Glass With Class
By Tim Dunn
Old House Journal
If the kitchen of your old house is finished in structural glass, you may not always count yourself lucky. Sipping a big cup of coffee at your kitchen table on Saturday morning, perhaps you look around and conclude that your walls definitely need a good cleaning and some cracked tiles could use repairing. Maybe you think it's such an unworkable, impossible nightmare that you don't know how to begin.
Be of good cheer; you're not alone. You're one of a long line of Vitrolite or Carrara kitchen owners (the material's best-known brand names) facing insensitive contractors who want to "rip the stuff out and start from scratch." Hold your ground. If the charm of the glass wasn't the reason you bought your house, you've probably come to love the stuff because it's so easy to clean and so graceful with its smooth, wavy reflective quality.
Vitrolite and Carrara kitchens respond well to the ministrations of today's respectful homeowners and craftspeople who have the patience and information to bring the installation back to its original grandeur. Here are the techniques I use to restore structural glass kitchens.
Improving the appearance and surface condition of the glass is the least complicated (and therefore least expensive) course of action a homeowner can choose. If you want to upgrade the look of your kitchen without making any radical changes, evaluate and address these areas.
Clean the Glass If you're like many structural-glass kitchen owners, you may never have cleaned your installation. It's a daunting task, but you'll be amazed at the gleam and twinkle that results. Do a test in a single, inconspicuous section, Wipe it down with window cleaner or a vinegar-and-water solution. If you like what you see, continue and move on to the joints.
|If just a few of your structural glass tiles are broken, you may be able to replace them with undamaged tiles from elsewhere in the kitchen. Here the author scores grout (above left) in order to remove a broken tile. Before reinstallation, he cleans adhesive remaining on the wall (above right) then repairs and primes the plaster (left).|
Clean the Joints In an old kitchen, a lot of cooking grease accumulates on tile joints,. The "grout" is actually glazing compound that is often tinted to match the color of the glass. Try removing the grease nu wiping the joints with a rag soaked in paint thinner; it may take several passes. If the joints don't improve, use the paint thinner to soften the glazing compound. Then score the glazing compound with a utility knife, following the edge of the glass chamfer. Remove as much residue as you can, but don't get too aggressive beaus you will chip the edges. Scoring will create a clean space in these skinny joints (there is generally no spacer) where you can then wipe in new latex caulk the color of your choice. Make sure you have softened the glazing compound before you score; otherwise the compound will scallop (chip or flake) the edge of the glass as you remove it.
Replace Broken Tiles If you have a source of new glass, such as tiles salvaged from elsewhere in the kitchen, it is possible to replace unsightly damaged tiles by working carefully with hand tools (see photos). Cracked tiles can usually be removed by softening the cutting the joints, then removing the tile with a suction cup or by breaking it in pieces. Wear gloves and eye protection and remember This is glass. When you remove the pieces, secure the adjoining undamaged tiles by squeezing adhesive caulk behind their edges.
RENOVATION AND REMODELING
Kitchens are one of the trickiest places to balance historic features with modern convenience. If you are contemplating a kitchen upgrade, as yourself whether you can add a satisfactory number of fixtures and cabinets without disturbing the glass tile installation -- that is, removing tiles. For example, consider buying moveable appliances (most obviously dishwashers) or cabinets (such as an antique chiffonier). If you are working with an outside designer (many kitchen cabinet suppliers employ one) be prepared to insist that you want to keep your Vitrolite or Carrara. Convince them that the material is adaptable. In St. Louis, we've worked beautifully around many types of kitchen designs. The owners got a kitchen with all the modern amenities while keeping the original look. Watch the Dimensions The first point to remember about installing around structural glass is that the standard dimensions -- typically 3/4" from the glass face to the existing substrate -- differ from other building materials. This will vary, though, because the glass tiles were often used to correct uneven or out-of-plumb walls. In fact, this was one of the product's mail selling points, along with being easy to clean and never needing a paint job.
|Vitrolite is scored for cutting (above), similar to ceramic tile or window glass. Dunn then applies mastic with an electrically heated scoop applicator (above right) before installing the tile on the primed wall (right).|
Plan for Removing Tiles Put up a cardboard template of your new cabinets along the space where they will be installed, and note the areas where you must fasten them to the wall. You'll need to remove the glass tiles in these sections so you can replace them with pieces of plywood that are just a bit thinner than the distance from the face of the glass to the substrate. Leave a 2" space all around the perimeter of the plywood so that when you reinstall glass tiles, you can slip them behind the cabinets, making them look like they are original.
You many also have to remove tiles to rework plumbing, venting and supply lines, or to install new electrical outlets. Kitchens from the 1930s and Œ40s--the heyday or structural glass -- usually don't have enough receptacles for today's appliances. Record the placement of the tiles on the walls by marking each tiles with a code (letters, numbers) and transferring them to a drawing of the installation on a big piece of paper. You might also want to take a photograph before you start disassembling. When you're ready to replace the tiles, you'll be able t see which pieces go on which wall.
Seek Salvage As you proceed, note where you can possibly salvage tiles -- behind new cabinets is an obvious place. During reinstallation, you'll need all the extra pieces you can afford to leave off now. You may think you have plenty, but some will get broken during cleaning. While the pieces are off, clean the old glue from their backs and any old adhesive from the walls.
Another issue is culling tiles that have "pinked up." This discoloration appears where windows have allowed ultraviolet light to strike glass on the opposite wall. Keep any such tiles separate. It may be possible to retile that area with undamaged glass, saving the pinked-up tiles for low places where they are less visible and not exposed to additional sunlight.
Consider the Counter There are two different methods for butting countertops to glass-tile walls (where the glass is serving as a backsplash). One is to first install the countertop -- whether laminate, granite, marble or another material -- on the cabinet box, then bring the glass tiles down to the top of the counter. The other is to reinstall the tiles behind the base cabinetry then install the counter up to the tile. Either way, remove only those tiles that are necessary to install the new cabinets and counters. Note that you can bore holes in Vitrolite or Carrara by using carbide-tipped drill bits, working at slow speeds, and keeping the area of the hole wet.
Keep in mind that when restoring a structural glass kitchen, you are working on a puzzle, taking it apart, cleaning and improving the pieces, then putting the puzzle back together. That's what makes the process challenging and even fun. At the same time you are preserving one of the features that makes your house unique and appealing -- a conversation piece that's an increasingly rare bit of history.