Sunday, August 27, 2017

A few things to know about shipping

I live just beyond the city limit of Gladstone Oregon. Gladstone is one of many small cities that surround metropolitan Portland Oregon and though we are not residents of Gladstone we are served by its post office and therefor have a Gladstone address.

All of my work as a plumber over the first three decades was in and around the city of Portland Oregon. In the coarse of that period I began to work on older fixtures so as to keep my work interesting. Now I am almost entirely engaged in what has become my specialty, the restoration of vintage plumbing fixtures. There are plenty of fine old homes here and many of them still have original fixtures. Year by year the nature of my work has migrated toward repairing and installing vintage fixtures. For me that means 1965 and earlier, for the most part.

The creation of in 2010 changed my work again. As the website grew I began to include my vintage restoration portfolio. There was no great impact at first but for the last several years I have answered hundreds of questions and worked on scores of fixtures. With the exception of the projects I will actually travel to, a range of about one hundred miles, all of these fixtures have been shipped to me and were shipped back when done.

Shipping is like anything else, there is a lot to know if you want to do it right and doing it right is how you get a good result. I have seen some mixed results and a few disasters, mostly with incoming packages. I have reached the point of getting a consistently good result on outgoing product delivery. At the same time I am increasingly frustrated by disasters and near disasters on incoming shipments. To address this I thought I would take the time to write this blog post in the hope that a few pointers would alleviate the bulk of this frustration.

I guess the first thing to say is an admonishment. The older and the rarer a thing is the more likely it is to be made of a substance that might best be called "unobtanium". If you have one, and it is near impossible or really costly to replace, handle it carefully and thoughtfully.


Being thoughtful myself, one of the first things I did when I was faced with putting a finished fixture that wasn't mine and couldn't be replaced into the hands of a shipping company employee was worry. The second thing I did was insure it. I would like to say that I studied the whole shipping insurance deal but at first I didn't. I like what I do and I talk about it. I especially talk about it with the people I hand these packages to, perhaps thinking that they might respect the shipment if they know how rare the contents are. Early on one fine person told me my package could not be insured for its full declared value. There are limits to what may be insured and how much value may be declared. What this means is that the fine print of the insurance agreement exempts the shipping company from being liable for certain types of loss. Antiques in particular may be problematic to file a claim on.

It is not at all uncommon for me to ship packages with actual values exceeding $5000. Because of the nature of the contents, being rare antiques, plus the value of some packages, I was unable to satisfactorily  insure with any shipper. Faced with this insurance dilemma I did go into the fine print of the various shipper's agreements and found no clear path. I suggest that you read the fine print of the agreement with your shipper and perhaps speak with a knowledgeable representative before you go blithely forward.

In the end I treated the issue the way a contractor does. I contacted my business liability insurance agent and had a frank discussion with him. He was happy to write a rider on my general liability policy and we revisit the topic annually to keep it at an appropriate level. I am now able to say that I separately insure my outgoing product. Unfortunately I am unable to insure incoming product. If you are unsatisfied with your shipment coverage you might speak with your agent to see if he or she can offer a solution. That worked well for me.


Typically a cardboard box makes a good shipping container. Cardboard boxes though are not all equal. There are various types and weights of cardboard and boxes may be rated for strength and rigidity. Many boxes are marked on the bottom with the details of their maximum rating.

Double wall construction.

Try not to use boxes with tears, scuffs, or crushed corners. Seal your box by using broad plastic or fiberglass tape, not duct tape. Seal the edges of the flaps, top and bottom, and reinforce the original center tape on the bottom of the box. Many times the bottom of a used box may have accumulated dust so wipe the bottom before you tape it and make sure your tape holds firmly in place.
 photos here]

If you plan to let a shipping company label your shipping container they will probably get the required information from you when they generate the label. If you will address the box yourself mark it just as you would an envelope. In either case, place the information on the top of the box.

Here are a few tips. If you write your destination address and return address on a sheet of white paper it will be more legible. Tape that sheet of paper to the box covering it completely with clear tape to keep it from being soaked, torn, or soiled. If you write directly onto the cardboard tape that as well.

