Introduction: DIY Clawfoot Bathtub Couch
Being deeply attracted to the aesthetics of the claw foot bathtub couch, but a bit shy about the thousand plus dollar price tag to buy one of these retail, I decided to build one on my own. The process was exploratory and based largely on trial and error since there's not great documentation on how to cut cast iron or refinish a bathtub on your own. With that in mind, this Instructable outlines the process in 34 detailed steps so that folks can get an idea of what techniques work and which ones don't should they attempt to repurpose an antique tub for modern furniture purposes themsleves.
All in all I'd say the project takes "much longer than a weekend" to complete, and is best done with the help of another person - if only just to move the several hundred pound bathtub from place to place. However, once done, you'll have a one of a kind piece of furniture that really speaks for itself. Having made it, instead of bought it, will really speak to your abilities as as a creator of things, and that's cool too if you're into that sort of thing.
Step 1: This Idea Is Not New
Let me start by saying that this idea is not new. First shown in 1961 in Holly Golightly's apartment in the film "Breakfast at Tiffany's", it was then re-created by Jared and Jill Morrison of Ruff House Art for Phillip Morris of all folks a few years ago. This was followed by a New York Times article covering the concept of a claw foot bath tub couch (when I first got turned on to the idea) which then prompted several bespoke retailers to try and recreate the work.
There is currently a reproduced DIY version on a french blog, however it provides zero instruction, and takes a slightly different design approach by using an elevated seat. There's also a retailer on Etsy called Redux Tubs out of Canada who is selling the couch from $1,100 and up. Finally, my co-worker Carley has also wanted to build a bathtub couch for some time.
I think I am merely riding the groundswell of claw foot bathtub couch interest, as we all our - I simply have taken the time to document the process so that we may have the opportunity to make bathtub couches while hopefully learning a bit from my mistakes. I in no way take credit for this idea.
History accurate as of publish date September, 2012.
Step 2: Procure Clawfoot Tub
On with the show, it's time to get a claw foot bath tub!
Buying a new claw foot tub costs almost as much as buying the already made claw foot tub couch - no way! That means you've got to pick up the tub used. While there are several retailers in the bay area that stock clawfoot tubs 365 days a year like Urban Ore and Omega Salvage, they charge almost double for what you can buy the tub for off of Craigslist.
I looked on Craigslist for a few days before contacting any sellers to get a feel for the market. It was worth the wait because I got my tub for $150 with free delivery right to my shop! In case you don't know, that's a good price for a claw foot tub.
The condition of the bathtub really doesn't matter so long as it's not cracked. Fixtures are optional. Urban Ore sells individual claw feet for $30, so even if it's missing a leg or two, if it's got a good price go for it!
The one that got delivered to my shop was in fair condition - certainly not cracked and of nice proportions to make a couch out of.
Some tubs are shorter then others. I was looking for a longer one so you could fit two people on it.
Step 3: Assess
Assess your claw foot tub. Keep in mind that there's always a risk of encountering lead paint when going vintage, so wear wear gloves, don't lick the tub, and use common sense.
Ideally the interior of the tub will be finished with porcelain and wont have any funky paint on it. If it has paint on it it will have to be removed, but we'll get to that later.
The outside of the tub if purchased used will likely be painted. Heavy paint chipping and rust are possible and likely.
Don't worry too much about the superficial condition, just rule out any significant damage or cracks.
Be careful when handling the tub - it's extremely heavy!
Step 4: Remove Hardware
Remove the rusted nuts and washers that hold the claw feet onto the tub. If any of the hardware or fixtures are rusted in place put a vise grip on it and whack it with a hammer. You don't really care about the condition of the nuts - they'll be replaced later on.
Set the legs and any fixtures that come off the tub aside.
Step 5: Sand Blast Outside of Tub and Claw Feet
Load the tub and claw feet into the car and take them over to a sandblaster (or use your own if you've got one). I paid Leons Powder Coating of Oakland, CA $50 to sand blast all of the rust and chipped paint off of the tub. It was well worth it since grinding all of that paint and rust dust off myself would take time and possibly expose me to lead paint dust. While lead paint can be properly dealt with at home/in the shop I decided to avoid the hassle and leave it to the professionals.
Sandblast only the outside of the tub and the claw feet! Not the inside!
