jim sergovic plumber

Oatey Pipe Thread Sealant

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Decades ago while hand-threading five stories of 1″ steel pipe, a gas company employee shared a great product with me.  His fancy blue pipe dope to apply to pipe threads before screwing everything together.  Back in those days, I used grey pipe dope, or more often, white dope with teflon.  The blue stuff?  An expensive specialty item.

That gas company guy said they used only the blue stuff.  It was the best.  Pipes never leaked.  You did not have to tighten pipe like Hercules to get a good seal.  After my gifted can was empty, I bought another.  Two decades later I still buy the same pipe dope, Oatey MEGALOC.  Sometimes an even stronger product, Oatey Block, for larger or irregular pipe as well as specialty applications.  Made in the USA for professional plumbers worldwide.


Even if you are not a professional, just a guy who knows a lot about pipes, do yourself a favor.  Get an edge on every project.  The upper hand on potential issues.  Oatey MEGALOC and BLOCK, their Blue Wonders.

MEGALOC cleans up with water.  BLOCK requires isopropyl alcohol.

Uvex Safety Googles

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In 2010 Honeywell, the American multinational conglomerate, made one of its best business decisions.  They acquired the French firm Sperian Protection, thus adding to the portfolio of Honeywell superiority an amazingly designed and constructed set of eye protection, Uvex Safety Goggles.

uvex-stealth-googlesTough enough for the professional, inexpensive enough for Harry Homeowner, Uvex Stealth go into every house-warming gift I give, a stocking stuffer at Christmas, and an anytime gift for the masses of kids in our extended family.  Mud-flinging games, Tinker-Toy battles, tobogganing with reckless abandon, favorite kiddie pastimes made more safe with Uvex.

hoppes-3085Digging out a crusty wall to expose fractured cast iron pipe, dropping a weak ceiling, Estwing demolition or Craftsman grinding, none would be complete without Uvex safety gear. After all, we live by the motto – and Rule #3 of Plumbing:

Safety Is Not An Accident

north-safety-standard-4200-cfr-1-half-mask-respirator-assemblyAlong with North respirators & Hoppes ear protection, a trilogy of safety always with me.  This bag of protection with spares, easy to store and carry, treated with as much importance as any tool in the box.  Replacement Uvex lenses always available, new eyes, not so much …

Mueller Industries • Memphis

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Ah, Memphis . . . Barbecue & Blues.  Birthplace of Rock’n’Roll.  Home of the world leader of premium components for HVAC, plumbing and industrial solutions. – mueller 

mueller-industrialWhen the weekend call echoed through our cavernous studio workshop, we dropped our tools of invention and focused.  An ice bin drain had to be installed right away!  I turned to the leaders in copper fittings,  Mueller.  A quick trip to the BigBox home improvement center later, I was in direct ownership of a small expensive box of precision copper parts.  Exactly what we need to look again like the pros we profess to be.

An hour later, Joanna’s brand new ice bin sports a brand new melt-water drain.  The copper tubing is L-grade, far heavier than we need for this application.  The fittings?  Pressure-grade.  All for a gravity drain of 18″ developed length.  The entire assembly we will give a 1,000 year warranty.

Ridgid Plumbers Tools

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ridgid-logoIt was a dark and stormy night.  We had been digging for two days.  The water main was exposed, its pit shored and braced.  A lovely, plumber-friendly trench ran from our customer’s foundation wall to the pit.  Shiny heavy-walled copper had been rolled along the trench floor in two directions from the curb cock: into the basement and to the municipal water main.  All that was lacking?  City water department employees to make our final connection.  A little background, we give you …

philadelphia-water-service-mainThe crew of American Toolbox last week enjoyed their favorite hobby, plumbing.  We chose a cold autumn day with constant  drizzle and wind.  For further enjoyment, a 3:30pm water main tap time was chosen.  Knowing these things run late, a dark muddy trench awaited us when the work got hard.

