Upgrading a Victorian era bathtub can be a daunting task, but with some creativity and elbow grease, it can be transformed into a beautiful centerpiece for your bathroom. In this article, we’ll walk through the process of revitalizing an old cast iron or porcelain tub to give it new life. From choosing the right materials to techniques for cleaning and restoring the original fixtures, we’ll cover everything you need to know to complete a Victorian tub makeover. With the right approach, you can have the charming antique aesthetic with the comfort and convenience of a modern bath.

Assessing the Original Tub

Before beginning a restoration project, take time to thoroughly examine the existing tub. Check for any cracks, chips, or other damage that may need to be repaired. If the finish is worn down to the bare metal, the tub may need to be re-enameled or reglazzed to renew the surface. This involves cleaning and resurfacing the tub with a fresh coat of porcelain enamel. Carefully test the drain and overflow to ensure they are in working order. Also, inspect the feet or supports attached to the bottom of the tub. Leveling issues here can cause the tub to rock once filled with water.

Choosing New Plumbing Fixtures

While restoring the tub itself, take the opportunity to update the faucets, handles, and spout. Look for vintage styled fixtures that complement the antique tub but provide modern performance and convenience. Many companies now offer classically designed faucets with sought after features like hand showers, diverters, and thermostatic valves. Period appropriate feet, claws, or decorative trim can also be added to enhance the Victorian aesthetic. Choose finishes like brushed nickel or oil rubbed bronze that withstand moisture and bring a timeless elegance.

Cleaning and Surface Prep

Once you’ve addressed any structural or plumbing issues, start by deep cleaning the tub’s interior and exterior surfaces. For porcelain tubs, use a mild abrasive cleaner or baking soda paste and scrub gently with a soft cloth. Avoid harsh chemicals or abrasives that could damage the finish. Rinse thoroughly. For metal tubs, remove grime and rust buildup with a tub and tile cleaner or rust remover, using extra caution when scrubbing delicate areas. Mask off any nearby surfaces you don’t want to get wet. Always check product instructions carefully before applying to vintage materials.

Reglazing and Refinishing Options

If the original tub surface is too far gone, you’ll need to have it professionally reglazzed or refinished. Reglazing involves spraying on a thin coating of new porcelain enamel. This allows keeping the original tub but requires that it is structurally sound. Refinishing entails stripping down the existing coating and layering on a liquid acrylic or epoxy finish. This can repair some small damages but gives a less durable result than reglazing. Both options take special equipment and training to get an even, streak-free finish.

DIY Touch Up Techniques

For minor scratches and chips in otherwise salvageable porcelain, some homeowners opt to try DIY touch up repairs. After thorough cleaning, use a porcelain repair kit to fill small voids with coloring paste, smoothing the area to blend with the surrounding tub surface. Touch ups won’t withstand heavy use or last as long as a full restoration, but can help extend the life of a tub between professional servicing. Always follow kit directions closely.

Re-enameling Cast Iron Tubs

Re-enameling can restore even very worn cast iron tubs at a fraction of replacement cost. This involves removing the old coating completely by sanding or using paint stripper. The exposed iron is then sprayed or brushed with colored porcelain enamel formulated to adhere to metal. Multiple thin coats are applied, with extensive drying and curing time in between. The process requires practice and care to avoid runs or uneven coverage. Hiring a professional is recommended, but DIY kits are available.

Sealing and Caulking

Once cleaning and resurfacing steps are complete, seal any tiny gaps around the tub perimeter with a flexible caulk designed for wet areas. Look for a sealant that matches your desired aesthetic – classic white, vintage pink, glossy black, etc. Apply in a smooth, consistent bead then use a dampened finger or caulk tool to shape. Finally, protect your work by applying a tub and tile sealer. Follow the manufacturer’s directions to ensure maximum durability.

Tub Installation Considerations

Assessing Access Routes

Getting a bulky, heavy Victorian tub into place can be tricky in modern bathrooms. Carefully measure doorways, hallways, and the bathroom itself to decide the best route. Victorian tubs often weigh over 100 pounds, so you may need to open walls or remove windows to create a wide enough access path. If the bathroom is upstairs, determine how you will safely maneuver the tub up the staircase. A large crew may be needed to transport an antique tub without damage.

Preparing a Platform

Victorian tubs were designed to sit upon a platform that elevates and supports the heavy weight. Build a new wooden platform to the precise dimensions of your tub. A ledger board attached to the wall studs will add stability. The front can be left open or enclosed with decorative skirting. Waterproof the platform well before setting the tub to prevent leaks or mold growth. Leave access to the drain and plumbing for hook up.

