Restoring a 1915 Colonial Revival house
Toilet Restoration

Page from a January 1925 Standard catalog with the "Ejecto" - a typical design of the 1910s and 1920s.

In the early 1990s, Americans were stripped of a very important freedom in the name of being "environmentally friendly". This was the time when legislation was passed that all newly manufactured toilets had to be low-flow, water saver units that used no more than 1.6 gallons per flush. That's all well and good; however, it was all done at the cost of performance. Older toilets used three and a half to five gallons of water per flush and a single flush did the job nearly every time. The toilets that have been manufactured since 1994 take several flushes to accomplish their mission, so tell me, where is the savings?

It was this thought, along with the desire to have a bathroom that was true to the period of our home that set us off to salvage yards to try to find a good vintage toilet for the second floor bathroom. It didn't take us long to realize this wouldn't be easy. If there is a plumbing fixture that is commonly discarded during building renovations and demolitions, it's a toilet. Tubs and sinks are often salvaged, but it seems like toilets are seldom saved. For a while, all of the toilets we were finding were newer models dating to about 1940 and later. The style of these wouldn't work for a 1910s period bathroom.

Before we go any further, a brief history lesson on toilets might be appropriate. The white porcelain fixture that we are all familiar with has changed very little in principle since the 1880s. Early bowls were sometimes decorative, having having designs on the exterior and sometimes even on the inside. Water to flush the toilet was provided from a tank or "closet" bolted to the wall behind the bowl. Earlier toilets had the tank mounted high on the wall. Today, these are referred to as "high tank" toilets and are most commonly associated with the late Victorian era. By the early 1900s, the decorative bowls began giving way to a more utilitarian appearance, though the general contours of most bowls were virtually unchanged.

The popularity of the high tank toilet began to wane with the introduction of the low tank toilet in the 1890s. The low tank toilet was similar to high tank models in that the tank was bolted to the wall behind the bowl and connected by a metal tube with a larger diameter than those found on high tank toilets. This style took over as the most prevalent by the 1910s, High tank toilets were still being manufactured into the 1920s, though they were produced in smaller quantities.

The low tank toilet was the choice of plumbers from the 1910s through the early 1930s. By the 1930s, the toilet design most people today are familiar with had emerged onto the scene. This design consisted of a porcelain bowl with a tank mounted directly to the back of it without the use of a flush tube. This design has continued through today, though it is an inferior design to the earlier low tank toilets. By attaching the tank directly to the bowl, there are two additional holes in the bottom of the tank for the bolts that hold the tank to the bowl. These bolts and their rubber washers are constantly submerged below the water level and are the culprit in 95% of modern toilet tank leaks. The bolts are subject to corrosion from the water and the rubber washers deteriorate over time and have to be replaced periodically. This might not sound like a big deal, but imagine if it started leaking while you were away from home. You'd have a huge mess to come home to that neither you, nor your insurance company, will be very happy about. Replacing the bolts and washers is not a task to be taken lightly, either. Over-tightening the bolts can cause hairline cracks along the holes. If this happens, you might as well throw the whole tank away.

The wall-mounted low tank toilet has only two holes in the bottom of the tank - one for the water supply and one for the flush tube. The mounting bolts that hold the tank to the wall are above the water line inside the tank, keeping them dry. The only rubber you have to worry about are for the gaskets for the two holes previously mentioned.

Also, an antique toilet looks better in a period bathroom. A modern toilet surrounded by century-old fixtures sticks out like a sore thumb. The antique toilet completes the package for an authentic period bathroom.

Assuming you've read this far and are potentially interested in incorporating an antique toilet into your bathroom design, the next question is where to find one. As with many old house needs, we would recommend you start at your closest architectural salvage warehouse; however, you may not find what you need on your first visit. You may need to go back several times or visit multiple salvage companies to find what you are looking for. Tell the people who work there what you need. Oftentimes, salvage companies either won't take old toilets or limit their inventory, as some assume no one wants an old toilet. You can also try looking at online ads or visiting demolition or renovation sites in your area.

