Mike Renovates his Bathroom: Break Open in Case of Renovation

The note I sealed inside my wall, for the next fool who takes on this project.

Greetings, fellow bathroom renovator:

If you’ve found this note, I presume you’re getting started on a project to redo this bathroom. Good luck to you! My name is Michael Duck; my family and I have lived here since 2004, and I’m the one you have to blame (or thank) for the condition of this room. Though I’m guessing it doesn’t look like much to you now, I assure you we were quite happy with the results of our renovations in 2011. May yours be as successful!

To save you some of the surprises and headaches I went through, here are some things you might like to know about what’s going on beneath the surface in this room:

WALLS:

Most of the walls in this room are made of some strange combination of plaster, lath and drywall (wallboard). The only exception is the partition that sets off the shower from the sink area; it’s just drywall. I suspect that partition dates from 1968, the year of the last major renovation before mine.

The wall behind the sink is covered in drywall. In places, that drywall is attached directly to the studs; in others, it covers plaster and lath. Most of that drywall also dates from 1968.

The other walls are mostly plaster-on-lath, though the plaster (most of it dating from the house’s construction in 1916, presumably) has been patched in places — behind the wainscoting, mostly — with pieces of drywall. In many of those places, you’ll still find the old lath underneath.

Also note that the long wall — the one with the towel bars — is not as thick as most other walls in the house. At some point early in the house’s life, that wall was built with the studs placed lengthwise. We suspect that might have been done to maximize the size of the bathroom and the middle bedroom.

I built out some additional structure in the walls to frame in the medicine cabinet over the sink as well as the light/vent fan over the shower. All of the 2011 structure is covered by drywall only, and all of it is held together with screws.

The bolts that support the sink (also installed in 2011) go deep into a thick horizontal beam that dates from a much earlier renovation and that appears to always have supported sinks in that location. Behind the wainscoting in the area of the sink, I built up the face of the beam using plywood to make the surface flush with the drywall.

FLOORING:

The dark gray tile flooring is basically a vinyl tile made using some stone compounds. The tiles are thicker than the standard vinyl tiles from our day, but they cut pretty much like vinyl. The grout between the tiles is the standard kind that could have been used on ceramic tiles.

We did nothing to the subfloor. The dark gray tiles are stuck to the top of the 1968 linoleum flooring, which was in decent shape but was beginning to wear by 2011.

TRIM:

All of the wainscoting and baseboard dates from my renovation in 2011. (The wainscoting replaced a yellow-green tile that had covered the entire lower half of the room since 1968.)

The baseboard is actually made of two horizontal pieces; the top one includes a channel that helps hold the wainscoting to the wall. There’s a similar channel in the top molding (the “chair rail,” so to speak) that also holds the paneling to the walls. All of these — baseboard, shoe molding, wainscoting and chair rail — are made of vinyl and should resist any sort of rot. In addition to nails for the baseboard and chair rail, all of it is held to the wall with “Liquid Nails” construction adhesive. If you need to take it down, expect that most or all of the plaster underneath will come down with it. (I’m sorry!)

The window and door trim are all wood and probably date from the 1968 renovation. Be careful if you’re tearing apart the door trim: It contains an electrical wire I put there during my renovation.

SHOWER ENCLOSURE

The tub seems to date from the 1968 renovation, but the shower walls are from 2011. The enclosure is a single-piece plastic wall that we had professionally installed by a company called “Bath Fitter.” As long as the shower wall doesn’t develop cracks (we were promised that it wouldn’t), the only seam you’ll need to watch is the line of caulk where the bottom of the shower wall meets the tub.

Also note that the shower wall flexes in some places — this probably doesn’t indicate a structural problem in the wall. The enclosure was put up over the old tile and plaster and plywood, after our installer verified that the studs and the wall structure were sound. The installer then used strips of foam tape to hold the 2011 enclosure out from the old surface. If you find areas that flex, you’ve probably found some of the spots between the horizontal strips of tape.

PLUMBING

All of the plumbing — including the sink, the toilet, the sink and toilet supply valves, the shower and its controls, and the tub drain — were all replaced as part of our 2011 renovation. We didn’t touch any plumbing below the floor, though.

