Ideas for covering a stained bathtub?
March 24, 2013 9:02 AM   Subscribe

My old cast iron bathtub is stained beyond help. None of the tough cleaners do anything at this point. I looked into repainting it myself but couldn't cope with the idea of the prepping and the awful epoxy-based paint etc. etc. We could pay a fortune to have it reglazed, I guess, BUT

...the good part is that we never use it to bathe or shower. We have another bathroom for that. So that we could put it to some funky interesting use such as a giant planter. Except that we do use the faucet in it to do odd jobs such as refill the coffee pot quickly (this bathroom is right off the kitchen) and refill the container that I use to clean my aquarium. Also there is not nearly enough light in there to support plants, so a whole, expensive artificial light system would have to be set up above the tub.

So...thise are the facts. I can't make a decision about what tod o with this disgusting-looking tub. I'm wondering, since we don't use the water that much, if I could forgo the glazing and the epoxy paint mess and cover the inside some other way, and I am looking for suggestions.

How about the kind of contact paper that doesn't have adhesive on the back but is more like Colorforms? Would it survive some water? How about some other kind of oil-based paint that doesn't require enormous preparation and isn't quite as smelly and carcinogenic as the epoxy-based products? How about getting hundreds of bath decals and sticking them on to cover the entire surface in pattern? How about throwing a layer of sphagnum moss over the surface and putting some low light houseplants in pots on that, perhaps adding some lights above, snaking them around the aluminum circular rod that goes all around above the bathtub? Of course I could simply get a shower curtain and keep it closed all the time, but is such a dark look.

My dream would be a Victorian-looking bathtub garden with all sorts of strange plants in there. should I spring for a light system? Any recommendations?
posted by DMelanogaster to Home & Garden (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Can we see pictures? That would be really helpful.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:12 AM on March 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

There's a restaurant around here that has an old bathtub in the restroom and it is full of goldfish. maybe you could do that since you have one aquarium setup already? You could disguise the stains with colorful gravel, miniature pirate ships, and fake plants.
posted by steinwald at 9:34 AM on March 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

A basic fluorescent fixture should be enough for office-y houseplants.
posted by steinwald at 9:35 AM on March 24, 2013

My Mom used Muriatic acid on rust. Probably from a good drugstore.

Paint it white using acrylic paint. Put a large colorful plastic bin or wood 1/2 barrel under the faucet.

Use pallet wood to build a slatted base to fit in the bottom. Use a bunch of cage lights with flourescent bulbs. You can get plastic planters that look like old urns and paint them to look like iron. Surely there's a Pinterest pic or DIY page for this. Add a lace-ish shower curtain, tied back.
posted by theora55 at 9:58 AM on March 24, 2013

In the bottom of the tub, I would put some space saver racks and then put large planters on top of them and fill with various ferns, pothos and other plants that do fine without a lot of light. By putting them on the wire rack shelving, you have good drainage and you could still leave plenty of space to continue to use the faucet. The planters could be colorful galvanized buckets, tin planters or plastic terracotta or urn style pots.
posted by shoesietart at 10:06 AM on March 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Here's the bathtub. It looks much worse in real life. The stains look browner and darker.
posted by DMelanogaster at 11:08 AM on March 24, 2013

I think I have to make a Final Decision about whether or not we want to have use of the faucet or not. If I put plants in pots in there I don't think they could have drainage holes, because some soil will leak out of those holes and possibly clog up the plumbing. But no drainage probably isn't as horrible as many people think. I have planters without holes in various places in my house and I just water judiciously and wait for all water to evaporate before watering again.

As far as the light cages suggested by theora55, I'm not sure how that would work. As in, where would the fluorescent lights be, actually? I'm not expected you to solve this, I'm just not picturing it.

Here's a picture of more of the tub, with the shower rack above. There is an electrical outlet out of sight, to the right of the blue medicine cabinet you see on the upper right. That's where the lights would have to be plugged into.

oh, about the goldfish. I thought of that (I have goldfish in a pond outside and am definitely a fish lady), and I am frankly afraid of having a big tub of water sitting around because we have a horrible waterbug problem on the floor below (the ground floor, which is actually 4' below ground level) and our exterminator has told us not to have standing water around. I am also afraid of RODENTS, which he said look for water sources. But I don't know. For the right aesthetic, what are a few rats?

Sorry to "sit on" this question. I'm just thinking that the right decisions could make this eyesore into something quite fabulous. The beautiful royal blue tile you see on the floor is pretty new. The bathroom is potentially really great.
posted by DMelanogaster at 11:16 AM on March 24, 2013

Get several large pots or similar containers (without holes in the bottom) and arrange them in the tub -- fill the space around them with dark river rocks or some nice smooth gravel almost to the edge of the tub so the pots are like cavities within the gravel. Fill the pots with water and use them to grow lilypads or other floating plants (or put smaller pots with regular plants inside the large pots). Put hanging plants on the curtain rack above. Release toads into bathroom.

