Jan 132012

Our house was built in 1950. The first floor bath looked it. Hadn’t been updated in decades. Rusting medicine cabinet. A loud, rattling ventilation fan. Corroded faucet. Outdated electrical. Water wasting toilet. Aged wallpaper. Since we kept putting off a full remodel, a few weeks ago I decided to just do a quick refresh.

Above is a photo of the old bathroom.

Ripping a bath down to the studs can save you a lot of aggravating retrofitting work and allow you to get exactly what you want, but it’s also a bigger commitment to expense and  inconvenience. While doing this refresh, our bathroom was never out of commission. I finished one project, cleaned-up, and then moved onto the next. The big things to keep in mind is that a full remodel gives you a fresh start, and a simple refresh has less down-time, but requires working within existing limitations of the existing room. It’s a trade off. Decide what’s more important to you.

Our bathroom felt worn out worn out. The fan noise woke people up. The faucet couldn’t be cleaned any longer. The electrical just looked and felt like danger on the wall. We also didn’t have enough storage space and had to keep some things in our hall pantry.

While working, under the layers of paint and wallpaper I discovered the room was originally pink and gray-blue with big brown-red linoleum tiles accented in a golden style equivalent to paisley. The built-in vanity had once been pink as well, so I assume it is original to the house, since pink is a very 1950 color choice. The wood drawers also have our address written in pencil on them to designate the job for the cabinet maker, which is very old school. The tile job is sloppy, and was likely slapped up by a homeowner in the last remodel, which I’d guess was in the 1970’s or 80’s. This is a room that has remained partially intact for 60 years, and would do so for a while longer now since the walls, ceiling, tiles, and vanity were staying intact.

An early decision we made was to switch from dark brass to brushed nickel. We liked the brighter metal and matte finish. The pain about switching is you have to switch everything to get a consistent look. I got carried away. I even changed the door hinges and door knob to nickel.

In case you’re not interested in the details, here’s a glimpse at what we have today:

For more details about the changes made, read on!

Since I assume people are reading on for differing reasons, I’ll hit each item I replaced in a What, Why, How order so you can peruse the info and skip on as desired.


The old sink was a bit dull and I discovered some mold had taken root deep inside. I don’t really care for the gold top of the vanity, but it seemed like too big a project to get a new one made to fit, so for this project I simply picked up a replacement drop-in sink of the same size.

Replacing the sink was easy. The existing sink sat on the counter in a hole and was only attached with bolts. If your sink is attached with adhesive, depending on what was used to glue it down, the job may not be as easy. The proper installation of a sink uses only caulk so that it can be cut and pulled off the counter if needed, but another sink I tried replacing was glued down with liquid nails and couldn’t be removed without replacing the entire top, so be prepared. You may want to pull the sink out before buying the sink just in case you find you’ll need an entire vanity top instead. Otherwise, it’s easy. Just get a sink that fits the same hole as the old sink. The measurements don’t have to be exact, just close enough to fit. Just set it in and caulk.


I don’t care what I was taught as a kid about not drinking out of a sink, I wanted a faucet that could easily be used like a drinking fountain. Makes rinsing after brushing quick, and skips all the paper cups and always dirty rinsing glasses. So, I found one that’s perfect for this. It’s tall enough that there’s plenty of space from the water outlet to the sink, and looks much nicer than the old one.

Because I have a medicine cabinet over the sink, it was important to verify that there was enough space between the top of the faucet and the bottom of the cabinet door. Don’t want your hand or the mirror smacking into metal. So check this before replacing either.

Faucets come in two modular types: single units or separate handles and spigots. If you get the single unit you’re done. Just install it. That’s what I did. If you get the three part units keep in mind that you may also have to order the valve separately.

Use pipe tape to guarantee the threads seal. Use plumber’s putty to seal the drain to the sink. You may also want to buy new flexible hoses (get the correct length and with the right sized ends) to replace the old ones. Just follow the directions.


I replaced the towel and toilet paper holders with new brushed nickel items.

They came with mounting hardware that worked fine for drywall, but not for tile mounting. I instead used my own screw anchors. If you have to drill into tile use the right kind of drill bit (ask at your hardware store) and take your time without using too much pressure, otherwise you can crack the tile.

We switched from a spring loaded paper holder to a pivoting unit. It’s easier to load and no parts to fall off. Note that here you can still see some holes from the old unit that still need to be plugged with grout.


Our medicine cabinet was rusting and was a little too small, so I picked up a bigger one. The problem was, the bigger medicine cabinet still had the same number of shelves, so it actually didn’t have more shelf space! To fix that I had to order an additional shelf from the manufacturer. Annoying, but now we have enough space to get more off the counter while keeping it easily available.

Generally replacing a medicine cabinet is easy, especially if the size is the same as the old one or if you’re installing one for the first time. Cut hole. Add a board at the bottom between the studs. Screw in. Patch plaster, paint, or tiles if needed.

