The P-Trap Predicament

A few weeks ago the p-trap under the sink in the master bathroom of the big grey house sprang a leak. Periodic plumbing mishaps are a predictable part of the restoration process. Fixtures and appliances that have been out of service for a while often work just after being revived, but then fail or quit soon thereafter. This phenomenon occurs frequently enough that it is proverbial: “Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved.” – Matthew 9:17. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the wisdom: something is going to give way when old and new come together.

The p-trap, for those of you who don’t regularly stick your head under sinks, is the piece of drain-side plumbing that looks like the letter P on its side. The job of a p-trap is to hold water (at the bottom of the p) and keep sewer gas from entering the room. I bet you never knew how much gratitude the oft-forgotten little p-trap deserves! Some older houses have s-traps. These aren’t used any more because water can get siphoned out of them, allowing that odiferous sewer gas to leak out.

Here is how my repair adventure unfolded:

Below is the p-trap as I found it. Someone had put a divider in the middle of the sink – perhaps the relic of a long-forgotten marital turf war – that had to be removed.

Next, I disconnected the drain stop attachment. You’ll notice that unlike modern plumbing that uses a thin metal strap, this system uses hinged armature all the way from the knob behind the sink to the tailpiece. The tailpiece is first length of drain pipe after the sink that incorporates the drain stop.

Using a pipe wrench I removed the p-trap itself. Because the trap holds water I put an old towel down. As you can see, the metal had begun to fail at the bottom of the trap.

Even before the leak, the sink had been draining very slowly …I found out why. Among the collective grossness was a lot of decomposed latex paint. It’s ok to wash your brush in the sink after painting but avoid dumping extra paint down the drain, especially if your drain piping is crusty old cast iron or galvanized steel.

I wanted to save as much of the older chromed plumbing as possible so I cleaned the removed pieces with Barkeeper’s Friend. The results speak for themselves.

I got a new p-trap at Jno S Solenberger & Co. Inc off Berryville Avenue for a bank-breaking $2. Installing a new p-trap is just a matter of loose-fitting the pieces together with the appropriate washers (included) and then wrenching fixture together. From experience, I recommend tightening plastic fittings firmly but not to Schwarzenegger-esq tolerances. For the next day or so, look for minor leakage and re-tighten as need be.


With the new trap in place, I used the Barkeeper’s Friend again to clean up the sink. But just when I was ready to congratulate myself….

The tailpiece started leaking where the armature for the drain stop enters. Son of a P-trap! Old + new = oh, no!

Most likely my extraction of the p-trap was the last straw for the old washer around the stopper. When I took a closer look, the it was barely recognizable as rubber. It looked more like a substance in which the Empire would encase Han Solo.

Desperate to finish the project, I rushed to my local big box store and grabbed a replacement tailpiece and sped home again. I tore open the plastic – and stopped. The replacement was an abomination of cheap, brittle plastic that weighed less than half a pound!

I couldn’t do it. The old fixture worked for at least fifty years. I just couldn’t replace the noble old steel pieces with toy-grade plastic! That’s not the Virginia Dwelling way! How dare I even consider casting aside this piece of classic American craftsmanship with a mass-manufactured imposter?

I gathered myself and cleaned the carcass of the old washer out of the nut that holds the stopper in place and, while I was at an inspection, my dad when back to Solenberger’s and got a fresh new washer.

The whole tailpiece was covered in the calcium / lime build-up that our hard Winchester water endues, but a few turns on the bench-grinder scrubbed it clean.

With the new washer in place and the leaks quelled, I can only hope that the next person to fix the sink will have the same revelation that I did.