If you selected box was originally used to carry alcohol or a flammable liquid, and is so marked, you may have to wrap the entire box in paper to legally ship it through the mail.

Older shipping labels should be obscured with black marker. Do not try to remove them as they often take the outer skin of the cardboard with them, compromising the integrity of the box.  

Insert sheet information

Prepare a page or two to go inside of the box before you seal it. This page should begin with the same information you marked the box with to insure delivery of a badly damaged container. Next should be your contact information, preferred phone and email. Lastly, give instructions and perimeters of the expected work. This last is helpful for me as I speak with so many people during any given week.
I often get printouts of emails I sent or received, that can be helpful, especially if a few months have gone by.

Wrapping Parts to be shipped

Wrap parts in bubble wrap, toweling, or any other type of cushion to keep parts from damaging each other or the inner surface of the box. Do not rely solely on styrofoam peanuts as parts my migrate during carriage. After parts are individually wrapped bed them in your box filler material. Crumpled paper will work for light weight parts but bubble wrap,  styrofoam, or foam cushion work better. Try to keep parts from directly touching sides, top, or bottom of your box, especially the bottom. Picture your box being dropped flat onto the ground and plan accordingly. If fragile parts, like porcelain faucet handles, can be removed and wrapped separately, do so. 

Carrier selection

Due diligence is important. Bare in mind though that most reviews and ratings are in fact complaints. Few make the effort to praise. I receive shipped packages from every shipper. Anecdotally my worst experience is with USPS and my best experience is with FedEx. I must say this though in all fairness. Many problems resulting in lost and damaged goods originate with the sender, which is my primary impetus for writing this page.
In any case, take the time peruse the online suggestions of your shipper. A few key words will get you there. For instance, "preparing packages ups" will generate fair search results.
As will "preparing packages usps". 
The best page I found as I poked around while writing this page was this,

Tracking and notifications

I ship via my FedEx account. When I set up a shipment I include the email of the recipient and instruct FedEx to send notifications of both the initial shipment and the estimated delivery info. Those notifications include the tracking info. With most of the packages I receive I get no notification, though I have been emailing the client and tracking services are available through the shipping company. Providing tracking information, especially estimated delivery time, can be very useful. Luckily my door is well removed from the street.


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Missing porcelain handle tips? Problem solved!

Porcelain is one of those materials that requires great craftsmanship to master. I know this because I have researched the industry extensively. What drove me to do that research is the same thing that drives most of my endeavors, I won't settle for can't. I always say, "Yes I can. What do you want done?" In the case of  broken and missing porcelain handle parts though I have been regularly stymied.

The porcelain used to make handles for plumbing fixtures is an extremely dense ceramic. One of the reasons it is so dense is that it tends to shrink about seven percent when fired. Because of that, replacement parts cannot be molded from existing samples, the size has to be extrapolated from the sample by an artisan. Before I knew that I had asked around for years to find someone who would make porcelain for me. The response I got was universally, No I'm not interested." I considered taking it up myself and that is when I found out what is involved. There is simply no way I can extend myself into a whole new craft. It isn't a huge problem anyway because most porcelain plumbing fixture handles are unified porcelain cross handles. Those are available new, manufactured in a convincing enough way to be satisfactory. What cannot be had though are the porcelain tips that are affixed to vintage lever handles. When the porcelain of those handles is broken or gone replacement vintage handles must be found. Even that has not been a terrible problem. The terrible problem arises when the broken porcelain tip is part of a cross handle. Certain manufacturers made their cross handles with a brass center and porcelain tips. L.Wolff did this, as did J. L. Mott. Those two manufacturers in particular were among the top names in plumbing fixtures. This being the case there is great quality and value associated with those names even today. They were also not as commonly used by builders the way Crane and American Standard were. Considering all of that, one does not simply find another L. Wolff handle to replace a compromised handle. One certainly does restore those high end fixtures though. They can be brought back to full function. What though is function without form? What does your work look like when you fill the wrench scars, drive out or fill the dents, and plate all visible parts in beautifully polished nickel only to return the fixture with a handle that has two porcelain tips and two bare brass lugs that were once covered by porcelain tips? The answer to that question is simple, the entire work is unsatisfactory, incomplete, and lacking grace.    

This past year I was given an interesting project. The fixture was a shower with accompanying body spray heads that had originally been a two handle control valve with secondary control valves. The original brass ware had all been made by J. L. Mott. Some time around the middle of the last century the central valve of the set had needed service and as sometimes happens it was replaced instead. At least a quality valve was used. In the place of the Mott valve was a Crane. Going forward some fifty years the Crane needed service in its turn. You know where this is going right? The Crane also was replaced and this time a two handle Kohler was used. The primary problem and where I come into it is that while the mid century Crane valve passed enough water to facilitate both the shower head and the multiple body spray heads the Kohler did not. Function was lost and I was asked to find a way to restore the full range of function. Fortunately the Crane two handle valve body had been retained. I of course wanted to find a two handle Mott valve body and did a nationwide search for one but to no avail. Giving up on that I proceeded to plan the rebuilding of the mid century Crane valve. It would restore full flow to the system. I had an idea though that sent me in a new direction. The Crane valve had metal cross handles with metal escutcheons and I had in my possession a pair of Mott handles that would match the original secondary control valve handles that were still in use. I decided to have custom stems made for the Crane that would receive the handles made by Mott. I would also need porcelain escutcheons to match the Mott escutcheons that were still in place.

Cutting the long story short, I did quite well with the conversion. In the end I not only returned full function to the shower system, I restore the original appearance of a J. L. Mott fixture as well by giving the Crane fixture Mott trim. There was just that one thing though. That one dratted thing that I still had no solution for. One of the original Mott handles was missing two tips. I would love to tell you that I cunningly solved this old and frustrating problem but I cannot. Today, to my joy, that same client sent me this update.


When you worked on my valve and faucet restoration, restoring the porcelain cross handles was the one area that stymied us.
This is the handle that you saw

Here’s how it ended up:
I had the two missing porcelain cross handles [(handle tips) my insertion]  turned by a local woodworker on his lathe from a corian turning blank that I glued up.  It’s not perfect (my woodworker is pretty old and could have had a little better eye!) but it’s not bad.  The best part—it only cost me $60.00 to get this done, and the shower finally looks complete!  Feel free to use this idea if you ever need too—and thanks again to you for the very high quality work you did for me. 

All the best,

My response was:
Hi Jeff,
That is awesome! What a great idea. I am totally going to do a blog post based on that. I might be able to turn those myself on my 36" lathe.
Thanks, thank you very much! Brian.

Just when you think you have thought of everything the solution comes from someone who's thinking is not inside of your box. Corian, white Corian! Brilliant! Now if you will excuse me I have to find a source of Corian bar or remnant stock to practice on. I am one excited plumbing geek.   

Friday, January 13, 2017

Fixing a Dripping Vintage Bathtub Faucet

I get many interesting questions here at Sometimes I get a bit carried away answering them, proving again to myself that my knowledge of this stuff really is encyclopedic and I really am a plumbing geek. 

Often, as I am writing my answers, I feel that I should perhaps post the questions and answers on this blog. I feel so especially if I think that it may be generally useful material. With that in mind, and with apologies and thanks to the person who submitted the question, I post this for the general aid to you DIY folks out there.

Q. I have an older (1920's) bathtub. It is still in very good condition, but I can not get the faucets to quit leaking. I have replaced the faucet seats and it still leaks. I put in beveled washers and that helps, but only for a short while. Within a month or 10-15 baths later, it starts dripping again. The name on the faucets says Republic. They are nickel plated brass with porcelain handles.

P.S. I am very handy and love restoration but this one has me frustrated.

Appreciate your help!

A. Here are some tips, I hope they help.

1. Was the seat you used identical to the seat you removed? After market manufacturers follow the rule of making them identical because there are so very many seat variations it is impossible with that visual aid. It would have to have had the same thread count per inch, the same depth of thread, the same height above the thread, and the same circumference at the rim. It should fit into the sweet spot of the washer, not way in or out at either edge. It should have turned in with no trouble.

2. Did you use threat seal when you installed the seat? If water can seep through the seat thread it circumvents the washer to seat seal.

3. Did you use a fairly hard washer? Harder washers last longer in service, I use "Drip Proof" "Gator Skin" and a few others of that hardness. To test them I try to twist them in my fingers, if they twist I won't use them.

4. Did the faucet turn off easily and hold water when first repaired? Following that, did you instruct all users that the faucet is now repaired and must be turned off with no great force. Many users continue to force repaired faucets closed as per habit. This destroys new washers, especially soft washers.

5. Does the faucet naturally take a bit of time to stop dripping because it must flow out and there is no screen there to create surface tension? And because of this do users then turn it down harder, damaging the new washer?

Hot water softens the washer on the hot side, making it more vulnerable to excess pressure. That is another reason to use hard washers, especially on the hot side. Speaking of which, how hot is your water?

6. Is the washer retainer cup at the end of the stem intact? Without it the washer will not hold its shape well.

7. Is there a lot of debris coming through the line that may be embedding itself into the washers when the faucet is tuned off?

8. Is water finding its way past the washer screw? Especially if the stem washer retainer cup is bad.

That's about it, Almost everything there is to know about washers. BTW, I rarely use beveled washers. I use them only to gain height at the stem.

Good luck.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Thomas Maddocks and more yet

At long last I have completed my Thomas Maddock's Sons Co. project. It was unusual in various ways, not the least of which being that I had the faucet and trim but not the fixture. It is almost always the other way around.

This fixture is now featured on the main website,,
Thomas Maddocks Sons Co. Pedestal Lavatory
It is available

I ended my previous blog post concerning Thomas Maddocks, "Learning Thomas Maddocks and more", with the question, "anyone have a Madbury for sale?" That was a few years ago. I had an opportunity to pick one up last year but it was in Roswell New Mexico and I am in Portland Oregon. I don't mind a road trip but the timing was never right. Then about three months ago I got an email from someone in northern Cal. who had one with non-original faucets. He wanted to complete his Madbury with the proper trims but as we discussed it he decided it would be too much project for him and it was too remote for me to do the work. In the end he decide to look for an easier vintage integral spout fixture as the thing he was most interested in was having something with an integral spout. That left his Madbury available. He let me have for what I consider to be a wholesale price. I offered two figures, a fair price and a price that was better for me. He accepted the latter, saying he "wanted the fixture to be completed". An arrangement was made for me to meet his friend half way, in Eugene Oregon, to pick the fixture up. I was very excited, and even more so when I saw it. It is in terrific condition. 

The circle around the anchor is a belt and buckle

Not only are there no chips or fractures on the basin or base, there is the most interesting crazing I have ever seen. It took me a while, working with the fixture, to notice that there are a few runs of glaze that flowed out of the bracket anchor holes during the last firing. One of these formed a small drop at the back edge of the fixture. This drop is clear glass which tells me that he last glazing was in clear glass. This, at some depth below the surface, crazed. Being below the surface however the crazing does not detract from the glossy sheen that the glass finish give the fixture.  The crazing of the base is finer than that of the basin, the basin displays broader lines. to my eye, the intense crazing of the base is exquisite.

Note the crazing in the run of glass glaze  
I was totally captivated by this intense crazing


I began work on it as soon as I got it back to my shop. I had to make the rubber gaskets that seal the valve bodies to the china as the china is the water porting with an integral spout fixture. I also had to make the threaded brass fasteners that hold the escutcheons in place under the handles. I had to select a pop-up assembly that was the proper size, cast brass, and the right vintage. There was no way I was going to find an original Maddocks drain assembly or wait on one to come to me. I had a fixture to build and the right drain assembly could always be swapped in if one were to show up. I had seven or eight parts that needed to be plated in polished nickel as well. As the parts were made ready they were placed into a "job box", as I do with my client's projects. In the meantime the fixture had been washed, any paint, plaster, or old putty had been removed. 

The measurements are actually approximations. 
Of the three sizes listed, this is the small.

 These are images from my 1924 Thomas Maddock's Sons Co. catalog. They show the intended installation and the manufacturers specifications.
The distinctive thing about the fixture is that no metal shows above the basin deck when the facet is not in use. The handles and drain pull are skirted to hide the metal fasteners. 

The old valve bodies have been given new seats and stems.

All of the china trims are original.

I made the threaded escutcheon fasteners.

The integral spout of this fixture is above the overflow inlet. 

When plumbing was first being brought into the average home many things were done to show how sanitary it was. Everything was white white white. Maddocks went so far as to hide the metal fasteners to give the product a sanitary look. The overflow channel, where germs could hide, could be flushed with running water if you had a Madbury.   


Sunday, April 17, 2016

Quality in-Quality out

I have been specializing in the repair and restoration of vintage plumbing fixtures for nearly twenty years now. I long since came to the conclusion that being old does not make something good or worth restoring. Yes, there is a correlation, and yes, things do not seem to be manufactured today with the same high levels of care and integrity that seemed to exist long ago.
Think about this though. Of the product that has lasted and endured for the last sixty, seventy, and eighty years, how much is that longevity associated with good design? By good design I refer not only to solid enduring function, but to timeless visual appeal. Yes they last but do they last longer because we like the look of them and continue to keep them in working order? What of the product that was not attractive? What of the product that was not designed well enough to last, be appealing, or be easily serviceable? If it wasn't well designed all those decades ago how much of it do we still see today? I have to wonder how much our estimation of the value of older product is skewed by the quality of the remnant while we do not see the quality of the whole.
My point is this. When quality materials and good design come together enduring product tends to be produced. When economical materials and design by necessity come into play the resultant product will not tend to endure. I typically express this notion by simply saying, 'Quality in-Quality out.' I have not, until now, put my thoughts about it into written words. So there you have it.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Victorian Railway Car Basin.

Every now and again, in the process of keeping old fixtures serviceable, it is prudent to make their functions just a bit more modern. Case in point, look at my page...
The project I want to write about today though it is a bit more extreme.

A while ago I was contacted by a local man who had purchased a very old and unusual fixture. He had acquired it at Aurora Mills, an architectural salvage house in nearby Aurora Oregon. They had referred me to answer his questions about getting it installed. He contacted me and upon my request, sent me some photos.

Open tank water source in back splash holds water at room temperature with gravity flow.

Basin has no drain fitting, just an open hole.Note the tank with affixed spigot middle left.

Pull knob at bottom right rolls wooden ball into drain hole to hold water.
When ball is rolled away, drain water drops into tin funnel and from there into a vessel that is later emptied by a porter.  

New holes in back splash to accommodate new hot and cold water taps.

Rear view, tin tank not in place.The photos above were sent to me. Only the basin itself was brought to my shop. It fits to the bottom of the marble countertop with wooden stays.

 I was asked to install a drain fitting into the open drain port of the basin so that it could be connected to the drainage system of the house. The only problem is that the drain opening is smaller than what a modern drain can address. I would have to make my own drain assembly.

Here is the cast brass lower portion of a regular 1-1/4" vessel drain assembly, I started with that.  I have cut a section of vintage 1" threaded tubing that had a lock nut on it and soldered the lock nut to the modern brass flange. I had to lathe cut the internal thread of the flange to allow the nut to penetrate it evenly. The threaded tubing is a close fit into the open drain hole of the basin.
Then I needed a grid strainer to joint to the 1" threaded tubing. I decided that this large brass washer would work.

Searching for a motif to follow the client and I decided that the little five petal flowers painted onto the basin would be appropriate. I knew that the result would match a common strainer pattern circa 1910. The brass washer gave me a free center hole, I would need five evenly spaced holes around it. 

Once I had the penciled on rays, evenly spaced, I added two circles. The outside circle represents the ID of my 1" tubing. The inner circle is the center of my holes and I drilled 1/8" holes where the rays and the inner circle intersected. I walked the holes to match the 5/16" size of the original center hole by degrees, using larger bits in turns. 

I then soldered the new strainer onto the 1" tubing. I had prepared the tubing for this by cleaning the edge on the lathe. Five minutes on the buffing wheel smoothed the inner edges of the drilled holes. Then it went to the plater for a coating of polished nickel. 

The new drain assembly, ready to install.
I used a closed cell foam gasket that I cut to fit. that material would seal my drain connection without adding undue force to the vintage china surface.
Another happy ending.