Sandblasting the outside removes all of the paint and corrosion on the outside of the tub. When it's done it should like the second photo below - nice raw cast iron.
Sandblasting the porcelain on the inside will remove the shiny glaze and expose the porous interior of the ceramic coating. This leaves a delicate bone-like finish, which although cool, is not appropriate for this application. I did this on a test piece to find out what would happen.
*For the shrewdest of readers you'll notice that I sandblasted after making my cut. This was a mistake, I should have done it in the order that I'm showing here in the Instructable. In the order that I did it in, I was needlessly exposed to possibly lead paint laden dust while cutting. I wore a respirator so it didn't matter, but given the choice to do it again, I'd sandblast first, then make my cut.
Lesson learned: sandblast before cutting and blast only the outside, not the inside porcelain coating.
Step 6: Test Cut
My first step in attacking this beast was to make a small test cut just to prove to myself that cast iron could in fact be cut. I've never cut cast iron before, let alone 3/8" thick cast iron, let alone compound curves in cast iron from a 100 year old bathtub!
Upon recommendation from my friend Luigi who is a metal worker I purchased a Freud ferrous cutting circular saw blade and loaded it into my worm drive skilsaw.
Cutting cast iron with a circular saw is intense, so put on heavy work pants, closed toe shoes, a leather welding jacket, a face shield, a respirator, ear protection, eye protection and a hat or helmet to make sure that the hot metal chips don't accidentally light your hair on fire.
Fully protected, I slowly engaged the saw blade into an area of the tub I knew I was cutting away to form the couch just in case the worst happened and low and behold in cut like butter! Inching slowly through the cast iron the saw blade sliced an 1/8" path spitting hot metal chunks everywhere and howling like a mechanical banshee.
Lesson learned: don't sweat cutting cast iron - it can be done!
Step 7: Plan Cut
I planned the cut just like any good DIY'er would who can't draw to save their life would - I used a giant permanent marker and made crudely drawn line after line after line. Ultimately I used a 2x4 as a straight edge and a square to make sure that at least some part of my very organic curves were aligned horizontally along the bottom straightaway and vertically along the sides.
The general cut out should allow for two people to sit in the tub. You want to be sure to cut one side of the tub low enough so that the lip that's left doesn't dig into your legs. Don't take too much off the sides as you'll loose your arm rest and disrupt the nice sweeping curve that hooks around where your back would normally rest in an uncut tub. Aside from those guidelines the cut line is largely up to you.
By the time I figured out where I wanted to cut line I had so many lines drawn on the tub that I couldn't tell which ones were the good ones and which ones were the mistakes. I used big arrows to clear things up.
Step 8: Gear Up
- heavy work pants
- eye protection
- face mask
- hair protection
- ear protection
No hair fire = no problem!
Step 9: Cutting Plan A
Slowly engage the saw along your cutline and slice away - yeeehaaaw!
For about 4 inches everything was going great. The saw was cutting like butter and I was making a big mess of metal dust everywhere. Then, I started to have to push the circular increasingly harder to make any headway on my cut. Then, it barely would budge at all and it stopped really eating into the cast iron.
The saw blade dulled very quickly while cutting through the tub - much faster then normal when cutting steel. The problem (I suspect) - the porcelain interior of the tub was just too tough and abrasive for the saw teeth on the blade - it dulled them unusually fast rendering the circular saw cut method ineffective. Much how a ceramic sharpening stone can put a razor edge on a carbon steel knife at the proper angle, I guess it can dull an edge pretty fast when it's dragged across a sharpened edge head on thousands and thousands of times.
If you were going to cut cast iron alone - not coated in porcelain, I think this method would actually work quite well and result in a nice smooth straight cut.
No matter, there are always alternatives - on to plan B.
Lesson learned: don't use ferrous cutting circular saw blades on metals coated in porcelain.
Step 10: Cutting Plan B
After shedding the leather jacket and hair protection (angle grinding is tame compared to the circular saw ferrous blade setup) I slowly began tracing my cut lines with the edge of the ange grinder. Make a shallow pass at first to lock in the path. Then, make increasingly deeper cuts with each pass until you've "rutted out" the cut. Once the cut is rutted out it will be easy to run the grinder through deeper and deeper until you've cut through to the other side.
