Vintage-inspired lanterns keep flames from flickering in the wind, while casting soft—and safe—candlelight in both…
You’ve pulled out all the stops to make your house and yard look first-rate. So why let that hard work disappear at nightfall when, with a flick of a switch and some strategically placed landscape lights, you can roll back the darkness and put it all on display? Done right, landscape lighting makes the best of what you’ve got by highlighting your home’s architectural features and drawing attention to prized plantings and trees.
Price Range: $150-$250Base metal: Typically made of more rust-resistant aluminum, which is difficult to weld. Fixtures are assembled from multiple (and potentially more detailed) stamped, spun, and die-cast pieces.Finish: May involve several layers of sprayed or hand-applied color. While aluminum can oxidize, it does so at a slower rate than steel. Powder-coated fixtures resist oxidation longer.Glass: Options include decorative beveled or seeded glass.
DIY or Hire a Pro? Homeowners can put in a simple system in a weekend. For the most stunning effects, go with a landscape lighting specialist familiar with the various fixtures and ways to arrange them.
With no filament to break or burn out, LEDs can last 40,000 hours, approximately 20 years of regular use, compared with just two years for halogen bulbs. LEDs are also extremely efficient, sipping 1 to 11 watts of power versus 20 to 60 watts for halogens. That means lower installation costs due to smaller transformers and cables, lower operating costs, and reduced maintenance, for up to a 50-percent savings over halogen systems in the course of 15 years.
Shown: LV100 spotlight by Dabmar with 20-watt halogen, about $20; Dabmar
DIY or hire a pro? Changing a light fixture is a relatively simple job. Installing a dedicated junction box for a new fixture takes more skill—and tools. For that, you may want to go pro.
Wet-rated: Necessary around doors fully open to the elements, where rain, snow, and heavy fog or salt air can come into direct contact with the fixture.
Scott Caron, master electrician for Ask This Old House, deciphers the information on a lightbulb label
Unadorned houses of the era, such as saltboxes and Cape Cods, were often lit by copper onion lanterns, durable enough for seaside living. Today, reproductions lend the same rustic charm.
3. What size transformer? To determine the watt-capacity of your transformer, add up the total wattage of all the lights you plan to install and multiply by 1.25.
Typically casts a wider beam than a bullet—40 degrees or more—and is brighter than a wash light. A collar minimizes side glare. Use sparingly to light up tall trees or wide house facades.
Because you can’t just dial up a full moon, sometimes you need some extra illumination. In addition to providing light to grill by, a handful of tree-mounted lights bathe this stone patio in a mood-setting glow.
Cable: Carries current to light through fixture’s lead wires. Underlit trees and accent lights aimed at the facade create an inviting post-sunset atmosphere around this home.
Usually electroplated, it’s sold lacquered to prevent tarnish or unlacquered to patinate. Lacquer must be reapplied every few years. Unlacquered brass will darken to brown.
Photo by Courtesy of Thistlewood Farms/Lamps Plus; Illustration: Arthur Mount
Drive down any residential street, and we’d bet your eye is instantly drawn to the house with the inviting, well-lit front door. Done right, exterior entry lighting makes the most of what you’ve got, complementing your home’s architecture, increasing security, and helping guests navigate their way to the front landing.
5. How to ensure uniform brightness? Attaching fixtures to one cable in a daisy chain can overpower the lights closest to the transformer and leave the last few power-starved and dim. The solution: Run a 10-gauge cable out to a hub—a waterproof junction box—and branch out with equal lengths of 12-gauge cable. Keep the runs under 50 feet, and power should arrive at halogen fixtures in their sweet spot: 10.8 to 11.5 volts (for LEDs, 8 to 15 volts).
Shown: Silverton Classic Torch Wall Bracket, about $260; rejuvenation.com
What’s it Cost? Individual fixtures start around $20. Cables run 70 cents per foot, and a transformer can be had for about $200. A 10-light system installed by a pro typically starts at about $2,000 to $2,500.
Garden Walls (well, bullet, or flood).Position fixtures close to the base so that the beams bring textures into sharp relief.
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Damp-rated: Suitable for sheltered porch areas that are protected from water—even during storms—and from excessive moisture, such as salt air.
Shown: Quoizel Newbury 2-Light Outdoor Wall Lantern, about $200; lightingdirect.com
These nautical-inspired sconce lights add coastal cottage charm to your home’s entry, no matter the locale
2. What skills do you need? Digging trenches and connecting fixtures and cables is straightforward stuff. But if you don’t have a 20-amp GFCI-protected outdoor receptacle to plug the transformer into, hire a licensed electrician to install one.
