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.   

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