Welcome to Pete Brown's 10rem.net

First time here? If you are a developer or are interested in Microsoft tools and technology, please consider subscribing to the latest posts.

You may also be interested in my blog archives, the articles section, or some of my lab projects such as the C64 emulator written in Silverlight.

(hide this)

Plumbing Shower Handles - Sweating Copper Pipe

(disclaimer : I am absolutely not a plumber. When in doubt, contact a real plumber)

In March 2004 I decided I was sick of the generic dixie-cup-looking shower handles in the master bathroom shower. The old compression knobs tended to wobble and just felt cheap. They drove me nuts, even after I replaced them with a new identical pair. I have done some other smaller plumbing jobs including installing a new sink and faucet in the bathroom, and little things like replacing toilet valves and whatnot, and swapping in new handles and valves in the shower. I figured this one would not be much more difficult.

Melissa and I went to Lowes and picked up a set of replacement handles made by Price Pfister to match the sink I put in last year. As it turns out, even though the original fixture was Price Pfister, the newer handles and valves are not at all compatible. At that point I decided to bite the bullet and replace the whole fixture with what came in the Price Pfister box. I checked inside the wall to see if the original fixture was threaded or soldered. I found it to be soldered. After some research, I figured I'd give it a try. From there went a project that took me two weekends to complete.

Important Note: Some time after I completed this work, when I was investigating getting a permit for wiring my shed for my woodworking tools, I found out that 1. It would have required a permit and 2. Homeowners where I live are not allowed to apply for the permit or do the work themselves. In Anne Arundel County in Maryland, even though Home Depot and Lowes sell all the "do it yourself" stuff locally within the county, any and all electrical, plumbing or mechanical work must be permitted and the permit must be pulled by a master electrician, plumber, etc. Obviously the county is not interested in safety, only in the lobbying efforts of the professional groups. If safety was the concern, they'd let a homeowner (who is likely going to do a lot of things like this themselves anyway) apply for a permit and get the work inspected and approved. Instead, the homeowners will do the work themselves anyway and can't get it inspected. In this Maryland county, a homeowner cannot even legally replace a sink trap, replace a breaker, or install a battery-operated smoke detecter themselves. Yet another case of big money lobbying groups prevailing over common sense. In any case, check your local codes before starting any work.

I went back to Lowes and picked up a MAPP torch, lead-free solder, lead-free water soluable flux, flux brushes, emory cloth, 4-in-1 cleaning tool a thumb tube cutter, a regular tubing cutter, 1/2" type L copper pipe, some pipe coupling/joining sleeves, some threaded 1/2" couplings, Oatey pipe joint compound (much easier than the teflon tape, IMHO), a sheet of aluminum, a plumbing book, and some thick leather gloves.

This is what the original fixture looked like inside the wall. Notice the green corrosion that shows that the original plumber likely did not wipe up the excess flux.


The copper was soldered directly to the brass fixture, so I had no choice but to cut through the copper pipe and attach the new fittings with solder. Up to this point I had hoped it possible that everything was threaded. After I saw this, however, I made the decision and went to Lowes for the plumbing/soldering supplies.

image  image

On the left is the final replacement after I finished up. The cutout in the wall was resized twice after I originally opened it to allow me to cut off the end of the shower head copper pipe and start with a clean end. I left the wall open for several days after I completed the work, just to make sure no links popped up. The white stuff you see is the silicone caulk I used to seal up the open and frayed edges of the drywall. Old drywall gets a bit crumbly so I cleaned up the edges a bit before I caulked it.

The photo on the right shows the new handles in place in our shower. Hmm, I think that hose could use some bleaching :-)



Tools and Supplies I Used

I used a MAPP torch, as the soldering instructions said to use a very hot flame for the lead-free solder. A propane torch likely would have been better as it would have had a pencil-point flame. You can't even get MAPP gas anymore.

image image

Some of the other tools I picked up especially for this project. You'll noticed that I have two pipe cleaners (in red) and two pipe cutters (gray). In both cases it was because one was much easier to use in the wall, and one was much easier to use out of the wall.

In the photo you can see a roll of emery cloth/sandpaper, lead-free solder, lead free flux, two red pipe cleaners, two Vice Grips, some flux brushers, a thumb tubing cutter, some Oatey thread joint compound and a large tubing cutter with deburring point. I also used a set of adjustable wrenches, a set of wide-mouth adjustable pliers, screwdrivers etc.



