Selecting Bathroom Fixtures:
Sinks, Lavatories & Basins

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. 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 "the single basin sink features a deep bowl".

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.

Countertop Sinks: Drop-In, Undermount and Set-On Mounting
Some bath basins are designed to be set in, on or under a countertop. The classic drop-in or self-rimming sink sits in a hole in the 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.

The undermount variety is attached under the countertop. These are preferred by many homeowners over the drop-in style because it is easy to sweep countertop debris into the sink without negotiating the lip of the sink. The limitation of these sinks is that the countertop must be a premium material like stone or composite. There are undermount kitchen sinks (often called integrated sinks) for laminate countertops like Formica®, but is as of yet no integrated bath sinks. It's just a matter of time, however.

The set-on basin or vessel sink (also called a table top or top-mount sink) is both the oldest and newest version of the countertop-mounted sink. Designed to look like a bowl sitting on a table top, it emulates the pitcher and dry-sink combination from pre-running-water days, but is a fully functioning sink. It started as a sort of fad, but now has been around long enough that any suggestion of fadishness is long gone. 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 large window.

Pedestal Sinks
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 hide 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 generally considered better around children than wall-hung sinks — which makes us wonder why school-house sinks are almost always of the wall-hung variety. The base supports the sink so it cannot be easily torn from the wall.

Wall-Mounted Sinks

As the name suggests, these sinks are mounted to strong brackets in 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 covers 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.

Sink Materials

The most common bathroom sink material is glazed vitreous china. It is tough, durable, sanitary, and needs only the most minimal 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 it 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 a little bit of a stretch.

Here are some of the common and uncommon bath sink materials:

Vitreous China and Fireclay

Vitreous china, also called enamelware, porcelain and chinaware, is made out of ceramic clay fired at a very high temperature to form a non-porous body then coated with a glaze which is fused to the body. This glaze is actually glass and is impervious to water. This process is used to make a number of bathroom fixtures such as toilets, bidets, and sinks as well as ceramic and porcelain tile and dishware. 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 heavy impact.

Fireclay, as the term is used to describe sinks, is really just another name for vitreous china. The manufacturing process is virtually the same. Real fireclay is used to make highly fire-resistant materials like bricks used to line fireplaces and clay crucibles to hold molten steel. Obviously, no sink is ever going to need such incredible resistance to heat. In reality the term "fireclay" is just a marketing term, adopted from England where vitreous china is commonly called fireclay when used to make kitchen sinks.

One difference is that fireclay is usually the more common red or terra cotta color while most vitreous china is made of white or tan clay. And, fireclay sinks usually cost more, which we don't get, because common red clay is much more plentiful and much less costly than lighter clays. Anyway, if the sales clerk tells you that a particular sink is more expensive than a regular porcelain enamel sink because it is fireclay, you can tell him or her that you are on to that particular con.

Stainless Steel, Copper and Zinc

Stainless steel is rust resistant, durable and, lightweight. Most stainless steel sinks are made by punching the shape of the sink into a sheet of heavy-gauge steel sheets, then polishing the resulting sink by hand. Stainless steel sinks resist damage from impacts, but can be dented if you try hard enough.

Both copper and zinc are naturally resistant to corrosion. Copper is a favored material of artisans who hand-craft sinks. Zinc was used for early sinks during the Victorian and early Arts & Crafts period, and is still a good choice when reproducing the bathrooms of these periods. Both materials require more maintenance than stainless steel. Both are softer, and dent easier. But, typically these hand formed sinks were hammered into shape rather than pressed by machine, and are likely to contain hammer marks that will hide any inadvertent dents.

Composites and Solid Surfacing
Composite is just another name for plastic, but not just any plastic. The material used in sinks is very dense, stain and water resistant and very durable. It may be possible to damage a composite sink, but it will take a hammer and some determination. You may be familiar with "cultured marble" which is actually a composite plastic material — one of the first, in fact. Solid surfacing like Corian®, is the updated, more durable, form of plastic composite.

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.

Composite sinks do scratch fairly easily and any cleaner with scrubbing powder should be avoided.

Cast Iron
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 sinks. The glass is typically called porcelain or vitreous enamel glazing. Heavy and durable (some have been in use for 150 years and longer), the glazing can be chipped, but chips are reparable, and the glazing can be polished out to a like-new luster many times.

There is probably not a more durable sink made. 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. A glass sink will break if hit hard enough, but that's pretty rare.

Natural Stone and Concrete
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 silicon or a similar material to keep soap and debris particles out. It is also a good idea to use only soap in liquid rather than 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 make 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 — it fact marble sinks several hundred years old are still in use.

All natural stone sinks require sealing and routine maintenance to keep their good looks. Once one of these sinks is stained, the stain is usually permanent until it is polished off by removing some of the sink's material.

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.

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. 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.

For more information on the concrete used to make sinks and integrated countertops, see "Concrete & Concrete Composites" at New and Traditional Countertop Choices.

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 fits your bath.

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 argue the minority view.

The clunky 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. Vanities that hang on the wall make cleaning under the vanity a snap, and appear to be suspended in air for the lighter, less bulky look needed in small baths to make the space look and feel larger.

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 a vanity and the right size sink for your bath without overwhelming a small bath with a big, boxy cabinet.

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 installed above 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 finger prints 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.


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… more

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