Plumbing Logistics

Connect supply lines to the tub valve then direct the drain line into the home’s waste plumbing system according to local code. Most Victorian tubs have an overflow drain in addition to the main tub drain, so make sure to connect both properly. Flush the lines thoroughly and check all fittings for leaks before finishing the installation. Having access below floor level makes this easier. If lift-and-shift installation is required, perform plumbing after setting tub.

Securing and Sealing

Use a flexible adhesive sealant around the base of the tub where it meets the platform. This helps minimize movement and prevents moisture traveling under the tub. Avoid rigid mortar, which doesn’t allow the necessary slight shifting as weight is added. Add tub support feet or rugged corner brackets at stress points for extra stability if needed. Caulk around fixtures and perimeter edges with a tub and tile caulk.

Safety Considerations

Since antique tubs are raised off the floor, falls are a potential hazard, especially for children and seniors. Install grab bars and non-slip striplike appliques on the tub floor for added security. Ensure the room is well lit. Place a rubber bath mat outside the tub for traction getting in and out. Take extra precautions if your restoration has limitations that impact safety, like an unfinished rim or lack of grab bars.

Bathroom Design for a Victorian Tub

Selecting Surrounding Materials

The materials you choose for the walls, floors, and accents will contribute enormously to the overall Victorian vibe. Subway tile, hexagon tile, or penny tile in white or black and white fits the time period. Decorative wallpaper borders and chair rail molding add lovely accent touches. Clawfoot tubs pair beautifully with hardwood floors, though tile may be a more practical option in wet areas. Research design trends from the Victorian era for inspiration on materials and patterns that will complement the vintage tub style.

Lighting and Hardware

Antique-style lighting like a crystal chandelier or sconces with candle-style bulbs creates a classically elegant mood. Add drama with wall-mounted fixtures to cast light directly onto the tub. Gothic style drapery rods, curtain tie backs, and hardware like scrolled feet and lever style handles help tie the whole room together. Keep lines and finishes streamlined for a sleek, modernized Victorian look. Oil-rubbed bronze and polished chrome pair well with both traditional and contemporary surroundings.

Plumbing and Storage Solutions

Keep exposed pipes and plumbing to a minimum to maintain an elegant aesthetic. Custom built cabinetry can conceal necessary evils like the toilet tank. Install storage cabinets, organizers, and vintage shelving for towels and toiletries. Keep the visual clutter of modern bath accessories in check. Frame a mirror above the sink or hang a full length mirror on the wall to reflect light and accentuate the tub as the focal feature of the space.

Color Palette Options

Soft, refined color palettes keep the mood serene and soothing. Stick to a monochromatic scheme or pull in one or two accent colors like sage green, robin’s egg blue, or soft peach. White, cream, and gray give a fresh, airy feel. For more dramatic contrast, try bold black accents against crisp white. Metallic finishes like brass also fit the Victorian mold. Remember to carry your color selections throughout for a cohesive, curated look.

Tub Maintenance

Follow Manufacturer Instructions

Always follow the manufacturer’s use and care guidelines for your particular tub. Vintage tubs often require more careful maintenance than modern acrylic models. Use caution with harsh cleaners, abrasives, or rough scrubbing. Test products first on an inconspicuous spot to check for any damage to the finish. Avoid exposing reglazzed, refinished or antique surfaces to extreme heat, strong chemicals, or other risks.

Gently Clean after Each Use

Get in the habit of wiping down your Victorian tub with a soft, non-abrasive cloth and mild cleaner after each use. This prevents buildup of soap scum, oils, and dirt that can damage the finish over time. For porcelain surfaces, baking soda and water often does the trick for routine cleaning. Rinse and dry completely to discourage mildew growth. Avoid leaving standing water.

Address Stains Promptly

Don’t ignore minor stains – deal with them promptly to prevent permanent discoloration or etching of the surface. Apply a non-abrasive cleaner formulated for porcelain tubs, allow time to work, and wipe clean. For stubborn mineral deposits at the tub’s water line, fill the tub and add white vinegar – the acetic acid will help dissolve limescale buildup overnight. Drain and rinse well in the morning.

Touch Up Chips Immediately

Inspect frequently for any chips or cracks in a restored porcelain finish, which allow moisture underneath leading to more damage. As soon as a flaw appears, clean and dry the area thoroughly then use colored porcelain repair paste to fill and blend the spot. This prevents additional chipping and maintains a protective seal against water entry. Follow kit directions closely for successful touch ups.

