All About Pendant Lights

Pendant Lights: An Introduction

Suspended from ceilings by rods or chains, pendants bring light down to the places we need it, and they do so with attention-grabbing grace we can't help admire, even after the electricity is turned off.

Simpler than a chandelier with its multiple outstretched arms, a pendant is little more than a bulb hidden under a shade swinging on the end of a cord. Yet there's a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and styles, ranging from 4-inch-diameter mini cylinders to massive 30-inch domes. Some wash light over a big area, giving your foyer or stair landing a welcoming glow. Others focus bright beams onto one strategic spot: a sink or cutting board on a kitchen island, a family photo on the living room credenza.

A pendant's purpose is often defined by what its shade is made of. Glass ones, whether colorful mouth-blown Murano flutes or industrial-style ribbed globes, as well as most fabric-covered drums throw off ambient light. Shades fashioned from enameled or hand-hammered metal, for instance, confine light in a downward path.

Pendant Anatomy

Illustration by Jason Lee

Mounting strap: Anchors fixture to outlet box in ceiling.

Canopy: Decorative cover hides electrical hookups.

Nipple: Threads into mounting strap.

Hanger Loop: Connects chain to nipple.

Chain/Rod: Shade must hang at least six inches from ceiling to be considered a pendant.

Socket: Powers bulb. Porcelain sockets stand up better to heat than metal ones.

Shade: Controls direction, spread, and color of light.

Washer: Supports shade. Threads onto outside of socket.

Bulb: Wattage should not exceed capacity on fixture's label.


Photo by ThinkStock/Getty Images

What do they cost? A 4-inch, colored-glass "mini" pendant from the home center starts at $25; larger hand-wrought metal fixtures and ones with blown-glass shades can go for $500 and much, much more.

Where can you use them? To light up a workspace, such as a kitchen-island prep zone or a desk in a home office. They can also cast a warm glow in a dining room or an entryway.

Open or closed shade? Closed shades, such as schoolhouse-style opaque globes, soften light and hide the bulb. Shades that are open on the bottom create bright spots beneath them; ones with open tops, such as drum shades, also bounce light off the ceiling.

Install it yourself or hire a pro? Swapping out an old fixture is easy if you know basic wiring. But if your existing wires are brittle or you need to run electricity to a new spot, call an electrician.

How Much to Spend

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

A close inspection of two nickle-plated pendants with metal dome-style shades reveals the factors that influence their price. Decorative detail is just the beginning

How Much to Spend: Budget

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Murray Feiss Soho Loft Pendant

Canopy: Stamped white metal, a lightweight alloy that's easy to plate.

Rod: Thin tubes have visible seams where they screw together. Hinged at the top to work with sloped ceilings.

Finish: Nickel plated, then hand rubbed and lacquered for a satin finish.

Shade: Made of thin, pressed metal. It's held up by a washer threaded on the socket.

Diameter: 10 in.

Weight: 4 lbs.

Wattage: 100

Warranty: None

Bottom line: This pendant's light weight makes it easy to install—and easy on the wallet.

Price: About $90, Murray Feiss

How Much to Spend: High-End

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Circa Lighting Edwardian Single Pendant

Canopy: Hefty solid brass. Casting allows for intricate designs.

Rod: Decorative cast-brass knuckles cover the joints where the thick brass tubes screw together.

Finish: Nickel plated, then hand rubbed and antiqued for a matte finish.

Shade: Made of cast brass. It's held in place with external thumbscrews.

Diameter: 10 in.

Weight: 12 lbs.

Wattage: 100

Warranty: 1 yr.

Bottom line: Heavy brass castings give this fixture an authentic vintage look.

Price: about $504, Circa Lighting

Which Wire Goes Where?

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Fixtures with color-coded wires make installation a snap. Shut off the power, and connect like with like: the neutral white wire to the white one coming out of the outlet box, for instance. But if the pendant's wires are the same color, you'll have to roll each one between your fingers to tell the difference. The neutral wire is ribbed and the hot one is smooth. Read the labels at left for a safe-wiring how-to.

How to Handle...

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Pendant Wiggle: Shut off the power, and drop the canopy by loosening the fitting that holds it against the ceiling. Tighten the nipple against the mounting strap, then tighten the fasteners holding the strap to the outlet box. Refit the canopy.

Fast Burnout: If a bulb's wattage exceeds the fixture's maximum (see the label on the socket), heat buildup in the shade can shorten the bulb's life. This is a particular problem in pendants with enclosed shades.

Flickering: A creepy crawly could be the culprit. Drawn to light and heat, bugs can get wedged between the bulb base and socket, interfering with electricity flow. Shut off the power, unscrew the bulb, and blow out the socket with a can of compressed air.

Easy Cleaning

Photo by Manfred Koh/TIme Inc. Digital Studio

Don't unscrew your glass shade—spritz it in place with chandelier spray. Just be sure to turn off the fixture and cover the area below it with newspaper to catch the dirty drips. Buy the spray at the hardware store or make your own: Pour 1 tablespoon of automatic dishwasher detergent, ¼ cup of rubbing alcohol, and 1/3 cup of vinegar into a

32-ounce spray bottle, then fill with water.

Design Help

Photo by Studio Ton Kinsbergen

Three questions to answer before shopping for your pendant

How Many?

An odd number of fixtures—one, three, or five—generally looks better than an even number. Over a kitchen island, space the fixtures evenly, typically 24 to 30 inches between the centers of the shades.

How Big?

Scale the shade to the size of the room or its most prominent piece of furniture. Over a rectangular dining table, for instance, the shade diameter should equal the table width minus 1 foot on either side, to create a visual buffer around it.

How Bright?

For ambient lighting with incandescent bulbs, aim for 2 watts per square foot—that's 200 watts for a 10-by-10-foot room. Up the output by as much as 50 percent in rooms painted in saturated colors or that have dark-stained trim. For task lighting, say over the desk in your kid's room, the rule of thumb is 15 watts per square foot. Don't be afraid of too much light; you can always install a dimmer.

Hanging Rules: Bathroom Vanity

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

An alternative to conventional sconces, these pendants with mosaic-tile shades project a flattering light.


To eliminate shadows under chin, eyes, and cheeks, mount the pendants near eye level, about 18 inches from the center of the sink.

Hanging Rules: Kitchen Island

Photo by Paul Whiceloe

Burnished-copper pendants illuminate key work zones in the kitchen: the prep sink and butcher block.


For small islands, center just one pendant 30 to 36 inches above the counter. For large islands, evenly space multiple lights, leaving about 18 inches in from the ends so that you won't bump your head.

Pro Tip: "When hanging two or more pendants over a counter or table, space them so that eash one's pool of light overlaps with its neighbor to prevent any dim spots." —Steven L. Klein, Lighting Designer, Milwaukee

Hanging Rules: Dining Table

Photo by Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn

A punched-metal hanging lantern throws off a diffuse, mood-setting light in this dining area.


For visual harmony, let table size dictate the height—typically 33 to 36 inches above its top. Hang it on the high end of the range for a large table, the low end for a small one.

Pro advice: "An outlet supported only by drywall can hold a 35-pound light. For a heavier pendant—up to 200 pounds—install a fan brace to span the distance between the nearest joists." —Brian S. Bergeron, master electrician, North Reading, Mass.

Hanging Rules: Bedside

Photo by Jeff Green/Cornerhouse Stock

Pendants on either side of this bed save space, eliminating the need for nightstands and table lamps.


To stand in for reading lamps, mount pendants 50 inches above the floor.

Hanging Rules: Entryway

Photo by courtesy of Benjamin Moore

Suspended from a long chain, this repro gaslight makes a lofty, two-story foyer feel cozy and welcoming.


If the ceiling is higher than 14 feet, the pendant's shade should hang at the midpoint between floor and ceiling. For 8-foot-high ceilings, the shade should be no closer than 6 inches from the ceiling and a minimum of 7 feet above the floor. Always center the fixture with the front door.

Hanging Rules: Kitchen Office

A pendant at the end of a bank of upper cabinets defines a swath of countertop below as a distinct spot for paying bills and reading recipes.


For sit-down kitchen desks, leave about 30 inches between the bottom of the shade and the counter. Leave 36 inches for stand-up stations.

Problem Solvers: Adjustable Height

Photo by David Fenton

Pull down on this pulley-style pendant's handle when you need more light to, say, chop veggies, then give it a gentle push to move it back up. A counterweight holds the fixture still at any height.

About $985, Country line; Dragonflys & Co.

Problem Solvers: Can-Light Conversion

Photo by courtesy of Ballard Designs

Turn a ho-hum recessed light into a pendant using a corded adaptor that screws into the existing socket. A decorative canopy hides the adapter and the recessed can.

Instant Pendant Light Adapter with corded socket, canopy, and fabric drum-style shade, about $89; Ballard Designs

Problem Solvers: Many Lights, One Canopy

Photo by courtesy of Rejuvenation

This five-bulb Colonial Revival–style fixture, with its array of tulip shades, provides extra light in an entryway or dining room. Each socket can handle up to a 100-watt bulb for five times the lumens of a typical one-bulb pendant.

Duniway, about $1,440; Rejuvenation

Problem Solvers: Pendants On Track

Photo by courtesy of Progress Lighting

Hang up to six mini pendants from this 6-foot track for easy-to- adjust task lighting. Each 4½-inch-diameter glass shade hides a 50-watt halogen bulb.

Track and transformer, about $419; each pendant, about $126; Progress Lighting

Problem Solvers: Energy-Saver

Photo by courtesy of Schoolhouse Electric Co.

Inside this pendant's painted shade is a GU24 socket for pin-type CFLs. These bulbs are 77 percent more efficient than incandescents with the same light output. Because this fixture can't accept old-school screw-in bulbs, it meets California's strict energy code.

Willamette 4 pendant, about $171; Schoolhouse Electric Co.

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