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.

Saturday, March 21, 2015


No one likes waiting. It seems that the more restoration projects I take on the more waiting I do.

Right now I have a 1920s surface mount tub valve on the bench. Actually it is in a sorting box to keep it all in one place and separated from other projects as it is disassembled. It had seats that were milled into the body and were worn out. I had to tap the body for new seats and that is normal enough, it is also normal to have the required seats in stock. These seats though must be 13/16ths"  OD by 27 threads per inch and I am out of that size. Because that is not a seat size anyone makes I must have them made so I am in line with the specialty machinist I use. He is making me twenty of them.
I have two sets of standing waste valves right now as well. Each about 1915 vintage and each in its own sorting box and waiting for parts.
The first has been here for at least 60 days, too long in my opinion but I had to have stems made for it and they are not stems anyone stocks. The original handle mounts were gone and the stems had been filed down to fit handles that were not original to the valves. I had to extrapolate what they would have been and discuss the required specs with the machinist. That took time but eventually the new stems were fabricated and delivered. I had them sent sans plating though because my local plater produces a better result than I can get from the plater the machine shop uses. The difference is the fineness of the polishing, If one wants a mirror bright nickel finish one must have the raw brass polished to mirror bright before it is plated, not after. My plater is an artist and knows exactly what I want. He is also very busy so my new stems are not back yet though they should be soon.

Not much left of this stem's "broach", the faceted top that the handle fits to.

The second set of valves are not being plated but they had to be tapped for new seats. The seat size I need for this set is almost as large as I can tap, 7/8ths" by 27 thread per inch. These really large seats are what one must use for the large standing waste valves that supplied lots of water for the old extra large claw foot and earthenware, (china), tubs. The "reseating" tools I use originally came with a large assortment of  seats to be installed after tapping the brass valve bodies with the tool. These seats were made of bronze, not yellow brass. They were made to last! I am almost out of this size seat though I once had quite a few of them. The good news though is that my machinist is not only making me twenty new seats, he is making them from the new required lead free brass. He tells me that I can expect the new brass to wear very well indeed and be much less corruptible than the old leaded yellow brass. 

You can see the notch in the original "milled in seat".

These valves are also waiting for stems. The original stems arrived at the machine shop two days ago now. They must have them in order to replicate them.

While I have been waiting I have cleaned every surface and thread on these valves. All of the new gaskets are also made and waiting.

Here are the new bright threads my tool creates for the upgrade seat.

Here are a few pictures of my last 7/8ths inch by 27 threads per inch bronze seat. As faucet seats go this thing is huge.


The wrench required to tighten this seat into place is certainly not a normal seat wrench. By using this seat though, with it huge orifice, I compliment the original engineers intent. That was to create a large flow of water that would fill the oversize tub quickly enough to have it not cooling already before it was full. 

The last of the currently waiting projects are a pair of fuller ball taps that were sent to me to be serviced. I had them done and ready for pressure testing the day after they arrived only to find out that the stem nuts were not sent with the rest of the taps. I must have them in order to test my work. They are in the mail, I thought they would be here by now. I'm going to be really busy if all of these parts come at the same time.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Learning Thomas Maddocks and more.

Gleaned from emails:

Client: Looking for faucets for an integrated spout Thomas Maddock sink.

Brian: I have those faucets and have been looking for a sink. What model is it? How about a few photos.

Client: It's really in good shape. I little dirty from sitting in the barn for 20 or so years. It has a pencil or 'peg-leg' pedestal. I will send a better pic of the whole thing once I clean it up. I have some handles and escutcheon pieces that I think will work. 
That would be awesome if you had some valves I could use for this project.

Brian: As I had hoped it is a "Madbury". I have everything but the drain pop-up assembly. I will get you some pix of the handles, they are special. Somewhere I have a photo of the original catalog page. I will piece it together and send you an email. Let me see what handles you have please.

Client: Cool, sounds great.
Brian: OK, I sent you a bunch of iPhone photos of your fixture in the 1924 catalog, the parts I have for it, and how they come together to form the motif and esthetic the designers created. I could fax you scanned images from the catalog if you like. As you can see the handle is skirted and fits over the escutcheon in such a way as to prevent any metal from showing when the valve is off. This is what is alluded to in the written description that says, 

"All metal parts above the slab are completely covered with china." 
 It was the supper sanitary look that was craved at the time. Kitchens and baths were all white, white, white. I see that you have the drain pull still, if it is original it has the same feature. There is a slight cupping at the bottom of the pull that fits neatly over the metal hold down of the escutcheon.

