Conquer Your Vanity

Let’s talk about vanity. Mine specifically, but maybe this chat will affect your vanity as well. I had a big problem with mine. You might too– don’t feel bad, it happens to a lot of people. I’m going to show you how to make it all better.

Vanity. What a dumb word for that janky cabinet under your sink.

If you didn’t catch the big bathroom makeover a couple days ago, you’re really missing out. I’d encourage you to scroll your ass down the page and peruse. Because *spoiler,* we’re totally gonna learn how to do this now.

Now, given that we’re renters and I have a strong-held policy of not asking permission for anything, I was serious about doing this right. The biggest obstacle was figuring out how to deal with those doors– I mean, even after a coat of paint, they’d still be pretty… blah. And the goal isn’t really “less ugly,” now is it? Let’s shoot for the stars. Can I hear an AMEN?!

Then I stumbled upon these in the hardware store:

These are 4 inch wide, 4 foot long, 1/4 inch thick planks. Only $5.99. They’re just wide enough to cover that ubiquitous carved detail that was haunting me. Perfect. Note: I’m not sure if most hardware stores or that hellhole, Home Depot, sells these babies, but craft and hobby stores probably do. If you’re desperate, you could get Home Depot to cut down some luan for the same effect, but you probably don’t want to go thicker than a quarter inch.


You’re gonna need:

  • small foam roller
  • small foam brush
  • handsaw (a miter box is quite helpful, not completely necessary).
  • wood glue
  • finishing nails
  • nail set ($5)
  • spackle
  • spackle knife
  • sandpaper (medium grit)
  • caulk
  • 1 quart oil-based primer (about $13)
  • 2 cans high-gloss white spray paint ($12)

I honestly thought I took a LOT more photos of the process– evidently they’ve gone missing or I imagined taking them. So numbered steps will have to suffice.

1. Remove any existing hardware and wipe everything down with rubbing alcohol, which will make the primer adhere better. Take off the doors and save them for later.

2. Apply your primer to the vanity, sans doors. I used Zinsser oil-based primer, using a small foam roller and a small foam brush. I prefer brush-painted furniture, but the roller will help you achieve that mass-produced look that your landlord is less likely to notice. Now, I’d never used oil-based-anything because I was scared of the cleanup, so I just used supplies I could throw away. But it’s AWESOME. It adheres so much better than latex, it’s kind of unbelievable. I’d recommend thinning it out a bit with some Penetrol, which will help smooth out the brush stroke/roller texture.

2. Lightly sand after your first coat with a medium or fine grit paper to help smooth things out even more. Then wipe it down with a damp cloth, you don’t want that dust in your paint.

3. Paint a second coat of primer, let dry, and sand again.

4. This is where it gets crazy and I WISH I had a picture. I used high-gloss Krylon white spray paint as the final coating. This was purely a personal choice and experiment, but to my knowledge not a lot of finishes will be much smoother or even than spray paint. You could definitely use paint and polyurethane, too, but I wanted to get everything as absolutely smooth as humanly possible. Since I couldn’t move the vanity, I put newspaper and tape over EVERYTHING nearby, then did a bunch of layers of spray paint (many light, even passes are much better than trying to get it done in a couple heavy coats).

5.  Now, the doors! Measure your wood planks and cut them to size using a handsaw or a chop saw if you’re a lucky bastard. Sand the cut edges, they’ll be a bit rough.

6. Glue the wood planks to your doors and use finishing nails to affix them. I used about four nails on each plank, one near each corner (don’t get too close, you don’t want your wood to split!).

Excuse the crap iPhone pic, part of a secret texting correspondence between Eva and I.

7. Use a nail-set to sink the heads of your nails below the surface of the wood. I can’t stress how important this step is, nothing would ruin your finish like a bunch of little bumps where your nail heads are.

8. Spackle over the nail holes and the transitions between the wood planks. You can still kind of see the seams on my finished doors, but it’s subtle. Sand your spackle, repeat the process if it doesn’t seem smooth.

9. Caulk the interior of the new central cutout on the doors and around the edges where the new wood planks meet the original face of the cabinet (make sure you’re done spackling since you can’t sand caulk!). Prime the doors as you did the rest of the cabinet, remembering to sand between coats. Pay special attention to the new cutout so that primer doesn’t pool in the corners.

