, sharp instrument is needed.

When you need to paint an instrument there are a few basic rules you must follow. First, as with any quality paint job, do good prep work — remove the chips, the grease and the gaff tape. Second, use high-temp paints such as those designed for wood stoves or gas grills. The cheap paint will look good until you actually turn the light on — then the blistering, flaking barrel and head just look goofy. Third, don’t paint over important things like inventory numbers or photometric data.

When an instrument is truly dead — meaning its repair costs more than you are willing to spend —recycle it. Break the light down for parts. Save the lenses, reflectors, barrels, sockets, shutters, screws, knobs, connectors and anything else.

If the lights are surplus and will not be used any further, take the time and make a few phone calls to the local community theatres. Your old lights headed for the scrap bin could be a godsend to a smaller theatre group. Help them out. The lights you feel are obsolete and useless will be front line lights for some small group.

One group I have worked with was recently given 40-year-old, “burn base-up” ellipses. Although outdated by several decades, they put them to use in such a way that was very effective. Suddenly, they could illuminate the show with sharp shadows, subtle moods and graceful shades — previously, they simply turned the lights on or off. These antiquated lights changed a non-lighting design into one the community took pride in.

Although old, obsolete lights are still capable of performing. They may need a little more effort, but in many instances, they do well. When old lights are all you have to work with — permit them to do their best. You will be surprised at what can be achieved. 

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