Selecting Bathroom Fixtures Sink, Lavatory & Basin
With so many options to choose from, selecting the right bathroom fixtures requires a little knowledge to get it right the first time — and getting it wrong can be costly as well as inconvenient. Here is the basic information you will need to help you choose fixtures appropriate for your style, taste and budget.
Is it a Sink, a Lavatory or a Basin?
If you are wondering what the distinction is between a lavatory, a basin and a bathroom sink, the answer is: not much.
They all describe a sink installed in a bathroom and are pretty much used interchangeably. Lavatory and basin refer only to bath sinks. You rarely hear a kitchen sink described as a "basin" (except in France, and the French don't pronounce it right).
The word "sink" means all of these but when professionals use the term to describe a bath sink it typically refers to a sink that is not mounted in a cabinet: for example a pedestal or wall sink. The word lavatory usually means a sink mounted in or on a cabinet.
The word "basin" is a little more ambiguous. It usually just means a bath sink but some plumbers use the word to mean just the bowl portion of the sink as in "this sink has a deep basin".
So that's the difference. As we said, not much. You can use basin, bathroom sink, or lavatory to mean a sink used in a bathroom. Just about everyone will understand what you mean.
The typical bathroom sink takes a lot of abuse. Fortunately, most are up to the task.
The ultra-smooth sanitary surfaces of most materials resist stains, even nail polish and hair dye, and most forms of impact damage. Some, of course, better than others. We think it safe to say, however, that except for some unusual and rather exotic materials such as bamboo or wood, almost any sink you can buy from a commercial source will give good service for many years — which is a very good thing because replacing a damaged sink is a serious inconvenience.
In this review, we will look at most of the common styles, configurations, and materials, and the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Bathroom sinks are made in three basic configurations: countertop-mounted, wall-mounted, and pedestal.
The most common type of bathroom sinks are those designed to be set in, on, or beneath a countertop – drop-in, set-on, or undermount sinks respectively. The usual mounting surface is a vanity countertop but the sinks may also be mounted to tabletops and shelves hung on a wall. In fact, any horizontal surface will do as long as it not more than about 2-1/2" thick. Any thicker and plumbing can get very tricky.
The classic drop-in sink sits in a hole in a countertop with a lip protruding above the countertop. This is the basic bathroom sink: the most widely available type of sink, the easiest sink to install, and the least expensive to buy.
Most drop-in sinks are self-rimming, that is, they include a protruding lip that sits on top of the countertop and holds it in place. Some, however, are not and require special hardware called a "Hootie ring" to hold them in place. The advantage of a Hootie ring is that it is nearly flush with the countertop surface, allowing escaping water, stray makeup, and other debris to be swept into the sink for disposal without having to maneuver it over the lip of the sink.
Drop-in sinks were very popular in the 1950s during the post-war housing boom. They stayed popular until the 1970s when undermount and vessel sinks began to appear in large numbers. The style is still the most widely used countertop sink, just not as widely used as it once was.
They are, however, generally more expensive than drop-in sinks, more difficult and more costly to install, and faulty installation can lead to a sink failure. While a drop-in sink can be installed by nearly every reasonably competent do-it-yourselfer, undermount sinks generally require professional installation.
The countertop must be a premium material like stone or composite. Nonetheless, as premium countertop materials have grown in popularity, so have undermount sink configurations.
Vessel and Set-On Sinks
The set-on basin (also called a tabletop or top-mount sink) is both the oldest and newest version of the countertop-mounted sink.
The most common of these is the vessel sink, designed to look like a bowl sitting on a tabletop. It emulates the pitcher and bowl combination from pre-running-water days in which the morning ablations of the well-to-do were performed from a pitcher of warm water emptied into a bowl on top of the bedroom dresser. Drill a hole in the bottom of the bowl, attach it to plumbing, and the vessel sink is born. Originally round and shaped like the bowl, set-on sinks are now just about any shape.
Vessel sinks started as a sort of fad, popular among the 1960s and '70s counterculture set. But now the style has been around long enough that any suggestion of faddishness is long gone.
The sinks are not expensive, generally at about the same price level as traditional drop-in sinks. They are very easy to install. No countertop cut-out is needed, just a hole drilled for the drain. They can be replaced easily. Just disconnect the drain, remove it, and install the new sink.
They are easier to damage, however, since the whole sink is exposed while other configurations are set into or mounted under the countertop where the bulk of the sink is protected. They also require special faucets. The faucets, however, or widely available and not expensive.
Vessel sinks are useful in small baths where their minimal size can make the room appear larger, and for mounting a sink under a low window, there is nothing more useful. See Redefining the Arts & Crafts Bath for a good example of using vessel sinks to fit under a inconveniently-located window.
