New York Times
Published: March 4, 2009

“This article appeared in print nationally on March 5, 2009, on page D2, in the New York edition, of the New York Times and can be found here.

WHEN a refrigerator is damaged or dented, it is easy enough to buy a new one and have the deliverymen deal with the old one. But what do you do when the 800-pound gorilla in your bathroom — the tub — has lost its youthful glow?

You can refinish it, cover it with a custom-fit liner or — the most costly option — kick it to the curb and start over.

There are four common kinds of tub, said Jane Powell, a contributor to Old House Journal and the author of “Bungalow Bathrooms” (Gibbs Smith, 2001), a sourcebook for creating and restoring stylish bathrooms. One is the porcelain-covered cast-iron tub, introduced in the early 1900’s and still made today. The other three, all of which became popular in the late 1960s, are the porcelain-covered pressed-steel tub, the solid acrylic version and the acrylic-coated fiberglass tub.

Buying a tub seems like a fairly quick and inexpensive fix — a new fiberglass one can run as little as $300 or $400 — but installation can be the deal breaker. Not only does it require a plumber to make the connections, Ms. Powell said, but floor and wall tiles often won’t align with the new tub, requiring a tile expert’s services. When all is said and done, buying and installing a tub could cost more than $2,000, she said. And you’d still have that 800-pound gorilla to get rid of.

As a result, many homeowners opt to refinish their tubs, which costs $400 to $500.

“Just about any old bathtub can be refinished to look like new,” said Nathan Oettinger, the owner of the Painted Otter Refinishers ( in Middletown, N.Y.

Mr. Oettinger’s company offers a refinishing process that is relatively common in the industry. It starts with a thorough cleaning, he said. Any deep scratches or pits are filled with a substance similar to an auto-body filler and then sanded smooth. The surface is then etched with a highly diluted acid mixture or a slightly “greener,” less corrosive industrial detergent, he said. The etching opens tiny pores, so that the primer can bond tightly. An acrylic urethane finish, which comes in a variety of colors, is sprayed over that.

It takes about four hours to complete the process, including three coats each of primer and finish, and the tub is ready for use after 24 hours.

Miracle Method Surface Restoration (, a Colorado Springs company with franchises across the country, uses a similar technique, but usually requires only one coat of epoxy primer. The main difference, though, is that a worker returns the next day to make sure that no dust has stuck to the tub during the drying process. “We buff and polish the entire surface to make the tub smooth and shiny,” said Don Dominick, the company’s marketing director.

Another way to make a tub look new is to fit it with a bespoke suit. One company that does this is Re-Bath ( in Tempe, Ariz. Dave Sanders, the president, said that his company makes a quarter-inch-thick polymer cover that encases the tub.

Before this can be done, an installer measures the tub, and the dimensions are sent to the company, which matches them with more than 1,000 tubs in its inventory. “We have virtually every bathtub that has been installed in the United States since 1920,” Mr. Sanders said.

After the cover is manufactured, a process that takes about five days, the installer trims it, fits it in place and injects a liquid caulking solution along the seam where the cover meets the wall; the liquid seeps down into the space and hardens, acting as a glue and sealant. The company also sells polymer tub surrounds that cover the adjacent walls, overlapping the cover. Tub covers come in eight colors and surrounds in 96 color-and-pattern combinations, he said. A cover costs $900 to $1,500, and a surround, $1,500 to $2,500, including installation.