A two story shed or garage with it's lights on visible through windows and on the outside, in a yard at dusk

Buying Guide: Exterior Wall Sconces

Here’s a fun challenge to do when you should be washing dishes, mowing the lawn, or cleaning your teeth: Go shopping online for wall sconces and see how many of the product photos have the light turned on.

Or you can skip the search and trust me. There are not very many.

Most manufacturers and their customers care more about what a fixture looks like at the point of sale- a website, a showroom, a big box retailer- than what it will look like at night on your home. They know you are more likely to buy their fixture if it is shown turned off.

Sound familiar? It is another example of the difference between lighting and light.

Lighting is a product, a commodity, a utility. Light is a gift.

Light fixtures- lighting- are designed to sell. Most never think much about the qualities of light a given fixture will produce. If you think more about light- and less about lighting- you are likely to get much better results.

Here are a few buying guides from my professional practice to help you choose your next outdoor wall sconce.

A soft gray square in the middle with triangles of light coming from the top and bottom

Front Door

I make an exception to the “all light should point down” rule at the front door and recommend a soft glow out of the sides and top.  This sconce serves a unique dual purpose: it must provide useable light to the sidewalk below, but should also draw the eye towards the door.  By doing both well, it will make the front of the home more inviting, more comfortable.

At some level, I do not care about the aesthetics of the fixture, so choose what looks good to you.  I care highly about what kind(s) of light are emitted however, so pay special attention to the distribution diagram.  You would not believe how many front porch sconces put most light into your eyes (glare), some light up, and the least light down (where you need it most).

Click here to view the full guide: EDS-2 Exterior Sconce

A soft gray square in the middle with a triangle of light coming from the bottom

Back Door

The back door is another story entirely, and should not have the same kind of fixture.  I do not want kinds in Halloween costumes flocking to my back door, but I do want to be able to see where I am going and have plenty of light for fiddling with the walk.

A simple downlight-only wall sconce will do.  This type will draw your eye to the door more subtly, provide more usable light for late night arrivals, and keep wasted light out of your eyes.

Click on the link to view the full guide for this type: EDS-3 Exterior Sconce Down

A soft gray square in the middle with a triangle of light coming from the bottom

Garage & Patio

For a wider spread of light, useful when illuminating driveways, garage doors, and patios, choose a downlight-only wall sconce with a wider distribution.

These are often called barn lights, as they were among the earliest electric light fixtures. In rural America, it was common to electrify and illuminate the barn before the house. The basic style has changed very little, and for good reason. It works.

Click here to view the guide: EDS-4 Exterior Sconce Barn

I’ll say it again: what I do is not rocket science. I just think about light before I think about lighting.


Author’s Note: When I create a lighting design for a new home, I typically craft detailed specifications of architectural fixtures like recessed downlights. For decorative fixtures, which must also be pleasing to the eye of the client, I create guides like these to aid the buying process. The end result is a house with light of the right kind in the right place- and that looks good to the client.

Light Can Help You