Sunday, February 5, 2012

How to Re-plumb a Vintage Sink

Vintage 1953 ad courtesy of retro renovation, my sink except in white!
They said it couldn’t be done.

All I wanted to do was find new faucets for a vintage sink. Who would have thought it would be so challenging?

Let me take you back, dear reader, to one day last fall. Ever since we realized that the lovely Kohler Memoirs pedestal sink we ordered would overpower the downstairs powder room, I had been struggling to find a replacement. Not only that, but I was also struggling with the design of the room overall. I had a few ideas, but nothing seemed to really click. So without a design concept to guide me, I really had no clue what I was looking for in a sink.

One day I happened to be wandering around the RE Store, and I spotted this amazing blue vintage bathroom sink.

I loved the color and its sleek lines. And it was only $35! (I was trying to hold to a budget of $500.) Eureka!

Frankly, the sink reminded me of my uncle’s old Buick convertible with the fins, which I will always associate with the glamour of Los Angeles, Hollywood, and guys wearing khakis and white t-shirts a la James Dean. (My uncle who lived in L.A. was one of those guys—handsome and funny and so cool with that car!) The sink was big and heavy and clearly could do some damage if dropped. It was made for eternity.


I love that period of American design from the 50s that is part Art Deco, part Streamline Moderne, and just a minute before the jet-age. Much of the product design from that era we can thank Roymond Loewy for, with his forward-thinking aesthetic. But I digress. 
Loewy's award-winning design for Lucky Strike

It's a rocket! No, it's a pencil sharpener.
Not wanting to take a chance that someone else would snatch it up, I bought the sink on the spot and figured it would be a simple matter of finding an 8” spread faucet I liked to go with it. Wrong. Things started to get complicated.

Once I got the sink home, I searched the internet for information about it and found a few references, but not much in the way of how to retrofit it, let alone any faucet options. With a little effort and a good wrench, I dismantled the existing faucet from the sink and carefully saved each piece, putting all the parts into a box to take to the plumbing store. Imprinted in the porcelain on the back of the sink was the date “May 5, 1953,” indicating when the sink was produced. Wow, older than me!

Those faucets had been in use for 50+ years and it showed. The steel was pitted and crusted with calcium deposits. Even if they could be cleaned up, I didn’t really like the design anyway. The spout looked like a snub nose and was so short that I don’t know how one would get one’s hands under it. The handles were pretty basic crosses, but also uninspiring. No, they were not up to the sleek lines of the sink itself.
I confidently headed out to a local plumbing store and went up to the counter to explain my quest. As I described the sink and showed a photo of it, the guy at the counter started looking skeptical. When I dumped out the box of grimy faucet parts, he started shaking his head.
“These pieces are all pitted.” he said, stating the obvious as if I was blind to the fact. “I don’t know how you’re going to use these.”
“I don’t WANT to use them.” I said, although I had already said as much in my earlier explanation which he, apparently, hadn’t actually listened to. “I only brought them in to show the dimensions of fittings that fit the sink. Is there something else with the same dimensions?”
“There might be a manufacturer who still reproduces this faucet, but I’m not sure…” his voice trailed off.
He sounded reluctant to pursue the issue with me, but I pressed on saying that I didn’t want a reproduction faucet; I wanted something new in a contemporary design that would complement the vintage styling—perhaps one of the wall-mounted faucets that are so popular now.
As I described this idea, I could see that he was wondering why on earth I would want to use an old sink in the first place, and secondly, how was he going to explain to me that this was all too complicated for me to understand and that I should really forget the whole thing. He didn’t SAY those words, but I could read it in his expression. He consulted with another guy and they both came back to face me saying, essentially, goodbye and good luck. Honestly I don’t think they wanted to take the time to figure out a solution. Where was their sense of adventure?

Maybe these guys could have found a faucet for me...