The angle grinder works great to make this cut except for the following two shortcomings:
- The cut off wheels don't last very long. I used around 7 wheels in making the cut.
- The cut off wheel can sometimes chip off a big chunk of porcelain adjacent to the cut line (see additional photo below) - although I believe losing these chunks of porcelain is unavoidable, it can be reduced using the following technique: cut first with a masonry abrasive wheel through the porcelain until you've reached the cast iron. Then switch to the metal cutting disc and continue the cut. This will allow you to have much greater control while cutting through the porcelain rather than what I did - which was more like pretending that it wasn't there and treating it as steel.
Step 11: Keep Cutting
Keep cutting the bath tub along your line. Minutes and hours will pass. Cutting discs will grind themselves to dust. Replace the worn discs, stay focused, keep cutting and drink water. Keep cutting!
You've got to treat it like a marathon, except, no bare feet or peeing in your pants!
If you're getting chips of porcelain flying off like in the photos below don't despair - we'll fix those later with composite filler.
Step 12: Leave Tabs
As you work your way along the cut line on the tub be sure to leave a few short tabs of cast iron approximately 1" long intact. I left three tabs in place along my cut line - two near the edges and one in the middle of the cut so that the panel would be held in place until I was ready to remove it. You don't want the panel "falling out" when you're not ready for it.
Step 13: Finish Cut and Remove Panel
Once everything but the tabs are cut through, ask a friend or two for an extra set of hands and cut the tabs with the ange grinder while they hold the panel in place so that the panel is removed in a controlled and slow manner. Even at only 1/8" the total size of the tub the cut off piece weighs around 60 pounds - cast iron!
Step 14: Clean Up Edge With Grinding Disc
Throw a standard grinding disc on the angle grinder and clean up any inconsistencies along the cut edge you just made. I did my best to link all the cuts together, but occasionally there is a slight lip between sections, this step takes care of smoothing all of that out. Exercise caution on the porcelain side of the cut and try not to make any additional chips or nicks.
Step 15: Clean Up Edge With Sanding Disc
A second pass over the cut edge with a sanding disc loaded into the angel grinder smoothes everything out even further.
This marks the end of the "metal working" section of the Instructable and ushers in the painting section of the project. I thought the cutting of the cast iron was the tricky challenge in this project, boy was a wrong, as it's the painting and finishing process that actually took the most time and experimentation.
Step 16: Prime Outside of Tub and Feet
If you haven't sand blasted the outside of your bathtub yet (and I hadn't yet as mentioned in Step 5 "Sandblast Outside of Tub"), now is the time to sandblast the outside and the claw feet. I've moved sandblasting in the Instructable to it's pre-cut location to remove any possible lead paint hazard before cutting. But, for the record, I actually sand blasted in between this step and the previous one in real life.
Soon after sandblasting you'll want to put on a primer coat to seal out any moisture and corrosion on the cast iron. With it being completely bare after blasting it's particularly vulnerable to rusting from any moisture. The primer protects against this and lays down a good base for colored top coats.
I used Rustoleum Clean Metal Primer and a disposable chip brush to prime all of the sandblasted surfaces, which include the outside of the tub (excluding the lip), and the 4 feet. The paint is thick and coats the porous tub easily. Paint on a smooth even coat and let it dry for the manufacturers recommended time.
Step 17: Paint Outside of Tub and Feet
Painting the outside of the bathtub is generally straight forward. I used enamel based paints from Rustoleum and high quality brushes to get a nice bright even coat.
I chose to paint the outside of the bathtub blue, and the claw feet yellow. The contrasting colors make the tub really pop. People seem to really do some nice color accenting in this step from the other tubs I've seen so come up with your own interesting combinations.
Step 18: Sand Outside of Tub and Feet
Use a fine 220 or 400 grit sandpaper to sand in between coats. If the paint is completely dry, it shouldn't gum up the sandpaper too much. If your paper is getting gummy, wait longer before sanding, or if you have wet/dry sandpaper on hand, use a bit of water and attempt a wet sanding of the tub to help manage the paint dust.
Step 19: Put Final Coat of Paint on Outside of Tub
Brush on the final coat of paint and let it dry for the recommended amount of time. When done be sure to soak your brushes in a paint remover or brush cleaner - dry enamel can be a real pain to get out of paint brushes.