10. Spray paint the doors a ton of times. I only spray painted the door fronts and painted the back of the doors and the interior of the cabinet with Benjamin Moore semi-gloss white latex trim paint. Remember, it’s okay to paint latex over oil, just not the other way around.

11. Replace the doors and attach your new hardware! I saved a few bucks by reusing the old hinges, spray painted silver. Usually I hate silver spray paint, but for small applications like this it doesn’t bother me. I stuck with 3-inch door pulls (Home Depot), but since the old screw holes are only visible from behind (since you’ve covered the fronts), it might be a nice opportunity to switch things up with knobs or wider pulls. The knobs are the ATTEST from IKEA. I wanted to hang the knobs directly above the middle of the cutouts on the doors, so I used a level  and tape measure to get everything spaced correctly and level. A little anal but, well, it’s the little things, right?

About Daniel Kanter

Hi, I'm Daniel, and I love houses! I'm a serial renovator, DIY-er, and dog-cuddler based in Kingston, New York. Follow along as I bring my 1865 Greek Revival back to life and tackle my 30s to varying degrees of success. Welcome!

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  1. 10.13.10

    Okay, I NEED to do this. Need to. As soon as we know we’re signing a lease for another year (can you believe I’ve had the apartment for 10 months already?!), I am ALL over this.

    You did a way better job with this than I would have if I’d gone with my initial plan. Chipboard was involved. Yes, it would have been bad.

  2. 10.13.10
    Shilo said:

    I love your complete willingness to blow off any and all form of renter rules. I too, don’t give half a crap about my deposit – I mean, I do, but I knew they’ll make up some bullshit reason to steal it anyway so I may as well paint my place how I like it in the mean time.
    I replaced the hideous beige faux marble countertops in my kitchen for plain white ones two years ago and friends were aghast but dude. it cost me less than a hundred bucks, took less than a day and it looks a zillion percent better.

    Anyway, thanks and you’re awesome for sharing this tutorial. I may just have to copy you x6 for my kitchen cabinets.

    • 10.13.10

      Oh man! I feel like I’ve accidentally vilified my landlords– they actually seem like nice, honest people and they did give us permission to paint… but I doubt they meant, like, cabinets and stuff. I WISH I could replace the sink, too (and slowly breaking faucet that I’m a little afraid to ask to get fixed now…) but I don’t think that’s in the cards.

      I think we have the same countertops. I HATE them, but the other stuff in the kitchen is starting to become distracting enough that they’re not as noticeable anymore. I really want to add stainless steel edging, but unless I find some or it’s less than, oh, $10 it’s not happening. Gotta choose your battles in these places! A lot of ugly to combat.

    • 11.16.11
      Star (thekillingcurse) said:

      I do not think your landlord is going to complain one bit! If anything you raised the rental price for whoever moves in after you and hopefully inspired the owner to make some small purchases. You could mention the sink is on it’s last leg and you can replace it if they would be willing to take the price off the rent for the month.

      *I know I’m late to the party and you may have already taken care of this.

  3. 10.13.10
    Maddie said:

    How did you get to the side of the vanity where the heating pole was? Our vanity has a nice 8 in gap between it and the wall but there’s the darn awkward heating pole in the way!

    • 10.13.10

      oh, I didn’t! There’s only about two inches between the wall and the vanity, so you really can’t see the side (or retrieve all the things I’ve now dropped in that tiny gap! argh!). Maybe approach yours from the top with a roller + an extension rod?

  4. 10.13.10

    Wow, it looks great.
    I too admire your complete disregard for being a renter.
    We rent I I look at wall and moulding and cabinets every day thinking of how I’d love to rip them all out. They always keep deposits, regardless of what you do or don’t do!

  5. 10.13.10
    Heather said:

    I’ve been renovating my house for about a year and a half now, got turned onto your blog from D16. I can’t even tell you how many ideas I’ve gotten from you and Anna, you guys are amazing. Anyways, keep posting, I absolutely LOVE reading your blog.

    I have the UGLIEST dark brown fake wood grain kitchen cabinets (and they’re formica to top it off)- do you think something like this would work on them? I desperately want to paint them, but I’m afraid they’d come out even worse than they already are. Would it be way too much work? I have about 37 doors and drawers. It’s a little ridiculous.

