By Lynn Elliott and Demetra Aposporos
Today’s kitchen restorations involve hundreds of decisions. Take for example that prosaic workhorse, the kitchen sink. While as recently as two decades ago it was difficult to find new sinks with historic appeal, modern-day offerings are plentiful—from slate apron-fronted farmhouse sinks, to stainless steel sinks with integrated drainboards, to everything in between. And let’s not forget the option of using an original antique, too. So how do you decide between the many options out there? OHJ checked in with two readers—one of them a former editor on staff—to find out how they selected sinks for their kitchen rehabilitations, and the specific challenges they faced in getting them installed.
When my husband, Todd, and I bought our 1900 Victorian-era duplex in Staten Island, New York, the original cast iron farmhouse sink was still in the kitchen. The double-bowl, apron-front sink had a removable drainboard inside one basin, and at 4′ wide and 2′ deep, was large enough to be a horse trough. Nonetheless we intended to keep it, as it was the only redeeming feature in a dismal kitchen. We had planned to remodel our kitchen around the sink, but soon discovered that it was irretrievably damaged on one side—the inset cast iron drainboard had chipped away the enamel beneath it, resulting in a corroded mess. Now we had to rethink the sink. Since we had already mapped out a straightforward farmhouse style for our kitchen, with plain, flat-panel cabinets and rustic stone tile counters that complemented the rest of our simple but nicely detailed turn-of-the century house, putting in a new farmhouse sink was a natural fit, as well as a nod to what had already been there. What we didn’t know was how challenging it would be to install such a sink ourselves—but we were about to find out.
I began researching apron-front sinks and discovered that there are many options for farmhouse sinks—including stainless steel, cast iron, copper, and fireclay. There are also two types: false farmhouse sinks (usually made of stainless steel) that create the apron effect with a separate piece, and actual apron-front sinks that require precise measuring to fit within cabinetry. The first type is easier to install, but clearly not as authentic. The latter type, the kind we selected, presents some installation challenges.
We chose a Shaw’s fireclay sink in a style that has been handmade in the U.K. since 1897, slightly before our house was built. Although smaller than our original sink, it has the same color and height, and it echoes the original with its deep, wide basin and rounded edges. Like all farmhouse sinks, it juts out about an inch or so beyond the cabinetry. But there are differences, too. The new sink doesn’t have a built-in backsplash, and it has a single basin. (There was a double available, but we preferred the single.) We did search for a new sink with built-in backsplash, but never found one. (The best resource for that type would probably be salvage.)
Because fireclay farmhouse sinks are handmade, no two sinks are exactly the same size or shape (dimensions vary plus or minus 2 percent), so the manufacturer doesn’t provide a template. Measurements vary with other types of farmhouse sinks, too, so manufacturers recommend ordering custom-made cabinets. Ideally, the sink should be ordered first, then the cabinet can be built to fit.We were using semi-custom cabinets for our kitchen, and there was no option for a farmhouse sink, so we needed to figure out a way to support the cabinet and cut its front to fit the sink on our own.
We’d seen two types of installations for farmhouse sinks on the Internet and in retail demo kitchens. One had the sink fitting tightly into the facing of the cabinet and sealed with clear silicone caulk; the other had three 2-wide strips of wood (matching the cabinet) framing the sink. We chose to try to fit our farmhouse sink into the cabinet without a frame because we liked the cleaner look, knowing that, should anything go wrong, the simple frame could be our backup plan.
Our main concern was bracing the cabinet to support the 140-pound sink without collapsing. A U-shaped frame—effectively a three-sided ledge—supported a sink we saw on display at a tile store, where they were nice enough to let us take reference photos. For our farmhouse sink, we decided to brace the cabinet completely, front-to-back and side-to-side. Placing braces along the depth and the width of the cabinet doesn’t interfere with the drain, and unlike a U-shaped ledge, also provides support for the front of the face frame. Our second priority was cutting the cabinet front to fit the sink cleanly, with no gaps. Below are details on how we did the work. In the end, our efforts turned out pretty well—the fit is close enough that we don’t feel the need to frame in the sink, and our kitchen has a farmhouse-in-the-city feel that complements our house.
Lynn Elliott, a former OHJ editor, works for Random House Children’s Books and has published articles and books about home restoration.
