Sunday, February 24, 2019

Custom drain wrenches.

There are more than a few styles of drain strainer wrench. There are also several styles of drain strainer. As with most things to do with plumbing, drain strainers have become fairly uniform. In the times before drain strainers became uniform there were some interesting and sometimes beautifully ornate variations. Therein lies the problem. 

Most of the faucets that are sent to me for restoration must first be removed from large heavy fixtures. They have been set on those fixtures for many decades and it is usually no easy task to separate them. One of the most difficult parts to remove is the drain strainer. This is complicated further when the strainer is cast in an ornate pattern that will lend itself to no known style of strainer wrench. Unfortunately, because of this problem, I sometimes receive bent or twisted ornate drain strainers along with the brassware I am to restore.

I do my very best to remedy this and sometimes have interesting results. That is a different blog post though and I will be getting to it soon.

The work I do these days is far down the road of my journeyman experience. At this point I see myself as an artisan and my work is important to me in terms that don't relate to profit. In a way it is simple problem solving and in a way it is using my tools and my skills to manipulate various materials with the goal of preserving and at times recreating what once was.

While I have the time and interest to do this work, most plumbers do not. Nor should they unless they care to, under their own momentum. One thing I do not want to do is make their task more challenging than it needs to be. I expressly want them to have success when it comes time to reinstall the fixtures I am sending back. I am always willing to consult on the reinstallation, though most plumbers don't ask for the help. I probably wouldn't either. I try to provide specifications and measurements when I think it will help. I also try to provide tools at times, especially for unusual drain strainer patterns.

For the most part the drain strainer wrenches I fashion would not successfully remove strainers frozen in place by decades. They should be strong enough to be used as installation tools though. I have made quite a few custom drain wrenches and I am getting better at taking the time to get photos along the way.    

This ornate lavatory drain was made by J.L. Mott. I have seen the pattern several times on drains of basins as well as tubs. This strainer plate has suffered a bit and is no longer truly symmetrical. It is in fair condition though. When I make a tool for a strainer I try to create as many points of contact as I can. I also try to make those points of contact as far out on the radius as I can. That way the stress is shared by more than the usual two points and the points of contact have more potential torque. In this case I have created six points of contact.  I am sending two of these fixtures back and I wanted to make a tool; that would work for both.

Notice the blue tape. the strainer is not symmetrical so the tool fits best when the tape on the tool and strainer align.

What I envisioned for this tool was a PVC cap with a flat face. I found that I did have such a fitting and began my fabrication. The first thing I did was to lay the flat top of the cap onto the strainer face and pencil the pattern of the plate onto the flat surface of the cap. I then put the cap onto the drill press and drilled six 1/8" holes to match up with the centers of the six outlying holes in the strainer. I then drilled these holes larger in preparation for my 1/4 x 20 tap. I will often begin with smaller bits as a way of staying on center when working by eye. Once the holes were drilled and tapped I was ready for screws.    

I selected six 1/4" x 20  steel straight slot screws. I then cut into the straight slots until the slots extended under the heads. That way I could cut the heads off and the screws would essentially be long straight slot set screws. I cut the heads off so that I could mount the screws into my lathe. Then I blunted the sharpness of the screw threads on the lathe to protect the brass from the threads.

With the screws in place I mixed enough epoxy to embed the screws inside of the cap, creating a much stronger tool. At that point I covered the steel screws with shrink wrap intended for wiring, further protecting the brass from the steel.

With the blue tape in alignment the tool fits into the strainer very well. 
The face of the other strainer is near identical because I fabricated it using this strainer as the model. 
Needless to say, the tool fits both as I had hoped.  

Of the three lavatory drain assemblies I received for this project one was different.
Making this tool was much simpler and I did it in my usual way. I was more conscious of getting photos of the process with this tool.

Once I have selected what I will use as the face of my tool I center it on the strainer and mark where it will protrude through. In this case the best fit was found using a 3/4" CPVC coupling. 
Unless one goes very deeply into the brass there are imperfections in the metal, created by decades of exposure to soap and water, that are not reached by polishing. Those imperfections cannot be seen on the polished surface but electroplating may expose them. 
These flaws, along with the remnants of wrench scars, impact marks, and other damage are not things that I remedy. 
In my view, wear that does not impact function lends authenticity to the fixture. 

I often use a hand saw to make my cuts. This time I used a cutoff wheel and my moto tool.
The unmarked and isolated sections represent the spokes of the drain pattern. 

The narrow sections are removed with a needle nose plier.

What remains are six lugs that fit into the pattern of the strainer.

This power tool is an old Montgomery Ward Power Craft.  

This tool will go with the fixture for the convenience of the installer. 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Replacing J.L. Mott porcelain index buttons

I have just completed my restoration project on a set of vintage J.L. Mott lavatory faucets. One of the challenges I had to overcome was the lack of original porcelain index buttons for the faucet handles.

Finding intact vintage porcelain index buttons is rather difficult. Finding the correct vintage porcelain index button when you need it is nearly impossible.

J.L. Mott employed a four part index button style. The brass handle hub had a raised threaded rim that would receive a matching threaded ring. The ring would hold the porcelain index button in place. The forth part would be a disk of thin cardboard. This disk would be placed under the index button to create some friction and be a spacer.

Here are the four parts.  
Early American Standard faucet handles used the same arrangement for their index buttons. I have a modest stock of vintage porcelain index buttons along with some intact orphan handles that I could rob of their index buttons. Reproduction American Standard index buttons however may be had new. I always keep some of these reproduction indexes in stock. They are very faithful to the original, including their distinctive font.

Completing my project necessitated the provision of an index button for each handle. The problem I had was that I didn't have any original Mott buttons. I had a set of four matching buttons that were the correct size but they were too tall to allow the threaded rings to even start, much less seat in. The American Standard buttons were the proper height but they are slightly too small. Small enough to drop through the Mott retainer rings.

With the project essentially done I found myself held up by the lack of two pairs if Mott index buttons. The Standard indexes were very close, close enough to look right if I could find a way to set them firmly into place. My solution to the problem was a little tricky to actually do but it worked.

Among the many vintage repair kits I have in the shop are some assortments of brass friction washers. These are mostly intended to sit under cap gaskets in faucet stem assemblies. I do find other uses for them occasionally. I drew from one of the assortments four brass washers that were too wide to drop though the Mott index button retainer rings, but narrow enough to not inhibit the threading of the retainer onto the raised male thread of the handle hub. These rings would be epoxied onto the down facing sides of the index buttons. The tricky part was getting them properly centered and holding the indexes in place during the process.

I found that the index buttons danced around on the work surface far too much to do the careful epoxy work that was required. I have 1/8" thick crafting tape that is sticky on both sides. I cut a portion of the tape and stuck it down to the work surface. I then pealed off the protective paper from the top side of the craft foam. The double stick foam held the index buttons snugly in place and I was able to work.

I was careful to keep the epoxy off of the downward facing finished sides of the buttons. With a thin coating of epoxy on the unfinished side I was ready to set the rings into place. They had to be centered, but I was able to do this by eye. After each brass washer was in place I added a little more epoxy to the indent created by the washer on the disc of the index.

The next day I was able to assemble my final result.  


Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Replacing J.L. Mott porcelain escucheons.

Plumbing fixture restoration certainly can be challenging. One of the most demanding aspects of it is the need to replace lost or badly damaged parts. It demands all of my skill and creative problem solving at times to simply approximate the original aesthetic appeal of beautifully designed fixtures.

This is especially true when working on L. Wolff or J.L. Mott plumbing fixtures. There is a far smaller pool of salvaged parts available for those manufacturer's products than there is for Crane, Speakman, or Standard brassware.

I have made great progress learning ways to recreate brass parts, but sourcing or recreating porcelain parts remains elusive at best.

I am just wrapping up work on a large project for a home on the other side of the country. All of the fixtures I have been sent were made by The J.L. Mott Company. Two lavatory faucets arrived without china escutcheons or china index buttons. This post is about what I eventually did to provide escutcheons for the fixtures.

I received four faucet valve bodies for the two faucets, two hot and two cold. 
 These threaded brass rings were on two of the valve bodies. 
When I saw them I knew what style escutcheon was originally used to trim the faucet. 
These brass rings are not in good condition, The outside rings are neither perfectly round nor perfectly flat. 

I had a machinist make a new pair for each valve body.
The inner ring is the top mounting nut for the valve assembly. 
The outer ring will be embedded into the china escutcheon. 

Here is a view of the faucet valve body assembly. 
Note the lower nut and gasket for the under side of the faucet deck. 

This photo shows the intended application of the outer ring. 
Some manufacturers used this type of threaded ring to make their escutcheons self attaching. 

Speakman used the same style of embedded ring to make their self attaching escutcheons.
Note that the escutcheon is cast with two flat sides that correspond to the two flat sides of the ring. 
The ring is then plastered into place with Plaster of Paris. 
One distinctive feature of  self attaching escutcheons is the size of the hole on top of the escutcheon. 

The more common way to attach china escutcheons is with a threaded tube and escutcheon retainer nut. 

Note that the packing nut has a female thread to receive the threaded tube.  

The packing nut on the J.L. Mott stem does not have the female thread to receive an escutcheon mounting tube. 
Furthermore, there is not enough height differential between the packing nut and the top of the stem to allow the additional parts. My new stems are replications of the original in all dimensions. 

My task was to select china escutcheons that are wide enough to receive the outer rings and the proper height to both clear the packing nut and leave some amount of stem visible between the handle and the escutcheon. My research brought me to images of Mott fixtures with escutcheons that were low and wide, I knew that I was recreating the original motif fairly accurately. 

The original Mott escutcheons would have had stem size holes. 
The escutcheons that fit my parameters had escutcheon nut size holes. 
To remedy this I selected a set of four escutcheon nuts of the proper size. 
I altered them on my lathe to give them a smooth rounded shoulder. 
In this way I also removed the striations that would allow them to be hand tightened.  

This is the motif I was after.

One of the things I must do is establish a rough-in specification for this faucet. 
I will not be installing it so I must do all in my power to help the installer to be successful. 
The valve body height is driven by the length of the spout inlet tube.  Earlier I set all of the assemblies up in a mock installation. At that time I determined the optimal height of the stem end above the faucet deck. 
Here I have temporarily fastened a wide washer to the stem. 
This will help me to see the height without tilting my tape measure. 

I should mention that I have mounted the valve body to a section of 3/4" chipboard that I sometimes use as a base for my gasket cutter. I know that it is quite flat and true. I drilled a 1-1/8" hole in it expressly for this task. 
I intend to join my threaded brass outer ring to the inner wall of the china escutcheon with epoxy putty.
In order to keep the epoxy putty from joining to the threaded inner ring it has been coated with bee's wax taken from a new toilet wax ring. The top of the chipboard has likewise been treated. 
The wax is not featured in any of these photos.  

Because the inside of my escutcheons are glazed I used a diamond grinding bit to break the surface of the glaze. 
I am hoping this will give the epoxy putty a better grip on the escutcheon. 

The benchtop lathe was a good platform for this task. It is easier to adjust the chuck speed on it and it is a good height with lots of light and visibility for the work. This sample for the photo has not been ground. 

With the inner threaded ring waxed and the outer ring unwaxed and scuffed on the wire wheel I was ready to epoxy. 
I threaded the outer ring onto the inner ring to within 1/16" of the board.
Half a J-B Weld epoxy putty stick was enough to make a ring of putty along the outer top of the outer ring. 
I then pressed the china escutcheon down onto the putty and ring until it was flat to the board. 
It was centered when one of my smoothed escutcheon nuts could drop into place and spin freely. 
Five minutes later the joined escutcheon and ring could be threaded back away from the valve body.  

With the epoxy putty set but still soft enough to trim with a razor cutter I removed any excess putty.
After the putty was set a little harder I clear epoxied the altered escutcheon nuts to the tops of the escutcheons. 
They will never move and are threaded to nothing.  

Here it is, done and fully set. 
The stem is a two part arrangement like a gate valve and like a gate valve the stem neither rises nor falls in operation. 
The gap between the handle and the dummy escutcheon nut will remain constant. 

I had enough of these china escutcheons in stock to really cherry pick
the lot of them. I have to say that I'm quite pleased with the result.