As percussive noises of construction work echo loudly throughout a gutted school on the South Side, Cliff Bruckner stays focused on the building’s blueprint.
A few minutes later, he trims a section of carefully measured cast iron pipe with a massive chain cutter and mounts it beneath the ceiling. After stuffing the attached joint full of rope-like material called oakum, he pours a ladle full of molten lead onto it to create a permanent seal. Any mishandling of the soupy 360 degree-plus lead is dangerous to both structure and worker.
“It could definitely hurt,” says Bruckner as he adjusts his hard hat.
Never mind the popular stereotype. There’s a real art to being a professional plumber — a trade that quietly protects the nation’s health through sanitation and clean drinking water.
“I feel that the expectations from the general public of us is still someone with a plunger over his shoulder coming in when a little old lady might have a clogged toilet,” says the 38-year-old Western Springs man. “But that’s not really what we do.”
That’s especially true for licensed commercial plumbers like Bruckner, whose 130-year-old company Chas F. Bruckner and Son Plumbing has played a behind-the-scenes role in a host of prominent retail, university, entertainment and public works projects in Chicago, ranging from the iconic fountains at Millennium Park to Lincoln Park Zoo.
Much of Bruckner’s own work has been in schools like his current project. He and his small team are adding plumbing to an old building that is being converted into new kindergarten classrooms at Christ the King Elementary School in Beverly.
It’s not easy.
Imagine a puzzle in which you’ve got the answer key in the form of a blueprint, but none of the pieces are guaranteed to fit. No architect’s plan is perfect, and it’s Bruckner’s job to help bring a draft on paper into the realm of the practical by installing plumbing and piping in a way that works seamlessly with all the other elements of new construction.
“Does everything fit in the room we’re given? We have to work with the architect to make modifications so we can have a functional system that fits the aesthetic of what the owner has been promised,” Bruckner says.
There are also inherent challenges in plumbing in an aging city like Chicago, which still uses thousands of lead service lines in its water system and faces other infrastructure problems.
“A lot of old sewer services to these buildings are made from old products from over 100 years ago,” Bruckner says. “Our first step on a lot of these jobs is to check the old infrastructure to make sure that it will hold up.”
If the ins and outs of the work seem to come rather naturally, it’s because he might be the closest thing Chicago has to a natural-born plumber.
German immigrant Charles F. Bruckner started the original business in Bridgeport back in 1890, and it has been passed down from generation to generation ever since. It’s currently owned by brothers Jim and Tom Bruckner, Cliff’s dad and uncle.
Cliff was excited to be around the business in one form or another ever since grade school.
“I remember being devastated on Saturdays if I found out that there was a crew working and my dad didn’t bring me out to see what was going on.”
After graduating from the University of Iowa, Bruckner immediately returned to Chicago to start his five-year apprenticeship through Plumbers Local 130. He became a full-time journeyman in 2010 and is part of the fifth generation taking up the family trade.
“Being a plumber in Chicago is what I feel I was put on this planet to do. It’s what I love to do,” he says.
He’s now one of six Bruckners employed at Chas F. Bruckner and Son Plumbing, a list that includes his cousin Marty, who is a member of his crew at Christ the King School.
Cliff “teaches me everything I know, and I love working side by side with the family every day,” Marty Bruckner says.