Sunday, November 12, 2017

Far Afield

A while back I received an email asking for help with a constant leak. As usual I asked for photos. When they arrived in my email I opened the file to see a Speakman wall mount single handle shower valve with a leaking cold water supply line.The client had done a routine washer change on the inline shower control valve, not the main shower valve, and the leak had begun as a result of that work. 
I'll use my photo instead of the emailed photo.

The valve was in Spokane Oregon, some 350 miles from where I live near Portland Oregon.
A few emails back and fourth let me know that the local plumber, who would work on older units, had done what he was willing to attempt to stop the leak. He wrote a note for me, a description of the work and the problem as he saw it and that description was attached to one of the client's emails. In it he recommended that the unit should probably be removed and replaced. He ended his missive to me with the comment that "there is no magic". 

The way the work was described to me made me believe that only the cold supply leg had been removed as part of the repair and that that supply had been difficult to put back into place. I thought that was strange because the difficulty of putting the cold supply back into its place would obviously be alleviated by removing the hot supply also and then fitting them both back as partners. That, I thought, was the logical approach. Still, I didn't press that issue with the local plumber. I figured he was done with it. I kept coming back to the comment, "There is no magic".

The leak was at the lower union face and perhaps the threaded nipple of the cold supply. The description I had put doubt in my mind as to the condition of the union, the union nut, and the nipple between the union and the supply elbow under the lower union. I have a slightly later version of the same valve and pulled its supply union apart to see if the union was intended to be gasketed or ungasketed. I believed that my valve, if really needed, could supply union parts for the yet in use valve in Spokane. Clearly the union was to be gasketed. I also knew from the emails that a fair amount of teflon tape had been applied during the repair attempt. I am not a great believer in teflon tape.

The task looked both relatively easy and potentially vary challenging. It was not something I could try to walk the home owner through. Neither did I want to try to co-work with he local plumber over the phone or worse, by email. With all of these thoughts and doubts in mind, with the job being reasonably within driving distance, and with the epitaph "No Magic" challenging me I proposed to go to Spokane to correct the problem. The deal was that if I couldn't make the repair I would get the Speakman valve for my trouble but no other charge.

It took a few weeks to match our schedules and I departed Portland ten AM  on a Monday for what was to be a five hour thirty minute drive. With stops and a meal it was more like seven hours. My wife was riding shotgun on this trip, that was a good thing. Besides, she takes the photos.
The Columbia river gorge I-84 East before noon.

US 395 North

US 395 North North and getting late.

Things are different in Oregon and Washington.

It was dark and freezing out by the time we arrived. I was nervous about black ice and didn't trust anything on the road to be water if it looked wet. We had had a delay due to unexpected truck maintenance and in the interim daylight savings had robbed us of an hour of daylight for traveling. The forecast included the potential for snow on top of that.

It had been suggested that we spend the night in the guest room. It is a large lovely home circa  1912. Introductions were made and we brought in our overnight bags. After that though I wanted top see the job. It was in my mind to do the work that evening so I could rest easy that night. Dinner was cooking but water was drawn and the house water was turned off and drained down. I had my tools in the master bath by then and a large canvas drop cloth in the earthenware tub.
I start right in. I hardly ever remember to get before photos. This time though I had my wife on duty with her camera.

The standing waste is a Hoffman & Billings.I had rebuilt the valves a few years prior via shipment as per normal.  

The valve at the top left is the unit that had been repaired by the client. Pause for a photo. All business.
Teflon tape. That's got to go and there has to be some cleaning before anything else.

A brass bristle brush and a little pocketknife edge to clean away new teflon and old debris.

It took a while to get all of the teflon out of the threads of the union nut. Teflon can be a problem when it gets between the brass and the compression washer. When such a washer is used it is considered a face seal and nothing but the brass and the washer make the seal. Anything else, like teflon tape or thread seal, is not desired.

Clean and dry first.

