Choosing a Counter
Vanity tops are custom-fabricated by a cabinet shop or counter fabricator, or purchased ready to install. They are made from a number of different materials. Most require a lavatory sink — made of porcelain over cast iron or vitreous china — that can be top-mounted or undermounted. These bowls come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and colors. Just make sure your choice will fit your top and vanity in depth and width and that it includes a paper template for cutting the hole in the vanity top. Another lav option with two common vanity-top materials, solid-surfacing and cultured marble, is a sink that's part of the top — literally cast in one piece. These integral tops have a seamless look and are easy to install and even easier to clean. Here's how all the vanity-top materials stack up: "Laminate is the best buy in the vanity top market," says Bob Adams, president of D&D Countertops, a counter fabricator in Mackefney Park, Illinois. "It offers the most colors, patterns, textures and styles at a good price." While laminate is durable, dark solids, tightly spaced patterns and gloss finishes show scratches, chips and burns more easily than lighter colors. Solid surfacing also offers tremendous choice, and it's also easily repaired and impervious to water. However it runs about three times as much as laminates. Veneers made of solid surfacing, such as Solid Surfacing Veneer from Wilsonart, are thinner — 1/8 inch compared with 1/2 inch — but have the same look, feel and warranty as regular solid surfacing. They are glued to a substrate of fiberboard whereas standard-thickness solid surfacing doesn't require a substrate and is attached right to the cabinet. Solid-surface veneers typically cost 30 percent less than standard solid surfacing. Another excellent option with solid surfacing is a top with an integral sink. These are made for vanities in sizes ranging from 25 to 73 inches wide, with both single and double bowls. Popular solid colors and stone-look patterns are available. Prices range from $208 to $550 for a single-bowl model and $660 to $1,100 for a double-bowl unit. Another integral-sink option is cultured marble. Made of chipped or ground stone and fiberglass bound in resins, cultured marble has come a long way in terms of appearance and durability. It's also available in many more shapes, sizes and styles, but it's still vulnerable to scratches, burns and wear. It costs about the same as laminates with fancy edge treatments. Many people love the look of natural stone. Although it's not as expensive as you might imagine, it's also not as impervious it might seem. Stay with harder, less porous stone like granite to minimize staining and scratching. But if you prefer softer stone like marble and limestone, it can be made less susceptible with penetrating sealers and low-gloss or honed finishes. However, sealers need to be reapplied periodically. Color and pattern also have an important impact on stone care and cost. Although veining camouflages stains better, very light and very dark stone tend to show watermarks more than medium colors. Lightly veined white marbles, the most common varieties, are comparable in price to simple solid surfacing. Costs gradually rise as stone color darkens and veining increases. If possible, buy stone directly from a stone yard instead of a showroom, where you pick a stone based on a sample. It will probably cost less, and you can choose the slab, or the part of it, that you like. Have the salesperson wet unpolished stone so you can see the true color and veining. Ceramic tile surpasses even laminates in terms of choices. It can be mixed and matched in countless combinations for a custom look. There's a price for every budget, from $4 per square foot to more than $50 per tile. One concern with tile is keeping grout clean and mildew-free. Epoxy-based mixtures are more stain- and mildew-resistant than regular grout, but you'll still probably need to replace it long before the surrounding tile. Although these choices may seem more confusing than helpful at first, keep looking and you'll find there's a vanity out there that's right for your bathroom and your budget.
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