Reglazing your tub
People always laugh when they find out that I take baths in the morning. It’s as though baths should be reserved only for small children or 19th-century aristocrats. People see baths as a throwback to a slower time, when people weren’t afraid to prop up their feet and stew in their own dirty soapwater.
But when you have a big, antique claw-foot tub and you procrastinate for months on end about calling a plumber to fix the leaky shower attachment (like I did), baths become much more appealing. And the reality is that it doesn’t take much longer than a shower. It’s not like I’m smoking cigars and drinking brandy in the tub every morning.
Now, I’m not going to lie. I enjoy sneaking into my wife’s bathroom — where there’s the standard cheapo synthetic tub and walls — to take a shower. To me, that’s a guilty pleasure. I feel like I’ve ventured into a world of futuristic convenience, where multiple shelves protrude at regular intervals from the walls and I don’t have to dunk my head in sudsy water. The problem is that when that plastic tub dies, it’s dead. It has to be replaced.
The old iron tubs, by contrast, almost never say die. The main problem is that, like any tub, they start to look worn after a while, and you have to reglaze them. It would take decades of serious neglect to put such a tub beyond repair.
Not even an epic flood can do in an iron tub. AMC Refinishing LLC had a nice little run on business that proved that. “We were booked for months in advance right after Katrina,” says co-owner Tina Chiasson.
Chiasson says her customers realize their old cast-iron claw-foot tubs are irreplaceable. Even the best new metal claw-foot tubs are much thinner, with a bit of give, “almost like plastic,” she says.
Those installed in New Orleans houses before World War II are generally rock-solid. Like many other items in historic houses, the tubs weren’t considered disposable. “You can’t get the quality today that you had back then,” Chiasson says.
If that weren’t enough to convince people to save their claw-foot tubs rather than replace them, there’s the cost issue. Refinishing a claw-foot costs around $350; replacing it with a new tub and modern surround can cost $5,000 to $8,000. The refinishing will last 15 to 20 years for a three-person household sharing one bathtub. That’s about as long as you can expect your new tub to look decent.
Although claw-foots make up a lot of her business, Chiasson points out that most tub types — including porcelain, fiberglass and acrylic — can be reglazed. (Plastic cannot be.)
AMC uses an acrylic urethane that provides a finish similar to what you’d find on a major appliance, such as a stove or washing machine. Chiasson advises against using an epoxy coating because it will yellow and peel after the first year.
She also stresses the importance of extensive surface preparation work. AMC provides a surface wash followed by a porcelain etch to eat away all of the gunk in the tub. To prepare for bonding, AMC lays down two coats of primer.
And then there’s ventilation. My previous memory of reglazing includes being assaulted by choking fumes. AMC covers everything in sight of the tub and uses a ventilation system, something like air conditioning ductwork, directed outside of the house. To take the edge off further, customers can choose additives that give off smells such as “bubble gum.”
Chiasson also recommends checking with the Better Business Bureau because there are reglazers out there selling people cheap finishes.
“The main thing is the type of coating because you do get what you pay for,” she says. “The materials you use make a big difference.”
With an iron tub, even major damage can generally be repaired. Chiasson compares it to doing bodywork on a car. But you know it’s time to replace your claw-foot when it has rusted so completely around the drain that the drain is about to fall out.
At that point, she recommends heading to a salvage yard, such as Ricca’s Architectural Sales in Mid-City, to find another oldie-but-goody.
The next trick is finding the hardware for it. I recently replaced my faucet, and once you go beyond the über-functional basic model, prices skyrocket. For the time being, I stuck with the basic, but I have dreams of one day picking up some classy high-end fixtures. Then I’ll really be able to start my day in style. I might even hire a butler to bring me my morning cigar and brandy. Oh, and maybe I’ll have him bring me a tray of crumpets and the Daily Telegraph while he’s at it.