These sinks are supported on a narrow base called a pedestal. The pedestal and bowl or basin are usually separate pieces. The base is three-sided, open in the back, and used to conceal the sink's plumbing. The basin itself is attached to the wall, and the pedestal attaches to the basin.
The height of the sink is determined by the height of the pedestal. The sinks are typically the traditional 32" above the floor but an increasing number of manufacturers are beginning to recognize that Americans have gotten taller over the decades, and are making 34" and 36" models.
Pedestal sinks are considered better around children than wall-hung sinks. The base supports the sink so it cannot be easily torn from the wall. (Which makes us wonder why schoolhouse sinks are almost always of the wall-hung variety.)
As the name suggests, these sinks are mounted to strong brackets on the wall. They have no base support at all. Plumbing is usually exposed, so it has to be neatly done. However, some wall-mounted sinks include a pipe shield that conceals the plumbing.
These are the traditional sinks for some period baths. And, if you need to minimize the size of fixtures in a small bath, wall-mount sinks are worth a good look. In glass versions, they almost disappear. The most common bathroom sink material is glazed vitreous china. It is tough, durable, long-lasting, sanitary, and needs only the most basic of care.
But, sinks are, made of just about any material that will hold water, including some rather non-obvious materials such as bamboo and wood.
The only requirements are that the material be somewhat resistant to physical damage and very resistant to corrosion. Some materials are definitely upscale, and sinks made from them are very pricey. But most materials are intended to compete with the standard vitreous china sink in price, so most are well within reach, even if the reach is sometimes a bit of a stretch.
Here are some of the common and uncommon bath sink materials:
Vitreous china, also called enamelware, porcelain, chinaware, and fireclay, is the same material.
This same process is used to make any number of bathroom fixtures such as toilets, bidets, and sinks as well as ceramic and porcelain tile, pottery, and dishware. The material is a mixture of china clay, water, and additives. The clay material is shaped into a sink in a mold then fired to about 2,200° Fahrenheit. It is coated with a glaze and fired again to "set" the glaze. The glaze is just glass. Glass is waterproof and stain-resistant which makes it ideal for sinks.
Vitreous china sinks are very sanitary, cannot corrode, last for centuries with proper care, and are by far the most common sinks available. But, they are susceptible to damage from even a fairly modest impact.
Fireclay as an alternate name for vitreous china appeared about two decades ago. Most manufacturers promote it as a new material that produces a stronger, more damage-resistant product.
There is, however, nothing new about the material. It is the same china clay from which all ceramic products are produced.
The heavied-up structure can be applied to any porcelain or ceramic sink, not just "fireclay" sinks. A Shaws fireclay sink can, for example, weigh several hundred pounds but so can a Kohler porcelain sink, which is also a thick-walled product, but not called fireclay.
The term "fireclay" is just marketing, adopted from England where vitreous china is often called fireclay — merely a corruption of "fired clay." There is a real fireclay, but it is never used to make sinks. It is a specialty clay from which highly heat-resistant refractory products are made including the bricks used in fireplace linings and crucibles to hold molten steel. Obviously, no sink is ever going to need such incredible resistance to heat.
Porcelain and Other Ceramics: For more information of the difference between porcelain and other ceramics, go to Porcelain vs. Ceramic Tile: Is There a difference?
Stainless Steel, Copper, Pewter, and Zinc
Stainless steel is rust-resistant, durable, and lightweight. Most stainless steel sinks are made by pressing the shape of the sink into a sheet of heavy-gauge steel, then polishing the resulting sink by hand. Stainless steel sinks resist damage from impacts but can be dented if you try hard enough.
Stainless steel is common in kitchen, prep, and bar sinks but rare in lavatory sinks. We see a few more on the market year by year, however, and major manufacturers like Kohler are starting to produce them.
Zinc was used for sinks during the Victorian and early Arts & Crafts period, and is still widely used in utility sinks (but is being rapidly replaced by plastics). It is still a good choice when reproducing the bathrooms of these periods
No major sink manufacturer makes zinc or pewter sinks. They are always artisan-made and generally a little pricey for that reason. All three materials require more maintenance than stainless steel. Both are softer and dent more easily. For bathrooms, however, these hand-formed sinks are often hammered into shape rather than pressed by machine, and the hammer marks help hide any inadvertent bashes.
Composites and Solid Surfacing
Composite is another name for plastic but not just any plastic. The material used in sinks is very dense, stain- and water-resistant, and durable. You may be familiar with "cultured marble" which is a composite plastic material — one of the first, in fact. Solid surfacing like Corian®, is the updated, more durable, form of plastic composite.
Plastic sinks, as you might suspect, can be easily damaged by heat, so be careful where you put that curling iron. They also scratch easily, so no abrasive cleanser. They are very resistant to impact damage and can shrug off a nit that would severely damage an enameled or metal sink.
Many solid surfacing countertop manufacturers make sinks that exactly match their countertop materials. These are either cast as a unit or the sink in bonded to the bottom of the countertop with a seam that is almost completely invisible.
Cast Iron and Enameled Steel
Both Kohler and American Standard got their start in the 1800s when they figured out the chemistry of bonding glass to cast iron to make easy-to-clean livestock watering troughs. Farmers almost immediately decided that they made even better bathtubs — why waste such good technology on hogs? So the clawfoot bathtub was born.
The same technology is used to bond glass to cast iron and steel sinks. The glass is typically called porcelain or vitreous enamel glazing. Cast iron is heavy and durable (some have been in use for 150 years and longer). Steel is thinner, lighter, and not as durable. The glazing can be chipped but chips are reparable.
The thick glazing of cast iron sinks can be polished out to a like-new luster many times. The glazing on steel sinks is usually thinner, and on some imported sink, thin enough that it cannot be re-polished.
Enameled cast iron is the gold standard for kitchen sinks and much more common in kitchen than bath sinks, but there are a few cast-iron lavatories around.
There is probably not a more durable sink made than a cast iron sink. Some manufacturers — Kohler comes to mind — guarantee their sinks against chipping. If a Kohler enameled cast iron sink chips, Kohler will repair or replace it free.
Glass is a common material for vessel and wall-mount sinks. A glass sink can contain a beautiful array of colors and hues that do interesting things to light when water runs through it. Some are really minor works of art. But, most glass sinks are just clear glass.
The thick tempered glass materials they are made of is very durable, easy to clean, and won't stain. It will break, however, if hit hard enough, and, unfortunately, that's not at all rare. Vessel sinks, with their exposed rims, are particularly vulnerable, and not advised for baths used by children.
To reduce the risk of breakage, buy a sink of the thickest glass you can find.
Concrete is the newest material to be made into sinks. It is usually found as a countertop or vessel sink or integrated into a concrete countertop but pre-cast concrete sinks are increasingly available.
Like natural stone, it needs to be sealed to maintain its stain resistance, and the sealing chemical has to be reapplied regularly.
The concrete used is not what you see in your sidewalk. It is a special high-density material used for countertops. Every maker has its own secret concrete recipe but they all seem to produce much the same result.
Concrete can chip as well as stain, and once chipped is difficult to repair invisibly. It can also develop hairline cracks over time, which in your driveway are not a problem but it a sink may well be.
For more information on the concrete used to make sinks and integrated countertops, see "Concrete & Concrete Composites" at New and Traditional Countertop Choices.
All stone materials will hold water but they are porous and require considerable maintenance to retain their new look over time.
The basic problem is that the solid fatty components of soap get into the pores and provide a breeding ground for all sorts of interesting micro-critters. So, they have to be sealed regularly after a thorough cleaning.
Sealing is just a process of filling the pores and crevices with silicone or a similar material to keep soap and debris particles out. They are a great many products made just to seal stone sinks and countertops. It is also a good idea to use only soap in liquid rather than soap in bar form.
Granite, soapstone, limestone, and marble are the natural stones most often used to make sinks. Of these, granite is the most durable. The high density of granite makes this sink scratch-, chip- and heat-resistant to 535 degrees Fahrenheit — not much of an issue in a bathroom (but a kitchen is a different story).
Limestone is more porous than granite. Like marble, it is not at all resistant to acids which can permanently mar the material.
Marble is probably the material the first stone sinks were made out of. It is a soft stone and fairly easy to carve with hand tools but it stains easily. However, with periodic re-polishing, it can last for centuries — in fact, marble sinks several hundred years old are still in use.
Soapstone is a little different from other stone materials. It is a very soft stone that stains easily but the stain does not penetrate beyond the surface of the stone, and to soapstone aficionados, the staining is part of the allure, creating a patina from use that adds to the natural beauty of the stone.
Wood & Bamboo
As a sink, neither of these materials is functional for the long term and both require considerable care. But, if you are looking for something different for a bath that is used infrequently, wood or bamboo as your sink material certainly fits the bill.
Wood will hold water. But unless it is kept well sealed, it can easily become the happy home of mold and mildew and the color will fade over time.