Fitting the supply leg back the first time I can see there will be a problem. There is no room for gaskets and the lower union joint is slightly off angle.
When I saw that the cold side supply would barely fit back into place with no face gaskets at all I knew I had been right. The hot side would certainly need to come away as well. That would mean only the two brass screws at the shower arm would be holding the entire unit in place though so it was time for four hands. For a moment I became the photographer.
My wife is a better helper than I am a photographer.
The hot side had two matching fiber washers, one at each union. I had brought several fiber washer assortments plus my gasket cutting tool and two thicknesses of fiber gasket sheet goods. I had to make room for washers on the cold side so the hot side was going to need thicker washers. Each original washer was about 50 thousandths of an inch thick, I was going to double that. That made room for washers on the cold side but there was the other problem still to deal with. The brass faces on the cold side were not flush. This was caused by two things, the original installation was not perfect and the lower cold union tail had been removed and set back into place but not as tightly as formerly. It was ever so much higher than I wanted it and I tightened it a little but was shy of really turning it down hard. I did some trial and error. I had the house water on and off again with each trial. Finally it struck me what I had to do. I selected a fresh gasket from the kit I was drawing from and took up a semi coarse bastard file. I then began to thin the gasket on only one side, from twelve to six on the clock face and then working back slowly toward three but taking nothing away at three. I needed a wedge shaped gasket and I was hand tooling one in the palm of my hand with dinner cooking while sitting on the side of the tub.

One last time we turned the house water on and this time there was only a slight moistness where the leak had been persisting before. The fiber washer was wet and would swell with the water so I drew down on the joint with my flat face wrench, tightening it just a bit more and wiped the brass dry. Finally it remained dry.

There had been some leaking at the stem of the inline valve above so with the main problem solved I thought I would take care of the other leak as well. I removed the set screw and removed the handle of the valve. Then I removed the packing nut and cleaned it. It had some of my own packing string in it that I had sent with the standing waste valves a few years before. I took a fresh package out of my tool tote and repacked the valve stem.
Always a flat jaw wrench. I never even noticed the wash cloth until later, single minded as ever. Finding the work in my trifocals.

I have been making my own packing string for years, I even tried to market it once.

Dinner was served. What I had tried to do in thirty minutes turned out to be somewhat harder, it took an hour. I checked it again after dinner and it remained dry so I enjoyed the balance of the evening and slept well that night.

I have been turning wrenches sense I was twelve, I am sixty seven now. What I can't get I make or have made. What I can't do, well frankly I don't tend to think in those terms. Is it magic? No, it is positive thinking, a lifetime of problem solving, and a deep knowledge of materials. It kind of looks like magic though.  

Thursday, November 2, 2017

1911 "Standard" claw foot "Taft" tub.

 This 1911 "Standard" claw foot "Taft" tub is ready for a new home. It measures 66" x 34".

The Standing Waste kit is fully restored to full function and beauty.

On blocks in order to complete the exterior resurfacing. The tub's exterior walls were originally plastered except for under the rim and under the tub.  There was damage to the plaster coating and that was repaired. Now the tub is primed and ready for paint.

The tub leaked so long that the porcelain has been eroded under the button spout.

There is also some staining in the porcelain .

Date of foundry pour. The bottom of the tub was not plastered smooth.

"Standard" Made in USA

The claw feet are full balls, including the rear claw. They have never been removed, Note the square nail holding the foot to the tub.

Before and after solder work to build the valve bodies back to fully spherical.

Years ago, before I had the skills and the tools to restore it, I was given a vintage Standard claw foot tub. The tub was originally installed in a home built in the Laurelhurst neighborhood of Portland Oregon. I was called because the hot and cold valves would no longer fully stop water from running into the tub. The supply risers had service valves and those must have been used to control the water for a number years because they also would no longer control the flow of water. I was told by my client that water had leaked into the fixture for eight years by that time.

As a plumber my concern was to stop the incessant leak. I wasn’t there to perform a restoration on the fixture. The obvious place to begin was the service valves. I would need to turn all of the house water off to repair them. Once they would work I could isolate the fixture to work on the main valves. Once the water was turned off and the pipes were drained down to the floor below I removed the valve stems of the tubs service valves. The bib washers were worn out and unfortunately the brass seats the washers seal to were worn out as well. The valve seats were of course milled directly into the bodies of the valves as was done with service valves then and even now to a large extent. Those brass seats were rough and one had a fair-sized gap that allowed the water to leak past even with a new washer. The old school way of stopping the leak was to use one of those toothed hand-grinding tools to grind the seat back to good brass so the new washer would come to rest against a smooth surface once more. At that time, I was using a moto tool to do the same thing. I was able to machine the seat surfaces down to good brass on both hot and cold valves. After that the rebuilding of those valves was routine. I changed the washers and seals then reassembled the valves. They worked well enough to finally stop the leak.

Next I turned my attention to the tubs main valves. Those valves also had seats that were milled directly into the brass valve bodies and like the service valves the seats were rough and notched.   Grinding the main valves seats would not be a good option as the gap in the brass seat was too deep and there would be no seat left if I ground down past the gap. I told the client that I would have to think of a strategy and that I would contact her when I had a plan for the work. The client contacted me a few times and I still had no way to make the needed repairs. The valves themselves are too unique to be replaced; they would need to be rebuilt but as I said above, I didn’t at that time have the tools or skills to rebuild them. Aside from that I was still a full time plumber at that time and was always busy. When six months had gone by and I was no closer to a solution, she asked me if I wanted the tub as she had decided to replace it.

