need powerful cleaner for grimy-looking old bathtub

Santa Barbara County, CA(Zone 9a)

Our home came with a tub that -- despite being scrubbed and clean on the surface -- looks dirty and stained. The tub hasn't been replaced since our house was built in the late 1920s, so this is accumulated grime that seems to have sunk below the surface. I've scrubbed and scrubbed, and tried a number of cleaning products with no success. The tub still looks grey and dirty -- yuck!

Has anyone found a product or cleaning technique that would be able to clean away 80+ years of "subsurface" grime? I've tried all the name-brand products and several infomercial-type products. I'm thinking I probably need some heavy-duty product from a building supplies store.

Albany (again), NY(Zone 5b)

Would you feel better if you got a new tub, instead? Might be that after almost a century, it's time for a new tub.

Clinton, IN(Zone 5b)

You may have to get it resurfaced if you really want to keep the old tub. I have a similar situation with my tub and can't afford the cost of resurfacing. It's an old cast iron antique that has a porcelain surface. The problem is that over time they can become pitted and dirt and grime sticks to this and will not come out. The only thing that brightens it at all is toilet bowl cleaner and I only did this once (because of my mom's recommending it) because it caused the pits to get worse. Sorry I don't have better news for you.

Santa Barbara County, CA(Zone 9a)

sbarr, I had to laugh when I read what you said. Of course I'd prefer a new tub! :-) Unfortunately, DH doesn't agree with me about the tub ("it still works and you know it actually IS clean, so what's the problem?"). And, since we do have quite a list of more pressing things that we need (new fence, new roof, etc.), I doubt I'll get a new tub anytime soon. In the meantime, I have to put up with this grotty ole thing! (Why oh why did I ever agree to buy an older house just because it was "had potential"? Was I nuts?)

flowerchild, hmmm.... if resurfacing is expensive, it ain't gonna get done at our place either! Your suggestion about the toilet bowl cleaner is interesting. We don't have any "pits" so I'll give it a try. Here's hoping that you somehow get either a new tub or your existing tub resurfaced!

San Antonio, TX(Zone 8b)

Resurfacing, when properly done, is a good solution. The surface is first prepared by a grinding/sanding process that removes the damaged porcelain and pits down to the base core. It is important to allow the new coating adequate time to cure. I had a tub redone in an older house several years ago and was quite pleased with the results.

Lyndonville, NY

I have a terrible time getting a tub clean with grease stains and farm dirty issues, and found that Bam really does a good job. I had tried so many other products and didn't have luck at all and ended up with awful residue or gritty feelings. I spray the Bam on, let it sit a few minutes and clean off with hot water and a sponge.

I am sure you tried the fill the tub with hot water and bleech already. Resurfacing might be your only other option if the above doesn't help.

Santa Barbara County, CA(Zone 9a)

Yuska, I'll check out the resurfacing. But the cost will probably be prohibitive right now (as it is for a new tub).

DDaisy, thanks for the idea about the Bam. I'll give it (and the toilet cleaner, mentioned above) a try.

Thanks, everyone! I knew DGers would come through for me!


Orrville, OH(Zone 5b)

I tried everything on my old tub. A few products helped after lots of hard work and only stayed clean a short time. Finally I found the Mr. Clean magic eraser. It was easy to use, had no stronge chemicals and best of all, after more then a year with no further use, the tub is still clean!

Juneau, AK

Mr. Clean erasers are definitely magic! If that doesn't work I hope you can sock a few bucks away each month and refinish the tub. Usually that is way more cost effective than replacement because installation isn't cheap. Besides, the old tubs keep the water hot much longer. When we replaced the old metal tub in our old house with the new fiberglass tub, I was really disappointed at how quickly the water got cold. I like really long baths - preferably right after a shower. Go figure. This house has one hot tub, wired for a second, multiple heads in each shower, plus a garden tub. The plumber thought I had a water fetish! Okay, a little off topic but do try to save a few dollars each month towards resurfacing the tub. I do not think you will regret it later.

