Installing a Vintage Medicine Cabinet

I grew up in the same house almost my entire life. It’s the only house I ever remember living in. My parents bought it when I was one and a half and they still live in that house today. I had a bedroom in the center of the house with no outside windows except for a skylight, which sounds a lot drearier than it was in reality. My room was always light and bright and I never had to close the curtains to change. My room was right next to the bathroom which had been redone in the 1950s. It was all green and black tile with floral wallpaper and an old sink. There was even some neon orange accent tile that some previous owner then painted black, but by the time I was in middle school the black paint was chipping in a few places exposing the orange. There was this great vintage mirrored medicine cabinet in that bathroom. It may have been original to the house. It had a lovely arched top and two hinged, adjustable wings which was just perfect for checking out your hair before the middle school dance. I loved that medicine cabinet! It was so great for looking at your hair from all the angles, because it had two hinged, mirrored sides.

When I went away to college, my parents decided to renovate that bathroom in the middle of my junior year. It was going to be a gut renovation and they were transforming the space to look far more aligned with their Spanish Mission style home. They removed the mirror and all the old tile and the old sink and gutted the entire space. The bathroom is a lot different now. There’s a skylight that lets in tons of natural light and it’s got lovely new Mexican accent tiles that work really well with the house. There’s also a giant tub which is awesome for those of us who enjoy laying in scalding hot water for long periods of time.

After they renovated, I didn’t really think about the old bathroom again. Well as I headed home after Christmas 2017, my dad ran out to the garage to get something I “might want” and came back with the medicine cabinet from the old bathroom! He’d saved it in his garage for several years since the renovation and wondered if I wanted it for my new bathroom. Yes! Yes, I did! The medicine cabinet was made of wood and while it was in good shape, all the paint was flaking horrendously. I was able to peel it off in big sections, easier than you would an orange.

Anything that could fill that gaping hole above my sink was going to be a vast improvement and this was just icing on the cake. I just couldn’t wait to have a place to store my toothbrush and see my face when I washed it! Plus I really needed a good excuse to finally put away that hammer.

When I got back to Portland, I took the mirror and gave it a good long sanding to get off all the old flakey paint. I wore a mask and sanded outside just in case there was lead paint, even though the first couple of layers did not test positive for level. I wiped everything down before bringing it back inside… and then I left it on the floor of the kitchen for a few weeks.

It became Malary’s pearching place for a little while during the finishing touches of the rest of the renovation actually!

But eventually I taped off the mirrored bits one night and set about priming it with some of the dark tinted water lock paint I had left over from priming the bathroom. There wasn’t much of the wood you’d see from the front of the cabinet, just the pair of strips between the main panel and each side panel. But the backs of each side panel and the whole inside of the cabinet definitely needed a couple of thick coats of paint to refresh everything and provide a nice clean surface for all my toiletries.

A coat of the primer went on quickly and I followed it with two coats of the black paint I’d bought to use on my kitchen cabinets. Painting went quickly, since there wasn’t much surface to cover, but it was a bit difficult to get in all the areas rotating the sides back and forth as I went. I followed the paint with a layer of Safecoat Aqualac to make it a bit more durable and to provide a more wipeable surface. on the interior.

It only took an hour here and there across a couple of days before the whole thing was done and it just needed a couple of screws to hold it on to the studs in the wall cavity to secure it properly. I used my impact driver which I am obsessed with. I then caulked around it and touched that up with wall paint to blend things together. Now that bathroom was really looking like a legit space. Nothing like filling in a giant hole in your wall to make something feel more complete!

And I really do love having this piece of my childhood in my new bathroom. I had wanted to use a vintage mirrored medicine cabinet in the space from the start and this one was just perfect! Possibly more perfect than anything else I could have ever found, honestly. I really did luck out with this piece! I love the rounded detailing of the top of the cabinet and the little etched flowers. Plus the tilting sides are perfect for getting ALL THE ANGLES of your face.

I think the cabinet adds just another little layer of history to this bathroom, making it feel more like an authentic space in the house. And that’s the whole goal right? Return the original character to my house. My parent’s place was built in the 1930s, which is probably when my house was renovated to include an indoor bathroom (it’s highly unlikely that it was built with indoor plumbing when construction was completed in 1909), so the era of the mirror feels spot on!