Thin even coats are the answer here, if it takes multiple coats to get the depth of coverage you'd like, do multiple coats instead of painting one on too thick.
Lesson learned: don't rush the topcoat and use multiple thin coats instead of one thick gloppy coat.
Step 20: Reinstall Hardware
Using new nuts and flange washers (the old ones I took off were heavily rusted), reinstall the claw feet onto the bath tub.
Step 21: Clean Inside of Tub
The outside of the claw foot bathtub couch should now be complete. That's nice. Time to tackle the inside.
Take the tub outside and use an abrasive cleaner and abrasive pad to clean out the inside of the bathtub. I didn't have common household abrasive cleaners around like Comet, so I used Zep Hand Cleaner from the shop bathroom instead - it worked just fine.
After a healthy dose of scrubbing wash out the inside of the tub with a hose, it conveniently drains through the drain hole!
Step 22: Fill Chips Inside of Tub
It's time to deal with the porcelain chips that were created from the cut. Pick up a two part epoxy filler like Bondo (I'm using an epoxy called Evercoat in the picture below that's a bit higher quality than bondo, but any epoxy filler will work) and follow the instructions on the can to fill the holes.
In essence we're doing "body work" on the tub just like you'd do to a car after an accident.
Mix up the epoxy in small batches and apply it to the effected parts with a putty knife.
Working up the chipped lip of the tub isn't the easiest thing to do. Put on small amounts of filler only where the chips occur rather than building up the entire edge. 99% of the filler is going to be sanded off once it's dry so putting on less now means doing less work later. I didn't always follow this suggestion and ended up making more work for myself.
If the interior porcelain has any other pot marks or holes, now's the time to fill those too.
Lesson Learned: Only use filler where the chips occur and resist the urge to spread on a thick coat and completely rebuild the lip of the tub.
Step 23: Sand and Prep Inside of Tub
There are a few more steps before actually painting the inside of the tub. With the porcelain chips and pit marks filled, it's time to sand down the epoxy filler and smooth out the inside of the tub.
I did this with a random orbital sander and lots of 120 grit sanding discs.
Remember to wear a dust mask and work outside if you can.
Sanding the inside of the tub creates a uniform surface that the interior paint will be able to adhere to.
Step 24: Tape Edges and Holes of Tub
Before painting the inside of the tub use the highest quality painters tape you can find to cover the edge of the tub and drain holes so that your inner coat of paint doesn't splatter or drip accidentally onto your freshly painted exterior coat.
I used a roll of brown paper in certain areas that were drip prone to offer further protection.
Mask off the outside of the tub as best as possible. It's likely that you'll have to do some re-touching of the outside coat once the inside is painted just because it's hard to paint perfectly I certainly can't and re-touching the exterior paint job isn't hard to do.
Step 25: Choices of Interior Finishes
Now here's what might be the most valuable part of this Instructable - a simple discussion of interior finishes for the claw foot bath tub couch.
Ideally in making a claw foot bath tub couch I would have liked to re-porcelain the tub. This is of course the most expensive option and involves shipping out the tub and using a hired professional to blast down the pre-existing porcelain and refinish the tub with new porcelain using a kiln. This process isn't available everywhere, but professionals do offer the service in some locations. This method would create the same glossy even finish that's most likely on the fixtures in your actual bathroom. There's no substitute for porcelain since it's basically melted and cooled glass, so any painted on finish will simply be an approximation.
That being said, we're making a couch out of a bathtub - the entire thing is an approximation!
Next option up is powder coating. Now, no one I talked to really knows how well a sprayed on layer of powder coating will adhere to sand blasted porcelain. While I did find powdercoaters who were willing to attempt refinishing the tub, there were apprehensive and warned that the finish might crack over the sandblasted sub layer of ceramic beneath the glossy porcelain top coat of the tub. Although I was excited to try this method because 1) it meant I could do less work and hand the finishing process over to a professional, and 2) it would result in a really nice durable finish for the tub since powder coating is heavy duty industrial finish used on steel in many wear and tear applications, I didn't go this route do to the fear of the finish cracking and, the additional cost of having a professional do it.