Emporia, KS(Zone 5b)

I can't help but wonder if cheap, old fashioned bleach might do the trick. Why not just try before getting it resurfaced? That sounds expensive.

Santa Barbara County, CA(Zone 9a)

Thanks for all the additional suggestions. Since I started this thread, I've tried the toilet cleaner, with no luck. I've tried bleach in the past, with no success. (These things clean the ordinary, surface soil just fine, but don't get out that "embedded" grime.) Next up is Bam and the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. I've got my fingers crossed that one of these will work.

Truthfully, I wish we could ditch this tub and build a huge, multiple-head shower for DH and a deep Japanese-style soaking tub for me. (Not likely to actually happen, as it would require major remodeling.) Years ago I house-sat for someone with a soaking tub and it was pure heaven! It stayed warm a long time and was the perfect place to bliss out for an hour or so.

Bloomingdale, OH(Zone 6a)

I've read about this product on several DIY type boards, but I have never tried it myself. From their website:

Tough as Tile

Brush-on Tough as Tile is a two part epoxy coating for refinishing and restoring sinks, tubs and tile. This brush-on, self-leveling finish won't leave brush marks and produces a poreclain-like, high-gloss surface that remains beautiful for years. Tough as Tile stands up to hot water and can be colored using universal tinting systems.

2-part epoxy coating
Self-leveling - leaves no brush marks
Brush-on application
Available in pint or quart sizes

Might be worth checking out.


Bureau County, IL(Zone 5a)

I'm guessing your tub is porcelain and over the years, the finish has dulled and been partially, if not all, been removed. Refinishing it is truly the only way to go. As an old house lover (ours was built in 1896), I really beg you not to destroy the original beauty of the home. We live in a really small town (7600) and I must have looked at 25 old houses before we bought this one. Because all the others didn't have that potential. They'd been hacked up and modernized. And to me, that's just a shame. Live in it and learn to love the character that it has. Something you won't find in a new house.


Emporia, KS(Zone 5b)

amen, terry...our house was built in 1902, I believe, and we just LOVE the original woodwork.

Silver Lake, OH(Zone 5b)

We used to get rust out with SnoBol toilet cleaner - they're not all the same product... read the ingredients.

You might want to check with a professional cleaning chemical company and ask for industrial grade sodium hypochlorite (same as bleach but not nearly so diluted).

REMEMBER: NEVER MIX BLEACH AND ANYTHING BUT ESPECIALLY NEVER MIX BLEACH AND AMMONIA. They create a poison gas that can kill you before you even realize you've made a mistake.

I hope something works for you. These are extreme measures as they can mess with the finish on an enamel tub so try them on an inconspicuous spot first before going whole shebang.

Let us know what works for you.

Bureau County, IL(Zone 5a)

cjolene, I too love this old wood work! As a matter of fact, I'm strippin 3 doors and the wood work in the spare bedroom. After that I only have 1 more area where a PO painted the baseboards and and the attic door. Oh and the balcony door needs stripped also. If you find yourself in IL, just Dmail me, I'll give you directions and you can come help!! :o) Lot of work and boy does the house smell, but it sure is worth it! Here'a a shot of our dr, showing the built in cupboard and all the wood! This is the only room where the crown molding was removed from atop the windows.......and of course somebody at sometime, put carpet down everywhere, so most of the shoe mold or 1/4 (actually 3/4) round is gone. Someday, I'll get it all restored to how it should be!


Thumbnail by terryr
Lisbon, IA(Zone 5a)

Terryr, Great house!!! Stripping woodwork is one of the hardest things a person can do. What kind of stripper did you use?

Now all you need is some Bradbury and Bradbury wallpaper to bring out the Arts and Crafts style of your house. :) Can you tell that I want that kind of wallpaper, but alas, buying it would put me in the dog house with my husband, so.... Anyway, if you want to look at Bradbury and Bradbury's stuff.... Here's a link.