I’ve begun to play around with the bathroom art and I found this storage shelf on Wayfair that squeezes perfectly into the corner of the bathroom and provides some desperately needed storage in this small space. Of course, I’d ideally fill it with ALL THE PLANTS. I’ll show you a styled out version of the space when I’m close to the reveal!

The bathroom has come a loooong way from the disasterland that was here before and for that I am so grateful. It had taken 3 months to get to this point and I could almost taste the finish line, but there was still more to go! I hunted far and long for the perfect shower curtain before I finally found this one which is actually a tapestry I am planning to convert to a shower curtain that extends to the ceiling. It just means a battle with my sewing machine so I’m procrastinating that… still. In the meantime, my old shower curtain does the job just fine.

The medicine cabinet is a little change in terms of the overall vibe of this room coming together, but I am just so dang excited to check it off the list. It’s so much more functional, it’s a piece of my childhood and it’s got the perfect vintage flair that makes this bathroom look old.

Do you ever incorporate old pieces into new renovations to stick with the character of the home? Do you like that bit of history it adds to the space or what would you do? Let me know in the comments below!

14 thoughts on “Installing a Vintage Medicine Cabinet

  1. I love the family medicine cabinet! It should follow you around through all your houses! (If you don’t I will 😜)

  2. In 1974, we got a tip that an old Victorian farmhouse in Petaluma was about to be demolished. We found it, standing alone in the middle of barren fields, and open. That’s the origin of our authentic, not spectacular but appropriate to our Craftsman-wannabe house, plain redwood trimmed medicine cabinet. At least you came by yours honestly! It really is wonderful.

    1. That’s an amazing story Robin! Good for you for salvaging from that house too! It’s always sad to think so much of that kind of stuff goes into the landfill! Much better to see it in your home!

  3. Awesome, Laurel! Good thing your dad was a packrat. Sam has that affliction too, but it rarely leads to treasures…

      1. You are welcome and suggested you a few things. Might help you termendiously. I have been there. Lost 500 followers but you just have started now if you do it right, you will get sponsers soon. They look for us bloggers.

  4. That is THE greatest medicine cabinet EVER! I’ve read how designers hate medicine cabinets, but, if the were some le this available, I think some minds would change. The only sad thing is that I can’t have it.

    1. Awww thank you! I agree there is definitely a bias against medicine cabinets as they’ve gone from artful pieces to super basic and utilitarian! Time to bring back the awesome craftsmanship that gives us pieces like this one!

  5. I LOVE that cabinet. Even better that it is a piece of your childhood and that your Dad was thoughtful enough to save it for you.

    All of the original built in medicine cabinets in my parent’s house are gone but they were nothing special. Metal boxes with a hinged plain mirror over them.

    I would love to find any sort of vintage medicine cabinet to put back into the house. I especially love the etched glass ones.

    I did get lucky in that there was a large wall mirror with those etched flower and leaf designs in an upstairs guest room. While my parents were on a cruise and I was dog-sitting for them I took the opportunity to redo that room. The carpet needed cleaning and I had to move everything. The old twin bed too small for an adult went up into the attic and I moved my hated childhood bureau and night stands up into that room and then bought a Queen sofasleeper for future guests. The beautiful mirror, which it turns out belonged to my grandparents, is now in the room I’m using when I’m there. My old bedroom as it turns out. So my mirror now. Under it is my Dad’s old childhood dresser. I’m refinishing it as he had it in the garage to hold his tools. It will need a lot of work but it is mine now too.

    They’re 93 and I’m sleeping over half of the week so it’s nice having my old room back and being able to make it my own a bit. If only I could renovate the bathroom. I would love to put a vintage etched mirror medicine chest in there similar to the large mirror now in my room.

    I do envy you yours. I don’t have the space for something that big, with the side wings. Wish I did. But mostly I envy that your Dad had the foresight to save the piece of history for your. You will treasure that for decades to come. I hope you live in that house forever and enjoy looking into that mirror and bathing in the memories for many, many decades.

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