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The plumber says our 1950s sinks can’t be saved. Is he right?

A reader wants to replace a hot-water handle on a 1950s bathroom sink. There are multiple ways to find replacement handles for vintage appliances.
A reader wants to replace a hot-water handle on a 1950s bathroom sink. There are multiple ways to find replacement handles for vintage appliances. (Reader photo)
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Q: We have a pair of 1950s bathroom sinks. We're looking to replace one hot-water handle, which is stripped. Our plumber tells us the replacement part is unavailable. He also tells us that, because of the age of the sink, the entire faucet can't be replaced because of its size and that we'll need to buy two new sinks and new faucets. We like the "retro" look. Can you help? Also, a couple of small pieces in the corner of the tile floor are missing. How can we find replacements?

Chevy Chase, Md.

A: It shouldn’t be necessary to replace two vintage sinks that appear to be in great condition just to fix one faucet handle. But, unfortunately, it’s not as easy as it should be, because unseen but critical details aren’t consistent from manufacturer to manufacturer — or even within any one manufacturer’s product line.

You don’t say exactly what’s stripped on the damaged handle, but it’s probably the gear-type detailing that links the broach, the top of the stem on the hot-water valve, to the lever handle. With the help of a marker to keep track, count how many pointed ridges the broach has, because any replacement handle will need to match. In plumbing lingo, these ridges are called splines or points. According to a chart on the website bonnetsandstems.com, various manufacturers use four to 38 points on their handles, and a few use oval or D shapes rather than points.

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A customer service representative for Bonnets Stems and Accessories, the store in Tucson that runs the website, looked at the picture you sent and said he thinks your faucets were made by American Standard, which has manufactured faucets with four, 16 and 22 points. The store generally carries American Standard lever handles but is out of stock, he said.

The website faucetpartsplus.com, however, shows a 22-point American Standard lever handle that looks very much like yours, and a customer service representative there said he, too, thinks your faucet is that brand. A single handle, part No. 464126, is listed at $13.99. Or you could buy a pair for $19.99 (part No. AS1190PR).

If your faucet doesn’t have 22 points per broach or if you’re not sure whether those handles will fit, you might want to shop in person at a well-stocked hardware or plumbing-supply company near you.

This will be especially helpful if you need to get a handle that isn’t necessarily from the same manufacturer as your faucet, because you can bring along the hot-water lever from the other sink or even the cold-water one from the faucet you’re trying to repair. Then, before you buy, you can ensure they match and check whether the screw threads holding the handle to the faucet are the same. You might need to buy four handles, so everything matches. But check the return policy, in case it’s smarter to ensure that one fits before buying them all.

If you can’t find handles that fit your faucet, try getting a kit designed to adapt to a variety of faucet styles. Ace Hardware, for example, sells a decorative lever handle in chrome and white porcelain for $19.99 in a kit that includes parts such as spacers and bushings, which allows for customization to fit most faucets.

Another approach is to shop at stores that specialize in used building materials, such as Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores in Silver Spring and Rockville (habitat.org/restores) and Community Forklift (communityforklift.org) in Edmonston. Prices at these stores are such that if you find a full faucet assembly with handles that work, it might cost less than buying four handles at a store that sells only new components.

If you can’t find anything either new or used that is suitable, ask for recommendations among friends or neighbors with mid-century houses that haven’t been updated. Plumbing-supply companies that cater to professionals sell a variety of adapters, so a pro who likes preserving old pieces may come up with a solution.

If all else fails, a new plumber could probably figure out how to install new stems or even a new faucet (or two, if you want them to match). It’s not clear what detail of the existing faucet made the original plumber declare that replacement isn’t possible, but at a minimum, before you opt for what he suggested, ask him to be specific. Certainly, not all bathroom faucets from the 1950s have features that are impossible to get in faucets made today. The website retrorenovation.com says that Kohler’s Triton bathroom faucets were introduced in 1941. They are still sold today.

If the faucet holes in your sink are four inches between centerpoints, the Kohler Triton Bowe faucet with lever handles ($120.11 at build.com) could be a good substitute. This model doesn’t have a pop-up to control the sink drain, however.

As for the missing tiles: Finding an exact match for the olive green and orange in your bathroom might be impossible, but if you shop for a used faucet at stores selling used building materials, check the tile displays, too. Rather than finding a perfect match, you might need to settle for finding pieces that are the sizes you need or that can be cut to fit. Then use paint to get them as close as possible to the right colors. Scuff up the tiles first with 100-grit sandpaper and wipe clean. Brush on a bonding primer, let that dry, then apply two coats of paint. Because the missing pieces are in a corner, paint should stand up fine.

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