I had a client print a page from the internet, this was before I had my own Maddocks book. He had a Maddocks lavatory like yous but with the full size pedestal, not the stiletto pedestal. In it were the valve bodies only, no stems, no trim. He wanted me to not only complete the faucets but to make it all original as in the photo. It was a real challenge to me and I dove into it. Being challenged is what plumbing-geek is all about, it is what has taken me from plumber to artisan. In the course of the next year I researched and resourced Maddocks valves and trim. When I found extra on e-bay I picked it up. I had fresh stems made by my faucet specialty machine shop. Enough for the one project plus more to complete the extra valve bodies I had found. Almost no one has the understanding of this fixture that I have attained. "Thomas Maddock's Sons Co." simply referred to as Maddocks stems are not in any of stem replacement catalogs, not even the vintage specialty companies I use for the normally no longer made parts I get for people. I had these stems made special, to my specs. I had to send the valve bodies to Colorado and talked to the machinist at length to get the specs right. The most difficult part was the drain assembly. I found an original but the guy would not part with it once he understood how rare it was. In order to secure it I had to design and fashion a replacement part for his restoration project, we then did a swap. I actually fulfilled the task of creating what there was only a vintage photo of. It took about a year to manage it.
In the end my client had no appreciation or understanding of the journey I had undertaken for his project. The completed fixture, assembled and installed, secured to the wall with vintage brackets was a triumph for me but a simple expense to him. Other facets of his extensive remodeling had run over budget by then and I was just one more guy with my hand out. I had taken nothing up front, I never have.

The fixture restoration and installation was my task, the rest of the remodel plumbing was being done by a regular plumbing contractor. I tried early on to get the drain they had installed lowered but the response was, "Are you sure it needs to be lowered?" I took my measurements and told them it would make it by a quarter inch, so we let it stand. The thing is though that at that time I was planning to use a non-original drain assembly. I had no idea that an original would become available. When it did, later on, the client would not settle for less. The wall in the meantime was closed and the drain was too high. I was on budget, exactly as I had proposed. The client thought that I should lower the drain at no extra cost and I deferred. I had already provided the original drain at no extra cost though I had to make gaskets for it as well acquire it. Another contractor lowered the drain and installed my drain assembly, I did not get my non-original drain assembly back. Much later, to my great surprise, I was paid the bid amount. The client seemed so bitter that I had thought that the job was going to be a total loss.
You are probably wondering why I have related this story to a prospective new client. First, I think it helps to let you know what is involved in this kind of work. This work is not in the realm of what is ordinarily possible to get. Second, I want you to know that I go all out, but I am a plumber. When a plumber goes all out there is money involved. The job I described above came in at under three thousand, I thought that was remarkable, considering what I achieved. Third, I want you to know the way it plays out sometimes working with the public. Some people will understand, while some never do. It has become part of the challenge, this aspect of staying on the same page between effort and recompense in such a small and narrow field of expertise. Just recently I had this incredible response to my efforts to stave off financial misunderstandings.

Hi Brian,

Thank you for the update.  Yes I am comfortable with that amount.  I've posted to you today a check for the total anticipated amount of $####. As far as I’m concerned you can deposit it immediately if you wish. Of course if there are any unforeseen expenses that come up later I'll be happy to reimburse you for them.

Brian you are clearly an artist, scholar and master craftsman of the first order in your field.  I admire and respect that.  No matter how this ultimately transpires this has been an interesting adventure and a learning experience. My wife asked me to say that if you are ever in Atlanta, we'd like for you to come by the house for dinner.

Again, we both appreciate all of your patience, guidance and creative efforts on our behalf.  Thanks. Regards,

I hope this has not scared you off. On the other hand, if you thought that this is easy and inexpensive, I hope it has. I would love to explore your project further and get to the required wall supports and the parts you may actually be using. I am mentally playing with a way to upgrade this to ceramic disc by switching the rough-in valves to mid-century Crane integral spout valves, though the reach is a bit less. 
Thanks, Brian.      BTW, this long winded response was also intended for the blog as a new post. I do not normally carry on so in my emails.

