Bathing Beauty: A New Coat Can Brighten a Banged-Up Tub

By Jeanne Huber
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 22, 2006

Q Is reglazing my bathtub a long-term solution?

AIt can solve an ugly problem for quite a few years, provided the new surface is put on correctly, by a professional using professional-quality products. But, assuming you're talking about the type of reglazing that's done with the tub in place, you'll need to care for the new finish as you would an acrylic or fiberglass tub, regardless of what material is underneath.

If you want the superior durability and scratch-resistance that you'd get in a new tub with a porcelain enamel finish, you probably should buy a new tub. It's possible to ship an old cast-iron tub to a factory that can bake on a new coating made of glass beads, but there's considerable hassle and expense, so this approach may make sense only if you have a prized antique.

The Porcelain Enamel Institute, a trade association, knows of just one company willing to take on small recoating jobs: Custom Ceramic Coatings ( ) in Lenzburg, Ill. For a five-foot claw-foot tub, owner John Ballantyne charges about $1,000. Shipping back and forth from the Washington area using his corporate rate costs about $180 each way, provided you first crate the tub and secure it to a pallet. To put these costs in perspective, a new claw-foot tub with a porcelain enamel finish costs $1,395 at Clawfoot Supply ( ).

In-home coatings typically cost much less and involve far less effort. Mary Ann O'Hara, who has been applying acrylic coatings for six years as franchise owner of Miracle Method Surface Restoration in Kensington, charges $485. If only a few areas are dinged or discolored, she can do a spot repair, which costs less.

To bring the cost down even further, you might consider a do-it-yourself kit. But this is a bad idea, according to John Venuti, sales manager at Hawk Research Laboratories Inc., a company in Wood Dale, Ill., that makes a wide array of bathtub-refinishing products. Refinishing kits sold to homeowners tend to contain epoxy finishes, which can yellow with age, Venuti says, while the coatings applied by professionals tend to be acrylic urethanes, which don't change color. Hawk uses epoxies in its primers but only acrylics in its top coats.

Besides differences in the finishes, there are other critical reasons for hiring a professional with lots of experience in tub refinishing, rather than attempting to do it yourself or paying a handyman to do it, Venuti says. You need someone who understands all the nuances of the preparation steps, which usually include using solvent cleaners (to remove bath oils) as well as acidic cleaners (to remove soap scum).

When O'Hara does a job, the process usually takes four to six hours. She first cleans thoroughly, then uses wet-dry sandpaper with a fine grit to scrub away mineral deposits and other remaining grime. If she sees dings or cracks, she smooths on a little polyester auto body filler. Then she sprays on a bonding coat and tops that with four to six layers of acrylic urethane. If she's refinishing a tub that's smooth on the bottom, she mixes a little fine grit into the first coat to provide slip resistance.

Hawk sells a similar system of bonding primer plus top coat, and sells products for a different process that some refinishers prefer on porcelain enamel. They start with an acid etch, neutralize it, then apply a primer and finally the acrylic urethane top coat. Either approach gives similar results, if done properly, Venuti says. "The key is to go to an established business with a track record. If you go to a franchise, you'll tend to get the most reliability. They use the best products and offer the best training. They charge more, but you get a better product." He recommends steering clear of companies that offer to refinish a tub for $200 or to get the job done in two hours. "You really have to question what steps they are skipping."

A well-done refinishing job can last 10 years or more, Venuti says. Many installers offer five-year warranties against loss of adhesion, which is better than the one-year warranty that some tub manufacturers offer against defects on new tubs. A further indication that acrylic coatings can last: Some tub manufacturers take this route themselves, at least in some cases. Kohler, for example, calls someone like O'Hara to deal with acrylic tubs that arrive scratched or dinged, and it considers the repaired tubs to be just as good as new. When cast-iron tubs with porcelain enamel surfaces are damaged, however, it either replaces them or arranges financial settlements with the buyers.

O'Hara says that even though manufacturers may not call for her help when a new cast-iron tub gets scratched, there are still many instances in which someone else does. "Typically it is the local builder or the homeowner who is paying for it," she says. "They've chipped it in the field. The tubs go in so early in the building process that in some of the condo projects I've seen as many as 20 percent of the tubs can be damaged." O'Hara and her crew go in, dab on some auto body filler, sand it smooth and spray a little paint over the patch, using an artist's airbrush. Whether buyers of the condos ever realize they have touched-up tubs, she can't say. They look the same.

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