The Art of Refinishing Bathroom Fixtures

Rescue that tub! Save that sink! Fixing up your old bathroom fixtures can cost hundreds less than full-out replacing them, whether you do it yourself or hire a pro.

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Even as bathrooms become ever more luxurious and high-tech, old-school bathroom fixtures harkening back to an earlier age are gaining popularity. Many homeowners like the idea of restoring the look and feel of their home's original bathrooms, while others hope to re-create the style of another era. However, reproductions of old-fashioned bathtubs, sinks and toilets can be expensive, with claw-foot tubs often running into the thousands of dollars, not to mention the expense of removing the old tub. In fact, the National Kitchen & Bath Association says an average bathtub removal and replacement costs $3,000. Reproduction pedestal sinks are more affordable, but may not exactly match the bathroom's original tub and tile.

"Replacing a vintage fixture often takes a lot of time and a significant amount of money for an authentic piece to be located and purchased," says New York-based carpenter and interior designer Ali Barone.

That's why many homeowners decide to bring back the beauty of the original fixtures already in their bathrooms by refinishing them at a much lower cost. Here's how to decide whether refinishing is right for you.

Is your fixture refinishable
"If the fixture you already have is working well, there's no need to just toss it," Ali says. "Try to honor its history in your home by restoring it."

In the past, the process of restoring the like-new look of vintage bathroom fixtures was referred to as reglazing, but experts say that term isn't really accurate.

" 'Glazing' refers to the original, fired process, which can only take place under factory conditions," explains Don Dominick of Miracle Method Surface Restoration, a national chain of bathroom refinishing franchises. " 'Resurfacing' or 'surface restoration' is much more accurate."

Porcelain, fiberglass and cast-iron fixtures are all candidates for restoration, but Chuck Gabbert of DreamMaker Bath & Kitchen in Peoria, Ill., cautions that some fixtures are clearly beyond saving and should be replaced.

"Pitting and really rough surfaces are generally a bad idea for refinishing, because they'll yield a bumpy-looking surface," warns Chuck.

For fixtures that can be restored, however, homeowners can either do the refinishing themselves or hire a pro. In either case, the basic steps involve a process of cleaning, sanding, priming, painting and sealing the fixture.

Hiring a pro
Hiring a professional to restore the fixture for you will run between $300 and $1,000, depending on what area of the country you live in and whether the fixture can be restored in place or has to be taken to a refinishing workshop for the makeover. Color options can also affect the price of a professional job.

"Price can depend on whether you want the tub to be all one color or a separate color on the outside," says Dominick, explaining that most of his customers now request two-color restorations for their vintage bathtubs, with red exteriors increasingly popular. If you decide to forgo the DIY route and hire your project out, you shouldn't have any trouble finding someone to do the job. With the growing popularity of bathroom fixture restoration, the number of professionals trained to do the work has grown, as well. Most cities and towns now have at least one professional bathroom restoration specialist working in the area. Some are independent contractors, while others are part of a national franchise.

When choosing a pro, be sure to ask how long they have been in business, check references and ask what kind of written guarantee the company offers. As an example, Miracle Method Surface Restoration offers a five-year guarantee against peeling and the introduction of toxic acids into the home. Make sure the price you are quoted reflects either pickup and delivery of the fixture from your home (if the job has to be done off-site), or ventilation and cleanup of your home if the work is to be done on-site.

Supplies
Do-it-yourself (DIY) bathroom-fixture refinishing kits are available starting at about $150, but you'll also need supplies, including:


  • respirator (to be worn while working with chemicals and paint);

  • gloves and eye protection;

  • high-volume/low-pressure spray gun;

  • high-quality sander;

  • paintbrushes;

  • plastic tarps and masking tape;

  • fan to blow fumes away from work area.
    • The different DIY refinishing kits on the market use slightly different methods, so it's important to carefully read and follow the instructions that come with your kit. Homeowners who have done it themselves say that restoring bath fixtures isn't an easy job; it requires patience and careful attention to safety due to the harsh chemicals used in the process.

      "I'm very happy with the results, but I'm not sure I would do it myself again," says homeowner Mark Lampley of Atlanta, who personally restored several fixtures in his 1950s-era bathroom to their original bright, glossy colors. "The hardest part was keeping the room ventilated properly so the fumes (from the stripping chemicals) didn't make me sick, and getting a smooth-enough finish."

      Ali says she encourages motivated do-it-yourselfers to give restoration a try, but warns against hurrying this complicated project.

      "If you do it yourself," she explains, "it's very important that all of the steps are followed and you clean all surfaces with an industrial-strength cleaner and sand them well to remove any calcium deposits, rust or peeling paint."

      Instructions

      1. Mask all surfaces that aren't being refinished.

      2. Clean to remove all oils, soap scum and dirt from the surface and to achieve a neutral pH balance.

      3. Repair any chips, scratches or broken pieces.

      4. Bond the tub using a nonacidic bonding agent that will make the new coatings stick.

      5. Apply three to four layers of acrylic topcoat. These coatings are specifically designed for bathtubs and are extremely durable. A properly bonded and refinished tub will last for many years.

      6. Wait 24 hours to buff and polish the tub. The professional restoration technician uses special compounds and a buffing pad to deepen the gloss and provide a like-new feel to the surface. The buffing also removes microscopic ridges that would hold dirt and soap and eventually make the tub difficult to clean.

      Resources

      Ali Barone, www.alibarone.com
      Don Dominick, www.miraclemethod.com
      Chuck Gabbert, www.dreammaker-remodel.com

      Do-it-yourself tub refinishing kits:
      www.tubbyusa.com
      www.integritycoatings.com/test2.htm

      National restoration franchises:
      www.surfacespecialists.com
      www.permaglaze.com


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