Plumbum

Plumbers are called that because the Latin word for lead is “plumbum” (thus the atomic symbol Pb). Before my time, water lines were lead, because it is flexible. During my time, the joints in cast iron drain and waste pipes (the “DW” of “DWV” – vents are another story) were made of oakum (oil-impregnated hemp) and lead tamped into a hub. One pipe fit inside of the hub of the other and sat on the bottom of the hub. Once the joint was ½ filled with oakum (tamped in with a yarning iron), one melted lead in a crucible (or a ladle if using a small amount) and poured the molten lead into the joint over the oakum. After a few minutes to cool, one pounded the lead into the joint with a set of caulking irons (one beveled to match the inner edge of the hub, one beveled for the outer edge, and one flat for the middle). This was much of the craft of plumbing. If one had sense, one wore a respirator while melting lead. We also soldered copper tubing for vents and smaller drains, as well as all water lines.

Lead was removed from some solder years ago. When I was working it was still legal to use lead solder – 50% lead/50% tin) for drains but not for water. People used it because it melts at a lower temperature and is therefore easier to use in larger joints. Rather than take the chance of grabbing the wrong spool, I never used lead solder. (Also because lead in the environment is not a good thing, even if not being added to drinking water lines. In theory, lead in a soldered joint should not get into the water once in use. In a caulked waste line, it is even farther from the water.) Lead-free solder contains silver (and several other metals) and is more expensive. Don’t tell my boss I always used the high-priced spread.

It is a craft rapidly disappearing. My toilet was leaking. The toilet seals to the waste pipe with a wax ring. Usually, a slow drip that only occurs when (or just after) you flush the toilet is caused by a leaky wax ring. Replacing it is simple.

I pulled my toilet and found that the joint between the closet flange (the thing the toilet is bolted to) and the closet bend (the pipe that it attached to and which hauls away the waste) was, itself, loose and leaking. I pulled it off (which should not be possible) and found no lead or oakum in the joint. Some dried crud (which may have been old plumber’s putty – made for sealing the drain to the bottom of your sink, not for sealing a toilet drain) fell out. I was amazed that the toilet hadn’t leaked long before.

I no longer have access to a yarning iron, caulking irons, a ladle for lead. I don’t have lead and oakum lying around. This called for a plumber. But wait! Aren’t I a plumber? Not any more. One of the plumbers I called (a big service company) had no idea what I was talking about. Apparently the craft has died out in their firm. I found a guy who trained under an old friend of mine (a retired plumber my age) and he came to the rescue. (Truth be told, I called him first and he was busy for a couple weeks and advised calling the Big Guys.) The trade as I knew it is not dead yet.

Gluing together plastic drain tubing and snapping together plastic water lines are totally different skills than in my day when we soldered copper and poured lead joints in cast iron. (Okay – in new work I didn’t use lead. We used “No-hub” pipe which fastened with neoprene seals inside of a stainless steel collar applied with a torque wrench. We did still pour lead for repairs and setting toilets.) Damn! I must be old.

Probably more than you want to know about plumbing. If your eyes didn’t glaze over, thanks! We turn on the tap and assume water will come out. We flush the toilet and assume shit will disappear. We seldom think about the before and after. Just doin’ my part…I got stories would make your hair curl, but discretion is the better part of valor;)

“An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.” John W. Gardner, in Excellence: Can we be equal and excellent too?

RIP Robert Marchand

I’m a little late hearing the news, but Robert Marchand has died at the age of 109. Marchand died, according to the Washington Post, on May 22, 2021.

From CapoVelo.com – Marchand sets the hour record.

I first heard of him when he set the Hour Record (distance riding a bike for one hour) for the >105 age group in 2017. After setting the record he said, “Now I’m waiting for a rival.” The Post says a coach told him to give up cycling in his youth because he was too small. He kept busy, as a truck driver in Venezuela, a logger in Canada, and a firefighter. He took up cycling again at age 68 and rode from Paris to Moscow at age 81 and set the 100km record in the over 100 age group. (Multiple sources include the same information word-for-word. The Post is credited because we saw it there first.)

