Tuesday, July 29, 2014

No Wrong Way

I have to laugh sometimes at the way the world works and the cultural references that go through my head. Not long ago I did some minor restoration on a Crane wall hung lavatory with integral spout. The job was for a pleasant and capable woman who, with her husband, is restoring a mid century home on the other side of Portland from where I am based. She called me regarding the lav. when the plumber on the job quipped that what was needed to fix her mid century Crane was a sledge hammer.

I love the Crane fixtures produced from the early twentieth century till the mid sixties. I see in them a superb balance of form and function. There are many of them around still, especially from the fifties, and so I have had the opportunity to become practiced and certain with them.

There was usually a reason for an old fixture to be set aside and replaced and time does not solve that problem, it compounds it by letting all of the gaskets and seals dry and shrink. I removed all of the components from the Lav. mentioned above. I did test it first to be sure, and yes it leaked from just about every possible place. I gave it new seats, new stems, and fitted the wide spread valve bodies back into place with new compression gaskets that I make in my shop. I straightened the bent pop-up fork, which had been the last straw for my beleaguered predecessor, and completed the assembly of the pop-up and drain with a new 1-1/2 by 1-1/4 threaded tail piece. All done, all good, except she paid two plumbers for the work.

Most home owners work on a tight budget when remodeling and there are usually plenty of budget busters to be dealt with. Restoration is even worse. Just as I do with my plumbing-geek web site I am always glad to answer answer questions for local clients. This young couple paid a considerable fee for the work I did on their wall hung Crane and I coached them through some of the mundane work on the kitchen drains to be helpful.

Over this past weekend I received a call from them about a new problem. The upstairs toilet was leaking into the main floor bathroom ceiling. The main floor bath is being redone and the new sheet rock was getting wet. Monday morning found me once more on the other side of town working on a fixture that had already been worked on by another plumber. My client called the plumbing company that had sent the plumber who installed the toilet to complain that the toilet must have been installed incorrectly. The boss of the plumber who had said the lav. should be fixed with a sledge hammer told my client that there is 'no wrong way to set a toilet', an absurdity that leaves one dumbstruck. I have long observed and told many a client that in contracting, birds of a feather flock together. That is the way the world works.The cultural reference that comes to mind is, if I were a comic book protagonist these guys would be my perfect antagonists. They create my work while refusing to learn from theirs. They refuse to acknowledge any error while making statements that would shake anyone's confidence in them. 

As I pulled and reset the toilet my client asked me what might have been done wrong. I chatted as I worked, as is my wont. I showed her the things I did, as I did them, in the order I did them, and told her why I did them. I reminder her that all this information is on my website to be had by all. Over the weekend they had pulled the leaking toilet, a 1975 Norris 5 gallon flusher, and set a 1.6 gallon toilet they had on hand in it's place on the wax ring that was under the Norris. I set the 1.6 and looked for problems with the way the Norris had been set. I looked at the Norris for problems as well. I concluded that there may have been nothing wrong beyond the fact that the 5 gallon Norris, which flushes just as aggressively as a 5 gallon "Standard" or a 5 gallon Crane, should probably not have been set on a wax ring with a plastic horn in it. That the horn would become a point of flow restriction that could have caused the wax ring to fail, especially if the toilet had not been perfectly clean and dry when it was reset. A seeming minor detail.

Here's the other cultural reference. It occurred to me, and I told the client that its like a line from the movie "The Matrix". One character states, while looking at a video screen showing nothing but streaming numbers, that one gets used to it, that he doesn't see numbers but blond, brunet, and redhead.
I no longer see just fixtures, I look at lavs, toilets, and tub valves and I see engineering.
I have been a journeyman plumber long enough to see not just the work, but the journey. 


Saturday, July 5, 2014

My new blog, 7/4/14

My wife is a great apologist for blogging. It's not that she is a great blogger herself; the conversation runs to the old, 'do as I say not as I do' routine. She is good however at seeing and knowing value, that is, return for effort put forth. Plumbing-geek.com, the repository of my know-how and the place so many have come to and found the help and answers they needed was my wife's brainchild.

