How To Spruce Up Vintage Bathroom Fixtures

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I’m having a Sphinx shower unit restored with new stems, and they mentioned replating the handles. Does it make sense to replate old combination fixtures, or is it better to preserve the patina? Also, can the porcelain be buffed? It’s a bit dull.

Vintage shower controls
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Don Hooper: Your questions apply to the cosmetic restoration of the whole range of antique bathroom fixtures—from sink and tub faucets to shower assemblies, and even chrome- or nickel-plated bathroom accessories.
Most early bathroom fixtures, such as the Sphinx shower control valve, were made of brass parts, and include brass and white china handles and a white china escutcheon cover. The parts hidden from view inside the wall and behind the cover are unfinished brass, while exposed brass parts were polished and nickel-plated. Nickel plating is a relatively soft coating that’s less durable than chrome plating; after many years of use, it will wear down and eventually disappear completely.

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When the nickel plating has deteriorated, dulled, or worn away completely, the brass beneath it is visible, and the finish becomes splotchy and irregular. If all fixtures in an old period bathroom have such a worn appearance, it may be aesthetically acceptable to leave the exposed metal showing its patina. But most people like their bath fixtures to have a clean, new appearance (even on 100-year-old pieces), which is possible through cosmetic restoration—polishing and plating—of the metal parts.

All restorers replate the metal parts of antique bathroom fixtures unless specifically asked not to (an exception is polished brass, which is either left unfinished and must be polished regularly, or coated with lacquer or polyurethane to inhibit tarnishing). Most old fixtures are replated in polished or brushed nickel or chrome. (Polished silver and gold are also possible, albeit costly.) Whatever finish is chosen, there are some considerations.

The first involves the process of stripping and polishing—many people assume that parts with a china component can’t be stripped and polished, but this isn’t true. The chemical stripping process doesn’t damage the china, as long as the part isn’t left soaking in the chemicals longer than necessary to remove the grime and old plating.

During the polishing process, however, great care must be used to prevent the high-speed polishing wheel from overheating the metal, which will crack the china part. (If not used with care, the wheel also can grab the part from a worker’s hand and fling it to the ground.) The rest of the plating process is pretty simple; the parts are wired up and hung in plating tanks. You need to be confident that the shop doing your restoration knows that these parts are both fragile and irreplaceable.

Cosmetic restoration tends to be expensive because it is labor-intensive, the workplace is a hazardous area (so insurance costs are high), and the chemicals and waste disposal are costly, all of which gets passed on to the consumer. Because of this, and the risk of damage to these precious fixtures, I suggest resisting stripping, polishing, and replating whenever possible. Instead, I like to clean and hand-polish fixtures myself. You can do the same.

Pour some CLR or Lime-Away into a basin of water, then soak the parts for 5 to 10 minutes. (Don’t leave them soaking too long—i.e. hours—or the mild acid in the cleaners will begin to degrade the shine on the china and plating.) Then, put some Zud on a scrubber and scrub the part until clean. When done, rinse off with water. (If working on fixtures installed on a wall, spray them with Lime-Away first, then scrub with Zud and rinse.) Repeat as necessary.

Insofar as polishing the china trim pieces, I know of no effective way to do that. While shiny, polished, replated metal parts may present a contrast with old, slightly worn china trim, it shouldn’t be displeasing—it’s a reflection of the age and history of your unique fixtures.

Don Hooper, owner of Vintage Plumbing Bathroom Antiques, has been collecting, selling, and restoring antique bathroom fixtures for more than 35 years.