Most landscape lighting today is low voltage, and with good reason. Unlike 120-volt systems, it’s safer to work with and less costly to install. And though low-voltage lights receive one-tenth the power, thanks to a step-down transformer, there’s no limit to the effects they can achieve, from ethereal moonlight beamed down from a tree canopy to a subtle glow that washes over a low garden wall. More than just picking the right hardware, a pleasing lighting scheme is also about artistry.
Ask This Old House electrician Scott Caron installs a new switch and ceiling fixture for a homeowner
Shown: Mill Creek Hanging Outdoor Lamp, about $123; homedepot.com
Shown: Portfolio Brayden Outdoor 2-Light Wall Lantern, about $60; lowes.com
Start by evaluating your space to determine the type of fixture (or fixtures) that best fits it, whether wall-mount, ceiling-mount, or, in very large entries, a combination of the two. In every case, the overall goal is to cast a wide pool of light that illuminates the entry, banishes dark corners, and casts a warm glow that’s easy on the eyes, says San Francisco-based lighting designer Jody Pritchard. We’ll explain how to determine the correct size, placement, style, and finish of your front-door lighting. Follow these steps to make your house the one that says “welcome home.”
These versatile, compact fixtures are often fitted with bulbs that project a narrow beam—good for precisely lighting house features, tree trunks, and garden structures.
Can be sprayed or plated over another base metal, but the best lights are made from solid copper. A clear coat can be added to retard oxidation, but copper is usually left to patinate naturally.
Sculptural and statement-making, these globes work well on the commanding facade of an urban rowhouse or a double-height porch.
Shown: A pendant that casts a wide pool of light provides primary illumination. Side lanterns as secondary light sources need not adhere to design-math rules. Medium Federal sconces, about $460 each; shadesoflight.com
What does It cost? There’s an option for every budget, but expect to pay $250 and up for a quality fixture made from solid-cast or hand-wrought metals.
Like all colored finishes, matte or glossy, this can be sprayed on, but for durability, look for longer-lasting powder coating, in which the base metal is covered with a dry powder that is cured with heat.
Home Facade (bullet and wash).Fit bullet lights with bulbs that have 12-degree beam spreads, and aim them at the corners of your house or architectural details; softer wash lights can fill in the space between them.
The bulb hides inside a waterproof housing buried in the ground, so you get light without seeing a fixture. Use well lights to illuminate the underside of plant foliage or graze the base of a facade or wall. Available with either fixed or swiveling bulbs.
Canopies on top of 18- to 24-inch posts reflect light down into planting beds. Can also be used as pathway markers. Unlike other lights, their style and finish are on display.
Shown: CM.115T by CopperMoon with 35-watt halogen, about $160; CopperMoon
Shown: Sea Gull Lighting Outdoor Bullets, about $103; lightingnewyork.com
Throws out a soft, diffuse light ideal for brightening flat facades, privacy fences, and garden walls.
Here are the basics of a pendant; sconce and flush-mount fixtures have similar housing and inner workings, and a mounting plate.
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Photo by Wendell T. Webber/Michael Chini/Time Inc. Digital Studio
Lead family and friends safely to your door and cast your home in a whole new light
Shown: LV300SLV well light by Dabmar with 20-watt halogen, about $30; Dabmar
Ask This Old House master electrician Scott Caron installs an outdoor wall sconce and recessed lights at an old…
Bulb: Determines a light’s brightness, color, and beam width, as well as electricity usage.
Price Range: $50-$150Base metal: These basic fixtures are usually made of inexpensive steel sheet metal, which can be easily bent around a form and welded.Finish: May be sprayed on or applied with more expensive and more weather-resistant powder coating. As the finish wears, exposed steel surfaces will oxidize and eventually rust.Glass: This is usually clear, with no faceting.
Similar to shown: Bullet accent lights with 20-watt halogens, about $62; Focus Industries
Shown: Lunar downlight with 20-watt halogen, about $140 each; Unique Lighting Systems
An elaborate, elegant entrance will benefit from lantern-style sconces. Hinged glass doors and candle-covered sockets lend an air of authenticity.
Fixtures with angular profiles and ogee edges are a good fit for a bungalow and other clean-lined early-20th-century styles.
Maintenance? While unlacquered brass requires polishing to keep it shiny, most fixtures can be cleaned with a damp cloth. Regularly applying a thin coat of wax to exposed metal parts helps protect against oxidation.
Similar to shown: Frosted Globe walk light by Malibu with 11-watt bulb, about $20; Total LED Malibu Lighting
Shown: Sea Gull Lighting Ardsley Court 1-Light Outdoor Lantern, about $132; homedepot.com
Trees (well, bullet, or flood, and downlight). When aiming ground lights straight up into foliage, be sure to also bathe the trunk in light. If you don’t, the uplit crown will look like a hovering UFO. When illuminating foliage from above, place two 20-watt downlights as high in a tree as possible and point them so that their beams do not cross.