    • 10.13.10

      Well thanks! I think you could definitely do something like this, although instead of using the individual planks, I’d probably get a big 4×8 sheet of luan or maybe even masonite cut down to strips. Since you have SO many to paint, you might think about renting one of those big professional paint-sprayers (I think you can rent them at Home Depot) for a day and getting it done that way. Definitely prime with oil-based first, it’s really nice and durable for kitchens and baths.

  6. 10.13.10
    alice said:

    Wow. I love you.

  7. 10.13.10
    TheElefanta said:

    This is absolutely great, I too am a renter who had a nasty/tiny bathroom. Upon deciding to re-do it, I simply wrote an email to my landlord stating, whatever I am doing to this bathroom will certainly up the value of your property, you should be paying ME to live here. Hahah. SO, I love where you’re coming from.

  8. 10.13.10

    How the hell do you think of this stuff? Most of the time I see ugly and I think “ugly”. You see ugly and think “I’m going to kick this ugly thing’s ass until it’s pretty”. Amazing, sir.

  9. 10.13.10
    Kyle said:

    This is really impressive for sure, but I feel like the door pulls are slightly off scale for the doors…maybe they don’t seem as off in person. I really love the tile.

    • 10.13.10

      Totally fair. I do think they look better in person, but something about them still seems a little off… I’m usually not a fan of those style of pulls (they’re just everywhere, ya know?), but mostly I didn’t want to change the unit TOO much, so sticking with 3-inch pulls seemed like a smart move. I think they’re placed a little funny, but that’s just because it’s where the old screw holes were in the back of the doors. Also, trying to stay cheap with a home depot selection and needing stainless– since the knobs were already bought– they were definitely the best option. I’m considering them a gift to the apartment, since I can’t bear to put the old ones back, even if I don’t have to live with them!

  10. 10.13.10
    Nicole said:

    I wish I wasn’t too 1. poor and 2. scared to do this. Good thing I’m moving soon! I wish you could see my countertop–it’s beige with swirls of gold craft glitter in it. I’m not even kidding. It’s actually so ugly it’s sort of charming and lovable.

    Actually no that’s a lie, it’s really ugly.

    I nearly had a panic attack just replacing the shower head in my apartment (MY DEPOSITTTTT) even though I kept the original–which I think has been in there since the 70s!–so I can’t even imagine.

    The whole place looks epic and amazing since you got your hands on it, bathroom included. Wandered over from Uber Chic for Cheap a few weeks ago and have been checking back in since :D

  11. 10.14.10

    looks awesome! Very clever idea. Sometimes I make my own handles out of small popular molding. I’m working on some for my closet – I’ll have to show you. It’s cheap and super easy but is a really great look.

    I had an apartment years ago where I just went balls to the wall and painted and fixed things up. When my landlord came to inspect on move out his girlfriend gushed “It looks better this way!” and we got our full deposit back and many thank yous.

    I think if you do nice changes, it will be fine. I mean really – you are helping them out in the long run while paying them to do it.

    • 10.14.10

      Wait, they aren’t the same ones as on your cabinets in the living room, are they? Because I really love those. Either way, I’ll look forward to seeing them!

  12. 10.15.10
    Merissa said:

    Totally badass! I wish I had the courage to shurg off my landlord like that! Beautiful redo, I love your site!

  13. 10.16.10
    laura said:

    Love what you did to the cabinet doors. What do the inside of the cabinet doors look like? Is it shaker style? A lot of cabinets with that sort of detail on the front are plain old shaker style on the back, so you can just turn the cabinet doors inside out, fill the old hinge holes and redrill new holes on the old outside/new inside. You’d still have to paint and sand…….. the floor tiles are pretty.

    • 10.16.10

      No, unfortunately they’re just a slightly cheaper looking version of what’s on the front– same shape as the routing except it’s a quarter-inch(ish) thick panel in that shape slapped over an otherwise flat face. It’s obnoxious.

  14. 10.17.10

    le pant, le heave. le love!

  15. 10.17.10

    Very nice and creative cabinet refacing.