I supplied the name. About twenty minutes into brainstorming possible names for the new website, checking availability as we went, I came up with Plumbing Geek. It seemed so obvious, plumbing on the internet. We Googled it and the net echoed like a large empty room. We could have had .com, .net, dot whatever. We could have had it with or without the hyphen, but we thought the double G was more readily understood with each G as part of a separate word. That was back in 2010 when all things plumbing had, for the most part, not given more than a nod to the twenty-first century.

Of all the internet projects and entities we have initiated plumbing-geek.com is the one that has grown wings and soared. Indeed there has been great return for effort and the website more than pays for itself. Through plumbing-geek I have been able to profit while helping people and what could be better than that! I got an email from a woman in England who said her pink loo was out of order. It is a 1929 Crane Ipswich and no one there was prepared to work on it. After lots of emails between her and myself, plus myself and her plumber, we put it right. I selected and sent parts for it and her plumber installed them as per my instruction. To date I have talked to folks all over the country about their remodel and restoration projects; many of them send their valves to me. I restore them to full function, sometimes have them re-plated, and send them back. I have answered many emails about general plumbing questions and have even taken some phone calls.

I look foreword to a day when plumbing-geek will be my full time occupation. Even now a good percentage of my time plumbing is working in my shop on valves and such that come via USPS, FedEx, and UPS. I am trying to find time to restore my own collection of vintage plumbing fixtures so that I might get them posted on the websites pages as available and ready to install. The website wants many more pages to be written and now there is this blog to see to.

I was wondering if I would be able to keep a blog up and have something interesting to say. After some thought though I realized that here is a place for me to post and talk about the photos I am always taking with my iPhone and boring my friends with. It isn't just fine old plumbing fixtures that I see and work on, as if that isn't enough, it's the interior and exterior architecture I am constantly exposed to in my work. Tile, fire places, hardwoods, cabinetry, windows and doors, even embossed tin ceilings and Victorian spooled interior arches. If I am not too busy and don't procrastinate, I will be sharing it all here.

Thanks for looking!

-Brian, the plumbing geek.

