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Expert Interview: Workshop Lighting

by Jeffrey Zurschmeide

Ed Slavin is a classic car enthusiast and the owner of Northern Illumination ( As a lighting professional who is also a hands-on car guy, he knows what works best in workshops and garages where serious automotive work is getting done. Interview conducted by Jeff Zurschmeide, author of How to Design, Build & Equip Your Automotive Workshop on a Budget.

Q: What should people think about when they’re choosing lighting for a workspace?

A: The most important thing is that if it’s just storage, you can get away with a lot less light. But if you’re going to perform work, then you want to increase light levels. The idea is to err on the high side as far as light levels go, because when you are 20, it’s real easy to work in low-light conditions—you can see everything—but as we age so do our eyes and we need more light. It’s just a fact of life.


Q: What kind of light fixtures should automotive hobbyists choose?

A: There’s the quantity of light and then there’s the quality of light. Fluorescent is still the best choice for a workshop, from both cost and utility standpoints. Fluorescent is good for spreading light around and it’s easy to wire. Modern fluorescents are instant-on when you turn on the switch, versus the metal halide lights that can take 5 to 10 minutes to warm up and come to full brightness. There are some good qualities with metal halide, as far as the sparkle that they create. You can get a good perspective on chrome, for example. But for all-around quality, quantity and price, fluorescent is still the best.

Light levels are important. As I mentioned, if you can increase the light level, you’ll be much happier. The distribution, or evenness, of light around a shop is an issue. Over your benches you might want to put an additional light, but if you have a garage door that can be open or closed, that changes things. Typically, if the door is open, that’s during the day and you have a contribution from natural sunlight. Another thing you may look at is windows and skylights, so that during the daytime you may not need to have lights on at all.


Q: Is there anything that people often get wrong?

A: Directly over the car is not necessarily the best location for a light, because then you get shadowing off to the sides. If you put the light off to the side, you get contribution down the sides, and you get some reflectivity off the concrete. Remember, dark colors absorb light and light colors reflect it. So if you paint your floors, the lighter color the better it is, because you can get the light to bounce off it and gain some lighting underneath the car. It’s not enough to work with, but it’s a contribution. Lighter floors also reduce shadowing, and that’s important if you’re doing bodywork. Dark colors decrease the amount of light that you’re going to have.


Q: There are a lot of references to the color of light. Is there any particular color that’s better than others for working with cars?

A: No, the light temperature scale starts with a “warm” color, which is about 2,700 degrees Kelvin. That’s like an incandescent light that you’re comfortable with in your home. The scale goes to 3,000, 5,000, and even 10,000 degrees Kelvin. Daylight is about 7,000 to 9,000 degrees Kelvin, but that light feels comfortable outside. If you brought that same light temperature inside, it would feel very cool. Cooler light is more blue-looking to the eye. The second consideration is the color rendering index (CRI), and that’s much more important than the color temperature of a light because different color renderings actually make  a painted color look different. The CRI goes from zero to 100, and a higher color rendering number such as 80 or 90 gives you good color.

The other thing you would to do if you’re painting and doing bodywork is to have an area with some incandescent lamps so you can compare a paint chip under all three types of light: incandescent, daylight, and fluorescent. That way you can know what you’re actually going to have. When you look at fluorescent lights, be sure to check the CRI—as with anything else we deal with, the cheapest part may not be the most reliable.


Q: What about those halogen shop lights?

A: The problem with halogen is that the lights get very hot. It’s a white light, so it’s a great color rendering light. It makes colors pop and sparkle, and it really makes metallic colors jump. But it is hot, and dangerous from the standpoint of fire and burn potential. It’s all pros and cons—there’s no such thing as a free lunch.


Q: Do you have any other tips for lighting?

A: If you’re starting from scratch to light a space, it really comes down to a couple levels of lighting. You’re going to have your ambient illumination in the shop, and you’re going to have portable task lighting. One tip is to take a utility stand and mount a fluorescent fixture to the stand so you can put it up next to a car or lay it on the ground next to a car. You can also mount a couple of incandescent lights to it. If you’re trying to color match panels, you need to have good inspection. One way to get good color rendering is to use different temperature lamps in the same fixture to mix the color temperatures.



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