  16. 10.18.10
    Jen said:

    The updated vanity looks great! As I was staring at my own unsightly vanity, a question popped up though. How to the doors look in comparison to the fake “drawer” above them, since they are different thicknesses now? Would you recommend adding a board to the drawer as well to unify the front, or do you even notice the difference between the cabinet doors and the drawer?

    • 10.18.10

      It’s a REALLY subtle difference– totally sounds like something that would bug me, too, but I don’t even notice it.

  17. 10.18.10
    Amy said:

    WOW. These are fantastic!
    Great job, Dan!

  18. 10.19.10
    A. Tee said:

    Singing “You’re the meaning in my life, You’re the inspiration” in a strictly DIY kinda way. I started my bathroom fix-up weeks ago, and it’s still not looking half way as cool as yours, even though it started off 10x better.

  19. 10.25.10
    Yenz said:

    This is an amazing job. I have long pondered how to bring my renter’s-nightmare-of-a-cabinet into the 21st century and this just might do it. Have you considered investing in a T50PBN Staple and Brad Nailer. It is a great alternative to the expensive nail guns, especially for smaller projects. The The brads are 5/8″ long and would definitely have reduced spackling and sanding time considerably.

    • 10.25.10

      Actually, my electric staple gun (Powershot something, I don’t know the exact model) is also made for brad nails, although I don’t know the length and whatnot. This was such a small project that the manual route seemed just as easy and I already had the finishing nails on hand, but for bigger stuff I’d definitely go ahead and buy the nails made for my electric gun.

  20. 10.31.10
    Kathleen said:

    Dude! You are a God of small spaces!!!

    I just moved into my first ever, completely alone, apt. My nest was empty so I got a new one. I thought mine was small, but that bathroom of yours would jack up my claustrophobia to a “10”.

    You are a genius, I will most assuredly be subscribing. I especially love your sarcasm, reminds me why I am too, keeps me from getting mad, lol.

    I was blessed with my father’s genetics when it comes to doing almost anything with my hands. This covers everything from knitting to mechanics, which the Air Force just reinforced :D

    Thanks for the blogging, I’ll be “learning” something new.

  21. 2.10.11
    Meg said:

    Just stumbled upon your blog and LOVE it. Question for you from a fellow small space dweller: where in your home do you do projects like these -sawing and spray painting – without damaging surfaces?

    • 2.10.11
      Daniel said:

      My living room, usually! Or for this project, mostly the fire escape. Things definitely get messy, but that comes with the territory of living in a shoebox I guess.

  22. 6.16.11
    Keegan said:

    Hey Daniel-

    A great alternative for wood filler that is even stronger and gives a better finish to paint on is the fiberglass filler they use on repairing cars. You can get it at LOWES or any hardware store. It’s a mixture, so there is some work involved, but gives a better surface to paint. Using wet sandpaper to sand also will give you the smoothest finish possible. These were some tips I picked up when I had my design studio next to a furniture repair studio. Try it out sometime.

  23. 9.5.11
    sarah said:

    I think this is fantastic!! I think my landlords wouldn’t even realize what had happened because they have so many units. I can’t imagine they would be bothered by an improvement like this! Not a good reason to withhold a deposit! The console looks so much better like a breath of fresh air versus a stagnant pool of waste!

  24. 3.2.12
    Jae said:

    Such a smart idea. It looks great.

  25. 3.5.12
    hp said:

    This is fantastic. I have the same problem with my towel rack in my tiny San Francisco bathroom. But when you removed it from the tiles it was drilled into, didn’t it leave a huge gaping hole in the tile? What did you do about this?

    • 3.5.12
      Daniel said:

      Since I knew that change had to be pretty temporary (I put the bar back when I moved), I actually just filled it with a little spackle and left it alone. There were little old drill holes all over the tile already, actually…It wasn’t perfect, but it was inconspicuous enough not to bother me and left the holes intact for when it came time to put the towel rod back up.

  26. 3.13.12
    Carole said:

    This is great. One minor quibble, though: I believe that you can’t use latex paint over oil paint (or the other way around) but you can use latex paint over oil PRIMER.

    • 3.15.12
      Daniel said:

      Actually, you can use latex over oil, just not oil over latex. I didn’t do either, though! Spray paint is oil-based.