Can you salvage a beautiful yet damaged vintage tub? If so, should you do it yourself?
Imagine your new home comes complete with an antique clawfoot tub that needs some serious love -- beyond anything that cleaning or scrubbing can do. Or you spot the most amazing vintage tub at a flea market -- only it looks like it's been used as a planter for years. What to do?
We talked with Kirk Williams and Jim Pierce of Beautiful Finishes -- a company that's been resurfacing tubs since the 1970s -- to shed light on the process of giving one of these antique tubs a makeover. It turns out the bathtub resurfacing process (also referred to as refinishing or reglazing) is the same for a cast iron tub as it is for a porcelain sink.
A vintage cast iron tub can be refinished on both the outside and the inside. Hiring a professional to resurface the outside of a tub is the most expensive part of a tub refinishing job. The good news is that you can refinish the outside of the tub yourself. The inside of the tub? That's a whole different story. Vintage tubs are predominantly made of cast iron. If the tub is more than 50 years old, it's definitely made of cast iron.
Here's the breakdown of your options for refinishing vintage tubs.
REFINISHING THE OUTSIDE OF A VINTAGE TUB If you hire a refinisher:
Hiring a refinishing service for the outside of a vintage tub will cost about $1,000-$1,500, and take a few days to complete. The process starts with an in-house sandblasting service to create a smooth finish. The sandblasting goes down to the bare cast iron. Then the refinisher uses professional-grade primers and topcoats to create a new finish on tub's exterior. If you do it yourself:
The cost for DIYing this part of the project is considerably lower than hiring a pro: less than $100 for all of your supplies, which include sandpaper, foam roller, primer, and oil-based paint.First, you'll want test to use a lead paint test kit to be sure there is no lead paint on the outside of the tub. (If there is lead paint, consult a professional.)
Once you're sure the tub is free of toxic paint, you can safely sand the outside using 80-grit sandpaperto create a smooth finish. Then, use a foam roller to apply primer and two coats of oil-based paint (the number of coats will depend partly on the quality of the paint you're using. Choose a quality paint for a project like this. (Note that if you try to paint over the tub without preparing the surface, the paint won't bond and will start to peel.)
Williams says they don't receive a lot of jobs to refinish the outside of vintage tubs, mainly because of the cost; and the cost is a result of the fact that there's much more labor involved to resurface the outside of the tub. You can get a perfectly fine finish by resurfacing the outside of the tub yourself. This is definitely a doable project for a confident DIYer.
REFINISHING THE INSIDE OF A VINTAGE TUB
If you hire a refinisher:
The first thing a professional refinisher must do is look at the condition of the porcelain, which has been applied as a powder coating (it's sprayed on and then baked on for a couple of days through a process of heating and cooling). The refinisher will be looking for chips and other damage, because he/she will have to create a smooth, level surface. "We use a polyester water-resistant filler [to repair damaged spots] and then sand it smooth," says Williams. The refinisher then wet sands (uses water with sandpaper) to create a smooth, level surface. Then he/she uses an industrial-strength cleaner to make the surface porous so it's prepped to bond with the primer, and wet sands again.
Once the repair work is complete and you have a smooth and level surface, the refinishing process begins. The refinisher cleans the surface down to the original substrate, because they're working to replace the wear layer of the tub. At Beautiful Finishes, the refinisher uses an etching solution to promote bonding to the primer. Then they apply 3 coats of commercial-grade primer followed by a commercial-grade acrylic urethane on top. It's important to note that these materials are not available to the DIYer; all the materials used are special industrial solutions.
The inside of the tub needs to be able to swell and shrink as it heats up and cools down, so it's important that the surface is semi-flexible. If a regular urethane finish that's used on floors was applied to your tub, it wouldn't allow the tub to breathe. The refinisher is basically replacing the wear layer, or the glass layer, of the tub. That top layer is meant to wear out at some point. Resurfacing the tub saves it from stains and abrasion. Amazingly, this complicated process takes just 2-4 hours to complete and you can use your resurfaced tub the next day. It will cost about $600 to hire a refinisher to resurface the inside of a vintage tub.
If you do it yourself:
You can find a spray-on kit in hardware stores, but these kits are not met with glowing reviews from refinishers. "The spray-on kits don't work because the DIYer doesn't have access to the right materials used to prep the surface," explains Pierce. If the surface isn't properly prepped so you can't create a strong bond. "It's like painting over peeling wallpaper; it's just going to peel off."
Verdict: Hire a reputable refinisher for the inside of the tub; this is not an ideal DIY project. Williams says many customers come back to him to resurface the inside of a tub after they tried to do it themselves with a spray-on kit, only to have it peel off. Also, you'll be working with toxic materials, which you may not know how to handle properly. "No refinishing job gives you a lifetime guarantee," says Williams. If you care for your tub properly (which means not using harsh abrasive cleaners), the finish will last 10 to 20 years. Rubber bath mats should also be avoided in vintage tubs; over time, the suction peels off the coating that the refinisher applied.
SHOULD YOU JUST BUY A NEW TUB WITH A VINTAGE LOOK?
True vintage tubs are very heavy and very pricey.
Most of the vintage cast iron tubs that you'll find are 60-100 years old and the tubs weigh in around 300-400 pounds.
New tubs with a vintage look retail for more than a thousand dollars -- and even the new cast iron ones are far lighter than a vintage tub. Even a new cast iron clawfoot tub will weigh around 100 pounds; they use a different type of composite cast iron that's less expensive.
On the other hand, restoring a true vintage tub saves it from winding up in a landfill and adds a true charm to a bathroom. "Keep in mind there's no such thing as synthetic porcelain" says Williams, who warns that when this term is used, the material is usually acrylic, or plastic.
Also, whether you're hiring a refinishing service to resurface the inside of a tub or resurfacing the outside of the tub yourself, making over a vintage tub affords you full customization. A refinisher can resurface the tub in any color you choose, from candy apple red to a smoky gray. You can't get that kind of customization with new tubs.
So consider the potential when you see an antique tub. Investing some time and money into one of these tubs can make something old into something new and treasured.