Monday, December 17, 2012


Aside from my usual grumbling over Hewlett Packard products, I seldom mention brand names in this blog.  Today, however, I’m going to mention a whole raft of them.  Before I’m accused of selling out, though, let me say that none of the firms I mention have paid me to drop their names, nor so much as taken me out to lunch.  Just for future reference, however, I could probably be bought off with a nice fresh rhubarb pie.  

Today’s building materials market is flooded with newcomer brands.  While choice and competition are generally a good thing, the current galaxy of choices in the building field is largely among a whole raft of Johnny-Come-Lately manufacturers, many based overseas, whose main objective is simply to cash in on America’s vast home-improvement market.  This unpleasant fact ought to make consumers think twice before purchasing brands they’ve never heard of before, no matter how slickly advertised.

Quite a few American brands, by comparison, have histories dating back a century or more. While a distinguished past doesn’t necessarily guarantee modern worth--as General Motors can amply attest--there’s nevertheless no substitute for long experience. And there are plenty of experienced old brands to go around.  

One well-known American plumbing fixture maker, for example, traces its lineage back to 1872, when John B. Pierce opened a tinware shop in Ware, Massachusetts. Pierce later founded one of three firms that merged in 1892 to form the American Radiator Company.  In 1929, American Radiator in turn merged with The Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company. By the eve of World War II, products from this unwieldy new combine--it was not called American-Standard until 1948--could be found in about half the homes in the U.S.. 

Just as venerable a name in plumbing is the company founded by 29-year-old Austrian immigrant John Michael Kohler in 1873 to produce cast iron and steel farm implements. In 1883 Kohler applied a baked enamel coating to one of his company’s horse trough/hog scalders, thus creating the first Kohler bathtub. 

Other old hands in the building industry include the window manufacturer Anderson, founded in 1903 by Danish immigrant Hans Andersen and his family in Hudson, Wisconsin.  In 1932, in the very depths of the Depression, Anderson introduced the first fully assembled window unit in the industry.  This was a revolutionary idea in a day when windows were either shipped in pieces, or else were locally built from scratch.  

Another familiar name in windows got its start in 1925, when Pete and Lucille Kuyper founded a small Des Moines company to manufacture a novel type of window screen that retracted onto a roller.  The Kuypers’s Rolscreen Company moved to Pella, Iowa, the following year, began manufacturing wood windows, and the rest is history.

Innovations, whether large or small, have been central to the rise of the companies recounted above.  Next time we’ll look at a few more such stalward American brands, some of whom essentially invented their own industries.  So take note, industry reps--there’s still time to get me that rhubarb pie.

Monday, December 3, 2012


People do lots of thinking when they remodel a bathroom.  They agonize over colors, countertop materials, and choosing the latest lavatory sink, but too often, they overlook the kind of improvements that would matter most. 

Simply upgrading your bathroom with fancy fixtures and materials won’t do a thing to improve its function.  You’ll just be trading a lousy old bathroom for a lousy new one.  So make sure you don’t miss these basics:

•  Don’t rule out relocating a toilet, a sink, or even a bathtub if doing so would definitely improve the room’s layout.  The old notion that moving plumbing fixtures will break the bank simply isn’t true in most cases--in a major bathroom remodel, the biggest expense is in finishes, not in rough plumbing. 

A common example:  Building codes allow a toilet to be centered in a space as little as thirty inches wide.  Yet many older bathrooms have much more space than that between the toilet and adjoining cabinets or walls.  In a case like this, moving the toilet to the modern minimum may gain you a nice chunk of counter space. 

•  Stay away from hard-to-clean fixtures, no matter how fashionable.  The usual suspects include topmount lavatory sinks, whose raised rims prevent puddled water from being wiped directly into the sink.  And the cleaning headaches inherent in those oh-so-trendy free-standing-bowl style sinks hardly need pointing out.

Likewise, while sparkling glass shower enclosures look great in designer magazines, in real life they’re a drudge to keep clean.  For my money, a shower curtain--which won’t obstruct the room when not in use, and which can be easily replaced--is a more practical choice.

•  In the shower, provide a niche for storing shampoo bottles and the like. Make sure the soap dish is high enough to avoid the need to stoop down, and provide a hook or bar for hanging a washcloth.  A small built-in bench or at least a ledge will be welcome, too.

•  Set aside some wall space for both 18-inch wide face towel bars and 24-inch bath towels. Ideally, the bath towels should be within arm’s length of the tub or shower, and the face towels should be right beside the lavatory sink.  If space is tight, either can be mounted on the inside of the bathroom door, or you can use towel rings instead.

•  Building codes require an exhaust fan only if the bathroom doesn’t have an openable window, but you should plan to include one regardless.  Insist on a top-quality, super-quiet model--not one of those howling bargain-basement jobs.  Better yet, consider a remote-mounted fan, which will be even quieter. 

•  If the bathroom feels cramped but there’s no way to physically enlarge it, try an optical illusion:  Use a large sheet mirror on the wall behind the lavatory, extending from corner to corner and from countertop to ceiling, to visually double the room’s volume.  Although it takes a little extra effort to incorporate a mirror this big, the result is far more dramatic than the usual scrap of mirror screwed to the wall.

•  Lastly, don’t forget storage for bulky items like toilet paper.  To this end, a vanity cabinet is more practical than a pedestal sink, though it may not necessarily suit the style of your house.  Here again, you might wish to trade fashion for function.