 Rising to the challenge of such a unique request makes the job very special.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Mid-Century Modern

Currently I, with the help of my clever and creative daughter, am preparing the graphics and text for my new advertising campaign. A local preservationist group, Restore Oregon, has offered to allow me to advertise in this year's tour guides. They will have two self guided tours this year, both are featuring homes in the Mid-Century Modern style.

I knew without hesitation that I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity be an advertising sponsor of this year's tours. For the same reasons that I love my work I am very sympathetic to Restore Oregon's drive to preserve the at risk older structures in our area. Aside from that, the timing is perfect for me because I am endeavoring at this time to forsake general plumbing repair and turn my attention exclusively toward the repair and restoration of vintage plumbing fixtures.

Collaborating on creative work requires not only the knowledge of what one desires to create but the ability to express how and why one would use the designs and language proposed. For my part, I had several ideas about what I would want to do and say. My daughter is doing a good job of keeping me grounded, helping to keep it simple, balanced, relevant, and meaningful from the layman's perspective.

The pantry faucet image is out of
my 1897 L. Wolff  Mfg. Co. catalog.

We are so pleased with the result so far that it will become the pattern for the next batch of business cards. During the first phase she and I had several preparatory talks and at last one long creative session to agree upon the main elements of the primary graphic that will go on Restore Oregon's website. She then produced nine mock-ups and we selected the best elements from the lot. After that I wrote the text for the accompanying promotion. Yet to create is the material to fill the space I have been given in the tour guides.

A good deal of research goes into the work of creating a design that will convey a message. The fact that I have been giving new life to fixtures from the thirties, forties, fifties, and sixties for many years is not enough. I needed to know what the term Mid-Century Modern means, not only to me and not only to others, but what the usual range of meanings are because these things can be somewhat controversial and I am not interested in taking a stand but in communicating at large.

I was intrigued to see that the colors I am familiar with in the fixtures of the period were repeated in design and advertising. I learned not only the origin of the term Mid-Century Modern but that it and indeed most of the terms used to describe periods in design came well after the end of the period in question. I searched and read through a good deal of material, the consequence of which is a whole new appreciation of the period. I no longer see Mid-Century Modern only as it relates to my work but to furnishing, architecture, art, and even open spaces and life style.
"It feels refreshing to think about what, to me, were good and positive times."
I was born in 1950 and grew up in the suburbs of Long Island, New York. I have an old familiarity with the colors and forms we are working with on this project. Formerly when I perused my old manufacturer catalogs I would focus on the fixtures, remembering which I had worked on and who I had done the work for.

Now it seems as though my reminiscences have really come alive. I can't help but think of the bright colorful advertisements for the refreshments available at the concession building before they began to play the Tom and Jerry cartoons at our local drive-in theater. I think about what it was like inside the Cape Cod style house we lived in, the floors and counter tops, the tables and chairs. It feels refreshing to think about what, to me, were good and positive times.
RestoreOregon Mid-Century Modern Home Tour Advertisement.
The image comes from an old Standard catalog.
Perhaps the enjoyment I feel when I work on the fixtures of that period is not simply because the work is easier. I know that the styles and forms speak to me artistically but what I had not considered is that I probably associate those fixtures with pleasant memories.  

Is is easier to work on the fixtures from those decades than it is to restore fixture from near the turn of the century. The parts are easier to attain and the valves were meant to be repaired with parts that could be easily replaced.

While the porcelain on cast iron was about the same grade of product as it had always been, the vitreous china ware was much better material. You never see the crazing in it that is so common with the older stuff and because of that it seems more sanitary.

Mid-Century Modern plumbing fixtures are also plentiful. There are many to be had and many remain in their original settings. I am particularly fond of the wall hung lavatories that were set with stainless steel legs in front, what we call Leg Lavs.

 I have been able to acquire various fixtures, faucets, and sets of hardware from the period that are "New old stock". I have sets of lavatory legs, some with integral towel bars along with faucets by Crane and Standard. I'm hoping the new advertising will help me find more work on Mid-Century fixtures and help me find homes for some of the new and used stock I have to offer.