Hard Boiled Plumber

It was another cold morning in Portland. I sat with my third cup of joe reading the daily rag; it reminded me how much I lamented the loss of the Journal. The wife was across the table making a noise on her aging Apple that sounded like hail on a recycling bin. I could make it stop by reading to her from the articles on the page. I would get a kick out of it once or twice but about the third time I would get that look. I figured I’d take a pass on the look and kept still.
The coffee was black and rich and I wanted more but more would sour my stomach. 'What the hell,' I thought, the 'news would do that anyway.' I was going to heat it up when the phone made its money noise. The phone was like a salaried employee; it made the same noise for money going out as it did for money coming in. This call just happened to be income.
The female voice on the line gave me the same old song. A guy had come out to fix the old tub faucet and then said it couldn't be fixed.
Yeah,” I said, “what's your name? Gimme an address and a number.”
Her name was Deloris. “Can you fix it?” Deloris asks me.
Don't you want to look at it first?”
Sure I do, before I fix it,” I says. “I can fix it though, I don't gotta look at it to say that. I can fix anything but a rainy day and last time I looked that wasn't broke.”
She gives me the dope and asks when I'll be over as it's dripping and running up the bill.
Within the hour,” is all I'll say. I don't live in town and I never know about the traffic.
At the end of the conversation I'm rubbing my chin, thinking about a shave. I nix the thought and grab my Daytimer. It's dripping and running up the bill. The wife meets me at the door for a peck and a pat.
What do you want for dinner?” she asks.
What's on the menu?”
We're off the menu.”
Surprise me,” I say. I get another kiss and pat before we part because the interest is all paid off and we're only paying on the principle now.
Jumping into the heap I back out into the lane, the tick of the exhaust manifold leak telling me what my RPMs are. I get slowed down in the school zones on Oatfield and the speed trap in Milwaukie; other than that I make good time.
The address is in Ladd's Addition, a one story cottage. It shows its years but I've seen worse, much worse. I take it all in on my way up the walk. Combed ceder siding shakes but I know there is fir beneath them. The windows are original as is the porch. The front door is well recessed saving it from the worst of the weather so it looks good, only stained, not painted. The thumb latch is weakened with fatigue. I know a guy who can fix it if I can talk all parties concerned into doing it.
Thanks for coming,” Deloris tells me at the door as she lets me in.
Sure,” I say, “show me the tub.” I'm all business now, wondering what she's got in there. I have nothing in my hands, not till I see the valve. My plan is to treat the leak with authority but not scare the brass. By the time I'm standing in front of it I can see its got plenty to be afraid of. It's a ten inch wide standing waste and faucet combination, a real beauty, tall and proud and married to a big clawfoot tub. The six-sided wrench flats that were once beautifully buffed so as to have no sharp lines and then nickel plated, are torn and scarred with teeth marks from pliers and pipe wrenches. The scars are dark where the brass was cut into years ago.
'Poor bastard never stood a chance,' I think to myself.
What do you think?” the owner asks.
What you've got here is an early American Standard Renu, late twenties. Parts, packings, washers, no problem. Parts aren't in town as a rule, internet or UPS through a warehouse. Two weeks maybe three, three hundred, maybe four.”
For the parts?”
No, for everything. I'll stop the leak for now till the seats and stems are in and make a second trip when I have them. Two hours, two trips, plus parts.”
So why did the other guy say it couldn't be fixed?” she asks.
Uniform shirt?” I say. “New truck, nice paint, manufacturer's decals on it? He said you needed to remodel the bathroom, right?”
That's what the man said,” she agrees.
Lot more money in remodeling, lot easier to make guarantees when you are installing new. To tell you the truth lady,” I says, “I'm the one that's screwy. I just like to fix em, that's all. I guess I get a kick out of it. I got a guy as can fill and plate those scars too if you'll bear the strain, 'nother three hundred, I suppose.”
Does it need it?” she says.
No, could use it, don't need it.”
I don't think so.”
I didn't suppose, most don't.”
Twenty five minutes later I'm down the road with a good hold on the dripper. I go to see the Hippo on the off chance. Its no dice with the Hippo but that's jake with me. I eat time for a while; it's my time and the Hippo ain't goin' nowhere. Later I'll push the order through at Standard. They beat the net guys both ways nine times; they know it and I know it.
I beat it to get the jump on the rush. Its raining. The intermittent wiper burps on the glass every three and a half seconds all the way south.
The rig gets me home one more time, the phone isn't flashing so I grab lunch. Its a fist full of rye, trimmed with pastrami and swiss. The ice tinkles in my glass and gets quiet when I drop V8 onto it. It gets speared with the last straw, like the one my company commander was always threatening me with during the war. In the office there's a fly knocking himself out on the window. He's kidding himself but I let him, what's it to me.
You'll drown,” I tell him and sit down to check the mail. The guy in Nigeria is still trying to get hold of me. I'd like to help him out but I can't see my way. To shut him up I send him my contact list, I'm in the plumbing racket and it keeps me plenty busy.

