If you like to watch the design shows on TV or flip through the occasional home remodeling magazine, you’ve no doubt seen some beautiful vanity cabinets that look like high-end furniture pieces instead of standard cabinets. With a little imagination and creativity, it’s easy to duplicate that look in your bathroom — without spending a fortune on a designer cabinet.

Start with the right piece of furniture

Just about any piece of furniture that’s the right size and shape will work for your new vanity cabinet. You might consider a dresser, large nightstand, sideboard, dressing table, desk, or any furniture piece that strikes your fancy. They can be found used at antique stores, flea markets and secondhand stores, or new through any number of retail outlets.

Before you go shopping, measure the length of the space where the piece will go. Because you probably won’t find one that’s the perfect size, determine what would be the shortest and longest pieces that would work comfortably for that space.

You’ll also need to consider the height. A standard vanity cabinet is approximately 30 inches high, including the counter. A standard kitchen cabinet is 36 inches high, and some people prefer that taller height for their vanities as well. Look for a furniture piece that’s either within that comfortable height range, or that could easily be altered.

For example, you may be able to add or remove the feet from a piece of furniture or a bottom trim piece to adjust its height.

Getting things ready

What you need to do to prepare your piece of furniture for its new life as a vanity depends on exactly what you’re starting with. Since there are so many different possibilities, let’s take a small chest of drawers as an example.

First, remove all the drawers and set them aside, then examine the overall construction of the piece. Typically it’s going to have a wooden top, which is not an ideal surface for all the water found around a vanity sink, so that’s going to have to be removed. Examine it carefully to see how it was attached. Some have screws that hold them in place from below, others have wooden blocks that hold the tops with glue or nails. Take your time, and work the top off carefully. Try to get it off intact, because it’s often good to use as a template for the new top.

Set the furniture piece in place where it’s going to go, and check where the plumbing will enter. Ideally, you’d like to cut a hole in the back of the piece to accept the plumbing, while doing as little damage to the drawer slides inside as possible. In some cases, you may be able to just remove the back completely. Either way, the ultimate goal is going to be to adapt the drawers to their new use as well.

With the plumbing access cut or the back removed, set the piece in place and level it, using shims under the feet if needed. Secure it to the wall by screwing through the back into the studs, or by using metal L-brackets attached to the inside of the piece.

Topping things off

The next step will be a new top. With a furniture piece, you’ll find that solid tops such as granite, marble or Corian look best. Some types of small ceramic tile are appropriate with some furniture pieces, and if you’re on a budget, you can do a nice top out of laminate. Other more unusual tops such as concrete or even some types of metal will work as well.

Have the countertop supplier measure for the top, and make it to fit. They may be able to use the old wooden top as a template, or else they’ll make their own templates as needed.

Along with the new top, you’ll need a sink. Standard sinks, which drop into a hole in the countertop, are fine, as are under-mount sinks. The only drawback with these is that you lose interior space within the furniture piece.

Another alternative is a vessel sink, which basically sits on top of the counter, and requires only a single hole for the drain to pass through. This is a matter of personal preference, but you’ll want to have the sink picked out at the time you order the countertop, so it can be cut and drilled accordingly.

The final step is the drawers. One of the nice things about using a chest of drawers for a vanity is that it has lots of drawer space already built in, so long as you can get it to work around the plumbing.

If a drawer is barely hitting the plumbing, you may need to cut only a small notch in the drawer back to accommodate things. If there’s a lot of plumbing interference in the center of the drawer but none along the sides, consider cutting out the middle of the drawer and building new drawer sides along each edge of the cutout. That will still give you drawer space for smaller items, and when the drawer’s closed, you won’t see the difference.

In some cases, you won’t be able to use the drawer at all. As you did with the top, examine the drawer’s construction, and then carefully separate the drawer box from the drawer front. Then, using glue or wooden blocks installed from inside the chest, simply reinstall just the drawer front back into its original position.

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