In pride of place in the East Devon house of Anthony Blake and Kyle Hayes, winners of the 2000 Daily Telegraph/Homebuilding and Renovating Awards, are six WC pedestals for which they paid just £30 – £5 each and a double drainer stainless sink which they picked up for 50p in an auction.
They did not manage to find an old cast iron bath but Rob and Rowena Tavendale did. It has a rolltop and lovely cast claw feet and came from a friends back garden. It now serves the entire family, while the Belfast sink they managed to find in the garden of their recently restored 17th century thatched cottage near Cambridge is serving them well in the kitchen.
At the other extreme you can pay up to £14,000 for a fully-restored 19th century marble French bath from one of the expensive dealers in London. “If you cast your eye over the small ads or look around reclamation yards, you should be able to get hold of an old square-ended cast iron bath unrestored for £30 or so,” says Thornton Kay, salvage guru and founder of Salvo, the national network for reclaimed materials. “Bathtubs like this are much sturdier and heat-retentive and more durable than pressed steel and plastic,” he says. “They are also eco-friendly because they can be resurfaced.”
An alternative is fireclay, although baths of this material are rarer and you are less likely to find one in a reclamation yard as they need a forklift to move them and are frequently too heavy to go in many houses.
Many self-builders shy away from buying old appliances like this because they fear that fitting them will cause problems. However, this need not be the case. With metrication the half inch pipe has become 15mm and the three quarter inch 22mm but the thread is still BSP British Standard Pipe which means that most plumbers will encounter little difficulty.
When it comes to taps, however, it can be tricky finding exactly what you want. The advice of Thornton Kay is to steer off all but the better reproduction ones. Simon Kirby of Thomas Crapper and Company, who has made a study of the subject over many years and supplies reclaimed baths, lavatory pedestals and washbasins as well as reproduction sanitaryware says: “Unrestored taps can be bought at salvage yards but it is not easy or cheap to have them refurbished. This is why so many people go for inappropriate reproduction styles that in fact are often just the basic shape of a 1930-1950s style of tap with the dome removed. If you opt for refurbished taps be sure they have been fully re-engineered and pressure-tested and come with a guarantee. Only buy from someone who has properly restored them.”
Be careful too with washbasins. They get more attention than other bathroom fittings because when washing your hands or face you see a great deal of them. So be careful of old mud-spattered finds, which can be a disappointment when you get home and clean them up. Generally speaking cracks, chips, crazing and stains are there to stay.
The best bet may be to buy a modern reproduction one but beware, some ranges are produced more for the convenience of the production methods rather than true authenticity. These are fairly easy to spot because they are basically modern basins with ornate soap dishes stuck on them and upstands at the rear that are half the height and twice the thickness of those on the originals.
The same applies to so-called reproduction WC pedestals, many of which are simply modern products with some fancy clay moulding round the base. However not everyone can afford £3,000 for a genuine ornate turn of the century model with a raised relief pattern in clay and covered in floral transfers!
High level cisterns are also available, both as reproduction items and reclaimed. Expect to pay £550 for a high quality reproduction cistern, but you can get a reclaimed cast iron high level model for around £400. At Thomas Crapper they do both.
“Loos and cisterns really are a minefield,” says Simon Kirby. The main thing to avoid is close coupling an expensive antique or reproduction WC pan with a modern cistern. All the old WCs, whether high or low level, had a visible pipe between. My usual advice is to buy the cistern and the pan from the same source because although many pans and cisterns are totally interchangeable, others are not and if you buy incompatible items you could end up with a loo pan that performs like a bidet!”