The Light That Helps Make Things Tight

One of my most essential tools for joinery is one that I never talk about: my magnifier lamp.

This fluorescent, articulating light fixture allows me to see my layout lines, any undesirable tracks left by my handplanes and the bevel of whatever tool I’m sharpening at the moment. The light fixture drops into my dog holes so I can move it anywhere on my bench, though it rarely strays from the area of the benchtop that has my leg vise.

I’ve burned through three of these fixtures since I started woodworking – most of the ones you get at office supply stores are just junk. Their springs are weak and soon the lamp won’t stand upright. Plus they get damaged easily when you drop them.

About five years ago I bought a magnifier lamp that was built in the 1960s. It was “new old stock” (thanks Slav!), meaning it still had the sales tags on it when it came into my shop.

This sucker is bulletproof. And I don’t care what I paid for it (about $45) – I’d pay twice that in a heartbeat. You move it, and it stays put. It laughs off knocks and dings. And the switch didn’t break in the first week.

My magnifier lamp was made by Luxo Lamp Corp., which is still around – though I haven’t inspected the company’s modern merchandise. I really should take a look at the different lamps available (sounds like a tool test, eh?).

I can say this: I’ve never been happy with the student-grade stuff, so you might want to stay away from it. I’d check the stores that sell old office equipment. Buried among the manual typewriters, adding machines and metal shelving units just might be your next favorite woodworking tool.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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19 Responses to The Light That Helps Make Things Tight

  1. CatX says:

    I found one of these Nightengale medical exam lamps at a thrift store, and have been utterly delighted with it — bright light (with a surprisingly low watt bulb), bullet proof, easily adjustable (height and direction), and stable as well.


  2. Dale says:

    As for a little background, Luxo Jr. was the first film produced in 1986 by Pixar Animation Studios, the studio that brought films like Monsters Inc and Wall-e to the screen. I remember when that came out, as I was a university student studying computing science, and had a friend that was studying computer animation at the time.

    For more info, see the Wikipedia entry for Luxo Jr.


  3. Mike says:

    Hi Chris–your model is still available in an "updated" version. Think high $200 to low $300 range, and more depending on the diopter and or accessories.

    We had them where I once worked. Nice lights, but even better magnification.

    Take care, Mike


  4. Ray says:

    I use a magnifier lamp to look at what I am doing with small/fine work, but don’t find fluorescents contrasty enought to see gauge lines or plane tracks. I usually use a halogen worklight or similar.

    Is the Luxo particulary contrasty?



  5. Christopher Schwarz says:

    No. It’s not like a halogen in color or intensity. It’s definitely a fluorescent.

    But you can put it right where you want it and and close as you like, so that seems to make up for it (with me at least).



  6. Ben Davis says:

    I just use reading glasses, but then again, I have the luxury of not needing any other corrective lenses. Brilliant idea that I hadn’t really thought of.


  7. Kipper Odom says:


    I am also an avid fly fisherman and fly tyer. There are quite a few fly tying lamps that could work very well for this application and many are smaller as well as providing a "true to color" type lamp. They can run the gamut from $50 dollars to several hundred dollars. Most are built to be attached to a fly tying vise or a fly tying table/bench which I think would lend itself to using them with a work bench.



  8. Wm Claspy says:

    Sorry Chris, I had to chuckle. When I first looked at that picture at the top, it looked like you were wearing surgical gloves! I mean, I know you are a stickler for precision- what with splitting the line and all- but I thought that went a little too far!

    Best wishes from upstate.


  9. rfrancis says:

    Good idea.
    Used by painting and drawing restorers all the time. And in research labs.
    Many varieties listed but you could try restoration equipment suppliers and lab supplies for the high end versions.


  10. Marco Cecala says:

    I have an old light, I really like it. It is a florescent ring around an incandescent bulb. I grew up in the jewelery business, and always used an Opti-Visor for bench work. I find it is great for woodworking too. I use the 2.5 power, when things look good under the visor, they are great to the naked eye.


  11. CatX says:

    I have one of these medical exam lamps ( — it’s not a magnifying light, but it’s an impressively bright/clean light, even at lower wattages, and especially with one of the full spectrum lightbulbs.


  12. Patrick Secord says:

    Hi, try checking out this link for Busy Bee Tools (in Ontario, Canada):
    Magnifying lamps are plentiful, usually on sale ($47 CAN for full version, looks similar to yours Chris), and importantly… have replacement ring flourescent bulbs. I have had one for 3 years now and is great.
    A decent outfit for other equipment too.



  13. Jason Young says:

    Sorry, but I had to giggle when Chris says: (Sounds like a tool test, eh?) because that sounds very Canadian eh? Chris must be spending too much time with Robin Lee.

    Patrick, those lamps were on sale from Busy Bee at the Moncton wood show for about $15 bucks if memory serves. I wish I had bought one now!

    Regards from New Brunswick.


  14. Sam says:

    I bought an articulating lamp at Woodcraft a couple of months ago. It seems to be adequate — hasn’t broken so far, anyway.

    This one lamp has just about solved my lighting problems. I set it in a dog hole on my bench near whatever I’m doing, just like you describe. I have recently taken to mounting it on my saw bench, too. With the light close to the work and on the right side of the tool, I can now see the line that I’m trying to cut. I can also eliminate glare and get good contrast by moving the lamp a little. It’s amazing how getting the basics right makes such a big difference.


  15. Tom Bier says:


    Luxo lamps really are better than the knock-offs, but for a non-magnifying lamp my absolute favorite is the Vemco-lite VL4. This has a flourescent ring and an incandescent bulb and gives the best illumination that I’ve seen so far. Also, the adjustment is a telescoping boom that can be locked tight, even better than a Luxo spring arm. Still available new for big bucks & not uncommon on that auction site. Keep an eye out at yardsales.



  16. David says:

    For those that are -ahem- "frugal", and don’t need or want the magnification aspect of the ring lights, there’s a solution that I use at my carving bench that yields much better lighting and shadow lines than overhead lighting. Go to the big box store and pay about $7 each for several of the plug-in aluminum parabolic reflector fixtures. These are the types that have spring-clamps on the back side so that they can be positioned on most any edge. Then purchase "150 watt" spiral fluorescent color-corrected bulbs to use in them. The advantage here is that these fixtures are only rated for 60 watts, but that’s incandescent bulbs. The spiral fluorescents put out much more light, but draw about 1/5th of the current, and so are safe to use.


  17. Brian says:

    During my last eye exam, I asked my optometrist if reading glasses might facilitate saw sharpening and other such tasks. She had me bring in a saw to see if anything would be appropriate. After the usual "you cut all of those teeth!?" shock, she did some testing and told me to try a certain power of glasses (and to get them at some place like Target).

    It’s worked out well for me. The glasses make it far easier to see the saw point geometry. They don’t magnify a great deal, so the field of vision remains fairly wide.


  18. Scott Kip says:

    At work I use a bench that’s been in varying amounts of use since the 1920s and at some point someone installed an old dentist’s lamp at the left end of the bench. It has a huge reflector on it that focuses the light and you could keep french fries warm with that thing It weighs a ton and I swear you could burn yourself so at first I tried to remove it. It’s mounted in a pipe that must be epoxied in the bench and I couldn’t get it out. Now I feel like I couldn’t work without it. It seems like I’m always swinging it back and forth as I cut the tails going one way then the other. I think it’s really helpful to have a strong raking light. So I advocate for bench lamps.

    But here’s my question: Does Presbyopia kill your woodworking? What happens when you can’t see up close anymore? I haven’t lost my up close vision yet and sometimes I worry about it.


  19. Sam says:

    I am an amateur. I am over fifty, and I can’t see up close.
    1. I wear bifocal shop glasses. That’s a given.
    2. Really good light is just as important. In many cases where I thought I needed more magnification, I really just needed better light with less glare.
    3. I use a carpenter’s pencil to make a nice dark line when marking out. Having said that, I use a marking knife to scribe a line rather than drawing a line whenever possible.
    4. I rely more and more on registration. For example, feeling the chisel drop into the cut line left by the marking guage. Or, chiselling a shoulder to guide the saw in a "first class" saw cut.

    As I learn how to do things by reading and practice, I am confident that my best woodworking days are ahead of me.


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