Q&A / 

Medicine Cabinets

DEAR TIM: I went to look at medicine cabinets this weekend. All of the bathroom medicine cabinets in my home are beat up and dated. Recessed medicine cabinets seem to be much nicer than surface-mounted ones. How hard is it to install a recessed medicine cabinet? If I purchase mirrored medicine cabinets, will all of the glass make them too heavy? Are there any unpleasant surprises that might spring up on a simple remodeling job like this? Diane H., Sacramento, CA

DEAR DIANE: If you want surprises when it comes to medicine cabinets, wait until you remove one from an old home and see all of the discarded double-edged razor blades that are waiting for you behind the plaster. Those of us who grew up in older homes can still remember the tiny slit in the back of medicine cabinets where razor blades were placed instead of garbage cans. Razor blades in garbage cans can be very dangerous, so medicine cabinet manufacturers of old thought it was a great idea to place the dull blades in a wall cavity where no hands could get cut.

Medicine cabinets still serve the same purpose and tease curious visitors. A recessed cabinet like this one offers a slimmer profile. PHOTO CREDIT: Tim Carter

Medicine cabinets still serve the same purpose and tease curious visitors. A recessed cabinet like this one offers a slimmer profile. PHOTO CREDIT: Tim Carter

I hope you didn't purchase your medicine cabinets yet. If you visited a home center, you only saw a very, very small percentage of the amazing selection of medicine cabinets that are available. As time goes on, I am constantly surprised at how the selection of products gets wider and wider. Years ago, you could maybe pick from 20 or 30 different styles of medicine cabinets. Now there are well over 100.

Who would think you could find a distinctive wood-framed medicine cabinet that would look perfect in a Victorian home? Not only are they available, the woodwork trim around the cabinet looks like it is 120 years old. Even the surface-mounted hardware door latch looks old!

I agree with you that recessed medicine cabinets look better than surface-mounted ones. The surface-mounted cabinets serve a market where cutting into a wall is too expensive or not possible. They also provide instant gratification. If you need a functional medicine cabinet in ten minutes or less, screw a surface-mounted medicine cabinet to the wall and be done with it.

Recessed medicine cabinets are very easy to install if you are building a new home or are involved in a major bathroom remodeling project where the walls will be stripped to the studs and plumbers and electricians are showing up to do other work. If you want to talk about other surprises that await you in bathroom walls, wait until you start to remove the drywall and/or plaster and discover a plumbing vent pipe and/or electric cables feeding bath light fixtures or other rooms right where the recessed opening for the cabinet needs to be.

This is why you never want to cut haphazardly into a bathroom wall thinking you are going to install a recessed medicine cabinet. Always proceed slowly by taking off the drywall and plaster to see what you are up against.

Let's assume there are no pipes, electrical cables or heating ducts in your way. Your challenge will be to create the rough-in opening, or cavity, that the medicine cabinet will nest into. This is very basic carpentry, but can be challenging if the wall happens to be a supporting wall. If you have any doubts whatsoever, contact a seasoned remodeling contractor for advice. Offer to pay this person for his/her time to consult with you for an hour.

You can purchase a mirrored medicine cabinet with no worries. The weight of the glass is only an issue for you as you carry the cabinet from the store to your car and from your car to the bathroom. The weight of the mirrors can easily be supported by the walls. Be sure to use the screws provided by the manufacturer. Just pay attention to the written installation instructions and you will do fine. You must be sure the screws bite into solid framing material so the heavy medicine cabinet does not tip out of the wall cavity.

Many medicine cabinets come equipped with lights. All electrical connections must be done according to the National Electric Code. It is vitally important that any metal parts of the medicine cabinet are grounded, because of the electrocution hazard that is enhanced by the presence of water in the vanity sink.

The installation height of the medicine cabinet is very important. If your family has a mixture of tall and short people, be sure to think about getting a tall mirrored medicine cabinet that all will be able to use without stooping or standing on tip toes as they primp in front of the mirror.

Medicine cabinets don't have to be relegated to bathrooms. There are lots of other places in a home where you might want recessed storage and a handy mirror. You can purchase very affordable medicine cabinets that work great in sewing rooms, hobby areas and even workshops. The smaller cabinets are great places to store small items for any number of projects.

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2 Responses to Medicine Cabinets

  1. I have a recessed medicine cabnet with a mirror. It was put into my house at the time of construction a little over 30 years ago. the cabnet part is metal and is rusted through at the bottom. It is not something I think can be fixed. I looked at the recessed medicine cabnets at Lowes and Menards but none of them have a large enough cabnet. I would like to replace my old one but how do I do it if the new cabnets are over 8 inches smaller? I thought about making a recessed cabnet out of wood and getting a new cabnet and taking the mirror off and mounting it to my hand made cabnet. Or getting a new cabnet with mirror and making a shelf under the new smaller cabnet. I would love to have a large oval cabnet but it requires serfice mounting. Do you think I could make a hand made cabnet that sticks out far enough to take the mirror of the oval cabnet from Menards and mount it to the hand made cabnet?

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