Hard it did get!  City employees arrived predictably behind schedule.  Everyone was hungry, tired, chilled to the bone.  Wrestling K-copper in a narrow muddy trench?  Not my idea of a relaxing evening.  But one constant, the one thing I can depend will go right?

Ridgid hand tools.  We had between us five Ridgid pipe wrenches, six tubing cutters, and the all-important pipe flaring tool.  When it was time to cut, ream, flare, and wrench tight, Ridgid was there.  Nearly indestructible, Ridgid tools may wear out, but they seem not to break.

The cold #15 cutter was familiar in my hand as I tightened and sliced copper in semi-darkness.  After reaming my fresh cuts, the E-47 Hammer Tool created flared ends one uses in underground water piping.  Tightening the flared copper to the water main tap and the curb cock, Ridgid pipe wrenches.  Even one of the shovels was Ridgid.  This was a Ridgid job start to finish.  Everything except my aching back.


Sloan Flushmate

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WITHIN THE CAVERNOUS Lutheran Church at 5th & Olney, a huge renovation was ongoing.  It was there I first witnessed the genius of a Sloan Flushmate.

Sloan 501-A SeriesA solitary basement powder room, undiscovered (and unused) by the faithful featured a toilet without handle.  It had a round metal button on top.  Taking the lid off the tank, I found no water.  There was a metal and plastic cylinder instead, with an actuator on top activated via the lid button.

In response to conservation concerns in the early 1990s, low water consumption toilets entered the market place.  Early gravity/siphonage designs were poor •••.  In response, Sloan designed a revolutionary flush mechanism which harnessed municipal water pressure.  Water entered a closed cylinder from the bottom, compressing a quantity of air trapped within. When one flushes the toilet, the compressed air forcefully propels the water into the bowl. Hence the term “power flush” or, as Gerber says, “pressure-assist” toilet.

In the later 1990s a commercial customer trusted her plumber.  Instead of traditional gravity toilets which rely on siphonage, she agreed to purchase a dozen of the new, more expensive “ULTRA-FLUSH” toilets.  Savings were dramatic.  No more weekly service calls for damaged handles or misaligned flappers.  No more ballcocks to replace.  Two decades later, about a third of the original tanks remain in service.

•••  The pros & cons of low-water consumption toilets since the 1992 Energy Policy Act have been tabulated.  Municipalities note water savings but increased sludge within their sewers.

Milwaukee Super Sawzall

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ARCHIMEDES famously said, “Give me a large enough saw and a perch on which to stand.  Into halves I shall divide the earth”.  He was speaking figuratively.  Ancients’ quest to separate Good from Evil would get nowhere without the right saw.

Two thousand years later we have just the tool.  Take mine, for instance.  Near two decades young, still zalling along.  The ultimate confidence builder.  No stubborn pipe dare refuse its persistent bite when matched with the correct blade.

mid 1990s milwaukee super sawzall profile rightLast weekend we cut and dropped several tons of radiator pipe with nary a whimper.  About the only service it has required is a good cleaning of the Quick Loc Blade Clamp, a relatively new option twenty years ago, at that time found only on Milwaukee’s upper tier sawzalls.

There are now models with higher amperage ratings, built all over the world, as Milwaukee has gone global.  Clyde’s has a Milwaukee sawzall in stock labeled, “Assembled in the USA with domestic and foreign parts”.  Some of the other Milwaukee power tools are labeled, “Hecho En China”.  With care, my Milwaukee Super Sawzall will make a buying decision moot.

But I do want a cordless drill.  Battery technology has advanced;  Milwaukee’s battery warranty is 3 years, with 5 years on handheld tools … far longer than the 90 days or one year I remember back in ’00.  Let look into percentage of domestic content and get back to you.

