Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Fixing the Upstairs Bathtub Faucet

Cindy and I were out of town two weekends ago to see some friends.  And when we came home, I noticed I could hear the sound of a small amount of water running in the bathroom upstair.  We have a 2-family home, so I checked with our upstairs tenant and friend, Ian, and went up to have a look.  The bathtub faucet was trickling, and no matter how tight the knobs were, the water kept running.  Like this:

The trick is, this house was built in 1910.  There are a few parts of the original faucets, and some things that aren't original.  The cross-shaped handles, for example, are not original.  But I do think the original hot handle is on the diverter in the upstairs bathroom (we have an original diverter handle in the downstairs bathroom - all clues pointing towards eventually finding matches).  
The escutcheons are all chipped except one (those are the porcelain things that surround where the faucet handles come out of the wall), and the nickel has nearly worn off everything from a hundred years of polishing.  I'm always keeping an eye out for proper replacement parts so I can restore them to their original state.  The last thing I want to do is to make a mistake that ruins the faucet, because I neither want to replace the faucet (if I could find one), nor do I want to rip out the old tiles.

Here's the set up as it currently stands.  

Yesterday, I turned off the water, took the stems out of the faucets, and replaced the washers on both the hot and cold.  But the drip persisted.  I noticed that the dripping water was cold, so I knew something had to be wrong with the cold water and not the hot, but to be sure, I closed the cold water shut-off valve.  Sure enough, the leak stopped.  So I took the cold water stem out again, and took a good look inside the faucet.  In the photo, in the back of the hole, you can see a brass circle.  That's called the seat.  There's a dark spot on the left hand side of the seat, and when I reached back in there with a screwdriver and felt around that edge, I found that dark spot was actually a divot in the metal, probably 1/16" deep.  That's where the water was getting through!

So we're clear on what I'm talking about, these shiny brass thingies are the replacement seats.  The top edge is the bit that's damaged inside the faucet.  I included the end of a spare faucet stem with an old rubber washer on it to help illustrate the idea.  When you turn the faucet handle, it pushes that end with the rubber washer down over the end seat, and the water is shut off.  But if you can't get a good seal between the two, you'll have drips.  Or, in my case, a trickle.

I needed to get the old seat out of the wall.  Yesterday, I tried the two L-shaped "seat wrenches", but the seat was so stuck, I couldn't budge it, and I stripped the inside of it.  Bummer.  I thought perhaps I needed some chemical help, so off I rode to an auto parts store on Utica Avenue where I got some Liquid Wrench Penetrating Oil.  I squirted the oil around the seat, tapped it, and tried loosening it with a seat wrench on a repeating loop.  It didn't budge.  It was getting late, and I had to put it back together and leave it leaking for another night.

Today, I babysat our godson, then went to the hardware store for some straight seat wrenches (hoping they would work better than the L-shaped ones, since they could be tapped into the center hole in the seat with a hammer), and a seat dresser tool for use if the wrenches failed me.  I also decided to try heat, to see if the temperature change would expand the metal enough to crack the corrosion that is holding the seat in place.  Here's my assortment of tools on the bathroom floor:

Well, more Liquid Wrench, more tapping, and more attempts to dislodge the seat with the new wrenches failed.  In fact, the new straight wrenches came with a ratchet with which to apply torque, and it wasn't strong enough to withstand the torque I applied to it.  It broke. Muscles failed?  How about fire?!  I tried applying the torch to the seat, and it was sort of neat to see how the water in the hole boiled off, but the seat didn't move.
My only option left was to grind the divot out of the rim of the seat with the seat dresser tool.  I tried it by hand (as directed on the package) at first, but the divot was far too deep, and Cindy was making dinner.  Time was running out.  So I chucked it up in my drill and did my best to keep it in proper alignment and check my progress often.  Here's the dresser tool in my drill with the grinder end at the bottom of the frame.  The white cone is to keep the shaft centered in the hole so you don't grind your stem down at an angle.  It sort of helped, but I had to be really careful anyway.

Here's some progress on the seat.  You can see the dark spot on the left is not as pronounced as it was originally.  I could feel with the end of my screwdriver that it was getting more shallow.

 And here it is after the divot was finally ground out!  I find something about this photo oddly hypnotic.

 But more importantly, once I got everything put back together and the water turned on, the leak had stopped!  Now, I'll have to figure out how to get that blue staining off the tub someday.  Or maybe I'll call it character and be done with it. 

P.S.  Here's a picture from Cindy's and my trip.  It's the sunset as seen from the steps of the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park on February 16th, 2014.  Stonewall Jackson was accidentally shot by his own men during the Civil War, and he died in this house (thus the "shrine" thing).
A thousand thanks to Michael Spencer for being a wonderful tour guide, as usual.


  1. You seem to be an expert plumber! It is amazing how you know detailed information about faucets. Fixing it might have been tricky, considering the type of faucets you have. Identifying the real problem with my hot and cold water system is always a challenge to me. No wonder I contact my plumber when I notice anything wrong. Good job for successfully fixing your bathtub faucet.

    Levi Eslinger @ Capital Plumbing

  2. My first encounter with Mr. William Hearne was a bit strange, because I was asleep when my wife allowed him to replace a leaky faucet in the attached bathroom. I was disturbed with the noise and went straight to the bathroom suddenly. I was about to hit him so he shouted loudly, and my wife rushed into the scene and informed me that he was simply a plumber. I was embarrassed, and I apologized. Now, Mr. William has become my friend, and helps us, whenever required.

  3. Your shameless plug comes with a little story. Well done. I'll let you live.


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