Elegant and Practical Zebrawood Vanity

Home Improvement: Bigger isn’t always better. In fact, small is sometimes the only way to go. Build this simple yet attractive addition to your bathroom. 

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Elegant and Practical Zebrawood Vanity



Photos by Tom Morton; Illustrations by James Provost

A typical bathroom vanity has at least two doors and a bank of drawers for storage and it also provides a whole lot of surface area for placing other bathroom objects. The only problem is that you need a large bathroom to put it all in. What do you do if you don’t have all that real estate? Build a smaller vanity, of course. That’s what custom woodworking is all about – adapting the piece of furniture to suit the space it will occupy.

The décor of the bathroom in which I installed this vanity was fairly simple. What it needed was a focal point, and what better species than zebrawood to achieve it. With its strong lines and heavy contrast it was the perfect solution. This small, simple zebrawood vanity will also accent the existing soft browns in the room. The only tricky part about using zebrawood – or most other exotic veneers – is that you have to lay up a panel and press it yourself. If you use a standard species like maple, walnut, cherry, etc., you can purchase a sheet and save yourself the hassle.

The sink I was using sits directly on top of the vanity and is siliconed in place. There’s a ⅛" overhang on the left, right and front, to account for slight variances in the sink fixture. As long as the plumbing fixtures fit inside the cabinet, it was just a matter of aesthetics to determine the overall height. Because the bathroom was on the smaller side, I wanted to keep an open feeling under the vanity so I kept it off the floor. The dimensions for this vanity are for this specific sink, so if you plan on making a similar vanity, work backwards from the sink you choose. The main dimension you want to work towards is having the top surface of the sink finish 36" above the floor.


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Lay up the Panel
In order to keep the grain of the zebrawood continuous, I laid up the left and right gables along with the door in one long panel so I could cut the three parts from the panel in the order they appear. I started by cutting the core material slightly oversized. I decided on Baltic birch plywood because of the cabinets’ proximity to a water source; MDF and particleboard turn to mush if they get wet. The zebrawood veneer I used was 12" wide, so all I had to do was splice two sheets together in a book match to obtain a wide enough face veneer. The same applied to the lower-priced maple for the interior of the cabinet. To splice two sheets of veneer together, I first cut one straight edge on each piece of veneer with a straight-edge and a flush trim bit in my trim router. Although grain direction plays a large role, climb cutting is often your best bet. A conventional cutting direction may chip the veneer. Practice on a test piece if you don’t have much extra width to play with. With two straight mating edges cut, I use veneer tape (available at Lee Valley and other retailers) to join the two sheets of face and back veneer together so I can press them onto the core. Line the sheets up side by side and, starting at one end, apply a small piece of the veneer tape every 5" or so to hold the sheet together temporarily.

To activate the veneer tape you will need to moisten its glued surface. I tear off a bunch of 1" long pieces then, one by one, press the tape onto a slightly wet paper towel or sponge and immediately place the tape over the edge jointed veneer, overlapping both pieces of veneer and pulling both edges together to form a tight joint. After the entire edge has been taped together with the shorter piece, I tear longer pieces off and apply them between the shorter pieces, making sure the entire joint has tape on it holding it together. Once both the face and back veneer are complete, I apply glue to the core, line everything up and put them in my vacuum bag for pressing.

You could also use a large, flat panel, a bunch of cauls and a selection of clamps to press the panel up.


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Veneer Tape Does the Trick – Once you have two straight edges, join them with pieces of veneer tape – first small pieces, then longer pieces. (Photo by Rob Brown)

Assemble the Cabinet
When the panel was dry, I trimmed it to width and cut it to rough length. After carefully laying out the gables and door in the order they appear in the finished cabinet, I cut the panels to size. Next I mitred the front edges of the gables and both left and right sides of the door. Mitring allowed the grain to appear continuous around the three visible panels. Next, a top and bottom were cut out of maple plywood. Because of the mitred edges, I couldn’t use a rabbet to join the top and bottom to the gables. A butt joint strengthened by dowels would work out simple and strong and would also provide the shape of cabinet I wanted. Before assembling the gables and the top and bottom, apply zebrawood veneer to the mitred edges of the gables. These edges will be slightly visible when everything is assembled, so it’s nice to have the exterior species showing through, helping to camouflage the joint. Sand the interior of the vanity and assemble everything nice and square.