Client: You have some great experience with these sinks it sounds like. I have attached a picture of some faucet handles I rounded up from deep in the workshop. So if I can get these to work, they have a square receiver for the valve stem, all I need are two valve stems and a bracket to hang the sink on.
Do you have some stems that you would sell me?
 Brian: Showing the valve body without the gaskets or gasket nut. I have not yet made the gaskets.

Client: Those valves look like they would work. The sink holes, where the valves are installed, is about 1.5 inches. The escutcheons I have measure about 1 5/8 inches from the base of the escutcheons to the top of the square receiver. 
Do you think those valves will work? Are those something you pieced together? They look great. How much for a set of two if you think they would work?
Also how is this mounted to the wall?
Brian: This is a link to an item for sale on eBay. 20 hours left, no bids. These brackets are for holding a free standing sink to the wall. Free standing in this case means that there is a gap between the sink and the wall, usually an inch, but the sink must still be stabilized by the wall. These brackets attach to fittings that mount into holes in the rear bottom of the sink.

This type of fitting fits into the china with some rubber to keep the china safe from the metal.

I don't know about your trim fittings, handles and escutcheons. The valves I showed you are made for your sink. They seal with rubber above and below because the china becomes a water channel. I have not made new gaskets for them yet. I am considering a price, I may need to go back and consider my cost for the work I had done to make them.
Client: I have put a bid on brackets. Let me know about the valves.
Thanks for all the info!
Brian: The two sets of valves I have are slightly different. I am setting you up with the ones that have a longer reach to accommodate your 1-1/2" depth.
I will send you a photo of one of them in a separate email momentarily.  

I have done my research on how much I have into these valve parts.
The original cost of the Maddocks valve bodies on eBay,                                                        $120
Cost of machining I had done on them to create replaceable seats where the milled in seats were, $60
Cost of two new stems custom made to my specs,                                                              $120

My shop time to clean all parts before machining, create two upper and two lower neoprene
mounting gaskets to seal the bodies into the ports in the sink, and assemble the valves.
Two hours each body at $120 per hour,  
I don't think your trim will work as I cannot stay in the 1-5/8ths inch zone.
The tops of my stems are at about 3". My 2" tall china escutcheons will work and I will throw those in.
Square inset handles will work with them to have exposed plated stems.
I don't currently have escutcheon hold downs or handles I favor for the stems
but your square inset handles might go onto the stems.
The stem squares are .340" and are drilled and tapped for set screws. I can provide the set screws.  
So the complete valves, assembled and ready to install, the porcelain escutcheons, and the set screws would come to $780
Let me know.
Client: Thanks for putting all that together for me

So $780 is pretty expensive for me. I wonder what, to help rationalize the cost, I could sell the whole sink system for? Do you have any idea of what a working sink of this type is valued at?
Thanks for all your help!
Brian: I have been trying to find one, as I have said. I was willing to pay $500 for one in good condition, shipping is always a question. Once I had it restored I would be displaying it for a prospective buyer. That is the hard part, the prospect of sitting on it till I could find a home for it. I would ask no less than $2000 and no more than $2500 for it uninstalled. That of course would be with the no metal showing look that matches the image in the catalog. That is the selling point, the recreation of the designers intended look.
At this time I do not have an original drain for it and would have to deal with that as well.
I know the cost of my parts and help are expense, it is a constant problem for people at the casual level of interest. Many people acquire fixtures at very low prices, because the seller has no idea, then are shocked at the difficulty and cost of completing the fixture. Even fixtures that are complete must be made to function again, sometimes after decades of not being in use.
Let me know what you would like to do.
Client: Sounds good.
I have the original drain and stopper. It needs a little work but should be operable.
Thanks and we will talk soon.
 Brian: Great, I will prepare the mounting gaskets.
I had some other projects to finish but I got to your gasket fab. and assembly today.
The valves are now tested and the gaskets are in place.
There is a thin top gasket, a thick tapered bottom gasket, a friction washer, and a nut.
The stems are unusual because the escutcheon hold downs are male instead of female. I thought this could present a problem for you so I cleaned up an old pair of female trims. They could use to be re-plated but they fit and I am giving them to you. I will see about also throwing in a pair of porcelain escutcheons, I have lots of them. I would like this installation to go smoothly for you. I will leave the handles to you, but let me know if you get stuck trying to find a proper fit. Here are the final photos.
I will invoice you via PayPal.

They look good. I really can't afford them right now, this being our slowest time of the year at our B&B.
What did you say the price would be? I think you said about $700?
I do appreciate your work and passion.

The price was $780. I totally understand about the slow season.
Thanks, Brian.
Epilogue: Looks like I misinterpreted "sounds great". So it goes, anyone have a Madbury for sale?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

How bad could it be?

I found myself reviewing the text on my page DIY Plumbing Project.
I was reviewing it because there are no photos on it and having photos on the pages is good for being found on Google. Thinking about what photos I might want to place on the page led me to remember a job I recently had.

I was called to alter some of the plumbing in a little food mart that was attached to a gas station. They had run to the limit on some old plumbing permits that were outstanding. In order to close out the permits they were going to have to pass an inspection. The permits were so old that they predated the current lease and the current lease holder was stuck with the problem.

There was a fiberglass double laundry sink on metal legs serving for a wash sink in a room that had been a restroom. The old sink drain was too high and the pair of drains from the double sink were joined to a sagging p-trap that emptied into a 1-1/2" ABS pipe. That ABS pipe dropped off at a steep angle, past a 1-1/2" PVC supply 90 degree ell and then past a Wye-branch clean-out. It then was inserted into the open toilet flange where the restroom toilet had once been connected. There was a lot of room remaining in the 4" drain at the toilet flange that was not being taken up by the 1-7/8" OD of the sink drain pipe. There was "hardware cloth" shoved into the old toilet drain to keep anything other than sewer gas from emerging from it. There were of course rat traps set with bait under the double sink. I can't tell you how many rat traps I have seen over the years, they certainly wake one up.

Once I had finished connecting the sink drain to the properly vented drain in the wall I sealed the old toilet flange with a compression plug made of galvanized steel. I carried the scrap pipe away as usual and it went out with the next load of refuse. Before it did though I took a bunch of photos. Here are a few of them.

Sorry I didn't get before photos of this heinous arrangement. 
Here is the section of piping I pulled out of the toilet flange, it is now upside down.

This section of pipe with the clean out must have been salvaged from another use. It certainly was not going to clog in the 4" toilet drain.

  Those marks on the pipe are teeth marks, but not from any kind of a saw.

 I think they made it out of the drain and into the room. Once they became a problem the pipe was shoved farther down and the hardware cloth was added, along with the rat traps.


Saturday, January 24, 2015

Fuller Ball Style Faucets

I service and restore "Fuller Ball Valves". If you don't know what those are, let me explain. All pre-washerless faucets have washers, that seems logical enough but it isn't true. There are also fuller ball faucets.

With a washer style faucet, also known as a compression faucet, the washer at the end of the stem presses to the brass seat of the valve body to form a seal against the water pressure. This system is a bit high maintenance as the washer needs to be in good condition to hold the seal.

I prefer hard washers, about 80 on the "Durometer Harness Scale". They hold their shape, especially in hot water, and seem to last longer. The greatest flaw with using them is that particles of rust, lime, water heater dip tube, or bits of pipe metal that may pass through the faucet may be forced into the surface of the washer if the particle becomes trapped between the washer and the brass at the critical moment when the faucet is being closed. When this occurs the washer can be dented by the particle. The particle may also become embedded into the hard rubber where it may stay until the washer is replaced. These occurrences are manifested as drips or leaks from the faucet spout.

Softer washers, 40 to 60 on the scale, have problems of their own. They can become soft enough in hot water to be cut by the seat when a very firm hand is used to turn the faucet off. They also deform more readily and in general do not last very long. On the positive side they don't tend to hold indentation marks or foreign objects.

The higher the water pressure the more perfect the point of washer/seat inter phase needs to be to prevent dripping. So we tend to employ washerless faucets in the modern home. In the vintage home, where older style faucets are part of the charm, part of the interior architecture, we become good at changing faucet washers.

