Not-so-hard hardwood bathroom vanity top

To review a little: Since already we had contractors coming in and out of our house for the kitchen, we decided to add a shower to the guest bathroom, which had a tub with broken handles, but no shower.  Since the tiling only went halfway up, this means retiling the tub, which also meant ripping out the matching countertop…or at least we decided to go this far down the rabbit hole.  The bathroom looked like this:


After buying all those cabinets for the kitchen, I was tired of spending money on new cabinets.  Plus, I actually didn’t mind this vanity, which fits the slot perfectly and has three little drawers on the side.  It just needs a little paint and maybe some hardware for updating.  To save the vanity, I decided that we (I) would make our own countertop.  Because this is a super long article, here is where we are now:

photo 2


You can read all about the first failure here, where I tried to make a concrete countertop via internet instructions.  I do not think that feather finish, which is very sandable, is actually that durable.  Generally, things that sand well also damage well – which is why we finish hardwood with protective coatings rather than just walk around on freshly sanded surfaces.

For the next try, I took this very approach and we made a countertop out of wood – which I then finished with poly-acrylic!  I don’t have a jig to attach boards adjacent to one another and I was too cheap to spend money on good hardwood.  I definitely borrowed a fair amount of detail and planning from addicted2decorating for this project, but I was creative enough to make several more mistakes along the way so that everyone else on the internet can learn from them.  For our approach, we needed one piece of 3/4″ plywood, 2 pieces of oak trim, several pieces of so-called oak “hobby-board” from Home Depot.  The hobby-board is about 1/4″ thick, often warped (choose carefully from the bin) and still probably a rip off for the quality, but was easier to deal with than the full 1/2″ boards sold as lengths of hardwood.  The reason that I chose oak is because the hardwood in the rest of our house is walnut-stained oak and I thought it would be nice to carry that theme into the bathroom.  I had also never stained anything before and I had read that oak accepts stain well.

photo 1

We had Home Depot cut the plywood to size after carefully measuring the vanity…plus we already screwed that up once here so we knew the size pretty well at this point!  The thicker oak trim piece is lying across the top of this pile.  Home Depot actually sells hardwood by the foot, but they also RETURN hardwood by the foot.  So, I had them cut the pieces for me, but took home the whole length in case I measured poorly (if it ain’t broke, you’re not trying hard enough).  I lamely asked my husband to cut the thin pieces to size with a fine-blade in a Skilsaw donated by my dad.  Since our wood skills are akin to Laurel and Hardy, the thin pieces needed to be ever-so-slightly longer than the plywood.  Then I carefully glued the boards to the plywood, kneeling on them and nailing them down with 2-4 nails.  While the nails may not be strictly necessary, I only had one clamp, plus I was a little concerned about the warp-i-ness of the thin oak boards so I decided a nail or two would make me feel better…I later felt otherwise about these nails.

.Lesson #1: Home Depot lumber is labeled as a certain width.  It is never this width.  Note that, when buying plywood, when laid side to side, the width of your thin boards should be equal to or slightly deeper than the depth of the plywood.  I used three ” 6″ ” boards, three ” 2″ ” boards and one ” 3″ ” board…to cover an actual 22″ of depth – note the 5″ difference.  Here they are glued down:

photo 2

Next, we had to sand down those uneven edges we had since we didn’t want to gamble on being a bit overzealous with the Skilsaw.

Lesson #2: Hardwood is called HARD wood for a reason.  It is much harder to sand than plywood or pine.  Removing that 1/8″ you see in the bottom left took quite a while with my little Ryobi hand sander.  Alternatively, you can probably use a grinder if you have the right disk (and not only a diamond blade from sanding goo off of your garage floor).  But, the sander worked fine.  I have to strongly recommend this Norton sandpaper from now on.  It really is 3x as fast as other brands – and it’s color-coded!  I have used lots of sandpapers and polishing cloths in various walks of life and this stuff is pretty amazing.

After that, I applied some wood glue and nailed on the trim.  I (unnecessarily) filled in a couple gaps with wood filler.

photo 3

At this point, we should have cut the hole for the sink.  Foreshadowing…

Instead, I decided to sand the surface nice and level with my Norton sandpaper and hand sander again, then wipe the dust off with water.

Lesson #3: Not all nails are created equal!  I used finishing nails for this project, which were made of steel.  After I sanding the surface down, I wiped off the saw dust with a damp sponge, wiping only from the top to the bottom of the photo below.  This caused blue streaking marks to appear (do you see 4 of them below?).  At the time, I didn’t know what it was either, but apparently an iron reaction with wood tannins in moist environments is a common problem with exterior wood.

photo 4

Oh, you don’t have a clue what that means either or why it matters here?  Great.  Let’s straighten this out then.  (beware chemistry ahead) A tannin is a typical of phenol which is a weak organic acid.  This is why tannins are capable of etching the iron (or possibly zinc) that is present in the nail dust which I wiped down the wood with the sponge, simultaneously dissolving the tannins in water.  Dissolving the tannins in water created a weak acid, like vinegar.  This reacting with the nail dust resulted in a blue chemical compound (and it really was very bright blue, suggesting a transition metal compound) streaking you see in my wood.  Not knowing exactly what is in our very hard water or the nail, it could be anything from iron chloride to some zinc compound etc. (but it would be so much cooler if I had actually found out since that IS my day job!).  Had I not sanded, the steel would probably still have had a nice stable coating and prevented this reaction, but apparently my awesome Norton sandpaper is literally tougher than nails.  (Chemistry over)

A note on scary chemicals: The article above recommended cleaning this streaking up with NaHF2 or oxalic acid.  Anything containing HF is scary stuff!  In my day job, this is the last resort of chemical you pick only if nothing else works.  It etches glass.  It etches quartz, which is super resistant glass!  This is the stuff that etches your bone without pain until you are out of bone.  [And we used this stuff in freshman college chemistry laboratory – really, no college students should be handling anything stronger than weak coffee at 8am so who thought that was a good idea?]  Not to go too deep on this, but the chemical warning on the door of a Home Depot is scarier than many companies in Silicon Valley…so pay attention to what you’re buying!  And how to get rid of it later!