IA z5a

Bureau County, IL(Zone 5a)

Hi Diann, I'm using stripeez (sp?). Powerful stuff, strong stuff, nasty stuff, but I've tried others, the more natural kinds, but they just don't work. Plus I don't want to wait 24 hours for the stuff to work. I've stripped 3 doors in 2 days, so I can put up with the smell. I should say we put up with smell!

For me, it far easier on my pocket book to just paint. I painted all the rooms with BM historical colors. I get bored with wallpaper fairly quickly, trust me :o). I do thank you for the link. They do have some really neat paper!


Winchester, VA(Zone 6b)

I have an 80 year old tub that needs a new surface but since the OTHER bathroom is under heavy construction - it is not going to happen soon. My DD whose job it is to keep this one clean has found good value in using Fels Naptha bar straight with a 3m scrubber pad. She scrubs it on - leaves it a bit -scrubs some more and rinses. Nothing else touched it.

Frankfort, KY

I had the bathtub in my master bath resurfaced by a pro five years ago. It cost $225 and still looks brand new. For an extra $225 I also had the tile surround resurfaced. If you can't find a pro in your town, call your local hotels/motels and ask who they use. That's what I did.

Tiffin, OH(Zone 6a)

In the past people sometimes used the bathtub to soak laundry. The town I grew up in had a foundry and a chronic problem with older tubs was that the finish was permanently etched from the acidic carbon dust in their clothes. Left the surface grey and dull no matter how hard you scrubbed. Refinishing is really the only solution- especially if the old tub is a footed one or one of those great "extra-deep" ones you just don't see anymore. Ours was footed and mom painted the exterior navy blue and it was fabulous. Worth the cost of refinishing!

Greensboro, AL

old bathtubs. many have not been exposed to comet cleanser and will actually clean up quite well. If they have had a cleaning lady addicted to Comet--forget it. You need a new tub. Also, chlorine is corrosive and should not be used on old porcelain.

A good old tub, though, should not be replaced. Most of the scrunge can be removed with a steam cleaner. Work in a small figure eight motion. It may take a few sessions for a really bad surface. You will be surprised at the silky finish the steamer produces. Baking soda, Bon Ami, or Barkeepers Friend in that order can be used if necessary. Don't use abrasives or chlorine on old porcelain. Museums have protocols for various historic surfaces. Im sure you can find conservators who outline these protocols on the web. So far as I can tell the magic eraser does not scratch. Test in an inconspicuous place before using on an old surface.

Auburn, AL(Zone 8a)

oven cleaner is a trick I used when I was cleaning college dorm apartments

Dublin, CA(Zone 9a)

gloria's right about the bleach, if you use it on old tubs that have cast iron underneath the finish it'll cause rusty stains. I just found this thread today when it got resurrected, but if you haven't done anything to the tub yet there's a DIY resurfacing product called Klenk's Tub & Tile or something like that, it's an epoxy paint and costs about $30, they make one for porcelain and one for fiberglass. I used it on a fiberglass shower pan and it was very easy and worked nicely, just make sure you read it carefully so you get the right one for your surface--the fiberglass one won't work on porcelain and vice versa.

Victoria Harbour, ON

I purchased a product which was quite reasonable at Home work so I'm not sure of the name but I think it is Zip or Zep anyway will check tonight and will post tomorrow...just spraying it did the work....tub sparkled and was similar to yours!

Auburn, AL(Zone 8a)

if the stains are mineral deposits use's a great product.

Seward, AK(Zone 3b)

Our old clawfoot tub has a pretty rough surface, and we have well water, so rust builds up. From time to time, I fill the tub with hot water and add about a half container of 'Iron Out' to the water. I let it sit for several hours, then drain and rinse. The rust seems to settle as a dark residue in the bottom of the tub, but rinses away. We also use it in our toilet tanks periodically, as well.