When working with any flame, especially one as hot as a MAPP torch, safety is important. To protect my arms from any spattering solder or flux, I wore a sweatshirt. I also wore leather gloves to protect my hands, and safety glasses for my eyes. I kept a large salad bowl of ice water (remember, the house water is off, so keep some cold water handy), and a fire extinguisher handy.

The pipes get very hot and stay very hot for a while, so it is important to protect yourself and your surroundings.

In addition to regular 1/2" Type-L copper pipe, and the brass fittings that came with the fixture, I used two types of copper fittings. The threaded fitting attached the copper pipe for the shower head to the brass fixture. The sleeve made it possible for me to put in a new piece of copper instead of ripping open the wall all the way up and replacing the entire shower head pipe.

Code dictates that the only attachments that may be hidden in a wall are threaded or soldered. You cannot put in compression other types of quick-fixes.


The Hall of Shame

It took me seven tries (yes, it looks like lucky 7 was the winner) to get the soldering done in a way that didn't leak and that made me feel that it was likely to last at least through a couple showers. I think part of the difficulty I was having was related to the fact that I was using a MAPP torch without a pencil-point flame. Of course, the other 99% of the difficulty was simple inexperience :-) Each time I messed-up, I'd pull out the thumb pipe cutter and cut the new piece in half, remove the threaded portion and unsolder the sleeve. If the copper pipe leading to the shower head was too difficult to get 100% clean (as I found, it must be absolutely clean with only copper - not the slightest bit of silvery solder showing - otherwise the joint won't take), I'd cut 1/2" or so off the end and start over.


Most of the failures were related to re-heating the joint. Because this was in a hard-to-see area, I would solder the joint, then turn off the flame and look at the back of the joint with a mirror. If it didn't look right, I'd reheat and add more solder. This is a very bad idea. I learned to keep the flame on the part until I was complete with the soldering and never to reheat a joint. More often than not, the threaded fixture at the bottom was fine, it was the repair sleeve that would leak or have other problems. That was an especially hard piece to do.

Some of the other errors were using way too much solder, too much flux, using too little flux, too little heat, too much heat but on the wrong part (heating the pipe or joint instead of the sleeve/coupling) etc. There are lots of good tutorials on the web related to sweating copper pipe, written by people who actually know what they're doing, so I'll leave the details to them :-) The most helpful to me, however, was this video with Bob Vila and friends. It was worth downloading that nasty RealPlayer to watch it :

Bob Vila on Sweating Copper Pipes

Here is a shot of the dreaded coupling sleeve that gave me such fits. With this, you end up soldering two ends very close to each other, so technique is important. As an aside, note how clean and shiny the ends of the copper pipe are. Cleaning is a very important part of the sweating process.


Note the aluminum sheet to protect the drywall behind the pipe. A fire-resistant plumbers cloth probably would have been a better choice, as the drywall still scorched a little behind the aluminum (this is mainly because I was using too much heat for too long, and I had not propped the aluminum away from the wall at first) We wet the drywall and sanded off the scorched bits to help ensure they won't be an easy target for fire in the future. Finally, to protect the exposed drywall from water, I spread some of the silicone caulk over the the sanded bits. You can see that in the photos above.


This was easily the most challenging house project I have done to date. I learned a lot by doing this. While plumbing is still definitely not the most enjoyable of home repair projects, I feel that I can tackle relatively simple repairs and small upgrades like the shower knobs and related. I'll still leave the big jobs to the pros. Of course, now I'll be able to replace that pesky outside faucet that always leaks :-) While this first project took me two weekends of trial and error, I feel that I could do another like it in significantly less time. There would still be trial and error, though, as I am better with the torch and sweating the pipes, but not yet good at it.

The new handles work great and just feel a million times more solid than the old knobs. Unlike the old set, there are no leaks and no wrist-twisting to tighten-up the handles.

2 comments for “Plumbing Shower Handles - Sweating Copper Pipe”

  1. lexiconbysays:
    fun story to read. btw, i don't think the kevlar cloth heat shield works as well as the metal sheet you used. the only thing you forgot to do was fold it so that it's double layered. the kevlar cloth can cause the flame and heat to reflect and redirect. this can cause another part of the area to heat up and also excess carbon from the flame. i don't think propane is better but your torch is the 4000 and it doesn't have an adjustment to lower the flame size. the 8000 is more expensive but can dial down the flame when too close to flammables.

Comment on this Page

Remember me