Maybe don't release toads, your call.
posted by Behemoth at 11:25 AM on March 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

It looks like almost all the stains are right on the bottom of the tub. For the ultimate low maintenance, how about a layer of sand and some pretty rocks for a zen garden? You could rake it all to one side if you needed to.

Potted plants won't leak dirt at all if you put a couple inches of gravel in the bottom of the pot.

As for supplemental lights, just about any type of lamp will work for low-light plants as long as you use a nice strong "daylight" or "cool white" compact fluorescent bulb or two.
posted by steinwald at 11:27 AM on March 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's true that the stains are on the bottom of the tub, but the entire tub is yellowed/brownish/ the wrong color compared to the beautiful new white subway tiles surrounding it.

Whether I put plants in it or fish or nothing, I really have to line it with something.

Can I really use acrylic paint, as suggested by theora55? this is my main question -- I was led to believe that the only paint that would adhere is that epoxy bathtub/sink paint. If I thought I could paint the inside with acrylic, even, oil-based acrylic, everything would be different.
posted by DMelanogaster at 12:34 PM on March 24, 2013

I'd use individual pots rather than treating the tub as one large planter. It's pretty easy to set up potted plants with trays and gravel so you're not getting anything clogged in the tub's drain. I'd put the pots on some racks or something so that they weren't deep in the tub, and I'd pick sizes that were easy enough to lift out when you need to use the faucet. Personally, to keep it from looking too kitschy, I'd uninstall the shower head and pipe if possible, and take down the rod for the shower curtain. (Unless that style of rod could be used for the lights.) I don't see why you'd have to line the tub with anything as long as you were taking reasonable precautions against dirt/gravel spillage. Maybe some felt on the bottom of the pots/racks for extra protection.

Also, to make it look really classy, I'd build some sort of encasement for the tub. (Ikea hacker time? Perhaps some beadboard from Home Depot?) Basically I'd just minimize the bathroom-ness of it while not taking away the utility of the faucet/drain.

I agree that the staining is pretty bad. I think with big enough pots with big enough plants you can pretty much obscure the whole tub. I'd use a light to help the plants fill in and grow beautifully, but you don't necessarily need a whole fancy light system - probably just one good bulb mounted above. (I'm sure your local hydroponics/"tropical plant" store can steer you to a low-cost solution.) The plants won't instantaneously hide the tub, but if you choose plants with broad leaf growth it won't be too long until you forget that a tub is there.
posted by stowaway at 12:48 PM on March 24, 2013

Oh, and if you do go the planter route, be sure to update the thread with pictures!!
posted by stowaway at 12:48 PM on March 24, 2013

First, buy one of these. A bath tub hair stopper should keep the majority of solids out of your drains.

You can use something like this and use the vertical space or go simpler with plastic lattice. Unless your bathroom gets tons of natural light, you probably want to stick to low light plants like philodendrons, peperomia, grape ivy, porthosm etc. There are several other low light plants that love humidity like fittonia and calatheas so growing them in a bath tub may help keep them healthy.
posted by jaimystery at 2:49 PM on March 24, 2013

have you tried using a pumice stick to clean it? seriously, those things are truly amazing as they very lightly just scrape away the rust, grime, stains, etc. just don't rub too hard and i bet you can get your nice tub looking great again. they may say not to use on fiberglass tubs but mine is fiberglass and as long as i don't use too much pressure it is fine. it still gets all the stains off and the product is super cheap and environmentally safe. no, i am not selling the product just a really happy consumer after trying pretty much everything to get my oh-so-dirty tub clean!
posted by wildflower at 3:06 PM on March 24, 2013

I think I have to make a Final Decision about whether or not we want to have use of the faucet or not. If I put plants in pots in there I don't think they could have drainage holes, because some soil will leak out of those holes and possibly clog up the plumbing.

I think your concern about soil clogging the plumbing is misplaced. Houseplants don't have big clumps of soil coming out of the drain holes, just brown water and if you're getting a flood of water coming out you're seriously over watering. Plus, many planters come with a drip pan or you can buy generic ones; they're really cheap but in your situation rather unnecessary. When you fill your planters, always put some gravel/rocks at the bottom of the pot before add before adding the soil. I would recommend doing a bunch of different containers, for the decorative effect, for different plants having different watering needs and for greater flexibility. The faucet is a huge bonus, you still have easy access for your current needs, easy watering for the plants and you can rinse after watering.
posted by shoesietart at 5:18 PM on March 24, 2013

I had a giant old tub like that for many years. I would often sit in it, without water, and read for hours, cup of tea at my side.

What thinks you about a Victorian Reading Tub? You could kit it out with a shelf for books, install a reading lamp and a charming curtain.