Windham, NY(Zone 4b)

i have a porcelaine tub too. and i have hard water. i use liquid dishwasher detergent (cascade) about once a month. i rub it all over the tub and let it sit for a few hours. rinse away. use it on my sink too. i hate using bleach because no matter how careful i am i always ruin my clothes.

Seward, AK(Zone 3b)

That's worth a try. It must be cheaper than the Iron Out.

Lisbon, IA(Zone 5a)

I have an old clawfoot tub that we had refinished. The darn thing still would stain, and it was at the point where I was going to order a new clawfoot and have this one junked. The inside looked to have permanent bathtub rings. I tried everything, 409, bleach, scrub-free gel, Clorox gel, method products and nothing would work.

So, as I was scrubbing away, I saw the SnoBowl sitting there and I decided, what the heck. I had tried various other toilet cleaners on it to no avail, so I didn't hold out much hope. I rinsed the tub and I coated it in SnoBowl and went in to play on the computer to give it time to work. Well, I forgot about it, and finally remembered it about 3 hours later, went in the a the tub was beautiful and white. :) I was one happy camper no scrubbing and beautiful clean white tub. My tub has a build in tub mat for safety and that was SnoBowl blue, but some Clorox cleaning gel to care of that in about 30 minutes.

So, you might try SnoBowl and leave it work for a few hours and see what it does..


Greensboro, AL

Those products you are talking about are too strong for old porcelain surfaces. Unfortunately, most of these old clawfoots have been destroyed by the products used on them, not by being subjected to normal use.
If you want to use these products you should buy a new tub, and give your claw foot porcelain fixtures to someone who would appreciate them.

Lisbon, IA(Zone 5a)

Gloria, I seriously considered buying a new cast iron claw-foot tub, but since my old refinished one cleaned up so nicely, I don't have to. Thanks, tho. :)


Seward, AK(Zone 3b)

I know that the old toilet bowl cleaners ate the surface off porcelain, but I think the newer ones are a different formula, less caustic. Either way, I think you could be eating the hide right off your tub, Diann, but if it works for you, that's great. Since it won't clean up with anything else, it sounds like it needed refinishing anyway, so this will buy you a bit more time, at the very least.

Lisbon, IA(Zone 5a)

Weezer, you could be right about it eating the hide, but if it does the tub can be refinished again or I can get the new cast iron soaker tub that I've been drooling over. :)


Bureau County, IL(Zone 5a)

My parents own some C-stores and of course they have bathrooms. Way back when, I had to clean both. Men's were so gross, I'd squirt the toilet bowl cleaner onto the floor. Recently I had a discussion with my brother and he told me the rep told him (again just recently) to clean grout and various other things, toilet bowl cleaner did the best job. My MIL has been cleaning her cast iron tub forever with toilet bowl cleaner and it looks good. She said it's the only thing to keep her tub looking white.

Whittier, CA

I don't think that anyone mentioned the good old fashioned pumice stone.
I've used it all the time for stains in the toilet & tub. Says on the label that it
won't hurt porcelain. No nasty chemicals to deal with either.

Kirksville, MO

Quote from terracotta :
Our home came with a tub that -- despite being scrubbed and clean on the surface -- looks dirty and stained. The tub hasn't been replaced since our house was built in the late 1920s, so this is accumulated grime that seems to have sunk below the surface. I've scrubbed and scrubbed, and tried a number of cleaning products with no success. The tub still looks grey and dirty -- yuck!

Has anyone found a product or cleaning technique that would be able to clean away 80+ years of "subsurface" grime? I've tried all the name-brand products and several infomercial-type products. I'm thinking I probably need some heavy-duty product from a building supplies store.

I recently read on a forum that someone used alum powder to clean an antique clawfoot tub. Another post said borax. Both posters said the products worked beautifully. When the tub is very old it is difficult to get it looking new.

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