Q: I am slowly refurbishing a modest, mid-1950s split-level. I want to keep as many of the original elements as possible. My latest project (and problem) is the bathroom sink, which is heavily rusted. If possible, I would like to keep the kitschy surround, but something has to be done about the basin. Replace? Repair? How and by whom?
A: Although it’s tempting to focus on aesthetics and historical accuracy, function and durability matter, too, especially where water is involved.
Among the pictures you sent, one shows significant rust under the sink. If you are certain that nothing is leaking, you might be able to ignore that and just work on making the top look better, using a rust remover such as Whink Rust Stain Remover. A six-ounce bottle costs about $8, including postage, from various sellers on Amazon.com.
But if there’s a leak, don’t waste your time on cosmetics just yet. Your only hope of saving the sink is to pinpoint the problem. For example, is a coupling loose? Does the metal tailpiece have pinholes? There are ways to figure that out.
Before you touch the plumbing, however, there is a big caveat. Rust-eaten metal parts can crumble if you try to take them apart. The shut-off valves under your sink look corroded, too, so they could begin leaking if you try to turn them off. That means you should do any investigative work when a nearby hardware store is open. Also, know how to turn off the main water supply to your house, and identify an outside faucet or a sink lower in your house where you could open a faucet to relieve water pressure in the bathroom if necessary. And have a bucket and rags handy.
Another option is to call a plumber — one with insurance in case water starts spraying everywhere and causes damage — to take apart the sink and help you assess whether it can be saved. Get new supply lines and shut-off valves to avoid having to call the plumber a second time to reinstall the sink or install a new one. After that, installing a sink is pretty straightforward.
But if you want to tackle this yourself, here is how to test for leaks. Disassemble the P-trap (use that bucket and rags to catch drips) and then temporarily cap the bottom of the tailpiece with a rubberized clean-out cap, often called a jim cap. Home Depot sells the Fernco 1½-inch PVC DWV Flexible Cap for $2.97. If your drainpipe is 1¼ inches in outside diameter, you’ll also need an adapter, such as the Fernco 1 1/2 -by-1 1/4 -inch DWV Flexible PVC Coupling, sold at Home Depot for $6.63. With the drainpipe capped, fill the basin and trace the leak.
If the leak is in a replaceable part, you can probably save the sink. But heavily rusted parts are hard to fix, especially when you are working in a cramped space on your back and the parts are above you. Try to lift off the countertop with the sink in place; then you can remove and replace the problem parts with everything at a comfortable height. To remove the countertop and sink as one unit, close the shut-off valves for hot and cold water and disconnect the supply lines. Remove any screws or nails holding the countertop and its supports to the wall. With a utility knife, slice through any caulk between the countertop and the wall. With luck, this will free the countertop and sink.
If you do need to replace the sink, decide how much you are willing to pay to keep period details. Kohler (800-456-4537; us.kohler.com) and Ceco (714-656-1950; cecosinks.com) offer drop-in sinks with a retro metal rim and faucet holes four inches between centers, like those you have now. Kohler’s model is called the Tahoe; it lists for $350.70. Ceco’s Maui model lists for $262.50. Plus, you’ll need a new metal rim that fits the sink; that’s $75.45 for the Kohler model and $148 for Ceco’s.
That being said, both of these sinks are 20 inches by 18 inches. The pictures you sent show that your sink is about 20½ inches by 17 inches. You’ll probably need a new countertop.
Luckily, you could still keep the kitschy look. Formica and Wilsonart offer laminate with boomerang designs, like the one you have now. Formica sells this only in Charcoal, which has a gray background and white and black boomerang outlines. Wilsonart’s designs are more colorful.
The metal countertop banding is available through Heffron’s A Moment in Time Retro Design in Oneida, N.Y. (315-363-7726; heffrons.com), for $50 to $60 per 12-foot length. Heffron’s also offers custom fabrication of metal-edge countertops, a good option if you don’t want to tackle fabrication yourself or hire a local countertop or cabinet company. A custom-made countertop about 30 inches wide and 20 or 22 inches deep with boomerang laminate and metal edging would cost $600-plus, depending on the laminate. Shipping to the Washington area would add about $75. (For countertops too large to ship by UPS, the freight rate starts at about $200.)
If replicating all features of your setup is too pricey, focus on what you love most. For example, you could abandon the metal sink edging and instead get a drop-in sink that is self-rimming, such as Kohler’s Archer sink, which costs $109 at Home Depot. It also forgoes the four-inch faucet spacing in favor of today’s standard eight inches. But is that such a loss? It’s much easier to clean around faucets that aren’t so snug.