Instead of using anything scary, I skipped the chemistry and just sanded off the marks.  Good as new.  Then I used a dry brush to remove the sawdust this time!

photo 5

I used an oil based stain pre-conditioner to prepare the wood with a foam brush, waited for 15 minutes, then wiped off the excess with a piece of old t-shirt.  The Purdy brush pictured was just to remove the saw dust.  If you have a water-based stain, my understanding is that you can just use water!  However, I am relieved that I had the smelly oil based stain and pre-conditioner because other wise I’m sure the blue marks from above might be back!  Here’s after the pre-conditioner:

photo 1

Then I used a new foam brush and applied the wood stain in walnut.  I did this in an open garage with a Home Depot respirator on.  A little goes a long way.  I just wiped it on along the grain evenly in a thin coat, then waited for 20 minutes.

photo 2

I used another old t-shirt piece to wipe off the excess.  I really rubbed, not just wiped, to remove the excess.  A few of the wood defects actually continued to leach stain out for a couple hours to follow, which I kept chasing down with a rag to avoid dark splatter-looking spots, but the coating was overall quite even.  Any excess will result in a dark, sticky goo.  Let the stain dry for 24 hours.  Finally, speaking of scary stuff…dispose of the stain rags and foam brushes appropriately.

Lesson #4: Wood filler does not take stain very well.  Stain tends to emphasize the variation in wood.  The variation in wood filler just isn’t very pretty, so emphasizing is also not pretty.  It isn’t entirely wood so the stain is absorbed differently.  I’ve read here about using a stain pen on wood filler.  In my experience, the stained wood filler just looked like dirt caught between the wood boards and it would’ve been better left out.  Fortunately, by the time I’d screwed this thing up twice, most of the filler sanded away.

The next day, I came back to do my first coat of water-based poly-acrylic.  Does Home Depot have some kind of deal with Minwax?  It seems to be the only option.  For this, I used a nice Purdy brush and was careful to wash it with warm soap and water right after use.  the coating would start to dry within 10 minutes on either the brush or the wood.  I found that thin coats were best, but I did short but slow back-and-forth brush strokes to blend them all rather than long smooth strokes down the length of the table.  I went over the same small regions more than once, but covered the whole table in one pass going from one corner to the one kiddy-corner.  This is kind of what you do sweeping a floor or raking leaves.  I think this evened out the bubbles a little too.

After two coats, I remembered that the neighbor’s jigsaw had a little metal foot at the bottom and started to worry about damaging the surface.  So I said, “ok, I am ready to cut the sink hole since I have two coats of finish to protect the surface against gouging, but I can still repair it with the next coat.  Bryan, can you please use the neighbor’s jig-saw to cut this hole for me from the sink template?”

photo 3

Lesson #5: Finish cutting before you sand.  Before you stain.  And before you finish anything.  Duh.  Because the jig saw gouged my lovely finish.

photo 4

And it removed ALL of the finish under that spot.  No, I was not lucky and the over-mount sink did NOT cover the damage.

I resanded.  And got this:

photo 5

Note that the grain is still actually stained compared to the brand new board, which gave kind of a cool contrast.

Then I stained again.

And I finished it again, gently sanding each layer of finish before the next, as instructed by the can.  I’m not totally sure this made a difference.  It did make dust that I had to brush off every time.  I put on 4 coats of finish since this will be a bathroom countertop.

photo 1

Much better.

Finally, here it is installed again:

photo 2

Our contractor installed the counter top, sink (Kohler) and faucet.  Do not buy this Delta faucet.  Installed by a contractor and 30+ year experience plumber, the faucet would not turn off.  Hooray for Home Depot’s return policy.  Instead, we removed it, returned it and installed this lovely Moen faucet.  Murphy’s Law demanded that the first faucet was a lemon if only because my parents were coming to visit in two days, and we really wanted the sink to be working for their arrival.

Project cost:

  • $60 for the countertop, including my previous flop I think
  • $29 for the sink
  • $128 for functional faucet

This homemade guy is roughly half the cost of a cheap big box store vanity top and 1/10th of a granite countertop without a sink, if you already own the granite!

As you can tell, we have plenty more work to do in the bathroom, but I think I will be painting that cabinet white.  Chalk paint?  Or Ben Moore Advance?  Leave a comment.

Catch up on the bathroom saga:

Tiling: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Painting the bathroom


2 thoughts on “Not-so-hard hardwood bathroom vanity top

  1. ” $60 for the countertop, including my previous flop I think

    This homemade guy is roughly half the cost of a cheap big box store vanity top and 1/100th of a granite countertop without a sink!”

    $6,000 for a tiny granite top? Glad you’re not teaching anyone i know.

    • Thanks for catching a typo (1/100 instead of 1/10) that I have now corrected, although the world can be a better place if everyone is courteous… When I was shopping, the cost of a granite countertop heavily depends on whether you own the granite. A full slab (totally overkill for this bathroom) could be upwards of 1-2K, then cutting it down was close to 1K. If you have or can get smaller scrap pieces, you just have to deal with cutting it. If you happen to know of a cheaper way to do this, please share.

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