Fertile Ground


It had rained lightly and threatened to do so again. The gray day felt like the early dusk of evening though it was only mid day. As I drove into the small coastal town, traveling north on Hwy 101 I saw, in my peripheral vision, a jumble, a collage of stuff, guy stuff. I drove on, thinking, looking for a place to turn around actually. I was well into town by the time I found a likely right turn and flicking the signal control I swung into the narrow street that went up a grade carrying us away from the ocean.
“You're going back to that antique store aren’t you?” my wife said from the shotgun seat.
“I have to," I intoned.
“That’s what I thought; I saw your head turn as we went past,” she said.
That's what thirty seven years of marriage will get you. I pulled onto the apron-like space in front of the former garage and filling station and got out. It was a drab gray building; the roll-up bay doors were open and the space within and without was festooned with parts of this and parts of that. Every so often one could see an entire item nestled amongst the seeming debris. In a metal box at my feet were two mismatched brass boat propellers, one laying at an angle atop the other. There were more boxes on the ground outside, filled and partly filled. Long items leaned against the building. I don't know what they were. Other than the impression that I had entered a realm of metal and wood, paint, grease and dirt, I was no longer seeing as I normally see. I was scanning, looking for hints of the objects of my quest. I had come in hopes of finding old plumbing wares, fixtures and parts of fixtures that were new when my father was a boy; this was fertile ground.
The loaded countertops with shelves above and floor-bound boxes below forced me to look and crane my neck so that my bifocals came into play. Despite a few distractions, like the old white Evinrude laying on its back and making a perfect forty five degree angle in the corner, I soon found a bit of old plumbing. It was an old heavy brass lavatory drain assembly, and though it was an off brand it was priced at forty five dollars. This did not bode well but I kept looking, leaving the drain behind. In an old bread loaf pan I spied some bits of plumbing brass and taking one up I went to find the proprietor.
He was seated in a little office that was only closed on three sides. He sat at an oak desk so covered that one could barely see that it had a linoleum top. He was old, and turned his shoulders a little when he turned his head because of the stiffness that comes from a long life of heavy work. When he rose from his armed oak swivel chair he stood more erect than I had though he could and when he addressed me he gave the impression that he was glad to be of assistance. I, though, was on task and wanted to test the waters after seeing the high price of the item that I had no regard for.
“Do you know what this is?” I said as I held the two inch piece of brass so that he could see it.
“Do you know what it is?” He asked back.
“It's an upper fuller ball stem. How much do you want for it?” I asked in my turn.
Fifty cents,” was his answer.
“I'll need to look around some more.” I said, satisfied that here was a man that I could do business with.
“You'll find some plumbing down there,” he said pointing, “and there are some handles and such up front.”
I let up front go for the moment as I bent to follow the lead of his finger. There I found a three hole bridge faucet embossed with the words “Standard” and RE-NU. The string tag said,
Solid Brass
Nickel Plating
by Standard
6 Inch center
works and fits
most sinks $35-

Loaded with this gem and the balance of what had been in the old bread loaf pan I went to the front. He stood behind the original service station counter that had once been where folks would leave their keys and return to hear the bad news, or good news one always hopes. Looking where the old man pointed again I saw a collection of about eight or ten porcelain cross handles on a faceless glass showcase. They were marked $5 each and were mostly commons but my hand stood still when I saw the distinctive double tip that meant L Wolff Mfg. Co. The old rare handle was still attached to the stem that had once served as the hot water control for a fine standing waste tub valve. This item and another marked H&B I placed carefully amongst the other things that I had selected.
“There are more pieces out around the side in the back of the box truck.” I was told and I faithfully went out to find my way. I rooted through a large box of lav taps till I found two pairs that suited me and returned to see if there would be haggling. A well dressed elderly woman was there with him. She was observant but said nothing.
“Seventy eight dollars is your total.” He said.
“Will you take my business credit card?” I asked as I checked and confirmed that I only had about half that much.
“No,” was the answer.
Going to where my wife was still looking at this and that I said, “I'll need that hundred you mentioned. I'll get it back for you out of petty cash later.”
As I paid my invoice the proprietor said, “I gave you a discounted rate,” indicating that he had extended me a professional courtesy.
“I know you did, thanks, I'll be back through,” I answered.
“I'm going to close this place up and get out of it,” he said. I nodded and looked around and then at him again. Back on the road I was amazed at having found a Wolff handle in such a place. My wife was just as happy, having found a forties Warner Bros. promotional Looney Tunes scarf. I thought about what the old man had said about quitting and getting out but I don't believe it. If he's like me and most of the people I’ve met who glean and peddle the old stuff, he'll dry up and blow away before he leaves that old place.