One thing to keep in mind when looking at antique toilets in salvage yards: the bowls, tanks, and tank lids may be separated. It may take a little time to assemble a correct set of three pieces. The good news is, most bowls and tanks can be paired up as long as the fittings are the same size. The tank and tank lid can be the troublesome parts to match up. Some manufacturers stamped the part numbers on the back of the tank and on the underside of the tank lid. Standard is one company that comes to mind that did this.

How do you assess the condition of an old toilet? Start off with the obvious. If there are any cracks, chips, or breaks, don't bother with it. Some tight cracks may be repairable, but there are better examples out there, so it's best to wait. Assuming there are no obvious defects, take a good look at the bowl. You'll need to turn it upside down to check the connection for the rough-in. Before you do this, make sure there is a smooth surface (not concrete!) to set the bowl down on to prevent damage as you inspect it. A bare cement floor will scratch up the porcelain. A large piece of cardboard, floor mat, or another thick, smooth surface will work.

Look at the opening under the bowl and check for any damage. There may be some old, pasty looking residue underneath. This is normal. Contrary to what you may be thinking, this is left over from the wax ring that sits underneath the toilet and provides a seal to the flange on the end of the drain pipe. What you are looking for is anything that could cause a leak. All too often, old toilet bowls will be dragged across a floor, damaging the drain area. You may even see numbers stamped underneath, indicating a date of manufacture, or a manufacturer's name or logo. Assuming you find no damage underneath, check the front, sides, and back for cracking. One particular area to pay close attention to is the back of the bowl near the top. You will see a hole about 2 11/16" in diameter on most models. This hole is meant to take a fitting called a spud, which may or may not be present. The spud is the fitting that connects the bowl to the flush tube, which is a metal tube bent into a 90 degree ell. The other end of the flush tube connects to the corresponding fitting on the bottom of the tank. What you're looking for here is any damage around the spud opening that will not allow a tight fit. If the spud is still in place, it may be harder to assess the condition, but look for signs of cracking. Finally, inspect the inside of the bowl. It may be dirty, but do the best you can.

Now that you've found a serviceable bowl, the next step is to look for a tank and lid. Just like the bowl, look at the sides and bottom of the tank for cracks. Pay special attention to the areas around the fittings on the bottom, as these would be the most likely locations to find damage from overzealous plumbers over-tightening fittings. Measure the large fitting underneath to make sure it is the same size as the spud on the bowl you have selected. Also check around the holes on the back where the bolts go to mount the tank to the wall. Check inside for any damage that may not be evident from the outside. Some discoloration and limescale is normal. You're looking for actual damage. You'll probably find a lot of corrosion on the inner parts. Don't worry, you'll be rebuilding the tank and much of this will be replaced. Brass and copper parts identical to the originals are still available today, but you won't find them at big box stores. Most older hardware and mom and pop plumbing supply houses will have them, but they can also be ordered. DEA Bathroom Machineries has everything you need.

The last piece to find is a tank lid. As we said earlier, the easiest way to find a lid is to look for the manufacturer's name and/or part number on the back of the tank and match it up. Standard put numbers in both places, as did many other manufacturers. Inspect each prospective lid for damage and place it on the top of the tank you found. You want to make sure it has a good fit and goes down all the way onto the tank and does not merely sit on top of it. If they have two of the same type of lid, get them both to have one as a spare. You'll probably never need it, but the tank lid is the part of the toilet that gets broken the most often. If you find yourself in that situation, it will be hard to find another matching lid for an 80+ year old tank.

The toilet we will be restoring for our second floor bathroom is pictured above. The tank is a Standard 4060 - a common 1920s era tank to find. The bowl was made by Trenton Potteries in 1925 according to the markings underneath. The toilet is about 10 years newer than the house, but the styles didn't really change much in that time. The first thing we want to do is cover the concrete floor of our basement work area. We are using some old foam rubber mats. This is so we can set the parts down without scuffing them up.

Like most other old things, restoration starts with a good cleaning. We started out using only water to rinse off the loose dirt and dust. We followed up with a good application of Soft Scrub with a new sponge. Soft Scrub and a little elbow grease can work wonders and can make an 85 year old toilet sparkle with the best of them. After cleaning with Soft Scrub, there were still a few stubborn hard water stains inside the bowl. We then pulled out our next strongest weapon, Bar Keeper's Friend powder. Bar Keeper's Friend is great for getting stains out of porcelain. Simply follow the directions on the can and mix a little powder with water to form a paste about the consistency of toothpaste. Place it on the stain and let it sit for about 30-45 seconds. Then, use the sponge and some elbow grease to scrub the stain out. Rinse off any leftover residue immediately.

We've used Bar Keeper's Friend for years with good results, just don't use it everywhere. It's a tool that's only used when and where it is needed, for when the lighter stuff won't quite cut it. Bar Keeper's Friend should only be used on the worst stains that stand out the most, as it's slightly abrasive.

With the outside of the bowl looking decent again, we turned our attention to the inside. The first thing we checked was to see if water would flow freely out of the bowl. We placed the bowl right side up in a laundry sink and filled it with water. We then dumped a bucket of water into the bowl to simulate a flush. The water drained, but it was extremely slow. There was a clog in the bowl, most likely in the trap just out of view. No obstructions could be felt, though there was thick limescale buildup in the bottom. We flipped the bowl over on its top and started running water through the drain hole. A big assortment of debris ranging from leaves and sticks to paper and string began coming out the other side. Apparently a mouse had nested inside. After the debris was cleared, we turned our attention to the limescale buildup.

As with anything else, we started with the mildest possible solution. We mixed a solution of white vinegar and borax and let it sit in the bowl for a week. It loosened a little bit of the limescale, but most still remained. We repeated this process twice, without much continued success. We then switched to straight vinegar, which improved matters a little, but still left much limescale to be removed. We were left with no other alternative but to pull out the big guns. We diluted some CLR to where it was about 2/3 strength and poured it directly into the bottom. We let it sit about 15 minutes and then started removing the limescale. After about 30 minutes, it was all dissolved. We then let water run through the bowl for about 15-20 minutes to make sure all of the CLR residue was washed out. A word of caution here - DO NOT, under any circumstances, use CLR to clean any antique fixture beyond removing limescale from the bottom of a toilet bowl. NEVER use it on a porcelain glazed cast iron fixture, such as a tub or sink. CLR and Lime Away WILL etch the finish and cause irreversible damage. So AVOID it for regular use!

The picture above shows just some of the limescale removed from the toilet bowl. It's amazing how much of this stuff can build up over time.

The only part on a vintage toilet bowl that typically needs to be replaced is the spud gasket and sometimes the spud itself. The spud is the fitting that goes in the back of the toilet bowl to attach the flush tube. The original spud should be replaced if the threads are chewed up. The rubber gasket is almost guaranteed to be dry rotted and should be replaced even if it looks okay.

To remove a spud, you need a special tool called a slip nut wrench. This looks like an adjustable crescent wrench with long flat jaws. These are available at plumbing supply houses and some hardware stores. Ace Hardware and True Value usually have them in their stores, as will most Mom and Pop hardware stores. The Big Box stores can be hit or miss.

The old spud is removed by placing the slip nut wrench over the large flat nut at the base of the spud and slowly loosening. Once the nut and washer are out of the way, the spud will still feel like it's firmly held in the back of the bowl. To loosen it, smack it firmly, but evenly with the palm of your hand. This will loosen the gasket and make the spud hang loose in its opening. It can now be removed.

There are several kinds of spuds that were used in two-piece toilets over the years. The picture above shows the standard 2" spud that was used on most toilets manufactured from about the mid 1920s through the 1940s. If you have a toilet bowl that takes this spud, you're lucky. Every plumbing supply house stocks these and they can usually be had for $10 or less. The bowl we are restoring uses a Maddock spud, which is named for the Thomas Maddock and Sons Co., who was a manufacturer of plumbing fixtures in the early 1900s. Several manufacturers adopted Maddock's design and they are common on bowls manufactured between about 1905 and 1925. Maddock spuds are similar in appearance to the standard spud above from the outside, so you probably won't be able to tell what type of spud you have until it is removed. The difference in the two spuds is on the inside.

Here is the Maddock spud we removed from our bowl. Instead of the beveled fitting that goes inside the bowl, Maddock spuds are keyed - that is, there are two brass tabs that extend from the back of the spud. These go into a channel inside the bowl and the spud is twisted to "lock" it into place. 

Here's another shot of the old Maddock spud showing the "keyed" end that goes inside the bowl. Maddock spuds are still available, though they can be harder to find and are more expensive. DEA Bathroom Machineries stocks Maddock spuds. A Maddock spud can only be replaced with another Maddock spud.

Here is the inside of the tank as found. All of these parts are still manufactured. A toilet tank consists of two major parts that work independently of one another - the ballcock and the flush valve. The ballcock, also known as the fill valve, is what supplies water to the tank. It is in the top left corner in the picture. The flush valve, which lifts the rubber stopper (tank ball) in the bottom of the tank to flush the toilet when the lever is pressed, is in the center of the picture. Most plumbing supply houses will have these parts available. If not, they are available from DEA Bathroom Machineries. The copper float can be cleaned up and re-used, but these are available as well if it is broken or missing.

Restoration of the tank started with removing all of the old hardware. This is not complicated and involves loosening the two nuts underneath the tank with a slip nut wrench. Once the nuts are removed, the ballcock and flush valve lift straight out. The float rod unscrews from the ballcock and the flush lever detaches from a metal rod connected to the tank ball on the flush valve.

After the hardware was removed, the next step was to scrub all of the old water stains from inside the tank. Once again, we used Bar Keeper's Friend with a non-scratch Scotch Brite pad. After a few minutes of rubbing, the stains began to lift. After about a half hour of scrubbing, it looked like this:

Now that's clean, especially compared to the before picture above! And it's now ready for its new hardware. We installed the new components in this order: flush valve, ballcock, flush lever, tank ball, and float. The original copper float cleaned up nicely with a little polish and a rag.

This is the new Douglas style flush valve that we installed in the tank. Note that it is copper and brass, not plastic. The threaded end of the flush valve is inserted into the large opening in the bottom of the tank. The rubber gasket goes inside the tank. Once the gasket is resting on the bottom, the nut, pictured at the top, is tightened onto the end protruding from the bottom of the tank. This needs to be tightened with the slip nut wrench. It needs to be snug, but not overtightened.

The red plastic piece clamps onto the copper tube of the flush valve approximately in the center and serves as a guide for the tank ball lifting rods. It is best to clamp this on before installing the flush valve. You can always make adjustments later.

The flush valve installed.

The next item to install is the ballcock. It is installed in the smaller opening in the bottom of the tank the same way the flush valve was installed (gasket inside, nut tightened on the outside).

The new ballcock installed.

The new flush lever and hardware.

Completed tank with everything installed. Some final adjustments may be necessary when the toilet is installed in the bathroom.

The bottom of the bowl still had some old wax ring residue on it. This needed to be cleaned off before attempting to fit the bowl to the rough in. Naphtha does an excellent job of getting this residue off.

The bottom of the bowl after the residue was cleaned off. The staining that remained was from the bowl being mounted to an old cast iron flange. This is purely cosmetic and does not need further attention since it will not be visible when the bowl is installed.

A fresh spud gasket is always a must. This one came from a local True Value hardware store, but they should be available at almost any well managed hardware store.

The new gasket is placed on the spud prior to installation, then the spud is re-inserted into the opening in the back of the bowl. For extra protection, a bead of silicone was applied to the inside edge of the spud gasket. Turning the spud around "locks" the keys in place. The washer and nut were placed back on the spud and tightened with the slip nut wrench.

The spud re-installed.

And here's the completed toilet, minus the seat and tank lid.

Top Spud Bowls

Up until now, we have focused on rear spud bowls. Another style of bowl that was popular in the early 1900s is the top spud bowl. Aside from the location of the spud, the main difference is that the trap inside the bowl is in the back instead of the front and the flush tube connecting the tank to the bowl is an offset s-shaped tube (it can also be a vertical tube) instead of a 90 degree ell. Top spud bowls are used where the rough-in is closer to the wall, usually 13-14 inches. Most rear spud bowls require at least a 15 inch rough-in. We ended up having to use a top spud bowl in our second floor bathroom, as the floor joist spacing would not allow us a 15 inch rough-in for a rear spud bowl.

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