When a bathtub has seen better days, there are several approaches you can take. The best option is to replace the tub, but this is both complicated and pricey. While a very basic 5-foot enameled steel tub might cost less than $150, when you add the cost of a contractor, demolition, removal, landfill fees, tilers, and a plumber, the total cost of the job skyrockets. And bathtub replacement is one of the more complicated DIY projects—so complicated that most people are well-advised not to tackle it.
Another option is to reline the tub with an acrylic liner, but this, too, can be a pricey option. Lining a tub costs nearly as much as bathtub replacement, and it is not a project homeowners can tackle themselves.
The third option—refinishing the tub's surface—is the least expensive approach and the only one that DIYers can readily tackle. Refinishing essentially involves painting on a very hard epoxy coating over the existing enamel, acrylic, or fiberglass tub surface. There are professional services that specialize in this kind of refinishing, but there are also DIY kits that produce fairly good results. You can buy DIY kits that include epoxy resin with hardener, etching powder, latex gloves, steel wool, brush, cleaning solution, cleaner/thinner, and safety goggles. The epoxy coating comes in white but it can be tinted (tint not included).
Before You Begin
Whether you have your tub refinished by professionals or recoat it yourself, all the work is done on-site. Surrounding materials, including tile, flooring, and all of the other elements, are masked off and left in place as the resin coating is applied. This is one of the main benefits of refinishing, and while it does not provide the same like-new results as installing a new tub or liner, refinishing can be a good choice as stop-gap measure, or for a bathroom that doesn't see everyday use.
Be aware, however, that DIY refinishing kits do not produce the same results as refinishing jobs performed by professionals, nor is a DIY job likely to be as long-lasting. The key to a good DIY result is very thorough cleaning and preparation of the surfaces, and following the manufacturer's instructions exactly. To protect the finish, do not clean a recoated tub with any abrasive cleaners.
Modern bathtub refinishing kits are often sold as "odorless" products that need no ventilation, but this is an overly optimistic view. The best refinishing products are two-part mixtures that involve mixing an epoxy resin with a chemical hardener, a process that inevitably produces fumes. Make sure to ventilate the space thoroughly and run the bathroom exhaust fan while working. Follow the manufacturer's recommendations regarding the use of breathing protection or a respirator—especially during the preparation stage when you are sanding the existing tub.
The process described below summarizes the steps required for most two-part bathtub refinishing products, but make sure to read the manufacturer's directions carefully for specific details on how the product should be used.
Equipment / Tools
- Putty knife
- Abrasive pad
- Rubber gloves
- Breathing protection
- Bathtub refinishing kit
- Paint roller with roller cover
- Sponge paint brush
- Roller tray
- Caulk gun
- Chemical caulk remover
- Abrasive cleanser
- Drop cloth
- Painter's tape
- #400 to #600 wet/dry sandpaper
- Paper towels
- Tack cloth
- Tub-and-tile caulk
Click Play to Learn How to Refinish a Bathtub
Where possible, remove escutcheons and cover plates from plumbing fixtures. Bathtub spouts can be temporarily unscrewed and removed during refinishing. Make sure to clean away any dirt or caulk residue from around openings in the bathtub, using a putty knife.
Clean the Bathtub
Clean the tub thoroughly and remove all caulking from the joints around the tub. If necessary, use a chemical caulk remover to remove all traces of caulk from the surfaces.
Use bleach to clean away any mildew stains, then scrub the entire thoroughly with an abrasive cleanser, or with LimeAway applied with an abrasive pad. Rinse thoroughly with clear water.
Mask Off Areas Around the Tub
Use drop cloths and painter's tape to mask off floors and walls around the tub. The epoxy coating will be hard to remove, so make sure to guard against drops and spills.
Ventilate the Space
The etching, sanding, and coating operation will create dust and fumes. In addition from the fumes of the epoxy product, simple sanding can create fiberglass dust that shouldn't be inhaled. Before beginning work, open windows, turn on the exhaust fan, or set up portable fans to improve ventilation in the space. It's also a good idea to wear breathing protection or whatever respirator equipment is recommended by the product manufacturer.
Etch the Tub Surfaces
If the kit includes an etching powder, apply it to the surface of the tub with water and scrub the surfaces with an abrasive pad. The etching powder helps dull the finish so the new coating will adhere. Rinse the tub thoroughly with clear water.
Sand the Tub
Sand the tub with #400 or #600 with wet/dry sandpaper while it is still wet to further roughen the surfaces. Make sure to roughen all corners and edges of the tub; this is a critical step to ensure the epoxy coating will adhere without later peeling. Thorough sanding is especially important if the kit did not include an etching powder. Rinse the tub and let it dry.
Wipe Down the Bathtub
Wipe the tub with paper towels to make sure it is completely dry, then wipe with a tack cloth to remove any dust or paper residue.
Prime the Surfaces
If the kit includes a primer, apply it to the bathtub surfaces. Apply the primer with a roller and foam brush, and let it dry as directed.
Some refinishers are self-priming and do not require a separate prime coat. DO NOT prime bathtub surfaces with ordinary commercial paint primer; use only the primer that is included with the kit you buy.
Mix the Epoxy Coating
Blend the hardener/catalyst into the epoxy resin, as directed by the label instructions. You will now need to work fairly steadily, as epoxy coatings gradually begin to harden once they are mixed. The product label will usually tell you how much working time ("open time") you have, but you should be prepared to coat the entire tub in one working session.
Apply the Coating
Begin applying the coating to the sides of the tub with a roller. Alternate between vertical and horizontal strokes to prevent drips and roller ridges. Move on to the tub deck (horizontal surfaces), then roll the tub bottom. Finish the edges as needed with a sponge brush.
Apply a second coat of coating as directed by the label instructions. Some products require immediately recoating, while others may suggest one or two hours of drying time before applying the second coating.
Let the final coat dry and cure, as directed by the label. Some products require a full two days of cure time; with others, it may be as long as three days. Keep the area well ventilated for at least the first day of curing.
Caulk and Reinstall Hardware
Seal the tub's joints with fresh silicone caulk and let it cure overnight. Reinstall the faucet hardware. Your refinished bathtub is now ready to use.
When to Call a Professional
DIY refinishing can be a very good temporary solution to a worn, unattractive tub, but it's rare for such refinish coating to last more than a few years before a new application is needed. Most people view DIY refinishing as a stop-gap measure until a full bathtub replacement is practical. If it's essential that your refinished tub have an extremely smooth and durable finish, it's best to hire a professional service to perform the refinishing.
Professional tub refinishers often market their process as reglazing. The specific steps they use may differ somewhat, but the basic process is more or less standard. The methods used by professionals is similar to that of DIY kits, but the pros typically spend quite a bit of time repairing chips and cracks—often for an additional fee. Further, the etching process may be done with an acidic solution rather than an abrasive powder, and there is almost always a primer coat applied before the refinisher applies several coats of epoxy coating—usually with a sprayer rather than a roller and brush. The technician may then return a few days later to buff the surface to a shiny finish.
The result is a finish that is usually better than that achieved by DIYers. However, don't expect any refinishing job—even by pros—to be as good as a new bathtub.
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