Saving an Antique Sink from a Local Landmark
Updated: Sep 1, 2020
TL:DR There's no one "right way" to restore an antique sink. And no matter which way you choose, it's more time consuming than it looks. Fix only what you have to and live with the little imperfections to pay homage to its history, or pay a professional to refinish it.
Lincoln Market, a little cornerstone a couple blocks from our Denver Square, was a favorite place to grab forgotten items on short notice: my mom's beloved Diet Coke, an onion for a weeknight batch of mac and cheese, or a gallon of milk.
According to a community conversation on Facebook, the building was originally constructed in 1922 and operated as a Piggly Wiggly store. It turned into Lincoln Cut-Rate Market in the 1940’s. At that time, it was owned by Hyman Fingerish (shown in the center back in the photo below).
Unfortunately due to a variety of factors -- gentrification, COVID, rising commercial rent costs, and a missed payment, to name a few -- Lincoln Market, managed by Mr. Teferi, shuttered its doors in March.
While it was a great convenience for us over the last 12 years, some of our friends and neighbors who've been in their homes for the last half a century (and who don't drive!) are much more impacted by its loss. I'm hopeful that the new tenant can provide a vital service in our neighborhood, while working with nearby businesses like the Whittier Cafe, to become an active member of our community.
Salvaged Sink with Potential or Problems?
Fast forward a couple of months and the building has been pretty well gutted. When the building's owner posted that the Market's utility sink was up for grabs, I knew I couldn't pass up the chance to salvage a piece of history and give it another life.
My first question was how old was it? Was it original to the building? The faucet looked original and it was rusted in place, but it lacked any identifying markings and had to be cut / strong-armed off with several wrenches and vice grips.
And unlike most Kohler or American Standard sinks, which have a year printed on the bottom, this Crane sink didn't have an easily identifiable date. Thankfully, the guys over at DEA Bath helped me decipher Crane's date format in the lower left: 256 = February 1956. All the outside needed was a couple coats of alkyd paint to look great.
Unfortunately, the inside of the basin was a completely different story. The original Facebook photo makes it appear that only a little cleanup was needed, upon further inspection, the porcelain needed A LOT of work.
After four rounds of scrubbing with Bar Keeper's Friend and one round with CLR (be careful not to etch the sink!), most of the grime came off, but it also uncovered lots of dried on paint and some major porcelain damage on the rim and in the basin.
Rubbing alcohol and several hours of scrubbing with an old cloth diaper took off most of the dried on latex paint. It also took off some of the alkyd paint accidentally so remember to keep the alcohol away from your newly painted exterior surface!
But I was at a loss as to how to fix the porcelain.
I discovered some touch-up products at Ace that would cover the chips, but couldn't be used on the deep gouges. Other spray-on refinishing products (DIY kits or from local "refinishing" companies) could completely repaint / regloss the sink, but the new epoxy needed to be used all over, needed to be babied in the after-care, and would cover up the great original finish on the backwall of the sink.
I also considered having the sink re-enameled to bring it back to its full glory, but there's only one business in Chicago that truly re-enamels cast iron...and it has a three year waiting list.
Fill, Sand, Fill, Sand, Fill, Sand -- Sensing a Theme?
I finally settled on Fill-a-Fix to fill the gouges and Porc-a-Fix to cover the chips because they had an "exact" match for Crane's white porcelain, CA-31.
While the instructions made it seem like only a coat or two would be necessary, it took 7 coats of Fill-a-Fix with sanding using several large sheets (not just the little square they give you in the box) of garnet paper in between. The hardest part was layering the filler and sanding in a way that feathered out the filler over the gouge and maintained the slope of the sink, without accidentally sanding too hard and causing the filler to crumble.
I felt really great going into the final painting stage with Porc-a-Fix. I covered all of the chips, gouges and rust spots with the touch-up paint.
Much to my disappointment, as the paint dried I realized that the color DID NOT match. The paint had more gloss than the finish of the antique sink and even sanding with the 60 grit paper and buffing didn't take out the sheen.
I ultimately opted instead to sand off the entire paint and filler finish on the chips (as the chips looked better to me than the mismatched paint) and only paint what was absolutely necessary -- the filler covering the large, rusted gouges. I feel like this gives it a bit of character, and hopefully, due to their location on the edge of the sink, these areas are unlikely to rust.
I still have a bit more sanding to do to remove the tiny paint specs, but I'm taking a break while I wait for the arrival of our 8" wall-mounted bridge faucet. I hope to share photos of the sink installed in our kids' bathroom in a few weeks. Installation will involve moving some electrical and some serious blocking to accommodate a 6lb cast iron bracket and 60+lb of sink.
I set out to do this project as both market research on the level of effort necessary to restore a sink in this much disrepair (10+ hours over two weeks with underwhelming results), and as a way to keep Lincoln Market's story going.
I'm not sure that I will ever willingly restore a sink again myself, but here's to hoping the story of our local market can stay alive in our house for my family and the next.
Update: Check out the sink's installation here!
Looking for an antique farmhouse sink for your own house remodel? Contact Denver Squared and we'll help you find one that has a great story and is in a bit better shape.