Make a Modern Bathroom Vanity

You don’t have to gut an outdated bathroom to give it a fresh look. Because the vanity and sink make the first impression, replacing these fixtures can have a major impact. This wall-mounted vanity will add modern style to any bathroom, and it’s not difficult to build or install.

The sliding doors and wall-mount style contribute to the aesthetics, but they also make practical sense, especially in a small bathroom. Sliding doors eliminate the potential obstacles that traditional swinging doors create, and leaving the floor exposed under the cabinet makes the room appear larger (see “Floor Fixes,” in PDF below).

The cabinet is made from 1-in.-thick plywood panels that are clad with plastic (yes, plastic) laminate. Although I almost always prefer to build projects out of wood, in this case the durability and moisture resistance of plastic laminate made it worth considering. I had reservations about the appearance, but it turns out that plastic laminate is available in a surprising variety of designs. I was especially impressed with those that mimic natural materials such as wood and stone. I selected a style called Wild Cherry that looks remarkably like naturally finished cherrywood.

If you’ve never worked with plastic laminate, this is a great project to get your feet wet. Because you apply the laminate to only the panel faces (not to the edges), this project is easier than building a typical laminate countertop, but the results are equally attractive.

Build the panels
Glue together two pieces of 1/2-in.-thick plywood to make each 1-in.-thick panel. Cut two pieces of 1/2-in. plywood for every part on the cutting list except for the back, which is a single piece of plywood. Cut each piece 1/2 in. larger in each dimension to allow for shifting or creeping when the pieces are glued and clamped together.

creeping when the pieces are glued and clamped together. Apply a thin, uniform layer of glue to the inside faces of the plywood before clamping. Use cauls (rigid strips of wood) to distribute the clamping force across the entire panel. Place three or four sets of cauls across each plywood panel. If the panel is more than 12 in. wide, it is also beneficial to sand a slight taper from the middle to the ends of each caul (see photo 1 and illustration in PDF below). Remove excess glue with a scraper or a flat scrap of wood. After the glue has cured, cut the panels to their final sizes.

Laminate the panels
Laminate is typically shipped from the manufacturer in 4 x 8-ft. or 5 x 12-ft. sheets. Distributors often cut the full sheets down to smaller common countertop dimensions. For this project you’ll need at least a 4 x 10-ft. sheet. (You might have to purchase a full 5 x 12-ft. sheet if the distributor isn’t willing to trim it.)

Cut laminate pieces to cover the large faces of the side panels, the bottom, the doors and the front top support (see “Cutting Laminate,” in PDF below). Cut each piece 1/2 in. oversize in both dimensions. Pay special attention to orienting the grain direction correctly on each piece.

You’ll attach the laminate with contact cement, which creates an immediate bond that does not require clamping (unlike yellow glue). The plywood requires two coats because it will soak up the adhesive. Use a low-nap adhesive roller to spread a thin coat of cement on the plywood. When it is dry to the touch and no longer feels tacky, apply a second coat to the plywood and a thin coat to the back of the laminate (photo 2).

Don’t let the smooth feel of the dry adhesive fool you: Two surfaces coated with contact cement have excellent bonding strength, and the bond is immediate. You only get one shot at positioning the laminate — attempting to lift it after contact will weaken the bond.

Place dowels or strips of scrap wood or cardboard on the plywood to keep the laminate from making contact. Center the laminate over the plywood. Remove the center dowels first and press the laminate down onto the plywood. Work out to the ends of the laminate, removing the dowels and pressing the laminate down (photo 3). Use a roller to press the laminate firmly against the plywood. Flip the panel over and repeat the process to attach the second piece of laminate.

After the contact cement has dried, trim the overhanging laminate edges with a flush-trim router bit. This type of bit features a bearing that is mounted under the cutting blade (photo 4). The bit cuts flush with the surface that the bearing is riding on. Periodically stop trimming and clean any contact cement residue that has accumulated on the bit.

After trimming the laminate edges, scrape and sand the exposed plywood edges smooth with 100- to 150-grit sandpaper. Use a file to dull the remaining sharp laminate edges and corners. Work the file across the edges in a downward diagonal motion to avoid lifting or chipping the laminate surface.

Assemble the cabinet
The door slides travel in channels that are cut in the bottom panel and the front top support. Each channel is roughly 1/8 in. wide (the width of a saw blade) and 3/8 in. deep. Cut the channels on the table saw (photo 5).

Note: Rolling slides help the doors glide smoothly, but you can forgo them and simply let the doors slide on edge in channels. In this case, cut 5/8-in.-wide x 3/8-in.-deep channels and make the doors 1/2 in. taller than the height of the opening. (This would make the doors 20-1/2 in. tall.) Apply wax to the bottom edge of each door to help it slide smoothly.

The back panel fits in rabbets that are cut into the inside edge of the side panels. Cut the rabbets with a table saw or router.

Next, using a pocket-hole jig and a stepped drill bit, bore pocket-screw holes along the two outside edges of the bottom face of the bottom panel, and bore two pocket-screw holes at each end of the top supports. Clamp the bottom panel and top supports between the side panels. Attach the parts with 1-1/2-in. coarse-thread pocket screws (photo 6). Then drill No. 8 countersink and pilot holes through the perimeter of the back panel, and attach it to the cabinet with 1-1/2-in. coarse-thread drywall screws.

Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for installing the door slides in the doors. The installation requires a 30mm (1-3/16-in.-dia.) Forstner bit — not a commonly available size (see SOURCES in PDF below). Use a drill press or right-angle drill guide to bore the mortises; then install door slides in each door (photo 7).

Before installing the vanity, I stained the front cabinet edges and the door edges with a light cherry-color stain. After the stain was dry, I applied a few coats of polyurethane to the edges.

Install the cabinet
Mark the center of each wall stud that is located behind the vanity. Next, mark where the access holes for the plumbing supply and drain lines will be located in the back panel. Use a hole saw to bore individual holes, or cut one large access hole through the back for the supply and drain lines to fit through.

The weight of the vanity and sink will vary (mine weigh about 90 pounds), and you must use adequate wall anchors to support the weight. The type you choose will depend on the wall surface and framing material. Use lag screws in wood studs, expanding-sleeve anchors in a masonry wall and large toggle anchors in metal studs.

Place the vanity on a temporary support in front of the mounting location. Slide the vanity over the supply pipes and against the wall. I was anchoring into wood studs, so I bored a 3/16-in.-dia. pilot hole in line with each stud location through the back top support and back panel. I then drove a 1/4-in.-dia. x 3-in.-long lag screw into each stud (photo 8).

Once you’ve mounted the cabinet to the wall, install the faucet and drain in the sink; then attach the vanity top to the cabinet with silicone adhesive caulk. All that’s left is to connect the supply lines and the drain, and your updated lavatory is ready to make a new impression.