Happy New Year! A trip down memory lane…
This month I want to share some interesting tidbits (smaller than nuggets) I’ve learned over the years in the plumbing industry.
Some of my earliest memories are being on jobsites with my father Adrian, who passed away at the age of 92 in March 2016. What I’m remembering may have been as early as 1959 or as late as 1962 on a Saturday morning in the community of Fletcher Hills in San Diego County. I don’t know if hubless pipe and fittings were available, but I remember on this particular job Dad and his brother Cecil (Kirk Brothers’ Plumbing) were installing the DWV system with hub & spigot cast iron. How do I remember something that took place 55 years ago? I was tasked with cutting the 25 lb pigs of lead into 5 lb. ingots (Fig. 1) to be melted in the lead pot sitting atop a butane fired burner.
Once the joints had been assembled, which includes packing them nice and tight with oakum (described as oil impregnated jute), it was time to pour the lead into the joint.
Before we talk about pouring molten lead at a temperature somewhere north of 620 degrees Fahrenheit, bear with me while I talk a little bit more about oakum. Like many novices I never really understood what oakum was or why it was used in these joints. Maybe it was used to reduce the volume of lead required. When I finally asked, my father explained that what sealed the joint was actually the oakum. The lead was there to make sure the oakum remained in place. The oakum kept the joint from leaking because when it gets wet it actually expands into the joint and seals it off. Long before oakum was used in these plumbing joints it had been used to seal imperfections and cracks in boat hulls where the water would cause it to swell and seal the hull.
The lead pot mentioned earlier holds about 15 lbs of molten lead. After removing the dross (impurities) which accumulate on the surface of the molten lead, using a ladle you scoop up two- or three pounds of the molten lead and carefully carry it to where the joint is being made, where it is poured into the void between the pipe and the hub.
After the sizzle and smoke are gone but while the lead is still in a sort of putty consistency, a three- or four-pound single jack is used to strike a convex tool, looking somewhat like a fat blunt chisel, to compact and compress the lead to keep the oakum from expanding out of the joint. This is aided by a “lead groove” in the hub (Fig. 2) that keeps the monolithic pour of lead from being pushed out of the hub.
Imagine, if you can, what it would be like to do that all day long; not just pouring the joints but carrying, positioning, supporting or strapping all that cast iron pipe and fittings. On average, cast iron pipe weighs eight- to 10 times as much per foot as schedule 40 solid core ABS or PVC pipe. My father and other plumbers like him had forearms like Popeye from loading and unloading, wrestling the pipe and fittings into alignment and then swinging the single jack to the caulking irons to finish the joints off. Look at their hands and you wonder who won the fight. If I had to guess it probably took 10- to 15 minutes to complete each joint.
Of course, that is if the joint is vertical. You might also have a joint that was at a 45-, or 60-degree angle, completely horizontal or the worst is if it was inverted. It might be obvious but just in case you can’t picture it, any joint, except vertical, is a problem because when pouring the molten metal there has to be something to keep the lead in the joint.
To pour a lead joint from horizontal up to but not including vertical requires a way to stop or dam the lead from escaping. Someone came up with tool to do that and it became known as a “joint runner” or “running rope.” The joint runner would be wrapped around the pipe, tapped up against the joint with an opening formed and secured by the clamps attached to the tool. (See a video of the process by clicking here.) Later someone came up with a tool that was adjustable, then there were tools that were individually sized for at least two- through four-inch pipe. (Fig. 3).
We mentioned earlier an inverted joint is the toughest and thankfully with good planning you can probably avoid them, but every once in a while you won’t be able to escape it. No doubt considerable thinking was involved, but eventually a clever plumber came up with a way to pour a lead joint upside down. Subsequently others came up with additional ways. However, when you take look at the image and understand that each way is a variation of the original method where you rely on the concept of a liquid seeking it own level in a vessel or a tube connected to that vessel.
One thing I forgot to mention was how cast iron pipe is or was cut. Now there are high-speed cutoff saws and other ratcheting tools but originally cast iron pipe was cut by the hammer and chisel method: scoring it all the way around several times and eventually it will separate along the path you made. This method and almost all others that use an “impact” or “squeeze,” work because cast iron, in any form, is extremely brittle. So be careful, use eye protection and maybe some leather gloves.
Last of all how you cut and sometimes assemble cast iron pipe will depend a lot on where it is. It may be six feet down in a two-foot wide ditch, under a house in a 16- or 20-inch crawlspace, in a basement tight against a foundation or in an attic right on top of a rafter. Plumbers who have worked in those locations and conditions many times find it challenging and may come away with a few mashed digits.
If you ever meet an old-time plumber, thank ‘em for their hard work while blazing the trail so many of us followed.