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A Fresh Tub, Without Taking a Bath

By Lee Fleming
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 17, 2005; Page H04

After decades of dog baths, abrasive cleaners, scratches from potted plants or drippy faucets that cause rust and eventually holes, even the toughest porcelain bathtub may need its surface spruced up. The same goes for fiberglass tubs, which are also vulnerable to cracking or splitting.

It used to be that you lived with your tub's spots, chips and cracks, or you junked it. But reglazing methods have gotten better and become a cost-effective alternative to removal and replacement. The process can even turn those green, pink or yellow tubs out there a sleek, fresh color.

(Brand X Pictures)

Virtually every surface problem from holes to bumps and blisters can be fixed, according to Paul Burns, owner of Porcelain Tub Restorations in Bowie, Md., which has been refinishing tubs, tiles and sinks in Maryland and the District since 1989.

Burns says that one of the most common reasons his firm is called is because people have misused drain acids to clear clogs. "These chemicals need to be poured directly into the drain so they don't touch the tub," he says. "But people pour the stuff in without even removing the standing water, so it ends up making the tub bottom look like the surface of the moon."

Cases of serious damage require a "bottom rebuild," says Burns. Diamond sanding pads smooth away big bumps, then auto body fillers are applied to get everything flush. Splits in fiberglass tubs require "resupporting," where holes are drilled in the tub and polyurethane foam is injected to expand and harden. Porcelain Tub Restorations charges $150 for this service, in addition to the reglazing fees. Recaulking and drain replacement are an additional $60 each.

If you have plumbing problems or need replacement parts, you need to address them before reglazing, says Christopher Garza, president of American Tub & Tile and Renewed Surfaces, two Temple Hills-based firms. Signs of trouble: "Around drains you'll see a buildup that may be from drips from the tub spout, or there's rust."

Charles Wachter is owner of Porcelite Enterprises, which has been reglazing tubs and tile in D.C., Maryland and Virginia since 1961. He offers another reason to call in a plumbing pro first: "Too many of the old waste pipes fall apart underneath the tub if you try to take the old drain out and replace it. Age makes the fit too tight for us to risk removing them."

Sometimes customers call in a reglazer not to repair a tub, but to banish a dated color. Most tend to choose white or bone, "although we can create any color you want," says Garza. "You don't see too many seafoam greens and yellows anymore. About the only time you get into color is antique tubs, where the inside is done in one color, the outside in another, the feet might be chromed or painted gold or silver and you'll even find stencils."

Glaze formulas vary from firm to firm, but prep work is essentially the same. Old caulk around the tub is removed. Floors, walls, tiles and waste plates (the round plate below the spout that keeps the tub from overflowing) are covered to protect against damage. Before the glaze is applied, porcelain and enamel tubs are etched with acid (diamond abrasives achieve the same effect with fiberglass). The abrasion or etching creates a surface to which the glaze will bond. "If it's not done right, it will peel," Burns says.

Depending on the glaze composition, two to four coats will be required. Porcelite technicians apply four coats of its two-part urethane enamel, letting each coat "tack dry" to ensure that it will properly bond with the next. Drying time is 48 hours. A white tub reglaze costs $350 and there is a $50 charge for color or to add a non-slip bottom. Clawfoot tubs run $625, with custom color adding to the price.

Porcelain Tub Restorations crews typically apply two coats of industrial polyurethane, with a 48-hour cure time. Cost for a standard tub: $300.

American Tub & Tile/Renewed Surfaces uses a polymer glaze with a built-in accelerator, which dries in 24 hours. The cost for a standard bathtub is $375, including caulking. Antique tubs run $475 to $675, depending on the extent of the job and the color.

Most reglazing comes with a two-to-five year warranty, although reglazing professionals say you can expect about 10 years of good service from a reglazed tub. Care is key to longevity.

"Rule number one: liquid cleaners only, no abrasives," says Porcelite's Wachter. Plain dish soap and a sponge are effective, as are liquid foams and spray cleansers that are designed to be gentle on tile and porcelain surfaces.

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