In earlier days, "bathroom storage" meant a clunky medicine cabinet mounted above the pedestal or wall-hung lavatory sink. Then along came boxy vanities, and the bathroom acquired a bank of drawers to one side of the plumbing compartment.

As changing life-styles demand expression and bathrooms become grooming centers, exercise gyms, and spas, storage needs and configurations are also changing. One or more base cabinets may still form the backbone of the contemporary storage scheme, but bath storage areas have become more stylish, their design integrated with that of mirrors, sink, lighting, and backsplash treatments. Perhaps you’ll wish to curve a custom unit around a corner, let built-ins form knee walls between use areas, or plan a floor-to-ceiling storage column.

Traditional or European-style?

First, you’ll need to choose between two basic cabinet styles, frame and frameless.

Traditional American cabinets mask the raw front edges of each box with a 1-by-2 "faceframe." Doors and drawers then fit in one of three ways: flush; partially offset, with a lip; or completely overlaying the frame. The outer edges of the faceframe can be planed and shaped (called "scribing") to fit the contours of an adjacent wall or ceiling. But the frame takes up space and reduces the size of the openings, so drawers or slide-out accessories must be significantly smaller than the full width of the cabinet.

Europeans, when faced with postwar lumber shortages, came up with "frameless" cabinets. A simple trim strip covers raw edges, which butt directly against one another. Doors and drawers often fit to within 1?8 inch of each other, revealing a thin sliver of the trim. Interior components -- such as drawers -- can be sized larger, practically to the full dimensions of the box.

The terms "system 32" and "32-millimeter" refer to precise columns of holes drilled on the inside faces of many frameless cabinets. These holes are generally in the same place no matter what cabinets you buy, and interchangeable components such as shelf pins and pullout bins just fit right into them.

Stock, custom, or modular?

Cabinets are manufactured and sold in three different ways. The type you choose may affect the cost, appearance, and workability of your bathroom.

Stock cabinets. Mass-produced, standard-size cabinets are the least expensive option, and they can be an excellent choice if you clearly understand what cabinetry you need. You may find stock lines heavily discounted at some home centers. A recent development, the so-called RTA ("ready-to-assemble") cabinet, costs even less but requires some basic tools and elbow grease to put together.

As the name implies, the range of stock sizes is limited. Even so, you can always specify door styles, direction of door swing, and finish of side panels.

Custom cabinets. Many people still have a cabinetmaker come to their house and measure, then return to the cabinet shop and build custom cabinet boxes, drawers, and doors.

Custom shops can match old cabinets, size oddball configurations, and accommodate complexities that can’t be handled with stock or modular units. But such work can cost considerably more than medium-line stock or modular cabinets.

Modular systems. Between stock and custom cabinetry are "custom modular cabinets" or "custom systems," which can sometimes offer the best of both worlds. They are manufactured, but they are of a higher grade and offer more design flexibility than stock cabinets. Not surprisingly, they cost more, too.

You can change virtually everything on these basic modules: add sliding shelves; replace doors with drawers; add wire bins, hampers, and pullouts. If necessary, heights, widths, and depths can be modified to fit almost any design. Be advised, though: these cabinets could take a long time to show up at your doorstep.

 What about dimensions?

The classic bathroom vanity measured about 32 inches high (with countertop) by 21 inches deep and about 30 inches wide. But bath cabinets are growing -- new offerings may be up to 36 inches high by 24 inches deep and 48 inches wide. You can make longer cabinet runs by joining units together.

Some bath cabinet lines include wall cabinets and tall storage units; otherwise, look to kitchen cabinet manufacturers for ideas.

Judging quality

Within each line, costs are largely determined by the style of the doors and drawers you choose. The simplest, least expensive option is often a flat or "slab" door, popular for seamless European designs. Frame-and-panel designs are more traditional and come in many versions, including raised panel (both real and false), arched panel, beaded panel, and recessed or flat panel.

To determine the quality of a cabinet, first look closely at the drawers. They take more of a beating than any other part of your cabinets. Several drawer designs are shown at far right. You’ll pay a premium for such features as solid-wood drawer boxes, sturdy dovetail joints, and full-extension, ball-bearing guides.

Are cabinet pulls included? If not, you’ll pay more for them, but you’ll be able to choose exactly what you want.

Door hinges are critical hardware elements. European or "invisible" hinges are most trouble-free; consider these unless you need the period look of surface hardware. Check for adjustability; hinges should be able to be reset with the cabinets in place.

Most cabinet boxes are made from sheet products like plywood, particleboard (plain or laminated), or medium-density fiberboard. Though solid lumber is sometimes used, it is usually saved for doors and drawers.

Hardwood plywood is surfaced with attractive wood veneers on both face and back. The higher the face grade, the more you’ll pay. Particleboard costs less, weighs more, and is both weaker and more prone to warping and moisture damage than plywood. Generally, particleboard vanities are faced with high-pressure plastic laminate or with a softer material called melamine. Medium-density fiberboard (MDF), a denser, furniture-grade particleboard, is available with high-quality hardwood veneers.

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