Eccentric, but lovely?

(Those tubs are worth a mint in my area, so whatever you do, don't junk it completely. Also: have you tried Mr Clean Magic Eraser on those stains? It truly is magic on rust and gunk.)
posted by nacho fries at 5:28 PM on March 24, 2013

I think I'd make a lid for it and put a cushion on top. Who doesn't want extra seating in the bathroom? Okay, cover it with a lid and use it for storage.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:37 PM on March 24, 2013

I was just quoted about $300 to refinish a similar tub - will post back after it's done in a couple weeks but the guy in question had great reviews on Angie's list - and replacing with a similar tub would have been more like 3 grand - even a replacement modern tub is more than the re-finishing cost.
posted by leslies at 6:38 PM on March 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with leslies, the cost of refinishing here runs about $250 to $300. Do you have any estimates? Because anything else you do to it will add up, and you would be half way there already.
posted by raisingsand at 8:08 PM on March 24, 2013

Have you tried oven cleaner? You know, the foamy comes in an aerosol can stuff. I know you said you tried "tough cleaners", but you didn't get specific and this seems to be one most people don't know about/try.

I know it sounds weird, but a landlord of an ancient apartment building told me about it, and I've done it ever since. Unless the bottom of the tub actually has a gross texture like the finish was eaten away a bit, it should work wonders. You just spray it on and let it sit for 2-3x as long as the can says. You might have to do it 2-3 times.

I remember it working on a 100 year old cast iron hard water and otherwise stained sink. The sink was gross as hell and it came out seriously perfectly white besides actual chips/damage to the enamel. I don't remember if I tried the bath tub or not, I might have run out by then.
posted by emptythought at 11:38 AM on March 25, 2013

illegal (?) follow-up:

theora55 or ANYONE -- can I really use (oil-based, one presumes) acrylic paint on the inside of the tub? If I got a positive answer to this it would really change my life.

As far as constructing something around the tub to make it look less tub-like: I LOVE the look of the tub (except for the off-color inside and the stains). It's a very old cast-iron tub with feet. It's exactly my taste. The outside is painted royal blue (I painted it myself), but I didn't dare paint the inside myself (hence the original question).

To those who say grow all these great plants, like WATER LILIES -- ha! those are plants that require enormous amounts of light. (my outdoor pond is under a tree (stupid mistake) and I can barely get a water lily to flower in it in the summer). As I posted, I have practically no light in the bathroom. Fluorescents above a shelf on a wall across from the bathtub allow a *pothos" to grow in the bathroom! (pothos = a plant that requires practically no light)

There are light systems I am researching that are not at all cheap that I could perhaps fasten to the shower curtain circular rod with chains so that they will be low enough to light up the plants in the bathtub. I'm looking into this, but, unfortunately, they are ugly. I wish I could find a bunch of rusty goose-necky clip-on lamps that I could clip onto that aluminum rod (I would also cover the rod with something -- maybe an interesting fabric "valence")

thank you all for the suggestions about putting potted plants in the tub on some sort of platform. I think that this is the answer for me. However, I still need (1) something to cover the whole inside of the tub with, because even with plants, the dingy side walls are going to look awful, and (2) plant lights that will provide enough light for even shade-tolerant tropicals (i.e. "house plants").

Thanks for all your answers!!!
posted by DMelanogaster at 12:09 PM on March 25, 2013

I was thinking the pothos and ferns would get big/full enough eventually to cover the dingy side walls tub.

You could decorate a 2x2 that rests on the shower curtain rods (going length-wise across the tub) where you would install hooks for a swag light(s) that plug into your outlet. You would want light-weight lamps but that could very pretty. Now that I think about it, a short 2x2 or 2x4 going across would also work.
posted by shoesietart at 9:46 PM on March 25, 2013

You don't need a complicated expensive hydroponics-store grow light setup if you just want shade tolerant houseplants. A few of these bulbs in whatever lamps you find attractive (or something cheap like these) will work just fine.
posted by steinwald at 2:04 PM on March 26, 2013

If it's not too late to answer this... I do think you could use oil-based paint. (Acrylic means latex, or water-based.) But my recommendation would actually be to bite the bullet and use the epoxy stuff made for tub resurfacing, or hire someone to do it. It's a cool old tub, and if everything else is working, keep it that way. If nothing else, it will be a selling point if you ever want to sell the house.
posted by see_change at 10:21 AM on April 1, 2013

Had my old tub re-surfaced today. Final bill (w/Angie's list discount) was $270. It looks fantastic. Will clearly not be as durable as porcelain - the guy said to not use abrasive cleaners including scouring powder or even plastic brushes on it - just soft cloth and mild cleaners. That said, it's a vast improvement and if it wears at all decently I'll be very pleased so there's another datapoint for you.
posted by leslies at 2:03 PM on April 2, 2013

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