Laura and John Lazet had already repaired decades’ worth of remuddles to their mid-1800s farmhouse in Mason, Michigan, (see A Remuddling Reborn, OHJ Dec ’06) by the time they decided to tackle the kitchen. They knew they would keep the room’s design aligned with the rest of the house. They were also fortunate enough to have found a sketch of the kitchen’s early layout and have a few original, untouched pantry doors on which to model the cabinets. But when it came to the sink, they realized they could go a couple of different ways. They could select a sink from the mid-1800s, the house’s early timeframe, or one dating to the year they had documented the installation of indoor plumbing on the house, which was 1948. For Laura, it was a no-brainer: When I was a kid, we had a summer place with a double drainboard sink, she says, and I always wanted one just like it.
Laura was determined to find the perfect circa-1950 sink at salvage, so she started looking for one online. When purchasing salvage items, it helps to know exactly what you want; Laura did. I wanted a large double drainboard sink with one big basin, she says, and it had to be in good condition. It also needed to be deep, so water wouldn’t readily splash out—a lesson the Lazets learned the hard way after installing an antique, wall-mounted sink in their laundry room that was saved from a farmhouse being demolished across the road.
After about six months of searching, Laura located the perfect sink: a 1951 cast iron double drainboard beauty that’s 54 long, with an 8-deep basin. Stamped into its metal bottom is the following information: American Standard Radiator Sanitary Corporation, Baltimore, 8-20-1951. The sink was freight-shipped from an East Coast salvage yard to the Lazets’ house, then Laura and John set to the task of designing a wall of cabinets to accommodate it, which proved a little challenging. Like most old floors, ours are uneven, says Laura. The floor drops 1¼ inches over the length of the sink. In order for the sink to sit level, local craftspeople at Wilson Restoration, who did all of the custom woodwork for the Lazets, created cabinets for the sink with hutch-style footings taller on one side than the other to minimize the sloping floor, then set the cabinets with shims. After the cabinets were installed, finish trim placed along the base also helped hide the tilt of the floor. In addition, the sink’s heft—which at some 200 pounds, weighs more than a countertop—required that the cabinet be fortified. All four sides of the cabinet were built with ¾ plywood, then a hidden support rail—also of ¾ plywood—was added between the cabinet doors. The cabinet’s sides were also made out of two pieces of wood.
Another challenge came when John tried to install the sink and found the original drain so firmly attached that it was impossible to remove. I spent at least two days soaking it in penetrating oil and gently tapping the retaining ring, he says, but it wouldn’t budge. Next, he carefully applied heat and tried tapping the ring again, still it wouldn’t move. Finally, I had to cut it off with a recip saw, John says, explaining that he was careful not to damage the threads so the rest of the ring would unscrew. When John went to install the new drain, he got another surprise; the new one Laura had purchased wasn’t deep enough, and they had to find another.
Because the sink was manufactured with four holes to accommodate faucet hardware—it originally featured a faucet, separate hot and cold knobs, and probably an early sprayer mechanism—the Lazets could get creative with their new hardware installations. In the end, they chose to install a mixer, faucet, and individual soap and hard water dispensers (hard water for drinking, since they have a well) in a brushed nickel finish that Laura found the least obtrusive. They did have to do some tinkering beneath the sink on plumbing that had been remuddled years ago.
The plumbing had all been jury-rigged, explains John. Electrical tape, duct tape, glue, and just plain old friction from sticking pipes into each other had been used to tie the old system together. The old owners had also relied on calcium deposits from leaking water to seal up any cracks. For years, every time I’d touch a joint, the calcium deposits would break and a new leak would begin. John has spent the last 17 years replacing and upgrading the plumbing, and running new copper pipes from the well to the sink. Because the sink is located 25 feet from the water heater, last year he built a new extension for the recirculating hot water line so they could get hot water faster. The last plumbing detail John needed for the new sink was a better vent. The existing plumbing was vented 20 feet away, he explains, so we installed a special P-trap air vent under the sink.
The finished kitchen seamlessly melds old and new, and feels as though it has always been there. Other elements completing the kitchen’s antique feel include wooden countertops, which were custom milled from cherry trees on the property, and a built-in hutch Laura designed to replace one that had been removed decades ago.
In one spot in the kitchen, you can get a beeline view into the original pantry, catching a glimpse of new cabinets along the way. Not only do the cabinets in both rooms match perfectly, but Laura was even able to find reproduction drawer pulls that exactly resemble the century-old originals. Laura and John are pleased with the efforts of everyone that helped them rehabilitate their kitchen. Finally, says Laura, I have the kitchen I’ve been dreaming about for the past 21 years.