Re-seal Yearly

Reapply a quality tub and tile sealant at least annually or per the product specifications to protect your investment. Thoroughly clean and dry the surface then apply the sealer with a sponge or applicator. Maintain ventilation and allow proper drying time before use. Re-sealing helps preserve a refinished or antique tub by keeping out daily wear and tear that can degrade the finish.

Tub History and Fun Facts

Early Copper Bathing Vessels

The earliest bathtubs date back to 3,000 B.C. where copper vessels from the Indus Valley civilization were used for bathing. Elite ancient Greeks and Romans also enjoyed bathing in large, ornate public facilities, setting the stage for bathing culture. But daily full-body bathing did not become common practice until around the mid-1800s.

The Rise of Clawfoot Tubs

By the late 1800s, bathing became a common domestic practice, aided by the invention of indoor plumbing. This gave rise to the iconic clawfoot tub with its exposed pipes and feet. The first models were heavy cast iron or steel tubs with porcelain enamel finishes. Eventually lighter acrylic, fiberglass, and other modern materials appeared but could not match the elegance of original tubs.

Bathing Rituals Through the Ages

Bathing has held deep cultural and even spiritual significance across many ancient cultures. Japanese soaking tubs, Russian banya steam baths, and Roman bath complexes all exemplify the social and healing roles bathing has played. In Victorian times, attention to bathing and grooming rituals was important for health and hygiene. Plumbing advancements helped popularize the daily bath.

Famous and Novelty Tub Designs

Clawfoot tubs inspired novel variations like the slipper tub with one rounded and one flat end to fit in tight spaces. Thomas Maddock introduced a streamlined built-in tub with patterned enameling in the late 1800s. Famed industrial designers also left their mark on tub design, like Raymond Loewy’s colorful 1956 Aquarama tub made of fiberglass.

Bathrooms as Living Spaces

Today’s spa-like master bath retreats have come a long way thanks to early luxury designers. Turn of the century innovators like J.P. Gaynor pioneered built-in cabinetry and more integrated, livable bathrooms. They moved beyond just utilitarian fixtures to elegant, harmonious spaces for rejuvenation and self-care. The Victorian tub is a charming reminder of when bathrooms truly became rooms for living.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the main benefits of restoring an antique tub?

The main benefits are the vintage, antique aesthetic and craftsmanship that can’t be replicated with modern tubs. Restoring an original allows preserving a piece of history. The lengthy durability and allure of materials like cast iron and porcelain also can’t be matched by newer acrylic and fiberglass tubs.

Is DIY re-enameling or reglazing possible for beginners?

DIY kits are available but achieving professional-grade results as a beginner is extremely difficult, requiring significant skill. The process is labor-intensive and mistakes can lead to uneven finishes, drips, or damage to the original tub. Hiring a professional is highly recommended unless you have expertise working with specialized glazing materials.

How much does it cost to restore a Victorian tub?

Costs vary widely based on needed repairs and chosen approach. Simple surface refinishing can run $200-$800 but more intensive reglazing averages $1000-$3000. Plumbing upgrades and bathroom remodeling add more. Replacement costs can reach $5,000 or beyond. Evaluating repair vs replacement value is recommended before making major investments.

What should I look out for when purchasing a vintage tub?

Inspect thoroughly for cracks, chips, rust, rot, or other damage. Check that the feet or legs are sturdy and capable of properly supporting a full tub. Make sure plumbing connections are in working order or have potential to be adapted. Review what type of installation it requires. Know if you’ll need to re-finish or re-enamel prior to use.

How much weight can a Victorian tub hold?

Antique cast iron tubs can hold 500-700 pounds when properly installed and supported. However, most manufacturers recommend limiting total weight to 200 pounds or less to avoid excessive strain and damage over years of use. Porcelain tubs have a lower weight tolerance around 100-200 pounds. Always follow manufacturer guidelines.


Restoring a Victorian era tub requires time, skill, and commitment to preserving a piece of history. But for those seeking the allure of decades past with modern functionality, a vintage tub refurb can be well worth the investment. By starting with a quality antique tub, assessing its soundness, and choosing a restoration approach that suits your skill level, you can have a bathtub showpiece others will envy. Always respect the delicacy of original antique fixtures and reach out to professionals when needed. With the right approach, you can relax and unwind surrounded by Victorian era charm.