This brings us at last to the alternate pre-washerless faucet, the fuller ball faucet. A fuller ball faucet is comprised of a ported body with a main stem, a secondary stem, and a rubber ball that fits to a seat on the water pressure side of the valve. This is the main advantage of the design, the water pressure assists the valve in sealing, it does not fight against it. The main stem controls the position of the secondary stem. The ball is part of the secondary stem. When the secondary stem is drawn toward the the center of the valve the ball encounters the seat where the water pressure sets it firmly into place. This can create an audible "thunk" noise at times with some faucets but it is not universal.

Note the position of these handles, these faucet valves are both in their off position. I know this because the handles are flaring outward. This design feature makes using the valving  intuitive.    

The primary stem works like a crankshaft. All it does is rotate. Because the action is not up and down like a compression stem the packing seal is not challenged by a stem that travels through it. The stem packing therefore rarely leaks.   The secondary stem works like a piston rod. The fuller ball is fitted to the threaded part of it's shaft. Rotating the primary stem draws the ball to and away from the seat.
Note, the handle mount is set to agree with the aspect of the eccentric offset.

The water enters this valve at the port on the far right. It passes into the chamber that the cap in the foreground seals, this is the house pressure side of the valve. It enters the chamber via the moon shaped port to the right of the cone shaped fuller ball. When the secondary stem is pushed away from the center the ball moves off of the seat and allows water to flow toward the spout.

When I receive fuller ball valves to repair the balls are usually rotted and shriveled almost beyond recognition. The seats are pitted from decades of soaking. The stems are worn from improper adjustment resulting in pressure on the brass. After disassembling and cleaning all parts I fashion a new fuller ball from my own stock product. I use 60 durometer  neoprene for this, the rubber must compress so that the brass does not experience wear. I hone the surface of the seat. Unlike compression valve seats the fuller ball seat is milled into the thickest part of the brass, there is plenty of room to go down to bright metal. Also unlike a compression valves the brass stem can not grind into the seat so the seat is never gouged. A smooth seat and a new ball, when tuned properly, make an impeccable seal that could last for decades. This is especially true of my work because I use a neoprene that unlike older rubber products will not rot in the presence of water. When my valve is tuned the handle will rotate freely through a 360 degree rotation. The merest resistance may be felt at the closing of the valve, the water is doing the work, not the brass. One is not able to pull the handle down hard as with compression style valves. Because of this the brass endures on and on with almost zero wear.

Now I come to the impetus for writing this blog post. I have twice heard this comment regarding fuller ball style valves.      

"Fuller ball valves were invented when water pressure was low because of either gravity flow systems or the early pressurized water systems did not maintain the higher level of water pressure that they do today. Because of this, as they wear, the fuller ball valves do not fully seat and hold back the increased pressure that modern systems have."

I simply cannot agree with this. The fuller ball must first and always be in good condition, just as a bibb washer must. The seat must be smooth and unobstructed, Just as a compression valves seat must. The water pressure though is my friend with a fuller ball, the greater the pressure the more likely they are to "thunk" a bit but the seal at the seat is not challenged by it, it is helped. On the other hand higher water pressure against a bibb washer turns even the slightest irregularity into a drip.

The design of the fuller ball faucet appeals to my idea of tight, highly functional, and enduring engineering. It is not a machine that wears itself out. It does not respond differently to different hands and so cannot be brutalized or handled too lightly. My practical experience with them is that they work, then they continue to work, on and on.

If you have visited my home page at, you have seen a picture of a fuller ball valve. That's right, that awesome Crane Pedestal  lavatory is fuller ball. I did that restoration project about twenty years ago and used to ask the client if it was still working OK. I got tired of asking. Even though I had a fraction of the understanding of vintage plumbing I now have, though I fabricated the fuller balls in a way I would not even consider now, it continues to work properly.

I am going to close with a few new views of the fixture, though they are early cell shots and not that good. then I will add some other shots of fuller ball faucets. Thanks for visiting.
Brian, the plumbing geek.   

The plumbing-geek flagship.

 If you could have seen the pliers scars that were filled to make it look this good.

 L. wolff manufacturing co.

 Fitted with new secondary stem, new ball, and a clever conical nut that splits the water flow to avoid the possibility of erosion, not that that happens. 

 Ready to go to work.

Fuller ball seat before.

New secondary stem I turned on my lathe.

Honed seat, new stem, my own cut gasket.

This one is a little different, but it works fine.
Good luck replacing either stem.

I have a lot of fuller ball taps, from Victorian on.

Matched pairs as well.