What do you do with a washed-up bathtub?
You could replace it with a new one, but that’s not an easy proposition. Most tubs are set in an alcove or corner, lapped by the flooring and wall finishes to create a watertight seal and tied down in at least two places by plumbing. If you’re ready for a full-scale bathroom remodel, replacing the tub makes sense. If you’re not, you’re looking at creating a real mess and spending $2,000 to $3,000 for little visual change.
Two better options are available to price-conscious homeowners with tubs in need of a facelift: tub liners and tub refinishing. Both add years of life to an existing tub at a fraction of the cost of full-scale replacement – and in a fraction of the time.
“Some people collect art, others collect old cars, but my boss collects tubs,” says John Heckenlaible, marketing director for Re-Bath, a Mesa, Ariz.-based company that has been making tub liners since the 1970s.
With these old tubs, reliner companies create exact molds, which they use to make liners that fit tubs perfectly, wherever they’re installed and whatever shape they’re in. Here’s how the process works: A local installer sends precise measurements and photographs of the tub to company headquarters. The company identifies the model, pulls it off the shelf and with a sheet of one-quarter-inch ABS acrylic – the same material football helmets and airplane windshields are made of – vacuum-forms an exact mold of the tub. The result is a 35-pound liner that slips over the tired tub like a new glove. To install it, the local rep cleans the old tub with denatured alcohol, removes the drain and overflow and trims the liner so it fits snugly against the walls. Then, using a combination of two-sided butyl tape and silicone adhesive, he attaches the liner to the old tub. He finishes up by installing a new drain and overflow, and caulking the seams.
Once the liner is delivered, which can take four to eight weeks, a single workman can install it in six to eight hours, and the homeowner can bathe in it that same evening.
Reglazing, or refinishing, a worn-out bathtub is a more site-intensive process, calling for chemicals that are hazardous enough to require a respirator and special protective suit for the technician who does the work.
“Basically, a refinisher turns a residential bathroom into a spray booth for a few hours,” explains Mike Grampp, who runs an 11-year-old tub refinishing business in Richmond, Ky. The first step in re-glazing involves masking the surfaces around the tub to protect from overspray and properly venting the bathroom to extract the toxic fumes. After removing the caulk, the refinisher swathes the tub in hydrofluoric acid, a highly toxic agent that not only dissolves what’s left of the porcelain glaze but also etches the surface so the new finish will adhere.
Next, the refinisher washes away the hydrofluoric acid, installs new caulk and dries the tub with the help of a fan.
He then sprays on two coats of a fast-drying epoxy to promote adhesion of the finish coats.
To finish, he gives the tub a cleaning with a tack cloth to remove any dust particles or insects, and then sprays four applications of a polyurethane finish coat with sanding in between.
Finally, the refinisher polishes the tub.
The whole process takes a single technician about four to six hours, depending on how extensive the repair is, but the tub needs to cure for a minimum of 24 hours before the water is turned on.
There’s no question that liners are more durable than refinished tubs. Indeed, Re-Bath shows off the resilience of its product in its San Jose showroom by banging them with a hammer.
But liners also cost much more – they run $800 to $1,000 installed. Plus, you’ll be given a sales pitch to install panels of acrylic wall liners around the tub.
The panels come in as many as 20 colors, with marbleized varieties, too, and run about $150 for an 8-foot model.
Refinishing a tub, on the other hand, costs $200 to $450. Although most customers choose white, refinishing is available at a slightly higher price in virtually any color that paint is, compared with the five or so colors (generally white, almond, biscuit, gray and black) most liner companies offer.