Old fixtures can sink your budget Design: The vintage look is inviting, but take care not to pour your money down the drain.

September 06, 1998|By Michael Walsh | Michael Walsh,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

Authentic vintage bathtubs and kitchen and bath sinks can be brimming with character and charm. Old claw-footed tubs are deep and roomy; pedestal and wall-mounted sinks with legs are stately-looking, and farmhouse-style sinks are the perfect complement to country-style kitchens.

But they can also be a good way of pouring money down the drain. They may appear indestructible, but many old sinks and tubs have all but reached the end of their useful lives, which may explain why they're relatively easy to come by, particularly in larger towns and cities, where old homes and hotels from the late 1800s to the 1950s have been demolished after their salvageable artifacts have been removed. Of course, changing tastes can also account for the supply; even those with an appreciation for antique furnishings often prefer more modern plumbing amenities.

Part of the problem is that, when compared to new reproductions and more modern versions, old sinks and tubs are sometimes overpriced to begin with. You can expect to shell out anywhere from $250 to $1,000 for sinks and tubs, or about the same amount for new fixtures. There are some rare and special specimens out there, but just because a sink has a pedestal and a tub has feet doesn't automatically justify big-ticket pricing.

In fact, they should be going for bargain rates because the purchase price is often only the beginning of their eventual cost. Faucets, drains and fittings can be expensive and hard to come by. They are often available only through specialty suppliers rather than your local plumber or home improvement store.

Some old pedestal sinks were designed with drains and water supply lines routed through the floor, a problem if your existing plumbing runs through the wall. Compared to sinks in built-in vanities, they offer almost no counter space. Big, old, cast-iron tubs can weigh hundreds of pounds empty. Reinforcing the bathroom floor may be required to keep them from going south when filled.

Classic "apron-front" kitchen sinks with backsplashes that climb the wall, often 5 to 6 feet long, can weigh up to 300 pounds. Fitting cabinets and counter tops around them can add to the cost.

Made before pop-up drain stoppers were invented, many old sinks and tubs will accommodate only rubber stoppers, something many users will find inconvenient, to say the least. And if you want some modern conveniences, such as a single-lever faucet or, at the kitchen sink, built-in dispensers for liquid soap, filtered water or a pull-out sprayer, retrofitting may be impossible.

And then there's the porcelain finish. Minor rust stains can usually be removed easily, but after decades of use, abuse and maintenance with gritty and caustic cleansers, the glaze may have been all but scoured away. If so, the surface will be porous, subject to easy staining and difficult to clean. Refinishing is possible and popular. But it's a stopgap solution and adds to the already-inflated price of old fixtures. Reglazing a sink will cost about $125 and up. For an old tub, expect to pay $250 or more. Colors other than white will cost more.

Refinishing companies may refer to the new finish as porcelain (which is a fired-on finish applied to steel or cast iron), but it's really more like a sprayed-on paint. When done right it's relatively durable and can renew the looks of an old fixture. But a five-year warranty is about the best you can expect, and it may not be transferable if you sell your house.

You'll also have to avoid abrasive cleansers and some other cleaning agents. Naturally, some refinishers and some refinishing processes are superior to others. Check references and ask to see samples.

If you're determined to go the antique route, the best advice is to shop around for rare and special sinks and tubs that are unusually well-preserved, and then to reserve their use for powder rooms, guests baths or baths used by adults only.

With old kitchen sinks, it probably makes sense only to buy one that doesn't require refinishing. No matter how careful you are in the kitchen, a dropped knife, frying pan or platter is bound to damage even the best of new finishes sooner or later.

As for antique toilets, avoid them if for no other reason than that they are notorious water wasters, using five to seven gallons per flush, compared with today's toilets that consume just a gallon or two.

If you come across a truly virtuoso specimen that can be the centerpiece of a kitchen or bath, it may well be worth the money to buy and install it. If not, you're probably better off avoiding the many pitfalls and buying reproduction vintage fixtures. Almost every manufacturer of kitchen and bath fixtures offers antique-looking sinks and tubs that offer nostalgic styling with the advantages of modern plumbing, faucets, extensive warranties and easy maintenance.

Pub Date: 9/06/98

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