Shown: Underlit trees and accent lights aimed at the facade create an inviting post-sunset atmosphere around this home.
If you have nagging questions about these energy-saving and long-lasting bulbs, we have the answers
These charming lanterns brighten an evening barbecue spread, and they’re a cinch to make from supplies you can pick…
How long does it last? Warranties range from 30 days to a lifetime for some lights made from solid copper. One to two years is the industry average.
Landscape lighting typically relies on stepped-down power from your house.
Shown: Lancaster 2-Light Wall Lantern, about $270; seagulllighting.com
1. Where to buy? All the components you need are available online at sites such as Landscape Lightwerks or VOLT.
A house with arched windows, stonework, or a steeply pitched roof calls for medieval-inspired lighting, often featuring hammered metals and seeded glass.
Shown: Devon Large Wall Lantern, about $350; houseofantiquehardware.com
Trees less than 20 feet tall need only a couple of 20-watt uplights. A 50-foot tree may require three to five uplights of 35 to 50 watts apiece.
If you don’t want to lift a finger, go with a pro. (Find one through the Association of Outdoor Lighting Professionals.) But homeowners willing to invest a little of their own time and energy can save a bundle by following the advice of Mark Piantedosi, owner of Commonwealth Landscape Lighting in Acton, Massachusetts. Here are his top design tips:
Before electric lights became widespread in the 1890s, gas lighting was the norm. Today, whether for historical accuracy or for the atmospheric glow they impart, these fixtures are popular once again. They come configured two ways: as “gas mantle,” where the gas terminates in a wire- or ceramic-fiber cloth for a steady white light (equivalent to a 50- or 60-watt bulb), or as “open flame,” a softer candlelight flicker similar to a 25-watt bulb. Keep in mind, fixtures are pricey, starting at $600, and need a gas hookup; check local codes for requirements.
But LEDs have their drawbacks, chiefly their high initial cost—about $40 per bulb, compared with about $5 for a similar halogen. Also, many LEDs have a cold blue light with a color temperature around 6,000 K (kelvins). Look instead for a warm-color temperature, about 3,000 K. And don’t forget to look at light output, in lumens, to make sure you’re getting enough brightness. LED performance is improving, but it still lags behind that of halogens. Dismal output is the biggest knock against solar-powered fixtures, which all use LEDs. They might have enough glow to define a garden edge but not to light up your house.
That said, it can be a real challenge to select the perfect fixture. Just stroll down the lighting aisle of any home store, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the countless styles, finishes, bells and whistles—and that’s before you look online.
Photo by David Papazian/Getty Images; Illustration: Arthur Mount
For more outdoor-lighting design ideas, visit FX Luminaire’s “Learning Center” or consult the classic guide The Landscape Lighting Book, by Janet Lennox Moyer.
Shown: CM.895 by CopperMoon with 20-watt halogen, about $100; CopperMoon
How Much Upkeep? Keep fixtures free of leaves and debris to prevent them from overheating. Replace burned-out bulbs immediately so that others on the circuit aren’t subject to life-shortening voltage overloads.
Photo by David Papazian/Photographer’s Choice RF/Getty Images
More than just a beacon leading to the front door, exterior lighting helps define the look of a house. With planning…
Detailed fixtures clad in gilded metal or glossy black stand up to the formal entrances of homes with symmetrical facades and columned porticoes.
Ask This Old House master electrician Scott Caron helps a homeowner install fiesta string lights to get the party…
Not sure how a fixture will look once you take it out of the showroom and install it at home? Before pulling the trigger on your purchase, double-check that it follows the guidelines for scale on the opposite page. Then make a mock-up of your selection: Cut cardboard to the size and shape of the light and affix it to the house near the door. Back off and take a look from the bottom of the driveway or the middle of the street to be certain it looks right.
Photo by Courtesy of Landscapes by Dallas Foster Inc.; Illustration: Arthur Mount
Lights with enthusiastic embellishment match the romantic hallmarks—gingerbread trim, fancy shingling—typical of Queen Annes.
This is an ideal solution for entries with low ceilings, screen or storm doors, and porches open to wet weather. Use a 23- to 40-watt LED bulb (100- to 125-watt equivalent) or multiple bulbs with the same total wattage.
Shown: Medford Classical Revival Wall Sconce, about $375; rejuvenation.com
Similar to shown: Livex Lighting Mansfield 2-Light Hanging Lantern, about $260; wayfair.com
Shown: Quoizel Hillcrest 1913 Outdoor Pendant, about $310; lumens.com
Shown: Intrepid directional lights with 20-watt halogens, about $85 each; Unique Lighting Systems
Planting Beds (garden). Place fixtures no closer than 20 feet apart. “You want pools of light to guide your eye from one plant to the next, not continuous illumination.”
These fixtures, often located high on trunks and branches, can be aimed at lawns, paths, or the tree’s own foliage to create a moonlit effect. A long, cowl-shaped shroud around the bulb eliminates side glare. Choose durable copper and brass housings with LEDs—you don’t want to be climbing to make repairs or replacements.
Shown: Bolton Indoor/Outdoor Sconce, about $300; potterybarn.com
4. How to control the lights? Timers are the most reliable automatic switches; the best ones adjust for seasonal changes in day length. Wireless keypads and fobs are convenient ways to manually control your lights and, unlike hardwired switches, don’t require an electrician to install them.
For simple exteriors, opt for quaint details, such as lantern arms that curlicue or panes of vintage-look opaque glass that emit a soft glow.
Electrician Scott Caron shows new technologies and applications for LED lighting
Double Sconces Door-framing lights, placed 6 to 12 inches from the door casing, are a natural choice for symmetrical entries. A 13- to 15-watt LED bulb (labeled 60- to 70-watt equivalent) per fixture is usually enough.
A hanging fixture lights a high-ceilinged entry, but not where it’s windy. With opaque glass, use a single 23- to 40-watt LED bulb (100- to 125-watt equivalent); for clear glass, use several smaller bulbs with the same combined wattage.
The front of the house isn’t the only place to use landscape lights. Here, tree-mounted downlights and upward-pointing well lights show off this tree’s branch structure and invite people to come out and enjoy the swing.
Focal Points (flood, bullet, or wash). Highlight an element that deserves attention—such as a fountain, a tree swing, or an arbor—by aiming two or more lights at it. The crossing beams reduce the harsh shadows that form when only one shines on an object.
Price Range: $250 and upBase metal: Generally made of brass—or, less often, of copper—cast from an intricate mold or constructed by hand. Details will be sharper.Finish: Expect long-lasting electroplated and hand-applied, multilayer finishes. Lacquered brass resists oxidation for years. Polished or left to patinate, uncoated brass and copper last for decades.Glass: Decorative options may include double-beveled or intricate art glass.
Often sprayed or plated over another base metal, then polished to add highlights. For durability, look for solid brass that’s aged chemically and tooled for smooth edges.
Low-voltage cables (left) must be buried at least 6 inches deep. A plastic spike (center) anchors the fixture (right) in the ground.
Everyday items get a second, more illuminating life when you outfit them with plug-in or hardwired cord kits
Shown: Large Horizon path light by Hadco with 20-watt halogen bulb, about $50; Hadco Lighting
Similar to shown: Terralight Tudor Series LVW6319 with 18-watt bulb; about $120 each; Hanover Lantern
Transformer: Reduces 120-volt household current to a safer 12 volts.
How Long Will They Last? Warranties on fixtures and transformers range from one to 10 years, but fixtures made of brass, copper, or stainless steel should shine indefinitely.
Upward-facing bullet lights placed about a foot from the foundation focus attention on a house’s most appealing architectural elements. Here, they are aimed at chunky porch columns, deep eaves, and dormers.
Fixture Housing: Protects bulb from elements and helps shape light beam.
When space is limited and there’s no surface overhead, one fixture—with a single 13- to 15-watt LED bulb (60- to 70-watt equivalent)—can suffice. Hang it on the doorknob side for a well-lit view when greeting guests.
Shown: PortaleEnfer well light with 11-watt LED array, about $135 each, and TrellisSolare downlight with 20-watt bulb, about $65 each; FX Luminaire
Shown: Landscape LED by Kichler with 4-watt LED, about $140; Kichler
Scott Caron, master electrician for Ask This Old House, helps a homeowner convert recessed lights into stylish new…
Light fixtures sold in the U.S. should carry an Underwriters Laboratories (UL) rating on the label that indicates what kind of location they can be used in. Dry-rated lights cannot be subjected to excessive moisture and should not be hung outdoors. But tolerances vary for those that are damp- and wet-rated. The difference between the two is in the construction. UL-rated fixtures for damp and wet locations use different combinations of drain holes, seals, and protective gaskets to prevent water from accumulating on live wires and other electrical parts. Select the right fixture rating based on your entry’s level of exposure.
Generally a layer of nickel electroplated over another base metal. May have a clear coat for added protection. Quality lights are plated over rustproof brass.
While traditional-style lights are often used on mid-century homes, linear, almost aerodynamic silhouettes and burnished or powder-coated metals are also true to the period.
To properly illuminate a bed, garden fixtures must be taller than the plantings, such as these succulents, that you want to showcase.
Can be sprayed or plated over another base metal, but top-quality lights use a chemical process on solid brass that alters the metal’s surface.