I accepted her offer. In consideration of the gift and because I was somewhat chagrined that I hadn’t been able to complete the repair, I removed the tub at no charge. The tub was on the second floor of a fine old craftsman-era home and I had no way to safely remove it from the house so I contacted a moving company and had them remove it. I disconnected the water and waste pipes from the tub and they took it out of the house. The moving company delivered the tub to me and it went into storage here at my home shop.

The reason I was willing to do so much to get and eventually begin to restore the tub was its size, shape, features, and the beautiful standing waste that was fitted to it. The tub is sixty six inches long and thirty four inches wide. It has a single backrest with the standing waste set on the other end. The standing waste controls sit atop the extra-wide rim of the tub making it what’s called a “through the rim tub”. The outside of the tub has been plastered smooth, covering the normal rough surface of a sand-cast fixture.  The feet are not the normal cast iron claw foot that is hollow in the back. They are full balls with a fourth claw in the back. The cast iron itself is much thicker than normal, making the tub much heavier than a normal three hundred fifty pound tub. I don’t know what the tub weighs but I would think between five and seven hundred pounds dry.

I worked on the fixture from time to time when paying work was caught up. I took the standing waste kit apart and cleaned all parts thoroughly; I had decided from the beginning that I would have all of the parts re-plated in polished nickel.

The main valves were still the biggest problem I would have to solve. Those valves were originally beautifully cast so that the bodies had a spherical shape. Not only were the seats in very bad condition but the valve bodies had been partially flattened by large wrenches that had been used on them. The wrenches had been placed on the thinnest sections of the brass and the spherical shape was lost, destroying some of the visual appeal of the valves. I considered everything that came to mind, including having new valve bodies cast in a foundry and hiring a machinist to complete the remanufacture of those replacement valves.

As years went by I continued to develop my skills. I was even able to obtain vintage tools that were made to reseat that kind of valve by cutting threads into the original water port and threading new brass or bronze seats into the valve body. As for the damaged shape of the valve bodies I formed a plan for that after I began working with a new plating company. The plating company I had been working with would fill deep wrench scars before they plated the parts. I asked the new plater about that and he encouraged me to do the filling myself. When I showed him the damaged valve bodies he told me I should be able to do it with a good lead free solder; then he would plate the finished valves. I decided he was right and entered into this line of work to expand my skills and work on projects that were new and interesting to me. Reforming the valves for my tub qualified on both fronts.

It took a lot of time and patience, not to mention solder, to make those valves look like they once had. I added solder and then hand tooled it with a shallow-toothed rasp. I laid on layer after layer of solder until the coatings were too thick and then had to remove some of the solder to try to restore the spherical shape of the valve. There was definitely a learning process and it probably took longer than it should have but in the end I was happy with the result.

What I have done with the standing waste kit is:

    •    I fully restored the main valves.

    •    I had new stems and bonnets custom made. My plater buffed them to remove any sharp angles recreating the soft lines of a true vintage fixture.

    •    I reseated the bodies so that the washers on the new stems fit down to new brass.

    •    I made new gaskets and repacked the stems with new packing
    •    I tested the valves at normal house pressure to ensure the function is fully restored.
    •    I recreated the original shape of the valves to restore the original esthetic.

    •    I replaced the original brass supply risers with new brass, polished and plated in nickel as are all of the parts. I made them short enough to allow new service valves to be set into them above the floor level. Below the service valves new brass pipe will carry the supply riser to below the floor.

    •    The original waste pull and its tube were missing when I received the tub. I assembled vintage original “Standard” parts, including the porcelain drain pull, to create an inner tube that is indistinguishable from what was once there when in place. It functions to hold water in the tub to the standard of the time, being that the functionality is original.

    •    The button spout and drain strainer are original parts, as are the yoke assembly, supply nuts, spout tube assembly, outer drain tube assembly, and the trims at the tub rim penetrations.

    •    The horizontal tailpiece at the drain boot is new brass tubing. A new nickel plated brass vertical tailpiece (not shown in photos) will be provided.

Altogether the restoration of this tub has been a journey in microcosm, part of my overall journey from residential plumber to restoration artisan. It came to me at about the time of the inception of and, like the creation of the website, many many hours have gone into it to make it what it is today.

This beautiful tub is available for sale at

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.


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.