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An antique toilet overhaul

April 3, 2013
Historical homes built prior to, or shortly after, the turn of  the last century present challenges for restoration of antique plumbing fixtures and faucets.

Historical homes built prior to, or shortly after, the turn of  the last century present challenges for restoration of antique plumbing fixtures and faucets. Rebuilding flush ell and flush tube toilets could test the patience of Job! The vintage 1920s era toilet leaked at the flush tube slip joints. To further compound any attempted repairs, a porcelain decorative column conceals the flush tube from view. Peering inside the wall-hung tank, the brass flush valve assembly was covered in cancerous spots indicating corrosion and an excellent chance the overflow tube would be brittle and snap off once touched! The tank ball was toast and the ballcock valve sprayed water around its top plunger as soon as the float ball dropped. Because this is a flush tube toilet, its 14-in. rough-in was closer to the wall than the 16-in. to 18-in. rough-in expected for flush ell toilets and provided an opportunity to promote the installation of a WaterSense (www.epa.gov/watersense) compliant 1.28-GPF HET (high efficiency toilet). The home’s new owners fell in love with the toilet and the rest of the vintage fixtures and faucets.  

Where to begin? Although nearly 100-years-old, the faucet parts are available via specialty suppliers. It’s the wall-hung toilet that serves up the toughest challenge, but not if you plan your repair adventure well.

Turn off the water to the bathroom, not just the toilet, in case the existing antique chromed valve decides to snap-off while you’re doing a balancing act with a 100-year-old china tank just released from its perch… don’t ask me why I know this. Under that same category gently remove the tank’s china lid and place it out of harm’s way where it cannot possibly slip off, fall and shatter into a thousand pieces. One tool to have on hand, in addition to the normal hand tools, is an adjustable slip-nut wrench. Its wide flat jaws allow you to apply even pressure, without gnawing teeth marks into the chrome or brass 2-in. slip nuts. Once you remove the supply-tube compression nut and loosen the upper 2-in. slip nut (exposed and accessible on the back upper side of the decorative china column), it’s time to take a seat.

Sitting backwards on the toilet bowl, place your knees under either side of the tank to carry its weight and for gentle leverage. Along the upper back of the tank, you’ll need to remove the screws, nuts or bolts — or the rusted remains still large enough to prevent removal of the tank. Gently pull forward on the tank while supporting the tank with your knees/legs. Once you can release the tank from its wall supports, gently begin rocking it side to side to work it up and off of the 2-in. flush-tube and the water supply line. Place the tank on its back and don’t forget to protect the flooring (and china) by using a drop cloth.

Returning to the bowl, the ceramic tube can be slipped off exposing the flush-tube and closet spud. Loosen the lower 2-in. slip-nut and remove the tube. Pull off both slip-nuts and discard the slip-joint washers or whatever was used to seal the joint. If the 2-in. tube is in good condition, it can be reused. Remove the closet spud runner-nut and gently apply some pressure to the top of the spud while you have an inserted finger extended into the opening so that the spud isn’t suddenly discharged into the opening potentially damaging the china. The dried out rubber gasket can then be pried apart using a sharp fine-tipped screwdriver to break its grip on the spud. Once the gasket is removed, the flared spud can be removed and the bowl’s inlet cleaned.

Removing the china closet bolt caps is often complicated by putty that’s dried and the consistency of 8,000-PSI concrete! A narrow putty knife often does the trick and soaking the caps overnight in water mixed with vinegar often allows you to clean out the interior of the caps. This same putty of old often renders the bolts seized and a bushing saw (no sawzalls allowed) carefully applied on a 45-degree angle to slice through the nut will allow it to be removed and the bowl gently rocked side to side for its removal. The bowl is turned over to expose the outlet (horn) and cleaned as needed.

Rebuilding from the ground up: Turning your attention to the closet flange and, most likely, lead piping, there are a host of issues to address: the condition of the lead and its flare over the brass closet flange; the brass closet flange and how securely it is attached to the flooring; and the condition of the flooring. At the very least, new screws will be required. If the lead is deteriorated, repair kits consisting of a short lead stub flared over a new brass flange are available here: http://colorcraft.us/page29.html or you can use a PVC gasketed repair flange.

Decide now if the old chrome water supply goods are suitable for use. Remove the valve’s stem to examine its washer, seat, packing and condition of the stem and body threads. Any spots of corrosion indicating the supply nipple to the valve’s inlet, the valve body, or the brass riser tube indicate its time to replace. While a new ball-valve chrome shut-off may look acceptable, this is a job for a custom-fit chrome supply tube — for looks — and not one of the flexible loop-it-if-it’s-too-long supply tubes, preferably one with a rubber cone tip.

A new closet spud is installed in the bowl, the tank gets totally rebuilt — brass goods are optional, but why skimp on authenticity now. Reinstall the bowl and if this is a flush-tube application with a china decorative cover, the tube and lower slip-joint are next. Two inch rubber slip joint washers? I prefer using wick yarn dragged through my tin of heat-proof grease, and working the grease into the wicking. Tear off a 3’ piece, grease it, and then wrap it around the flush tube in the same direction the slip-joint nut will travel. Graphite string can also be used. Wrapping several turns of Teflon tape around the upper portion of the flush-tube will prevent the upper slip-joint nut from sliding out of reach.

Time to re-hang the overhauled toilet tank: once again sitting backwards on the bowl using knees to balance and gently lower the tank over the flush tube. New stainless steel screws and washers fasten the tank to the wall and its time to tighten the upper slip joint runner nut. Here’s where the use of wick yarn or graphite string really shines for sealing what is often less than an exactly squared-off angle between the tube and the outlet of the flush valve. Last, but not least, the custom-fit chrome supply tube is installed and the moment of truth in testing your workmanship.

Green up that antique toilet by fine tuning the water level inside the tank, so that the toilet flushes well, but uses far less water. 

All Dave Yates material in print and on Contractor's Website is protected by Copyright 2013. Any reuse of this material (print or electronic) must first have the expressed written permission of Dave Yates and Contractor magazine. Please contact via email at: [email protected].

About the Author

Dave Yates

Dave Yates material in print and on Contractor’s Website is protected by Copyright 2017. Any reuse of this material (print or electronic) must first have the expressed written permission of Dave Yates and Contractor magazine.

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