Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Basin Wrenches

Before You Change that Next Faucet, Pick up a Basin Wrench

Unless you've done something more than the simplest of plumbing jobs, you probably still grumble about how much a plumber's time is worth, at least according to their bills. If, however, your "vast" experience goes beyond installing a new valve or flapper in your toilet tank or replacing a leaky faucet washer, you may know better. Once you get beyond the jobs you can complete standing up, you start to appreciate the skill of trained plumbers; perhaps even more so a trained plumber's collection of tools.

The average would-be home decorator just waves a manicured hand at the crudded-up old faucets in your kitchen or bathroom and informs you that the room will "look all new" if you merely swap out in new faucets. OK, there's truth in that statement... Once you've found a replacement set that suits both d├ęcor and budget and bring it home, the true fun begins.  If your old faucets are more than about fifteen years old (and whose aren't?) you are about to find out why a plumber makes the big bucks. You'll be on your back in a dark, probably damp space beneath a sink, staring at the nuts where the supply lines connect to the underside of your old faucet, wondering just how the hell you'll ever be able to get a wrench on a grody old nut in a space 3"wide and 30" over your head. Yours truly has been there: I've replaced faucets in five kitchen sinks and something like fifteen bathroom sinks in five different houses (one more than 100 years old) The secret? a basin wrench. I even own two: my Dad's ancient wrench that I inherited a few years ago is a Stanley that's probably seventy years old, but it looks almost exactly like the one I bought in a local BigBox store in this century. I guess the classics never go out of style.

Speaking of how much plumbers charge:

A corporate lawyer was making small talk with a plumber at the neighborhood barbecue and asked the man how much he charged.
"It depends. I get $65 to replace a faucet washer, a job I can do in about six minutes. That works out to $650 per hour."
The lawyer sputtered, "You're kidding! I only charge $500 per hour!"
"I know just what you mean," the plumber told him, "That's what I charged when I was a lawyer." 


Basin wrenches are specifically designed to reach deep into dark, tight places, like up behind a sink basin. They have long shanks to supply the reach necessary to clear the sink bottom and a sliding bar at right angles on the bottom to supply the torque you need to loosen rusty old nuts. On the head end you'll find a wrench with one flat, fixed jaw and a spring-mounted movable jaw. The movable jaw opens enough to close on a 1" nut, either hex- or square-headed. The head assembly can pivot 180°, so you can flip it depending on whether you need to apply clockwise or counter-clockwise torque; the same as you reverse a pipe wrench which way you need to rotate a fixture.

There are hardened teeth on the wrench, which will chew up brass nuts just like pipe wrenches do; but that also makes them adjustable enough to grip rusty or damaged nuts. Either way, it's much easier to get a basin wrench onto a nut than to fish around in the darkness with adjustable or open-end wrenches. You're somewhat limited in how much torque you can apply, but the judicious application of WD-40 can help.

My wrenches both have a fixed-length 11" shank, but the high-end varieties come with telescoping shanks that will expand from 9" to in some cases 17"; which comes in handy if the faucet's mounted on a shelf above the vanity deck. Some models can accommodate larger nut sizes, up to 1½".

Next time you end up lying on your back fumbling around the J-trap, swearing and sweating while you desperately try to fit a wrench on the supply line, remember "basin wrench." If you're like me, you can always use an reason to buy a new tool!


PLUS: Standard size has good reach and fits common nut sizes
MINUS: Still have to fumble in the dark
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING: A basin wrench is a must if you want to change a faucet without scraping all your knuckles raw.

There are Basin Wrenches galore at eBay

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