Because I was installing a taller cabinet, and had tiles up to the edge of the existing cabinet, I had to chisel out a block of tiles to cut a bigger hole. While I didn’t esthetically like the 1″ square tiny tiles, I must admit they made retrofitting a lot easier! For a lot of things I simply had to take a row or two of tiles out and I was done without having to cut or chip tiles to fit. In this case I added a row of half tiles ( broken in half using a tile chipper) along the bottom of the medicine cabinet.

One extra task involved was taking out the old horizontal board that was beneath the cabinet. It ran between the studs. Luckily, I was able to cut the nails with a hacksaw, and then screw it back in lower. If you can’t cut the nails, you may have to cut the board in half and put in a new one.

This project was my first time doing tile work. It was actually a lot easier than I expected. Just needed a tile chipper, a trowel, some tile adhesive, grout, a pail, and sponge. There are plenty of instructions on the web.


As I said, our old fan was loud and rattled. It woke people. If the door was open, you had to turn your music or the TV up. We didn’t like using it, but not using it would result in mold growth.

There are new fans sold that are made to more easily replace existing fans. That means they fit within the same case as certain old fans. I decided not to use one of these because reviews seemed to say these replacement fans were not as quiet as some of the slightly larger units.

Replacing the ventilation fan was actually a bit tricky. I recommend taking out the old fan before buying a new one. The first unit I bought ended up being physically too big unless I wanted to tear out a lot of ceiling. One problem with it was that the old unit used a 3 inch exhaust duct. The new one required a 6 inch exhaust. I would need access between the ceiling joists to run a larger vent pipe. The new unit I bought also had lighting, but running new wire would also require chopping holes in the ceiling. Finally, there just wasn’t enough room in the ceiling where the old unit was installed for a full height fan like the one I’d bought. So, after the old fan was removed I ended up picking up a different fan to install; One that was low profile that accepted a 3 inch duct. This made everything much easier.

When replacing your unit look for an on-line calculators to determine the best power based on the room size. New fans are very quiet. Unless you want the noise, I’d recommend a unit with less than 1 SONE.

If you have access to the ceiling from the attic your installation should be done there. I didn’t have such access, so I removed the old fan by unscrewing the motor module and disconnected it, leaving the metal case which had been nailed to the beams from above prior to the upstairs dormer being added. I used some big tin snips to just cut the case out of the ceiling. That’s when I discovered the space restrictions and size of the existing duct.

I decided to go with a Panasonic WhisperFit, which is quiet, low profile, and can be used for an in-room retro-fit from below. Not all fans can be installed easily from below, so check this if you don’t have attic access. Installing just required cutting the correct sized hole, connecting the duct, connecting the wiring, and in my case patching drywall since I had cut a bigger hole thinking I was going to be installing a larger fan.

Make sure you get an exhaust fan with all the same features of your old one. If you want to add new features make sure you can run the wiring to the switches. For example, some fans have heaters and lights. If you only have one wall switch, but your fan has a light built into it, unless you want to run new wire and install a new switch you’ll need to have the light go on with the fan. This might be used as a way to encourage fan use, though you can never have the fan without the light unless you run two switches.

Another issue to decide is what to use to control the fan. You have a few options.

  • Switch – Simple, but requires a person to turn it both on and off. With quiet fans it becomes easier to forget to turn them off.
  • Timer – Requires turning it on, but turns off on its own. These allow setting the amount of time, or going totally manual. This is the option I selected for now, though I can change in the future if I feel the need.
  • Motion Sensor – If you’d like the fan to just turn on every time someone enters the room you can get fans or switches that detect motion. This is an excellent choice if you have an ultra quiet fan (like a 0.3 SONE fan) that uses larger exhaust vents which are required for extremely quiet operation. In our case, the bathroom is near other occupied rooms, and with the small exhaust vent there would be more noise from the air rushing through the smaller pipe, so I was afraid it would be annoying or startling to have the fan kicking on by itself all the time.
  • Humidity Sensor – Some units detect humidity and turn on only when needed. These are perfect if you have people that don’t want to, or just don’t remember to turn on the fan. I was tempted to use this option, but decided to keep it simple. Currently Larc and I both are good about hitting the fan button before a shower. If I discover Coral can’t remember to turn on the fan when she gets older, I might replace the timer with an automatic sensor in at a future date.


The old bath had two gang boxes with one control unit in each. There was only one plug to use, and no room for a timer for the exhaust. I replaced both electrical boxes with dual gang boxes.

In one box I placed the main light switch and a Lutron Maestro Countdown Timer (shown above). I really like this timer. You can choose between multiple time settings. It always uses the last setting, so we just keep it at 30 minutes. Hit the button without any thought and the timer is started and the fan stops automatically. It also shows you how much time is remaining, and can be easily overridden to add more time, switch to continuous, or turn the fan off. Smart and user friendly.