Most of the plumbing for the sink and toilet is easily accessible, but be careful if you’re replacing the toilet: The toilet’s standpipe is 14 inches from the wall, which is greater than the standard distance. At the same time, the toilet bowl is unusually close to the door. (We’re not sure what accounts for these odd measurements; they seem to predate the 1968 renovations and probably date from the first installation of the house’s cast-iron waste pipes.) Before you throw away the old toilet, you might want to install the new one and make sure you can still close the door. We nearly learned this the hard way soon after we moved in.

Much of the plumbing for the bathtub is accessible through the access panel that’s outlined in thin molding to the left of the sink. To open it:

  • Take off the shoe molding for that wall (it’s nailed, not glued). Do not remove the baseboard — that section of baseboard is attached to the panel, so that it will all come off in one piece.
  • The edge of the panel is on the inside of the rectangle formed by the molding — i.e., the outline molding is on the wall, not on the panel. The gap around the edge of the panel is caulked; it should give way very easily when you run a knife along the seam. Look also for where the caulked seam cuts through the baseboard.
  • The panel is held on with four screws. The screw holes’ location should be obvious, but you’ll need to dig out the caulk to be able to get a screwdriver in there.

ELECTRICAL

All of the functioning electrical features in the room date from my 2011 renovation. Three independent circuits come into the room using wires direct from the basement: One powers all the receptacles (outlets) in the room, including those in the cabinet above the toilet and those by the sink; a second powers the heated towel bars as well as the outlet in the hallway (all of this is a branch of the middle bedroom circuit); a third powers the lights and fan (a branch of the attic lighting circuit). The fan/lighting circuit uses 14-gauge wire, while the other two use 12-gauge. All have ground fault circuit interrupters; the GFCI for the lighting circuit is in the basement.

The heated towel bars I installed operate using electrical resistance heat. The timer that turns them on and off could easily be replaced by any other kind of switch.

To give you a clue on where those wires are, I’ve drawn their rough location on copies of diagrams I made at the start of my renovations. (More on those in a moment.)

The walls also contain evidence of other decades’ electrical work. Previously, the 1968 electrical work had been branched off of the house’s original “knob and tube” wiring in the wall behind the toilet. I removed all of the 1968 wiring and terminated the “knob and tube” wiring in electrical boxes. The design of “knob and tube” wiring meant that the hot and neutral wires were attached separately and were not in a single cable — in this case, that means you’ll find the neutral wire terminating in the box inside the cabinet over the toilet (it is not connected to the receptacles in that box, or to anything else for that matter); the corresponding hot wire from that circuit terminates in a box in the back wall of the skinny closet in the attic, directly above the bathroom. (I couldn’t entirely remove the “knob and tube” circuit because in 2011 that circuit still powered most of this house’s overhead lights.)

To remove the cabinet above the toilet, you’ll first have to disassemble the built-in electrical receptacles: Take out the faceplate, the receptacles, and the “box extender” (which makes the electrical box flush with the inside of the cabinet). Then remove the screw in the middle of the cabinet’s horizontal brace (it’s covered by a plastic cap), and at that point, you should be able to lift the cabinet right off the wall — at the top, it hangs from a French cleat and no other fasteners.

I hope that some of this proves useful to you; I already feel a sort of kinship, knowing the challenges (and possibly terrors) you’re about to face. But even if all of this proves to be no use at all, I hope it might mean something to you or to your family — a letter from someone who made this house his own before it became your home.

I’m also not sure how much use you’ll get out of my diagrams. The parts that are labeled with measurements are pretty much to scale (one inch represents one foot), but consider all the measurements to be approximate, because they were taken before we installed the new flooring, the wainscoting, and so on. As for the wire locations, I simply sketched them on, to give you the rough scheme of the wiring but none of the measurements.

I’m afraid those drawings might turn out to be functionally pointless, but I hope they stand up as a kind of folk art — from an era when pretty much all design was being done on computers, but when some of us could still remember how it used to be done using pencils and T-squares.

Best of luck to you. May your renovation take a lot less time than mine did, and may it last twice as long!

Sincerely,

Michael Duck



Article © 2011 by Michael Duck