Midtown Bathtubs

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik

We all have one — that scratched, dingy, cast iron bathtub so popular from the 1920s through the 1970s. The lucky ones have white tubs and fantastic subway tiles that are just a bit grimy. The not-so-lucky have tubs in various shades of pink, blue, green and gold with cracked tiles, dingy floors and mildew problems.

I have tried pretty much every chemical on the market to clean our tub. The issue is that the finish coat has worn away, so the porcelain layer has a million tiny scratches in it that all get filed with dirt every single time that someone bathes. After walking into the bathroom and seeing that filthy tub one too many times, I decided to look into my options.

Quick calculations told me that a full remodel would be close to impossible. The bath is our main one in the house, so speed is of the essence. This means this probably isn’t a DIY job. With two fairly inexperienced people, demolition would be a slow and painful process. The tub is cast iron and weighs around 300 lbs, while the wall and floor tiles are set in a mortar bed that is a couple of inches thick. I also actually like the tile and want to preserve at least most of it.

We looked at replacing just the tub, but I found that it is pretty much impossible to do without doing fairly significant damage to the tile. A tub replacement would also run in the neighborhood of $2,000-$3,000 if we paid a professional. By the time I replaced the sink with a small cabinet, added lighting, new sink and tub fixtures and repainted, we would be up to around $5,000-$6,000, even if we did everything as cheaply as possible.

After a few very unrealistic dreams about tearing down walls and making a huge master bath, I started researching other alternatives. I came up with two: bathtub liners and bathtub resurfacing. A bathtub liner is essentially an acrylic sheet that is heat molded to the exact shape of your tub and then epoxied in. In just a few days you have a brand new bath. In our area, Rebath and Bath Innovations seem to be the two major companies that offer this service.

At first glance, the cost seemed much more reasonable—about $1,000 to have the tub sheathed. The company seems to encourage having the walls sheathed as well though, and when you add that in, the price jumps to somewhere between $2,000 and $4,000. I would still have to paint, change out the plumbing and light fixtures, and swap the tiny pedestal sink for something with a cabinet. By the time we did that, we would be back up to the same price as the full remodel.

When it comes to resurfacing, there seem to be a few options. In all of them the tubs are cleaned and etched, which removes a majority of stains and takes off the old finish. With both the polymer and the enamel spray-on methods, you can change the color of tiles or fixtures — no more avocado green walls or pink sinks! This method results in a high gloss finish, but is much less durable. Typically, you get somewhere between 5 and 10 years before the procedure needs to be repeated.

The other option is a no-spray method. After cleaning and etching the tub, urethane is applied in multiple coats to the surface. This method is considered to be extremely durable as long as the homeowner takes a couple of minutes each year to wipe on a fresh coat of urethane. The drawback to this method? It is a clear coat, so it won’t help with the avocado green!

Bathtub resurfacing or re-glazing is offered locally by both Cornerstone Refinishing and Bath Innovations. The cost seems much more reasonable than either replacing the tub or putting in a liner — somewhere between $300 and $1,000 depending upon the method.

After careful consideration, we have decided to go the resurfacing route. Maintaining the old home charm of the bath is something that is important to me, and I feel like the acrylic liner just looks too shiny and new. As much as I would love to gut the place and go back in with period appropriate touches, there is no way that our budget could handle that. Replacing the sink and light fixtures, re-glazing the tub and a fresh coat of paint will make the bath feel fresh and new – without breaking the bank!

Heather Coleman is a freelance writer and part-time DIY’er who mostly manages to fit her projects in around her family and her volunteer work. She lives with her husband, two boys and two pets in Midtown.

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There Are 10 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Gabbie says:

    Good article-thanks for the info! I have a couple of these hard-to-clean tubs myself.
    I would say, however, that assuming it’s not falling apart, a pastel pink, or blue, (or green or yellow or whatever) tiled bath can very retro-cool: http://savethepinkbathrooms.com/

  2. Kate says:

    Gabbie, that’s a great link. There was also this New York Times story about pink bathrooms recently:


  3. Gabbie says:

    That WAS a good article. The Chicago Tribune ran one about them today: http://www.chicagotribune.com/classified/realestate/sc-cons-0224-umberger-retro-design-20110225,0,5823334.column

    Both of which quote Retrorenovation.com and SavethePinkbathrooms.com blogger-founder, Pam Kueber. She’s awesome!

  4. Carole king says:

    If you’re in that total-redo mode we have some period fixtures-bath sinks, footed tub, and “autopsy” kitchen sinks available at Rescued Relics, 240-4512. Some just need a good scrubbing!

  5. Heather C says:

    Carole, I keep meaning to come by and check you out– you are in Old Al Town? What days are you open?

    I actually love pink baths– I have a thing for mid-century modern. The avocado, gold and brown of the 70s I think is a bit much :), but the pink and aqua I like. My bath is easy though, white walls, white fixtures. Hex tile floors that are blue and white. The floor actually needs re grouting too (it is stained), but I don’t know that we will do that before we sell.

  6. Gabbie says:

    Ooooo….I love hex tile floors!

  7. Paul Ivey says:

    You can refinish the tub yourself for a fraction of the cost. I have had 3 tubs done including a farm sink by local companies and they lasted less than 2 years in each situation. They also oversprayed the white paint onto black grout and tiles. You can do just as good and usually better yourself. Etching is a big word for sand paper and acetone.

    • Jay Croft says:

      The downside of do-it-yourself is that you could pass out from the acetone fumes.

    • Heather C says:

      🙂 Paul, from everything I have read, the DIY is fraught with issues. Have you actually tried the DIY? And are you talking about the kits that HD and Lowes sell?

  8. Heather,

    I’m sorry to hear that price was a deterrant in your bathroom remodel.

    At Re-bath, we offer high-quality products, a professional installation process and a lifetime warranty on all Durabath SSP products. Many of our locations also offer affordable financing options.

    Best wishes in your remodel!
    Rachael, on behalf of the Re-Bath corporate office

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