DIY Tub Refinishing Kit
There are actually a few DIY epoxy based kits for people who want to refinish their tubs themselves. Some are cheap like the Rustoleum Tub and Tile Refinish Kit and others are more expensive and involve acid etchers that must be used before you apply your top coat of paint. All of the kits seem to have a lot of controversy swirling around them, with results varying all over the map. It seemed like if you use the kit properly, you could in fact refinish your tub for a fraction of the cost of what a pro would charge to come and do a similar process. Others seemed to have endless problems of cracking, dripping and dulling over time and warn against "doing it yourself" loud and clear. Although I was curious about these kits because of their ease and simple instructions to follow, I ended up coming up with my own approach and methods.
Two Part Epoxy Primer with a High Quality Gloss Polyurethane Top Coat
Using the basic knowledge that I have of enamel paints and talking to a few experts in the field, I decided to take my own approach and use a two part epoxy primer and a high gloss polyurethane top coat from Interlux. Interlux makes high quality paints for boats and can be found at West Marine or online. I used the Interlux Epoxy PrimeKote as a primer. It sands reasonably well, dries with an ultra hard and most importantly doesn't need an acid etch before being applied.
For the final interior gloss white coat I chose the Interlux BrightSide High Gloss Polyurethane Marine Paint. If you haven't used a high quality paint like this before you are in for a pleasant surprise. Even though they cost 3 - 4 times as much than standard enamel paints like I used on the outside, when you need a quality finish it makes a big difference. If I ever have to paint anything that needs to last I'm going to use marine quality paint like this.
Step 26: Paint Inside of Tub With Two Part Epoxy PrimeKote
This stuff will kill your brain cells in no time flat so make sure you wear a respirator and ideally paint in a well ventilated area. I didn't want the yard dust at my shop blowing into the paint so I didn't paint outside, but I had the roll up door open and all the exhaust fans going. It would be great to have a spray booth for this step. The fumes are intense!
Brush on an even coat of the primer making sure you don't have any large drips or runs. Better to put it on a little thin then too thick. That's a lesson in painting that I need to remind myself of time and time again. This was a "lesson learned" in a previous step, I guess I didn't learn it very well...
Step 27: Sand Epoxy PrimeKote
Armed with a wide variety of sanders I set out to sand all the surfaces on the inside of the tub. Sand with 120 grit pads first to remove the high spots, then 220 to smooth everything out.
Wear a respirator for this step and definitely do it outside. It will make a lot of dust. Ideally use a sanding system that connects to a dust collector. This can easily be done using just a shop vac and attaching it wear the dust bag on palm sander connects.
This step takes some time, but its well worth it, since it's the only way to ensure an absolutely even and smooth surface for the top coat to be applied to. Don't worry if you sand all the way through the epoxy top coat to the porcelain in places, the polyurethane paint is good stuff and will adhere well to either surface.
Step 28: Paint Inside of Tub
It's finally time - the top coat! Open up the can of Interlux Gloss White Brightside Polyurethane Paint and follow the directions for thinning it with their specialized and expensive brushing thinner and either brush it onto the inside of the tub or spray it on with an HVLP gun and line dried compressed air.
Paint on two coats of the top coat letting the paint dry for the manufacturers specified time doing a very light sanding with 400 grit paper in between coats.
The finish that results from the Interlux Brightside paint is considerably better then what I would have expected from a standard enamel paint.
The paint was more expensive and certainly harder to work with since it had to be thinned before it could be brushed out well, but in the end it yielded a finish that you'd have to look really hard at in order to notice that it wasn't porcelain - just look at that shine!
Step 29: Remove Tape and Touch-Up
Remove all of the painters tape and check all of your edges. If any white paint has bled through the edge of the tape (which did happen in a few spots along the edge despite my best taping efforts), go back over any drips or specks with the blue or yellow Rustoleum enamel paint and a detail brush as necessary.
The touchups on the tub went fast and all of the blemishes that I had created through the washing, sanding, and interior painting were quickly taken care of. It's easier to touch up the outside then the inside. That's why I think it's best to paint the outside first, then come back to it, and only have to deal with the inside once.
Step 30: Cut Foam Cushion
Coming down the home stretch, all that's left to do now is to cut the custom foam insert and sew a cover for it.