Most wood sinks are turned on a lathe in small woodshops and sold on sites that sell crafts. They are unlikely to be found in regular plumbing supply houses or decorative plumbing showrooms.
Small craft shops seldom have access to the latest conversion varnish technology. so the most common finish applied to wood sinks is polyurethane. With a three-coat minimum, the finish should last for several years of careful use but will need to be refinished from time to time. Refinishing cannot be done in place. The sink needs to be uninstalled and taken to the woodshop where it is sanded to remove the old finish and a new finish applied. Then it needs to be reinstalled.
Teak is widely used for sinks because of its close grain and anti-bacterial properties – the same properties that make it popular for use on boats and ships. Other wood types used for sinks are mahogany, wenge, pear, birch, and olive.
Bamboo has many of the same properties as wood but is actually a grass that has been extensively processed to look something like wood. During processing the material is sealed with a phenolic resin which makes it much more water-resistant than actual wood and usually a better choice for a wood-look sink.
What to Look For in a Sink
Choosing a sink is more than merely selecting the right color. You need to consider the size, configuration, and materials that best fit your bath.
The Right Size
Fit your sink to your bathroom. If your bathroom is small, you may not have room for a standard drop-in bowl and cabinet. A pedestal sink or wall-mounted sink may be a better choice. On the other hand, there are so many styles of wall-mounted small vanities that it may be possible to have the convenience of a vanity and the right size sink for your bath without overwhelming a small bath with a big, boxy cabinet.
The Case for Vanities
Jon Lo, Senior Designer
Not everyone here agrees that vanities are trogloditic holdovers from the 1970s that should be avoided where possible. A solid, and growing minority of our designers think modern vanities have a rightful place in the updated bath, and I have been asked to present the minority view — Jon.
The chunky vanity of yesteryear with its impossible array of pipes in the dark and inaccessible, shelf-less storage cavern hidden behind two doors is, hopefully, just about gone. They can still be found, mostly at home centers and discount lumber stores but they are getting rarer.
Modern vanity design has come a long way, using sleek, simple lines to create an open, inviting space with plenty of clever, dedicated storage for all the things, big and small that you need to keep handy right at the sink. Properly configured, a well-designed vanity can provide all of the storage needed in a small bath.
Vanities that hang on the wall make cleaning under the vanity a snap, and appear to be suspended in the air for the lighter, less bulky look needed in small baths to make the space look and feel larger.
We typically avoid vanities. Most are bulky and make any bath look smaller, something we could put up with if they provided anything like adequate storage. But, most vanities provide truly terrible storage.
If we use a vanity, it is almost always wall-mounted and equipped with drawers.
The better solution, however, is to separate your sink from storage cabinets and use cabinetry that is designed primarily for storage. Wall-mounted shallow cabinets provide particularly good storage, especially in a small bath. (For a different perspective see the "Case for Vanities", at left.)
Enough Surface Space
Ensure there is enough space around the bowl for toothbrushes, eyeglasses, soap, and so on. If the sink is mounted in a cabinet, this is not usually a concern. But, it is important if you're considering a pedestal or wall-mounted sink, since you may not have a countertop surface nearby.
A glass shelf or two installed above or alongside the sink is a good idea where more surface space is needed.
Ease of Cleaning and Maintenance
How easy is the sink to maintain? Good quality vitreous china fixtures — the normal material for sinks and basins — are easy to keep spotless. But, if you are considering another material such as glass or copper, keep in mind that it may not be so simple to keep clean.
Cultured marble and solid surfacing materials, for instance, although not easy to stain, will not stand hard scrubbing if they do get stained. Copper and brass need to be polished often. Stone needs to be kept sealed periodically, and stainless has to have fingerprints removed almost daily to look crisp and new.
A Good Match for Your Style
Sinks and basins come as plain or as fancy as you want. Ornate pedestal sinks, art-glass basins, and cultured marble vanity tops with integrated basins are all available in a wide variety of colors and textures. Sinks can even be custom-crafted by glass, ceramic, and metal artists.
If you are reproducing a vintage bath for your heritage home, you will be somewhat limited by the styles that are compatible with the period but not overly so. It is possible to use a modern sink in a heritage bathroom. It just takes a little creative design. To see how we integrated modern vessel sinks into a Craftsman bath, go to Redefining an Arts & Crafts Bath.
Choosing The Perfect Toilet
The can, the throne, the head, the john, the privy, the WC, the crapper, the lav, the loo, the commode, the oval office: whatever your favorite euphemism, what you mean is plain and simply, the toilet. Modern toilets consist of a bowl fitted with a hinged seat and are connected to a waste pipe where waste is flushed using water pressure… (Continues)