By Ann Robinson and Annie Vernon

Last week, we discussed replacing your bathtub — a rather daunting process. In our effort to consider ways to update your bathroom without a complete remodel, today we will discuss refinishing an existing tub.

For years, bathtubs were made of steel with a vitreous china coating. This is a very hard, smooth surface that stands up to wear and tear for years. If it has had the proper care, this type of tub may still look and function well in your home. The care part is the catch, however, for many tubs have either been neglected or cleaned to death over the years.

The traditional coating on tubs is hard but not impervious. Stains are not uncommon, and they become more stubborn as time passes. Water and metal — both present in tubs — combine to make rust, which finds a convenient home on your tub’s surface. In cases of extreme neglect, mold and mildew can also take up residence.

Bathtubs can be refinished with ease

Tubs are not the only fixtures that can be refinished. An acrylic coating brings new life to this sink.

The key to eliminating these problems is proper and regular cleaning and maintenance. If you buy a house that has not had this sort of history, you may inherit a nasty situation. With the plethora of cleaning products available today, stains and mold can be banished, but sometimes at the cost of the bathtub’s finish. This is like winning the battle but losing the war. Once the finish on the bathtub has been removed, it becomes rough, uncomfortable and ready to absorb easily more stains.

Because of the expense and difficulty of replacing the whole tub, industries have evolved to provide a new surface on an existing tub (or shower or tub surround). No demolition is required, so these methods are quicker, cleaner and less expensive than a total remodel. Two main options are available:
Tub liners,

which are pieces of PVC plastic or acrylic that are molded to the shape of your tub and glued in place. This material is manufactured such that it claims never to fade, rust, mildew, chip or peel.

An installer will come to your home to measure your tub, and a factory uses these measurements to fabricate a custom liner that can be installed in one day. To avoid issues of mold and mildew, it is critical that no water is left between the original tub and the liner, and that none ever leaks in.

Because of the added thickness of the liner, an extension of the drain and overflow may be required. Work in this area is critical because of the potential for water to leak under the liner. Obviously, if the liner is not matched exactly to the existing tub, cracks may appear where it is allowed to flex. Liners are difficult to remove or replace due to the fact they are so securely glued down in the first place.
Tub refinishing,

which can be done with a do-it-yourself kit or by a professional company. While the kit approach may work on a limited repair, it seems challenging to take on a whole tub on your own, so consider hiring a professional.

Some companies will begin with an acid wash of your existing tub to prepare the surface to accept the new material, while other processes are acid-free. Any form of acid must be used with care; its corrosive nature can harm people, surrounding floors and piping if not used correctly.

An acrylic coating is applied over the existing surface. The key to success is getting the new finish to stick to the old. The coating is applied with a fine spray compressor in either a gloss or matte finish, which dries to the touch within minutes, and the tub is ready for use within 24 hours.

Liners generally cost more than refinishing: $650 to $1,000 for liners vs. $475 to $600 for refinishing.

Neither solution results in the hardness of the original porcelain or ceramic finish, so cleaning products and methods must be carefully monitored to preserve the new coating.

Though not as ideal as replacing a tub altogether, these solutions can remove an eyesore from your home, change the color of an existing tub and generally update your bath without the disruption to your home and wallet that results from a complete tub replacement. As always, we welcome your home architect design questions at

Bathtubs can be refinished with ease