I picked up 4" thick furniture foam at The Famous Foam Factory in Berkeley, CA. Foam is expensive! next time I'm going to cut apart a couch that's been left out on the street. The 4' x 2' x 4" piece cost around $80! It is nice foam though...
I tried all manner of tools to cut the foam and then finally caved and bought an electric carving knife which is the $20 tool of choice for shaping foam. You can cut it with a standard knife but you can't really shape it. In order to do that you need an electric tool. The pro's use something that looks like a very tall dual blade jig-saw, but the electric carving knife gets it done for the rest of us.
Make an outline of the bottom of the tub on a big piece of butcher paper and then transfer the pattern over to the foam using a permanent marker. Use the electric carving knife to remove small sections of foam working your way closer and closer to the contour necessary to fit inside the tub snugly. You don't want to remove a chunk in error as you can't get it back!
I labeled the orientation of the foam in the tub since it can get a little confusing...
*The photos show the foam insert being cut before the inside of the tub was painted even in the Instructable this step comes afterward. Gotta do something while waiting for the paint to dry, sorry to photographs depart from the written instructions in terms of timing in this small way.
Step 31: Cut Fabric for Foam Cushion
The next three steps were performed and written by expert tailor scoochmaroo. A thousand thank you's for her assistance in this project as upholstering the cushion would have been a significant challenge for me and I was very happy to have the help. I picked up some fabric that I liked at A Verb for Keeping Warm, a local yarn and fabric store that just happens to have a particularly excellent patterned fabric selection and some cotton cord.
You'll want enough fabric to cover the top, bottom, and sides of the cushion, plus extra if adding piping to the edge, as well as enough soft rope cording to go around the top edge of the cushion.
Since the foam for this cushion was carved to be rounded on the bottom to fit inside the tub, it made sense to cover it in two pieces rather than three. So the top fabric was cut flat, and the bottom fabric was cut to come up around the sides and be tucked around the curves.
Lay the top side of the foam on top of the wrong side of the fabric and trace around the edge.
Cut the fabric with 1" seam allowance all the way around.
Lay the foam face up on the wrong side of the fabric and trace around it.
Cut the fabric with enough seam allowance to go up the sides and still have 1" left over.
Step 32: Making the Piping for the Couch Cushion
Measure around the top of the cushion to determine how much piping you'll need. Cut the rope cording to 6" over this length.
Cut fabric on the bias long enough and wide to cover the cording. I cut two strips at 2" wide and sewed them together to make a strip long enough to cover the length of cording. The reason you need to cut the fabric on the bias is so that it will curve smoothly along the edge of the cushion. The bias of the fabric has the most stretch to it and will eliminate folds and bumps that would occur if you cut the fabric on the straight of grain.
Lay the cording in the middle of the fabric strip, and fold the fabric over to encase the cording.
Using a sewing machine, sew as close to the cording as possible. This is made easier by using a zipper foot and moving the needle as far over to the left as possible.
Step 33: Upholster Couch Cushion
Sew the piping to the top layer of the fabric. Lay piping loosely along seam line marked on the right side of the top fabric. Make sure the cording is facing the inside of the cushion and the seam allowance to the outside.
Using a sewing machine, sew along seam line, again using a zipper foot to get as close to the inner cording as possible.
Take the fabric you've cut for the bottom of the cushion and wrap it up around the sides and pin to the top, pinning in tucks around the curves.
Mark the edge of the top of the cushion on the fabric with chalk or disappearing ink. Be sure to mark all of the tucks as well.
Pin the top fabric to the bottom fabric with the right sides facing and piping sandwiched in between. Pin along the lines you marked, keeping the tucks where you want them.
Using a sewing machine, sew 2/3 of the way around this seam, leaving a large enough opening to insert the foam cushion. Trim away all excess fabric, leaving a seam allowance of about 1/2".
Turn the cover right side out and insert the foam cushion. Hand stitch the remaining opening closed.
Step 34: Sit Down
Randy (randofo) and Gary (thirtytwooutside) take a well earned break from setting up for San Mateo Maker Faire 2012 by sitting on the claw foot bath tub couch.
Kelley (icantbelieveshehasnousername) lies back and reads a book on a sunny California day many months later when I finally got around to properly photo-documenting this project in it's final form.
Send me a PM or comment below if you have any questions about the tub. It was a lot of work, but a great build.