I think the most important thing on the list of stuff you need to build a vanity is the pervasive belief that you can, in fact, build a vanity. This belief may be sorely tested at some point– I’d be lying if I said you could build an entire cabinet in an hour without breaking a sweat. But, this was the first freestanding cabinet I’d ever built and my first time using dowel joints, and I didn’t have anything resembling a plan to start with, except for this picture from the PB website.
I think “believes it can be done” is probably the only skill absolutely required to take something like this on. Well, that and the ability to read a tape measure.
Other Things You Need to Build a Vanity. Like Tools. And Wood.
Maybe you’re the kind of person who likes to sketch out very detailed “plans” on a cocktail napkin before diving into a project (you’re in good company), but if you’d rather have something more scientific, here’s a look at the pieces I used to build my vanity. (You can also download a PDF of this here.)
- Tile counter – 2 sheets of 3/4″ MDF cut to 24-1/2 x36″ and 3/4″ tile
- Top piece (front only) – 1×2 board 30-1/2″ long
- Side panels (both sides) - 2 sheets of stain-grade 3/4″ plywood cut to 18-1/2 x 14-1/2″
- Doors (2) – made of 1×2 board cut to 13″ long for sides and 12″ long for top and bottom, a 12×10″ plywood panel, and trim cut to 10″ and 12″ for inside of panel
- Legs - 4 3″ pre-turned legs (from here) cut down to 33″ tall
- Hinges – 4 straight-mount cabinet hinges with 3/4″ offset (from here)
- Bottom piece (front and back) - 1×3 board 30-1/2″ long
- Bottom piece (sides) – 2 1×3 board 18-1/2″ long
- Cabinet bottom – 3/4″ plywood, 22×34″
- Back panel – 3/4″ plywood, 14-1/2″x30-1/2″
- Bottom shelf – 3/4″ plywood, 22×34″
- Shelf piece (front and back) – 1×2 board 30-1/2″ long
- Shelf piece (sides) – 1×2 board 18-1/2″ long
- Saws – I used my table saw for the plywood and miter saw for the 1x and legs.
- Dowel jig – I made the dowels on the first side of the cabinet manually but it became exponentially easier using a dowel jig. And for $20, well worth the price
- Wood glue
- Dowels – I used 1/4″
- Drill and bits
- Straight-edge and small square
The Building Part
There may be better and more efficient ways to do this. Shockingly, once I had the rough plan and the parts I just dove right in, but I also spent a lot of time in the process looking quizzically at my pieces, trying to figure out my next step.
Step 1 – Cutting
I started with the three plywood side panels (two sides and a back) by ripping them down from a 4×8 sheet of plywood on the table saw. Once the guide was set up I ran each piece of the same dimension through it to make sure everything stayed square.
The legs and 1x pieces I cut on
my baby the miter saw.
This is where it’s handy to have a stand or the saw set into a bench. You see the stop is raised on the one wing of the stand and I used that the same way I used the table saw guard, to make sure each piece was cut to exactly the same level.
For the sides and back of the cabinet, some of the 1×3 needed to be the exact same length as the plywood panels, so I actually used a panel to set the stop on the miter saw…
Then cut my 1x.
Step 2 – Planning for bottom shelves
I knew that I was going to have to attach the bottom of the cabinet and the lower shelf to the sides and back somehow, and I also knew I wasn’t going to use dowels to do it. I tried two different methods for each shelf.
For the bottom of the cabinet I used a router to put a 1/4″ by 3/4″ notch in the wood…
When the side piece is assembled that would leave a 3/4″ space for me to slide the shelf into. (This means that the bottom piece for the cabinet was actually 1/4″ longer than I specified above, but I don’t recommend doing it this way.)
I’ll save you the suspense and tell you that sliding that piece in during final assembly while trying to glue and clamp everything was a pain in the ass. The method I used for the bottom shelf was 100 times easier, if less elegant.
Basically I took some scrap wood that was about 1/2″ square and glued it to the bottom piece to create a ledge for the shelf to rest on. (So the shelf could be dropped in later, instead of inserted during assembly.)
Just a few staples to hold everything in place while the glue dried…
And I made sure that when the shelf sat on the ledge, it would be flush with the top of the piece of wood so that it would all look pretty seamless.
Also, as you can see, I did the router method prior to drilling for dowels, but the scrap-piece method after I drilled the dowel holes, so it wouldn’t get in my way.
Step 3 – Constructing side pieces
With all of the pieces cut and ready to assemble, I started with the dowel joints. The first ones I marked and drilled without a jig, which is the kind of experience that makes you think about sticking a screwdriver through your eyeball since it’s almost impossible to drill a straight centered hole with a hand drill. For more in depth instructions on making a dowel joint, check out this post, but I’ll give you the high-level.
The two pieces to be joined should be lined up and clamped completely flush, with the sides to be drilled facing out.
For the manual method I marked a vertical line across both pieces, and then a horizontal line across each piece to find the center for each hole.
Drilling commenced, and so did the swearing. But the nice thing about dowel joints is that if you mess up a hole, it will be covered up in the final piece, so you can always drill a new one.
Once I broke down and bought the jig, however, things got easier.
I didn’t have one messed up hole with this, and everything was perfectly straight and aligned between pieces.
Both sides were dry fit first…
And once everything looked good I took it apart, sanded all the pieces down with 100 grit sandpaper, and then reassembled with glue.
Since I only have 3 24″ clamps for some inexplicable reason, I actually did these one at a time, and let them dry overnight.
