(Updated June 10, 2014 – originally published December 2012)
Nothing says ‘country decor’ more than a vintage cast iron sink. Except maybe a log cabin. Or a big pick-up truck. But nothing says ‘botulism’ or some other sort of nasty bacterial infection more than a vintage cast iron sink that’s been scratched and chipped and generally uncared for to the point where you couldn’t get it clean except with something toxic.
When we moved into our little cabin in the woods, it came with a vintage but less than pristine sink that had been ‘refinished’ with one of those paint on do-it-yourself kits a number of years previous. The paint had started to peel and over 3 years of daily use, it didn’t exactly get better. So while we were building an addition to the cabin, and it was warm enough out that we could open the windows to let the smell of aircraft paint out, the timing was perfect to get it refinished.
As usual, I did a whole bunch of research before we decided on a plan of attack. In the process, I discovered that you’ve really only got three options to repair a vintage cast iron sink that’s seen better days:
- Remove it and have it re-enameled professionally. Pro: you get a high quality, baked on finish that will last and won’t chip under normal use. Cons: You’re without your sink for days to weeks, plus you have to have a company local that does this sort work – you don’t want to be shipping a cast iron sink.
- Buy one of those paint-on kits and do it yourself. Pro: inexpensive and your sink stays in place. Cons: It’s really difficult to get a smooth finish, you have to prep the surface well beforehand, and the paint will scratch and peel relatively easily.
- Replace it with new. Pro: You get a brand new sink. Cons: Sinks that reflect the same sort of look as a vintage cast iron sink run from $600 and up (based on the research I did at the time). Even a professionally re-enameled sink starts at about $400 and up, depending on the style. Ones like ours with a built-in drainboard started at about $650 for a restored vintage version.
- Hire a professional to refinish it in place with quality materials. Pro: Your sink stays in place (you can use it after about 3 or 4 hours), it costs less than purchasing a similar sink new or refinished, and the finish is of higher quality than the DIY kits.
We decided on #4. And am I ever glad we did…
Now, trying to find a sink and tub refinisher in a small town isn’t exactly an easy feat, but we lucked out and found a refinishing pro right here in our little town. He showed up one Friday morning with all his gear in tow and after about 3 hours and a lot of masking tape, the sink turned out almost like new.
The trick now is how to keep it that way.
- Get something to protect the bottom of the sink – A silicon mat will work, or do what we did and order these polyethylene dish washing/rinsing bins from Ikea. Depending on the size and style of your sink, they can work brilliantly to protect your sink surface and save water at the same time. Plus they look nicer than the ones you can buy at the drug store (I did that for awhile – these look much nicer). Note on these: They look great, but they don’t last very long before they crack. I’m on my 4th set. Tip to make them last longer: never lift them out of the sink with dishes inside!
- Keep sharp utensils from roughly hitting the surface – A silicone mat will help with this, but the plastic bins work better. I’ve already taken a chip out of the finish by letting a knife fall hard into the sink.
- Watch the water temperature – If your hot water temperature is excessively hot like ours, you’ll want to make note: it was advised that we start filling the sink with warm water first and gradually increase the hot, or use bins (which is what we ended up doing). Like glass or other surfaces, the new painted surface of a refinished cast iron sink can be ‘shocked’ and develop hairline cracks if really hot water is poured suddenly into a cold sink, or vice versa. And hairline cracks are just the beginning stage of peeling.
- Wash the sink with a soft brush and plain dish soap – Don’t use anything abrasive or caustic or you’ll damage the surface. If you make sure to rinse the sink out and give it a little scrub with soap and water regularly, it won’t stain and you won’t need abrasives.
And that’s about it! With a bit of forethought and a lot of care, you can have essentially a brand new sink for much less than new. And you get to keep that fabulous vintage look in your rural home.
Sink Update: June 2014
So it’s been a year and a half since we had the sink refinished. How’s it holding up, you ask? Well, it still looks pretty good, though it’s no longer pristine. We’ve had a few chips caused by dropping utensils on the surface, or a fork slipping under the rinsing tubs and scratching the surface. Plus it stains, and I’ve had to bleach it a handful of times. The verdict: While it was less expensive than buying a new sink, or having it professionally enameled (by removing it and sending it away for a baked on finish), I’m not sure I’d go this route again for a kitchen sink. Long term, I think it would be less costly, and well worth taking it to a professional refinisher and having it baked on.
Do you have any other tips to share on caring for a cast iron sink? If so, let us know in the comments below!