To add some strength to the vanity, I installed two V-cleats in each upper corner, out of view from anyone who would be using the vanity down the road. I added a slight mitre to the inside corner of each cleat so glue would have somewhere to go when I installed them. In order to fix the entire vanity to the wall, I installed cleats on the underside of the top and bottom with glue and screws. All these hard maple cleats were attached with waterproof glue, just in case. When you’re making the vanity, just make sure you’re aware of the size and location of the plumbing underneath the sink.

With the carcase together, turn your attention to fitting the door. When I cut the gables to size, I took into account the size of the door, so it was already cut to size and mitred. I veneered the mitred edge near the hinge, then cut mortises for the butt hinges. For the initial hinge install, I just use one or two screws per hinge flap, so if there are any adjustments required I can re-drill other holes. The hinges themselves had to be sized properly – not too big, not too small. A full-size drawing of the top view of the hinged corner helped out a lot. In the illustration you will notice that, if the hinges were smaller or the screws sized incorrectly, it would have placed the screws closer to the front of the mitre joint, which probably would have caused the screws to protrude through the doors’ finished face – a woodworker’s nightmare!

With the door hung, I tested its fit. The grain of the veneered surface should line up nicely with the opposite side. If it doesn’t, you can adjust the hinges a bit. You may also have to trim the door slightly to get it to fit the cabinet. You’re looking for that “perfect” fit. Now apply zebrawood veneer to the last mitred edge, as well as the top of the door.


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Wrap-Around Veneer – By laying the two gables and the door up as one piece then cutting them to size, you can keep the grain running continuously around the outside of the cabinet. 

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Simple Door Pull – Instead of a face-mounted pull, opted for a cleaner look and routed a cove into the underside of the door.

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Select Your Hinges Carefully – The hinge screws may break through the outside of the cabinet if you don't plan your attack.

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Invisible Details
Because I was looking for a very simple look, I didn’t want to have much visible hardware. Instead of standard pulls mounted to the face of the door, I routed a quarter cove into the underside of the door so someone’s fingers could grasp and open the door. To keep the door from “swinging in the wind,” I installed a rare earth magnet and magnet cup in the front edge of the top and a mating metal washer on the back of the door. Both were positioned in a shallow hole so they ended up flush with the face when installed. I then installed a small press-in bumper (magnets and bumpers from Lee Valley) to keep the door from banging into the carcase during use. Although any machining was done now, the actually installation of these items didn’t take place until after finishing the vanity. The hinges I used were zinc-coated and the knuckles were like beacons against the dark zebrawood surface when the door was closed. I cleaned the hinges and sanded the surface to give it some “tooth.” With a dark brown can of spray paint, I gave the knuckles a couple of coats, making them blend in nicely with the rich brown zebrawood.


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Keeping the Door Closed … Softly – A rare earth magnet keeps the door closed while a press-in bumper stops the door from slamming.

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Flush Mounted – The washer that closes against the magnet is flush mounted in a ½" diameter hole.

Sanding and Finishing
With everything fitting nicely, it was time to sand the exterior of the piece. In choosing a finish, I wanted something that would stand up to water, and whatever else a busy bathroom will throw at it. I chose an oil-based polyurethane, though a catalyzed lacquer would also work well. Penetrating oils like tung oil, Danish oil or linseed oil are poor choices for this application because they offer much less in terms of protection from the elements.
 
Installation
With the cabinet ready to go, and nobody around to help me install it, I placed it on a stack of books so the top of the sink was at the proper height. Once I found the location of the studs, I was off to the races, sinking a number of screws through the top and bottom cleats, making sure it was level. I was really happy with the final look of the zebrawood vanity. It was definitely worth going that extra mile to use an exotic species, even though that meant I had to lay everything up myself. It’s a really striking addition to the home and one that family and visitors will enjoy for a long time. Now, does anyone know a good plumber?


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A Cleat Makes Installation Easy – You can screw right through the cleat into the studs, no matter where the studs end up along the width of the vanity.



ROB BROWN
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