Sunday, August 27, 2017

A few things to know about shipping

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Double wall construction.

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

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

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

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

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

Insert sheet information

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

Wrapping Parts to be shipped

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

Carrier selection

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

Tracking and notifications

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


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Missing porcelain handle tips? Problem solved!

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

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

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

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


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

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

All the best,

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

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

Friday, January 13, 2017

Fixing a Dripping Vintage Bathtub Faucet

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

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

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

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

Appreciate your help!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck.