August 6, 2006
The one item we knew we wanted for the bathroom was one of the antique clawfoot tubs – the hallmark of a Victorian bathroom. Originally, we contemplated purchasing an acrylic or cast iron reproduction from an online clawfoot tubs supplies dealer, but the cost of the tub (let alone the shipping cost) was more then we were willing to spend. Because our bathroom is small, we were limited to installing an undersized tub, 54 inches in length. This proved to be our greatest challenge, as we had no problems finding local salvage dealers who were selling old clawfoot tubs, but none carried the smaller sizes.
We spent several months scouring the paper, and calling salvage shops until we found a local fellow who just happened to know a guy who had one of these small tubs. Excited, we asked to come see it, and agreed on a price of $200. The tub was in great shape structurally, but was quite rusty and had some extensive scratching on the enamel, however, we were confident that we could refinish the tub. Satisfied with our find, we brought our 250lb baby home.
In our searches we gathered some decent criteria for judging the condition of these old tubs, and it helped us make a simple checklist.
The quick checklist
- Ensure the legs are solid, and are securely fastened by their bolts – not the surrounding rust! Rust can act like glue, but not strong glue!
- The feet should be intact and again free of heavy rust. Too much rust will weaken the feett and it may crumble when the tub is filled with water. As well, once a heavily rusted leg is cleaned, it may become smaller and cause the tub to wobble.
- Four legs are better then three. A mint condition three-legged tub may be a great find, but sourcing the missing leg will be a hassle. The time spent finding that one leg is likely better spent looking for another tub.
- Light rust is not bad, but heavy rust is. Surface rust can easily be cleaned off with a little elbow grease – extensive rust damage can require a great deal of work to remove, and may have compromised the structural stability of the tub. If it looks like you can kick a hole through the tub, you probably can…
- Inspect the drains – if years of rust have left a crumbly weak edge around the drain, it may be very difficult to properly seat the waste pipe. If you can make the drain hole in the tub bigger by chipping rust away with your finger, the damage may be too extensive
Porcelain / Enamel
- Scratches and chips can be repaired. There are many companies offering re-enameling services are very reasonable prices.
- If you want to use the tub ‘as-is’, rust marks and miscellaneous stains can be removed with some household cleaners and a little work – chips can be filled with porcelain repair paint.
Holes for Faucets/Drain
- The holes left for your faucets may have different widths, and will determine how your plumbing will be installed. Wide set faucets need offset adapters to fit in narrower faucet centres. So long as the holes are in decent shape, the decorative flanges that disguise the supply lines will hide any minor imperfections.
- Consider which angle you’ll be viewing the tub from, and which side may be left against the wall. If in the end you have a solid, complete tub, with not too much rust, decent plumbing holes and an acceptable finish, you may have found your new tub!
Refinishing the Tub
Cleaning off the rust.
The exterior of the tub was covered with bits of flaking paint, and lots of surface rust. According to the local refinisher, the key to restoring the tubs appearance was to simply remove any loose rust, and apply a rust inhibiting sealer. When I asked him how he would go about this, and what would he recommend for the sealer, he flatly said,
“sand the tub and give it a coat of Tremclad.”.
I purchased a wire wheel for my drill and angle grinder, and gave the tub a real thorough scrubbing – using a screwdriver to pry out any rust caught between the toes of the feet. In about an hour all of the loose rust had been completely removed and the tub that now had a smooth, yet ‘brown’ finish. We vacuumed the outside of the tub several times with a brush attachment, and then finally I soaked a rag in mineral spirits and wiped the entire thing clean. (A tack cloth would have been handy)
Cleaning the inside.
The tub had only a few major chips in the finish, but as they were going to be facing towards the wall so we didn’t bother repairing them. The top edge of the tub was fairly badly scratched – it looked as if this tub had be loaded and unloaded countless times from the back of a pickup truck. The area around the drain had a fairly deep rust stain, but no rust. The top had a dirty sludgy ring around the inside where water had been allowed to build up – a combination of green/black/brown moldy sludge.
We went to the local hardware story and purchase a number of supposedly ‘industrial’ cleaners and attempted to remove the stains. For the most part, the cleaners were toxic, smelly, and ineffective. Once acid based cleaner did improve the area around the drain, however it left the finish a little more pitted then when we had started.
Frustrated, my wife announced that she would get the tub clean! She emerged from the basement with a tin of Comet, a pair of gloves, and fine steel wool! Possessed, she attacked the tub with fervor and in 20 short minutes had removed every stain, and her fingertips… Aggressive to say the least, the Comet/steel wool combo worked very well. Granted, it did dull the overall finish of the tub, giving it a “satin” sheen, rather then the glossy finish we were accustomed to.
We next brought the tub inside to our kitchen (an unpopular, by necessary exercise) gave the tub one more wipe down and applied the first coat of paint. We did use Tremclad white paint, however any other brand would likely have sufficed – we simply chose it as it was on sale; $8.00 for 1L/Pint.
We applied the first coat of paint quite sparingly, dry brushing the coat on. The goal was to apply enough paint to seal the surface, to work the paint into every little hole and divot, but not to try to hide all the imperfections. The surface of the tub still had trace amounts of rust dust, and this light coat ensured that all traces of rust would adhere to the tub, and not streak through the white paint.
The tub was allowed to once again dry for 24 hours, and the next day we applied the final coat of paint. This time we used a brush for the feet and a small foam roller for the smooth surfaces. This was the heaviest coat of paint, and the roller did a nice even job.
The overall result was stunning. In the course of 3 days, 5 hours of work, $8.00 in paint, and $20.00 in cleaners, we had completely transformed the tub. The tub didn’t look ‘brand new’, but ‘original’ – it looked as if it had always been here.
We’re excited to see it installed – now all we have to do is find a way to get it up the stairs…