Park County man restores century-old cast-iron tubs for Yellowstone

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Yellowstone Newspapers photo by Nate Howard

Mike Dirkers is pictured recently in his Livingston shop that contains 31 antique, cast-iron claw-foot tubs he is refinishing for Old Faithful Inn and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel in Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone Newspapers photo by Nate Howard

A finished claw-foot tub gleams in Mike Dirkers’ Livingston shop.

Emigrant-area resident Mike Dirkers’ job is specialized even in the world of specialized jobs: He makes his living refinishing, among other things, antique cast-iron bathtubs.

And right now, Dirkers, owner of Standard Bathtub Refinishing, is going at it especially hard – he is restoring 31 more-than-a-century-old claw-foot tubs for two Yellowstone National Park iconic facilities. Fourteen of the tubs are from Old Faithful Inn and 17 are from Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.

With more than 100 years’ passage of time and at least one inadequate refurbishing decades ago, the tubs were in sore need of a makeover. Restoring them will allow Old Faithful and Mammoth to keep the historic, antique fixtures.

Dirkers is no stranger to park refinishing work. He already has redone 17 century-old antique cast iron sinks for Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and before that, antique sinks for Old Faithful cabins.

The old tubs he’s working on now were cast in 1913 in Chicago by the L. Wolff Manufacturing Company, and they are the real deal. Each is made of “real thick, heavy cast iron,” Dirkers said. They are 5 feet long and weigh an uffdah-inducing 275 pounds.

Tub history

“Claw-foot  tubs came into vogue in Victorian England,” Dirkers said as he showed the tubs in his Livingston shop on a recent afternoon.

The feet on the park tubs depict an eagle claw clutching a ball. Dirkers said that design could have come from an old Chinese motif of a dragon foot clutching a jewel, subsequently adapted by the English and French.

“Not many people know that these feet are such beautiful works of art,” Dirkers said.

Back in the early 1900s, it was a laborious process to make the tubs like the ones Dirkers is working on. After they were cast and cooled down, they were placed into an 1,800-degree furnace. Then they were pulled out and workers sifted porcelain enamel onto the hot metal, Dirkers explained.

Then, back into the furnace they went to bake on the enamel, then removed again to sprinkle on powdered glass.

“That’s what makes the tub shiny,” Dirkers said.

The claw-foot feet were cast separately. Originally, the feet were not painted, only primed, so that customers could choose a paint for them later.

To make the water flow downhill toward the drain, long ago the feet on the opposite end of the tubs were made taller than the front-end ones. However, manufacturers eventually figured out how to build the slope into the tubs themselves, allowing for feet of a uniform size.

Keeping that historic feel

The tubs for both Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Old Faithful Inn are being restored to preserve the historic feel of the famous facilities.

Chris Desborough, maintenance facilities and operations manager for Xanterra, the park concessionaire that contracted Dirkers for the Old Faithful Inn work, said the Old Faithful tubs exhibited some damage and tarnishing, and were in need of refurbishing.

“They are historic bathtubs,” Desborough said.

And that’s important.

“It’s costing a lot more than putting brand new porcelain tubs in, but of course it is the historical aspect why a lot of people stay in the Old Faithful Inn,” Desborough said.

What may look like a small project is “a big deal” for preserving the history of facilities like the Old Faithful Inn, added Rick Hoeninghausen, Xanterra’s director of sales and marketing.

How he does it

The Mammoth tubs must be done by mid-March and the Old Faithful Inn tubs by mid-April, so Dirkers has his work cut out for him.

Especially since refinishing the tubs is no easy job. They came in dinged up and in “various stages of deterioration” after previous refurbishing efforts, Dirkers said.

For the tub interiors, Dirkers first takes off the old coating with stripping chemicals, lets it sit, then goes after it with a razor blade and scraper. When he finds shiny areas with century-old glass glaze, he etches that in hydrofluoric acid. He then sands the interior and patches any areas that need it with Bondo or glazing putty. 
In all this, Dirkers takes everything down to the original porcelain enamel layer.

To finish the tubs, Dirkers sprays on a high-tech, catalyzed polyurethane coating, which sticks to the exposed porcelain because the porcelain is porous.

He uses two colors of coatings. One is a high-gloss white, which is being applied to tubs going to Old Faithful Inn. Those tubs will have a smooth floor. The other coating is an off-white, with a non-skid surface for the tub bottom, which is going on the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel tubs. 

For the tub exteriors, Dirkers sands off the old paint mostly down to bare metal, patches any areas that need it, and sprays on the same coating he uses on the inside. That coating goes on the claw feet as well.

Dirkers’ personal favorite color is high-gloss white.

Some customers like a minimalist look for their refinished tubs. For example, Dirkers did a tub for Patrick Markey, co-producer of Robert Redford’s film, “A River Runs Through It,” that was just bare, burnished cast iron. The tub was sealed with a clear lacquer to prevent rust and show the “beauty of the old cast iron,” Dirkers said.

Hard work

Dirkers’ customer base is broad.

“Over the last 28 years, I have refinished tubs for millionaires, movie stars, mainstream and misfits,” he quipped.

It takes Dirkers about a day and a half to do a tub from start to finish. As to the value of a cast iron tub, Dirkers said a used one on Craigslist can be from $200 to $400, and a refinished tub like the ones he does can run double or triple that. 

For the tough work of taking off ancient layers of paint and glass and applying new coatings, Dirkers wears a high-tech respirator and runs special fans in his shop to provide adequate ventilation.

There’s a lot of exertion involved in the work.

“I don’t need to go to the gym at night,” Dirkers laughed.

Rewards

But the work has its rewards.

Dirkers appreciates the historical aspect of his job, getting to work on antique tubs for historic Yellowstone Park institutions. He said he’s glad the park didn’t simply throw the tubs away.

The most rewarding aspect for him is “when they’re all done, to see how they turn out,” he said.

Another reward – customers’ oohs and ahs.

“It’s an instant gratification thing, it really is,” he said.

He added, “I feel quite privileged to be working on this for Yellowstone Park – (it’s) quintessential Americana.”

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