In the other electrical box I placed a light switch for the over the sink light and a dual GFI plug. The GFI will kill the power if there is a short, like if you drop something electrical into water. Don’t test that if you can help it. Because the switch on this second gang is halfway into the room, I used a switch that was illuminated when the light was off, thus making it easier to see. I also found brushed nickle covers to match with the rest of the brushed nickel in the room. It all feels much more solid, safe, and modern.

Pulling the old electrical boxes was tough. Remember that when electrical boxes are originally installed they are nailed to the studs. You can’t easily get to those nails. So, because I didn’t want to cut big holes in the wall it took me an hour to extract each box. By the time I was done I had twisted and mutilated metal. This took careful use of a crowbar, hammer, and chisel. To start, I turned off the power in the basement. I chiseled out some tiles. Once the tiles were removed, I used a drywall saw to cut through the wallboard to create the new opening size. Going to a larger box made it easier because I now had a few inches of access behind the old electrical box. Otherwise, I would have had to cut a hole and then patch it. Keep in mind that tiling over a patch makes it easier; Just keep the old tiles intact and put them back in place. If you have to patch drywall you’ll need to make the patch smooth, which I find more difficult. Be patient extracting the outlet. It just took a lot of wiggling and prying to get the nails to pull out of the studs, prying and pulling at angles they are not suppose to be removed from. Worst case is you’ll have to learn about drywall repair. I lucked out.

Also, when redoing existing electrical, use colored tape or labels to mark each wire so you can rewire them up again without forgetting what the wires go to behind the walls.


Choosing the lights was more difficult than putting them up.

Since I wanted to keep the wall repair to a minimum, I wanted lights that could be installed in the same locations as the old lights. We actually liked having one switch to a big light that made the room bright, and one switch to a smaller light that made the room dim and calm. Thus, we ended up with a single light unit and a triple light unit. Our old lamps actually were a two light and five light units, so this removed three bulbs from the room, but because it accepts 100 watt bulbs the brightness is excellent. No need to install a dimmer to get multiple moods in the room.

In looking for wall mounted lamps I also found that most were too big to point downward over the medicine cabinet if installed in the same location as the old ones. We didn’t want upward lights, as we like more direct light in a bathroom in front of a mirror. Having less than seven inches from the mounting center to the top of the opening medicine cabinet mirror really limited which lights could be used in a downward manner without blocking the cabinet door.

We ended up with simple round lights (see above) in both nickel and white that had a five inch profile. They use regular bulbs, which we wanted so we can easily use regular low-power CFLs or LEDs. Most lights have the option of pointing up or down, but you have to check this. These lamps were a nice balance because the bulbs point out and the round frosted covers allow plenty of downward light without the harshness that comes from bare bulbs. We also looked at more frilly lights with curved metal, but these worked with the retro-feel of the old aspects of the room; They feel kind of retro-sci-fi-modern to me.

Because we were just remounting, the hook up was easy. Had we decided to relocate the lights it would have required a lot of cutting into walls.


Our old toilet was likely the 1950 original! It needed to be repaired every few years, and because Detroit water is expensive we wanted to update to a low flush unit. All the plumbers we talked to said to do whatever we could to keep the old toilet working because the new ones just didn’t work. That isn’t true. You just have to choose the right unit. I recommend, before buying a new one, to check out the MAP ratings. There’s a list of makes and models with ratings of how well the flush works.

We went with a dual flush unit and have had no problems.

The only problem I ran into installing it was that the tiles only went to the edge of the toilet! That means I had to place new tiles under it to properly install it. Also, it was installed using something that hardened instead of wax. It had to be chipped out. A newer toilet that was properly installed is so easy to replace. This was annoying.

One new product I highly recommend is to use Fernco Wax Free Toilet Seals instead of wax rings. They stick to new ceramic nice and tight and get rid of issues with incorrect flange heights. I’ve had trouble with wax rings leaking. A Michigan company as well.


We painted the vanity and all the hardware was replaced with decorative brushed nickel.

Because the drawers don’t have metal rollers, I added Nylo-Tape so they would slide easier and Drawer Stops so the drawers would not fall out if pulled too far.


I also installed shelves under the vanity. Originally the vanity was designed so a chair could be placed for putting on make-up, but we never used it, so now we use that space as shelving for towels. To create this I simply chiseled out two rows of 1″ tiles and added stone tile ledges that were flat on top. I then cut boards to fit and primed and painted. Prior to this we kept a basket on the floor with towels stuffed in it. There’s even enough space for a small step stool under it  which kids can use to reach the toilet or sink.


For a curtain (see above) we used a fabric shower curtain. It looked like regular cloth and was the right size. We cut the curtain shorter to fit the window and ran it through the sewing machine to make a loop at the top to feed the curtain rod through. This was an easy way to get a nice looking bathroom ready curtain up fast and easy.

Next up, I still need to replace the worn out iron tub. This can wait at least until Spring.


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