How to Turn a Piece of Vintage Furniture Into a Vanity Unit
Bathroom basins mounted on beautiful old tables or chests are popular on Houzz, but how easy are they to create?
Professional advice from: Anna Burles of Run for the Hills; Felix Milns of HUX London; Camilla Westergaard of SJW Architects
“You need a solid piece of furniture that can hold the weight of a basin full of water and is going to stand the test of time,” Camilla Westergaard says. She advises something made from a hardwood such as walnut or oak.
Anna says any small wooden table or console with a minimum of 40cm depth can work. The furniture’s height is significant, too – nothing so tall that a countertop basin will become uncomfortable to lean over. Camilla and Anna both suggest a maximum total height (basin included) of 80cm to 95cm. “Alternatively,” Anna adds, “the basin can be counter-sunk into a taller unit.”
Also consider other requirements, such as whether you need plenty of storage. “Chests of drawers work really well, as you can use some of the existing drawers,” Felix Milns says. He says “some”, as any high-level central drawers will generally need to be sacrificed or modified for plumbing requirements (read more about this below). Anna also recommends sideboards for maximising storage.
As for pieces to avoid, Anna cautions against anything with an existing glass or mirrored top. “If the original surface breaks, you’ll need to replace the whole top and it might not look as good or authentic as the original,” she says.
Be prepared for your beautiful vintage piece to be butchered before it looks beautiful again – and ensure you have a great joiner on the job.
“The top surface will need cutting out, either just for the waste pipe, in the case of a counter-top basin, or for the entire basin in the case of a counter-sunk arrangement,” Camilla says. “With the former, you then need sufficient space for the waste and trap. With the latter, you’ll need to find space for these as well as for the basin itself.”
If you’re using an old table or console with no drawer space underneath, she also suggests choosing an exposed trap that matches the tap and waste, as it may be visible.
Ideally, you’ll also make space for a roughly 10cm gap at the back of the furniture, which will allow you to hide the trap’s horizontal exit as well as hot and cold feeds. “This can be within a battened-out zone between the wall and plasterboard,” Camilla says.
Anna explains that pipework may also require drawers and shelves to be re-cut. “In a chest of drawers, a good joiner may be able to modify the top drawers, making them shallower but still useable,” she says.
Felix suggests going for wall-mounted taps to minimise the plumbing that goes into the vanity unit itself. Anna agrees, adding that an alternative is taps that sit on the basin itself, which will also contain drips.
Felix and Camilla favour surface-mounted basins, which use less space underneath. “It works aesthetically and is also more forgiving, because you’re cutting a smaller hole for a waste that will be covered, rather than an exact opening for a basin that will need to have a neat edge,” Felix says. He adds that undermounted basins don’t typically work very well unless you’re replacing the worktop.
Anna likes a crisp white, ceramic, dish-like basin for vintage or antique units. “But marble, terrazzo, concrete or an aged metal basin can also be a nice alternative, depending on the style of the base unit.”
When choosing between a square, rectangular or circular basin, Camilla advises consideration of the furniture’s vintage as well as its shape when making a decision.
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A timber top will require a little more TLC than a modern, non-porous surface. “Think of it in the same way as a wooden worktop in a kitchen,” Camilla says. “If you look after it, it shouldn’t be a problem.” Clean up spills straight away to stop water seeping into the wood.
Felix advises oiled wood over veneered, and says the top timber should be finished in an Osmo Polyx-Oil or other similar varnish or wax to protect the timber.
Anna also advocates the use of boat varnishes, but warns that these are not resistant to alcohol-based perfumes and personal care products.
“Absolutely,” Camilla says, adding that it’s useful to think about the materials used for kitchen worktops as a guide.
Felix suggests stone or Corian. “If you’re on a tight budget, you can buy an off-cut from a local stone yard and ask them to cut the hole for the waste for you.”
In terms of stone, Anna says marble or terrazzo work well. “We also love composite tops, such as [solid surface] HiMacs or [quartz] Silestone.”
Adding an overhang of 1.5cm to 3cm will help to protect your furniture.
Anna’s pine chest of drawers “This was a good-value vintage piece made from simple antique pine, but it was HUGE and accommodated two basins and acres of workspace,” Anna says. “It had loads of drawers, which was amazing for the young family’s storage.
“As the unit was so big, we felt it could accommodate two full-size Belfast sinks on top, which were very deep,” she continues. “The top drawers were made shallower to accommodate the plumbing behind, but they were still usable.”
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“We fitted a custom-made, honed Calacatta marble surface to sit on top of the unit, rather than replacing the wood. We tried to match the shade and veining as closely as possible to the marble in the cabinet,” she continues. “We then fitted two rectangular countertop basins. It worked beautifully, especially when combined with the black wall taps and bespoke black-framed mirror aligned above.”
“We found this old dressing table and thought it complemented the hexagonal tiles the client had chosen,” he says. “We were able to use the two side drawers and retain the central drawer front as a dummy panel.”
Have you repurposed a piece of furniture and turned it into a vanity unit? If so, what tips can you share? Let us know in the Comments.