Marchand, a longtime supporter of the French Communist Party, lived alone until last September when he moved into a senior facility. The director of the facility said he continued riding his exercise bike 20 minutes/day until the week before his death. His coach, Gerard Mistler, said he owed his longevity to a healthy lifestyle, eating a lot of fruits and vegetables, and enjoying wine and chocolate. (From GrandFondoGuide.com)

The right tool for the job

My father used to say “It is a poor workman who blames his tools”. (The saying, or variations, seems to date from the 13th century or before.) Maybe that’s how he justified using mostly a monkey wrench and a Vice Grips on nuts and bolts. I don’t recall him ever buying a tool. I was 18 before I realized that nails come from the hardware store. Before that I thought they came from the baby food jars in the garage. If the nail I needed wasn’t there, I went to the scrap lumber pile beside the garage, pounded a nail out of an old piece of wood, pounded it straight, and used that.

The flip side of that is “Use the right tool for the job.” I have favorite tools in all of my endeavors.

For cooking, it is the 8 inch French knife. Mine has a walnut handle that feels right in my hand. It is not the greatest of knives – it is stamped steel, which holds an edge well but doesn’t take an edge well. Forged steel is better, but this knife has been my companion for almost 50 years, since shortly after I no longer got paid for my knife skills, and my funds were limited (and I could get a massive discount on this particular brand due to my employer selling them). A KitchenAid stand mixer is probably my next favorite kitchen tool. Not used daily, like the knife, but pretty handy when I do use it.

Favorite plumbing tools include the Sawzall, which does what the name says. It will cut through framing, even with nails. It will cut pipe (better for removing old pipe than cutting new pipe, but it will cut copper, steel, cast iron, or plastic in a pinch). The ½ inch right angle drill will fit between studs and has enough torque to get through anything – mishandled, it can do damage – more to you than to the material. Add a Forstner bit (or the Plumber’s Self-feed Bit Kit) and you can make 2″ and larger holes in no time.

Pipe cutter image from Ridgid Tool (think of that as a 4″ diameter pipe to get an idea of scale), Drill image from Milwaukee Tool.

The hammer drill makes quick work of concrete when you could spend ridiculous amounts of time with a regular drill motor and a carbide bit, only to make a dent. The no-hub torque wrench is a simple and elegant tool – a T-handled wrench that tightens the couplings on cast iron pipe fittings and never overtightens. The cast iron pipe cutter beats the hell out of trying to saw through cast iron. It has a chain that wraps around the pipe, with cutting edges (vaguely similar to a chain saw) that bite into the iron. As you tighten it, the pipe suddenly snaps with a suitably straight end. (Torque wrench image from my toolbox.)

For winter biking I have written about favorites before (links to three different posts). The face deserves special consideration. Down to 20 degrees (F) I just use a tight-fitting, windproof cap that covers the ears and fits under a helmet. From 20 down to about 5 or 10 I add a silk balaclava that covers the chin and cheeks and can be pulled up to cover the nose and mouth if needed. From +5 to -20 it is a merino wool balaclava that covers the nose and has a breathing hole for the mouth (and if it is borderline too cold you can breathe inside of it to warm yourself instead of letting that heat escape). A pair of ski goggles gets added at this juncture. You can easily pay $200, $300, or more for ski goggles. Mine fit over glasses and currently sell for about $35 (Outdoor Master is the brand). I can’t find a justification for spending 10 times that much to get the brands the pro skiers wear. Colder than -20 degrees and I switch to a fleece balaclava that is otherwise way too warm. That seems to work to -30 and I haven’t ridden colder than that. I could probably fit the silk balaclava under the wool or fleece one to get colder. These temperature ranges may vary depending on the wind (and you – I see folks in goggles and balaclavas when it is barely freezing).

Ready to face -5 Fahrenheit (-20.5 C – you’ll have to convert the rest yourself)

Since we’re talking about serious cold, this is the weather to read Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire”. Full text is available here and it is a quick read. It is the story of a man, a dog, and a brutally cold day in Alaska.

Since this guy didn’t make it into the last post, I thought I’d add him today.

Now it’s your turn. What do you do and what is (are) your favorite tool(s) to do it with? Tell us in the comments.