Near Vintage Milwaukee Super Sawzall

Charlotte Pipe

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charlotte pipeSome things change.  Others stay the same.  Our local plumbing supply is a bit of both.  Old-school methods and materials tested over generations, some unchanged since Roman times.  New ideas to save time and expense now, some destined to fail yet introduced to a hungry public.  The spawn of change?  Entire developments of luxury homes with Tinker-Toy waste pipes, flexible water lines secured with hose clamps, already springing leaks not one lustrum after completion.

All that new stuff, proven in manufacturers labs but unproven in the final test, Time.  Not for me.  Copper and cast iron is what I learned and how I stay.  Lead and oakum, a centuries old method of pipe connection, or the “new” method of No-Hub® cast iron pipe attachment – now decades old and proven durable.

pallet charlotte cast iron pipeWhen the call for multi-generational durability goes out, I head to the same supply house patronized as an apprentice.  To the same stack of cast iron pipe I drew from as a lad.  The same brand, Charlotte  (or Tyler.  This is almost a “Skippy or Jif” comparison).

When the builder asks, “Plastic or iron?”, they are talking about the horizontal waste pipes dropping through your home.  Perhaps your dining room or den walls.  Nothing beats the quiet serenity of cast iron pipe.

Craftsman Tools

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NEXT DOOR TO MY CHILDHOOD HOME lived Mr Piccolo.  He had an interesting garage.  Packed within its vast space were dusty bins, shelves, and boxes, inmates in his dark laboratory of experiments.  Mr. Piccolo was a machinist.  When not at work or helping his loving wife, he’d be in his garage.  Making, fixing, or improving something.  

craftsman screwdriver made in usa jsergWhen still among my single digits, he gave me sage advice: “Buy Craftsman tools. Know why? If they ever break, Sears will give you a new one for free”.

Even the magic word FREE was of little significance to a seven-year old.  Tools were something other people used.  Not me.  I was more the Legos® and wooden blocks type.  It took over a decade as tradesperson before I began buying Craftsman.  Mostly their screwdrivers or tape measures.

Sears is different now, victim to a hedge fund.  Little remains of a Sears I knew even ten years ago.  But the Craftsman name survives.  

My go-to poker for delicate work is their ⅛” x 2″ slotted screwdriver.  Great for digging out threads from busted gas pipe.  Or opening up a crack on Pete’s bouzouki top for better glue insertion.  Hammered straight and filed sharp many times over its past two decades, she finally screamed, “ENOUGH”.

Fisher’s Ace Hardware was the solution.  The local Sears Craftsman Store had closed, but Fisher’s had a full selection, and honored the Craftsman Replacement Warranty. A fast, simple transaction later, I had a new screwdriver.  Plus a roll of painter’s tape for Pete’s bouzouki refurbishment.  Back in business, we are!

craftsman label made in usa jserg

Patrick Graham • Brickbat Books

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062615 patrick grahamPAT GRAHAM loves books. He has collected books from childhood.  By the time he was in Art School, his 10,000+ volume collection had becoming cumbersome.  The logical solution?  Open a shop.

First, with a partner, came Big Jar Books on North 2nd Street, Philadelphia.  Big Jar eventually was sold; Pat then opened Brickbat Books on South 4th, a solo-owned boutique collection.

And the story on the Benches of Brickbat?  By invitation of Pat, of course.

We speak of a collection of wooden benches, platforms, and tables, all carved from lengths of 12″ x 12″ solid oak and poplar.  The story, not independently verified, is that a local plumber found a pile of giant landscape ties discarded by a century-old insurance firm in West Philadelphia.  Inspired hours with chainsaw, belt sander, and angle-grinder transformed some of the wood into the pictured objets d’art.

Plumber’s Heat-Pruf Grease

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heat-pruf grease in tool bag jim sergovicALL GOOD THINGS COME to an end.  If you hold on to them long enough.  My tin of Plumber’s Heat Pruf Grease was a decade old.  She had traveled this country through relocation, out-of-state employment, and back again to home base.  And now, empty.

A good tradesman plans ahead.  A year ago, I tracked down the identical product and purchased three tins.  One for Pat Graham, and two for me.