Step 4 – Constructing front and back
The back of the cabinet was essentially the same as the sides– one plywood panel and a 1×3 bottom piece. The front was just a 1×3 bottom piece and 1×2 top piece since the doors would make up the bulk of it.
The dowels were done the same way on the front and back, it just took a little more maneuvering to dry fit everything.
And this is the exciting part where it starts to look like an actual cabinet.
If you’re not a big fan of the dowels, you could also probably use a kreg jig to attach everything from the inside with pocket screws, but I’d still glue everything.
Step 5 – Shelves and final assembly of base
The bottom of the cabinet was also made out of 3/4″ plywood and required notches in the four corners to accommodate the legs of the vanity.
This one had to go in while I was gluing everything, but the bottom shelf I was able to drop in later, thankfully. I glued the front and back pieces to one side and then got a little help sliding the shelf into place…
Then the other side was glued on top. (It was much easier to assemble the thing on its side like this.)
Clamping it all together was another big challenge. I used the reverse clamp method for one side, which meant building a frame larger than the cabinet and then using the clamps backwards to push the cabinet tight against the side of the frame. Sounds crazy, worked beautifully.
For the other side I used the combination of a really long clamp, and two smaller clamps that were rigged together.
It wasn’t pretty to look at, but it was passable.
After the clamps came off (about a day later) I slid the bottom shelf into place. I almost made a big mistake here because there wasn’t quite enough room to tilt the shelf on an angle and drop it in place, but thankfully the shape of the legs gave me some wiggle room and I was able to make it work.
I glued this bottom shelf and tacked it in with a couple of 1″ finish nails, but clamping it would have worked just as well.
And with that, the main part of the vanity was complete!
I choose to paint it at this point, because I’m impatient and also because it allowed me to procrastinate on building the doors.
Step 6 – Stop Procrastinating. Build Doors.
This step started with having the right hinges. Most cabinets (it seems) have a 3/4″ frame for the “face” and so standard cabinet hinges are made to wrap around a 3/4″ piece of wood. It took a little research to find hinges that attached flat on one side and still offset the door by 3/4″.
I found them here.
I wanted to have them in my hand before building the doors so I could account for the width of the hinge.
I built the doors using the same method I used for building the rest of the cabinet. A 3/4″ plywood panel made up the center of the door, and the frame of 1×2 poplar was attached to it with dowel joints.
My dowels must not have been completely lined up for these so the frame pieces are not completely flush, but I just called that “character” and moved on.
Before finishing the doors any farther I attached them to the base for a trial run.
It required a little sanding and adjustment on the hinges for everything to swing smoothly, and I had a slightly larger gap between the doors than I’d anticipated. But they worked.
To finish the doors I tried out several different trim options…
And finally ended up copying the PB door style with thin trim set just around the inside of the frame.
These pieces were attached with just a little wood glue.
Then I placed an extra piece of wood on top to keep everything in place while it dried.
Step 7 – Paint
At this point, you basically have a fully constructed cabinet, and how you finish it is up to you. I used a two step process for painting the cabinet. Everything was painted a base gray color first, then I applied a darker gray-brown mixed with glaze…
And then wiped it mostly off…
Here’s the difference. (Left glazed, right unglazed)
The whole cabinet was done this way, but it stood out the most on the doors and the detail in the turned legs.
After everything dried a coat of satin poly is a good idea, but I’ll go ahead and confess… I haven’t done that yet.
Step 8 – Hardware
The hardware installation was as easy as marking and drilling the holes…
And then screwing the handles in.
Step 9 – Extra Credit: Tile your own counter.
Any counter can be used at this point. I choose to build the counter out of MDF with 3/4″ tiles because it was quicker and cheaper than finding marble and getting it cut to size.
For detailed instructions on building and tiling a counter, check out this post.
Specifically for this project, here’s how it went down at a high level. I did a decent amount of planning and measuring once I had the tile and before I cut my MDF down to size so that I would only have full tiles. In my case this meant cutting the boards to exactly the width of the base (36″) and 1/2″ more than the depth, since I only tiled the front and not the back.
Actually, I totally messed this up and used a filler piece for the depth, which you’ll see in a minute, but in theory you should plan that out ahead of time.
Once your boards are the right size, the sink should come with a template to cut the right sized hole for it.
This means you need the sink before building the counter. Obviously.
It takes two pieces of 3/4″ MDF to make a 1-1/2″ thick counter. I always test the sink in the first one before cutting the second.
Then the pieces are attached to the vanity with 3″ thick drywalls screws. (Always predrill.)
I chose to tile the front and sides and then overhang the top tiles to cover them. Here’s how I perfected the layout and cut the tiles sheets to fit prior to gluing anything down…
And where I added a little extra something on instead of cutting a row of tiles in half.
There’s a reason why I live with an engineer, okay?
The tile gets set with a tile adhesive or mortar.
Then grouted once it’s dry.
Use a grout float and not a foam brush. Unless you live in a garage and are desperate to have a working bathroom in your house, which is entirely dependent on finishing this vanity counter. In that case use whatever you’ve got on hand.
Here we are, all cleaned up.
It would be an excellent idea to put a grout sealer on at this point, even if I myself haven’t done that yet either.
And after all of that work (and some assistance from The Plumbers getting the sink set and faucet in)…
In my case it needs some finishing touches, like a nice basket underneath and actual outlets installed above it. But regardless, you can bet I smile every time I see this knowing that I spent about $400 in materials for a vanity that costs $1400 from Pottery Barn.
Another thing I’ve learned is that it almost takes longer to write a post about how to build a vanity than it does to actually build one, but happily this one was done just in time for How To’s Day at The Lettered Cottage: