Old Homes, Old Toilets: Restoring the Porcelain God
Toilets are something many people take for granted. Toilets of one shape or another have been around for millennia, such that even credit for the modern flush toilet is obscure. Many either give credit to Thomas Crapper (1837-1910) or Alexander Cumming, who patented a flushing device in 1775. Toilets do matter to a lot of people though. For, example, did you know that November 19 is World Toilet Day? And historic home lovers can be very put off by the existence of a modern toilet replacement in an otherwise, period-perfect vintage bathroom…I recently restored the 1900’s John Douglas toilet in my master bathroom.
My basic premise for any toilet restoration is that as long as the porcelain tank and bowl are not cracked, or there are no significant chips and no sections missing, it can be restored.
These photos illustrate the process of the toilet rebuilding. The tank and lid are original to my house. The underneath flush handle I happened upon in a house salvage sale on Eastern Avenue for $5 and the bowl I found at Building Value in the neighborhood of Northside for $15. The flush valve, the horn gasket that goes in the bowl, and the 2” “eel” tube is from Noel’s Plumbing Supply, Inc. The fill valve is your typical Fluidmaster (easy to find just about anywhere).
As shown in the photos the old horn on the bowl and the flush valve had nuts that were completely frozen where they have been for likely the last century. Both of the nuts were cut off using a Dremel rotary tool and a cut of disk. Here’s a tip: using a Dremel poses less risk of damaging the porcelain than attempting to strong arm it with a large wrench.
This era of toilet has the tank independently hung from the wall with leg bolts; the fill valve is installed the same way as it is on a modern toilet. Many toilets of this era, especially John Douglas toilets, have a ½” hole in the tank for the fill valve instead of the typical 7/8” that is the modern standard. This tank had already had the hole ground out to make it larger but there are other ways to work around this issue that can be done, like having the bottom of the fill value actually inside the tank and the shortest adjustment connected to an adaptor to go through the ½ hole.
The flush valve is installed with a gasket that is tightened with a nut below the tank. The horn that goes in the bowl is a gasket that expands to make it watertight by tightening down the nut of the horn. The bowl is seated on the wax ring and flange the same way a modern toilet is. There is an extra set of holes for the floor bolts, which is pretty common on older bowls. The extra set of bolts is unnecessary and I have found it easier to just have the bolts unattached to the floor and in place just to keep the caps in place.
The 2” “eel” tube is what connects the flush valve or the tank to the horn on the bowl. That connection utilizes a nut and rubber ring gasket to seal both of those connections.
And voila! There is no real reason to be intimidated by a vintage toilet. The two biggest obstacles, I think, are not understanding how a flush toilet works and not knowing where to find the replacement parts. Once you know that, the restoration is just a couple of flushes along the way to a fully restored vintage bathroom in the historic home of your dreams.