Finally, the day came.  My tin of grease was truly empty.  Good to its last dab.  But empty.  A shiny new tin was tossed into my tool bag.  Our patient?  A steam table faucet.  Someone had gone to a lot of trouble installing wrong parts.  The least I could do is help return function as best I can.  

A little grease on the spindle.  Screw it back in.  Replace packing.  Grease a pair of new O-rings for its faucet body.  Bonnet tightened.  Done.  Supply valve engaged.  Perfect refurbishment.  Ready for another two decades of service!

Estwing Framing Hammer

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estwing jsergAbout the time of my first Red Wings, I watched a chain-smoking Master Plumber mucking around half a dozen feet below the sidewalk.  He was looking for a pipe.  Everything in the hole looked the same to me.  My first lesson in plumbing:  the most important thing is knowing what you are looking at.

After a bit, he asks for a hammer.  Naturally, I cross-examine him while he’s ankle-deep in mud, dirt dropping down his trousers, knees caked solid with clay.  No, a hammer is what he wants.  Really.

I went on to discover there are 20 ways to swing a hammer, at least.  On that day, the plumber scraped compacted soil with the straight claw from under and around a leaking water service.  I’d seen him break the bell of one piece of cast iron soil pipe while leaving an adjacent piece whole.  Nailing?  Almost never, in our trade.  But I did learn the difference between tapping and smashing!

The Code Book calls for an 8 ounce ball peen hammer for caulking lead joints.  Sorry, every tool has to multi-task.  You can hold a 22 oz. hammer further up the shaft to reduce a swing’s force, something Galileo famously observed in 1582  –  which led to his forgotten pendulum theory.

In a hurry to expose a leaking pipe behind a plaster wall?  One can operate the hammer with both hand, punching a clean line through sheet rock with the claw, like a sewing machine.  Not exactly like a sewing machine, but that is a similar image.

The pictured framing hammers?  One is an Estwing E3-20SM.  I’ve had it 20+ years.  13 ½” length, 28 oz overall weight, but called a 20 ounce hammer.  (The other, a similar 22 ounce model).  This is the perfect hammer to buy your favorite tradesman.  Or an accomplished do-it-yourselfer as a supplementary wedding present.  He/she may have it forever.

I could write 2,000 words on the various uses of a hammer.  Hammering, prying, digging, cracking, slicing, driving, chiseling, cutting, pulverizing.  From tapping the handle off a fine china teacup to knocking the lock off a security door without breaking the glass.  It’s all in how you swing the hammer.

LITTLE CHAP • j. sergovic

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little chapRemember Pat Graham?  Brickbat Book’s Benches?  Showing Pat, decades ago, a small sculpture made from bits of castoff brass culled from discarded plumbing fixtures, he immediately named the piece Little Chap.  Pat went further to suggest a whole series of Little Chap figures, made progressively larger.  A project still in developmental stage.

The discarded plumbing fixtures were not sinks and toilets from the alley.  These 19th century  parts came from The Newport in Philadelphia.  When indoor plumbing was a new thing, pieces that made up plumbing fixtures were designed to last generations.  Sand-cast brass components, finished by a skilled hand.  Engineering to allow decades of function with no maintenance.

little chap newThe Newport was once the tallest building in Philadelphia. At five stories, the most luxurious residence available with indoor plumbing.  Five story buildings remain common in older neighborhoods.  Water will not flow higher without pumps.  Height is limited by elevation of a reservoir.  After pumps became widespread, The Newport went to nine stories.  A century later, I was replacing someone’s tub drain.

Maintenance plumbing in older buildings gave me an appreciation for quality components of little chap oldthe late 1800s.  Parts too nice to scrap were collected, shared, and occasionally refashioned into something new.   Little Chap was assembled and shaped in a c.1905 garret apartment, on a door serving as a workbench.  Year later a mold was made, wax copy produced, and Little Chap was cast in sterling silver.  – jim s.