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.    

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Glorious Day

Another great old standing waste arrived today. I restrained my urges enough to get a photo of the large box before I took it to my basement shop to open it and lay out its elements on one of my benches. Inside the box were four packages. Two were the hot and cold supply valves on their risers, the drain tower and yoke were in another. The fourth package held the strainer assembly with its drain boot and the tub spout. It is a "fuller ball" style tub filler with accompanying tower drain. The set was made by the American Standard company and is marked with their trademark, "Stanard". 

I had been emailed images of the parts before me and knew what the complaints were. I found, of course, the usual toothed tool scars that I find so cavalierly brutal considering that there are  hexagonal wrench flats on all the parts that need them. Lifting the sections out of their packaging I set the packing material aside separately until I confirmed that it held no further small parts. While I did that I examined the emerging assemblies, seeing them as both what they were and what they could be. The problem solving, the making of the mental list, and first insights and strategies had already begun.

I had to stop myself at that point. I needed to get my before photos. Stopping my process to photo journal does not come naturally to me but I am always disappointed in myself when I don't have a set of before photos. I couldn't just snap some quick pix either. The result of that would not likely render anything worthy of publishing and there are more than enough disappointing photos on my website already. Photographing my work, before and after, has become a separate project in itself. Since we are all busy being creative around here it is not a project I can delegate regularly. Even if it were though I would want to embrace learning new skills.

Previously I would open and view new projects as they came in but not begin actual work on them until I had cleared the benches of already begun projects. I was trying to be extra careful of keeping the parts separated and turning out work in a timely manner. Now, with the amount of work that is arriving, I have begun a job box system so that various projects are kept separate and proceed as parts and materials arrive. I begin to process each project as it comes in and am no longer idle while awaiting deliveries. I was never really idle because there is plenty of work to do locally but my goal is to eventually move all operations into the realm of vintage repair and restoration.

I am pleased to say that I have turned the corner at this point. Last year the shop generated more income than the van did. I am steadily refusing more and more types of non-vintage work, though it is difficult to refuse the clients that have supported me over the years. As I write this, I am preparing copy for my new "vintage-only" ad campaign.  

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Worn to Brass

A few weeks ago I was contacted, via my plumbing-geek web mail, by a new client in Texas who was restoring an 1850s cabin on a rural property there. He had been looking at lav taps on sites like Ebay to compliment the lavatory he was using. He told me that he was searching for a pair of taps that were "worn to brass". He had found a single tap that suited him but had not purchased it and wanted to know if I had a potential mate for it. He went on to say that if I had a pair in stock he would be interested in seeing them but that in any case, whether he provided or I did,  he wanted me to work up a pair of taps for his cabin. In the original contact email he included the URL of the web page where the one tap was being offered. I looked it over and proceeded to root through my stock of unfinished taps for something that might match what I had seen on the web page, or failing that a pair that might be suitable. The two problems with the tap on the internet were that I couldn't tell it's size from the photo and I didn't know if it would turn out to be serviceable.

As I sorted the contents of  boxes, selecting out singles and pairs tied together, looking at their surfaces with the term "worn to brass" in mind, the usual inner dialog was playing. I have never been a fan of the bare brass look. It reminds me of the early days of the restoration movement when people would strip old faucets of their nickle or chrome and install them in that raw state. From time to time someone would ask me to repair such a faucet or pair of taps and it always seemed so wrong to me, as a plumber with a mind set upon sanitation, to work on something that I just knew would get all green and funky. Those faucets were the very first vintage work I did though I didn't relish it at the time.

I laid out the result of my search and inspected what I could choose from. The term worn to brass was bugging me because it seemed so specific. I was looking at bare brass that had been tank stripped, wheel buffed, and maybe even sand blasted. A lot of my potential product had come in as a lot and I had been pulling the best of it out for work, not the most worn looking. Now, looking at these pieces my intuition was giving me red lights. I went back to the office and contacted my client to confirm and make sure I was reading him right.
I asked, "When you say "worn to brass" I assume you are looking for authentic aging and not stripped, sandblasted, or buffed down finishes".
I got back, "Thank you Brian and you are correct I basically want an unlacquered brass finish of an older unit. If it was an original brass finish then one with some patina. If it was nickel or chrome over brass then most of the nickel and chrome pitted or worn in places to show the brass beneath.
Thank you for your diligence".
The thing is, I was really becoming intrigued by this, and frustrated. Everything I looked at was off the mark. I understand patina but that usually concerns the remnant condition of a plated finish. For this project I was looking beyond patina to deep wear. 
Unable to find anything in storage I went to the shop where I keep a stock of  "product" to be put on the bench in times when there is a dearth of client work. These are select sets and the really raw stuff would likely go to the plater. Now I was thinking that might be a mistake and a good thing that I had found very little bench time that was not filled with client work. I selected three sets of taps and pulled each apart to confirm that they were yet serviceable. Once I was content that I could make each set function like new I started taking photos with my phone.
Interestingly enough, all three sets had the "Standard" stamping that showed they were made by American Standard yet each set was of a slightly different vintage.

First pair, nickel plating fairly intact under green oxidation.
"Standard" tap, independent packing nut.

RE-NU indicates replaceable seat and datestap to  mid-twenties and beyond.

Second pair, nickel worn off of high points and pitted with some green patina present.

 Pre RE-NU lav taps, more sculpted bonnet nut. 
Seats milled into the castings on early faucets.

Pre RE-NU, circa 1900 to 1925

The third pair turned out to be not a pair at all, one is "Standard" the other is what one would call "Other". There are slight differences in the shape but I am convinced that these taps were once mounted side by side.

At first glance they are a pair.
Add caption

These taps must have been immersed in with some iron.
Iron introduced by dripping water and years under something rusting away.
Note the immersion rings on the spout of this lav tap.