My faith in their plumbing expertise was shattered. I couldn’t believe that nowhere in the plumbing world was there a contemporary faucet that would work for this sink! Not only did it seem ridiculous—we went to the moon, for pete’s sake—but it also seemed so wasteful that this gorgeous sink (and lots more like it) was considered trash at this point because no one is making a faucet to go with it. I’ll admit that I’m a bit of fanatic about reusing old stuff, but it bothers me that there are so many usable goods that are disposed of because it costs too much to fix them or fashion has dictated that they are out of style.
As I left the plumbing store, I was wishing my dad was still alive. He could make anything out of nothing; he had a tool for every purpose and then some; and he was clever enough to fix everything. His attitude was that to repair and reuse was the only sensible thing to do, both from a financial and resources point of view. I got my environmental ethic from him long before it was fashionable. These plumbing guys really let me down. They just weren’t made of the same stuff as my dad and others of his generation. Dad would have found a way.
Then and there I decided that I wasn’t going to let these guys have the last word. If my dad wasn’t around anymore, I needed to buck up and apply the same “can do” attitude myself.
I went home and did a more exhaustive internet search. I figured that if I just measured the space available behind the shelf-back of the sink, I could research faucets until I found one that would fit within those dimensions. (One thing I love about the internet is that you can quickly pull up product specifications for almost everything.)
After going down some virtual blind alleys, I finally found a faucet that I felt 95% sure would work. From the spec sheet, it appeared that its mounting pieces would fit within the area available behind the shelf-back; the spout and handles would fit inside the holes in the sink; and the spout reached out over the sink bowl just a little bit past the middle but still short enough to be functional. (This was the biggest challenge—most of the spouts were far too long.) And it was beautiful to boot! So I ordered the Moen "90 Degree" wall mount faucet and patiently awaited its arrival.

The Moen "90 Degree" installed as designed

The faucet came quickly by mail and MTH set to work installing it. To complete the homage to my dad I really should have installed the faucet myself, but I deferred to MTH’s expertise. Everything fit just as I had hoped, with the only problem being that since the faucet was designed to fit inside a wall—and not in a sink back—he had to devise a spacer to place the spout and handles at the correct distance and location between the wall and the front of the sink. A small piece of 2” x 4” worked just fine after he had carved it a bit for a custom fit. The whole operation took about an hour.

Our sink installed--the room is still essentially "tabula rasa"
and I'm still looking for inspiration.

Wonky photo due to how small the
room is--tough to get a good shot!
I think the sink is really cool looking and I feel pleased to have something old lending a little quirkiness to our new house. I still haven’t figured out how I’ll decorate the rest of the powder room, but I’ll leave that to another post to discuss.

I guess the most wonderful thing of all is that I found out that they really do make ‘em like they used to—not the faucets, but talented guys like my husband who has restored my faith in this generation of men! Dad would be proud.


A. Gatz said...

I love this! My grandmother had sinks like this in her bathroom - one was powder blue just like yours and the other was pink - the bathtubs matched them too and she had pink and blue ceramic poodle toilet brush holders. Crazy. All your work looks great!

Anonymous said...

Bravo! Never take 'no we can't do that/no that can't be done/that is not possible' for an answer. Where would we be if others had said that?

Anne VanBuren said...

I could not comment on the actual post, but I loved your blog about choosing exterior colors. I can SO relate. I love what your chose! What did you choose for the interior of the window frame - looks like sea glass. It is so beautiful. It pulls it all together. Did you only do three colors? i would appreciate your information, beyond words!

Cheryl said...


Thanks for your feedback! The interior of the window frame (the muntins, I think they're called) is actually a color coat applied directly to the windows during manufacturing. We used Peachtree aluminum-clad wood windows--a combination of casement and double-hung, all with simulated divided lites. Peachtree has about a dozen or so colors to choose from. I can't remember the name of the one I chose, but I will say that in "real life" the color is lighter than I expected it to be. But I'm still happy with it.

We used three colors for the house body, trim, and muntins, but also have added other colors at the doors: a deep blue for the front door, and a slightly lighter blue/green for three other doors that lead to various outdoor spaces. I flirted with the idea of purple or green or turquoise, but decided to stay relatively conservative!

Thanks again for your post.

Cheryl/Sunset Hill House