Buying premade bathroom vanities is a great way to save money and get a more distinctive look than you would with a custom build bathroom cabinet. But while you know exactly what your cabinets are made of when you have them built yourself, what exactly goes into a premade bathroom vanity isn’t always obvious – in fact, at times manufacturers can be deliberately vague on this point. But the materials used are a marker of quality, price, weight, and even indoor air quality. Today, we’ve got a simple guide to help you decipher what the product descriptions are telling you, what they aren’t telling you, and why it matters.
As a general rule of thumb, the more detailed and specific the description of the materials that go into a bathroom vanity, the better the quality of the vanity. This isn’t true 100% of the time, but it’s safe to say that transparency is never bad. The more detail you can get about what bathroom vanities are made of, the less likely you are to get an unpleasant surprise. Plus, manufacturers will always tout their best features, so if the materials they use are in any way especially remarkable, know that they’ll almost certainly mention it in the description.
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Conversely, a lack of details can be used to obscure the truth. Now, manufacturers won’t outright lie about what goes into their vanities, but strategic phrasing is often used to imply bathroom vanities are made out of higher quality materials than they actually are, specifically hardwood. These days, it’s rare to find bathroom vanities made out of solid hardwood – it’s rare to find any furniture that’s made entirely of wood, for that matter, and when you do, it’s likely to be much more expensive. But many still use a hardwood frame, which gives the vanity strength and stability, and cover it with MDF, plywood, or other composite wood panels and doors. Even the highest quality bathroom vanities often have back panels made of MDF simply because they’re easier to cut, which makes the process of installation much easier. So be aware that the phrases “solid hardwood” or “hardwood construction,” or even “furniture quality” don’t necessarily mean the vanity is made entirely of real wood.
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Of course, this isn’t strictly a bad thing. Solid wood bathroom vanities do have a more authentic wood appearance, but they tend to be much heavier and significantly more expensive. Besides, techniques for making various particleboard look like real wood have improved significantly. For example, many bathroom vanities utilize veneers – that is, a thin slice of wood applied to the underlying material, which can either be particleboard or a less attractive type of wood. This makes it possible to get vanities that look like they’re made of expensive, exotic hardwoods (even with rarer, more expensive patterning) at a fraction of the cost.
Even laminate finishes – which are common on MDF and plywood bathroom vanities – aren’t entirely without their merits. While they don’t have the intricate grain or natural warmth of real wood, they have a sleek appearance that works well in a modern bathroom, and are capable of being printed in any color or pattern – including dramatic faux wood prints that you wouldn’t get from the real deal. These are less expensive, but when done right, with a thorough, well-applied finish, can be more water resistant, if a little less sturdy in terms of dints and dings.
Because bathrooms are wet and wood isn’t very water friendly, pretty much all bathroom vanities are waterproofed in one way or another, so even if a product description doesn’t mention the finish explicitly it doesn’t mean the vanity doesn’t have one. That said, it will come up more often if the process is very involved, if a special type of finish was used (like the Sherwin Williams finishes on vanities from Kaco), or if any part of the finish (the stain, seal, or painted detailing) was hand applied, which is a marker of a slightly higher quality.
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That said, “by hand” is one of the more deceptive phrases used in product descriptions for bathroom vanities, and can be particularly difficult to see through. If the vanity passes through human hands at any point during production, the claim is technically true. But there’s a big difference between, for example, molded MDF made to look like carved wood and finished by hand and the much more rare actually-hand-carved wood vanity. The best way to tell? Price. Machine tooling, form molding, and other automated processes drive the cost of the vanity down, while a human touch – whether it’s in applying a stain, painting a detail, or actually doing woodwork – is always going to come at a premium.
Another good marker of quality is the type of joint construction and door and drawer hardware used. Regardless of the type of material the vanity is made of, drawers with dovetail joining are a sure indicator of quality and durability, as they’re much, much sturdier than traditional drawer joints. As well, soft close hinges and drawers, full extension drawers, and smooth drawer glides are popular European features that are becoming more common in the US. These prevent doors and drawers from slamming or sticking, allow drawers to be pulled smoothly all the way out without falling out, and just generally offer a greater ease of use.
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Maybe the most confusing aspect of trying to buy premade bathroom vanities is trying to choose which ones are the most environmentally friendly. Unfortunately, there’s no one, easy answer to this because the issue is many-faceted. Longevity, durability, materials, finishes, binders used, and even the location of manufacture are all factors in how “green” a vanity will be, with no clear victory going to any one type. That said, there are a few standards that will let you know you’re on the right track. Vanities made with wood that’s CARB or CARB PH2 compliant conform to California’s stricter air quality rules, meaning they’ll release fewer volatile organic compounds into your home over time, which equals better air quality. Some manufacturers go a step further, using recycled materials like strawboard, or replacing synthetic binding agents in MDF (that bond the wood particles into a solid board) with natural adhesives and fillers, which helps reduce waste and preserve air quality. Again, if these features exist, they’ll probably be mentioned, but if you’re concerned about indoor air quality (or the source of the wood used), this is something worth looking for specifically.
Products are always described in a way that portrays them in the best light, but knowing what features are important to look for – and being able to see through the lingo – can make it easier to find the right vanity for the right price. What features are you most interested in having for your next bathroom vanity? Let me know in the comments!
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