DIY Recessed Medicine Cabinet

How to make a recessed medicine cabinet with a salvaged mirror as a door.
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What if you’ve created a perfect Victorian bathroom complete with a marble console sink, a sitz bath, and even a rib-cage shower—but the right medicine cabinet remains elusive? Wall-hung and recessed cabinets, especially those with a period-furniture feel, are small and have little storage capacity. If only it could look like a 19th-century mirror carved of burled walnut ....

Solution: using an actual Victorian walnut mirror! The beautiful piece above came from a local antiques shop. At 32" tall by 20" wide, it fit perfectly above the bath sink. It was a good size to become a door for a generous cabinet to be built into the wall behind it, with a mahogany frame that projects a bit from the wall. Fortunately, the antique frame was in good condition, with its original finish intact. It required only a gentle cleaning and polishing with lemon oil on a soft cloth. 

The beautiful piece above came from a local antiques shop.

The beautiful piece above came from a local antiques shop.

The Process

After the frame was cleaned and polished, the mirror was backed with a plywood frame (lightly stained “walnut” to blend). Two 3 " concealed brass piano hinges were surface mounted and screwed into the plywood, their placement on the right determined by the direction the cabinet should open. Care was taken to leave room on the bottom and sides of the plywood frame for finger holds to open the cabinet without a knob.

To make the recessed cavity for the cabinet, the contractor drilled a 3" observation hole into the wall and examined the area behind it with a flashlight, looking for obstructions like plumbing lines or electrical wires. When the coast was clear, he used an oscillating saw to cut into the plasterboard without damaging it, carefully centering the opening above the sink. In this case, no wall studs were in the way, but in any case, studs can be cut and reblocked to carry the load.

A medicine cabinet box was built to fit into the wall cavity. A thin, 1/8" plywood skin was used for the back, allowing maximum depth in the cabinet. Solid " mahogany sides were used to face-frame the cabinet, which projects 1 " from the wall for more

depth. Glass shelves were cut and slid into a rabbet so they won’t tip. A magnetic push latch secures the mirror (door) closed against the frame. Finally, the cabinet was attached to the studs with screws and grommets, allowing easy removal if repairs or restoration are ever needed.

antique mirrors

At Olde Good Things in New York City, antique mirrors await reuse or conversion.

Hinge Secrets

Are the hinges to be hidden, or part of the decoration? Concealed hinges are best when hardware will detract from, say, a very ornate frame; semi-concealed hinges are partially visible when the door is closed, and may have a decorative finial; exposed hinges are fully visible on the front of the cabinet when the door is closed, so they work well with simple mirrors.

Now, do you prefer a traditional or European hinge? Butt hinges with finial tips, with two pivoting plates held together with a pin, are traditional; these may require a mortise. European hinges are concealed with a mounting plate on the cabinet and a cup mortised into the back of the door; these are best on frameless cabinets and have the advantage of being adjustable. Also note that some hinges let a door open just 90 degrees, while others allow the door to completely swing back against the cabinet.

Will the hinge be surface-mounted (and not need a hole or mortise), or mortised, requiring recesses for the hinge leaves? Wraparound hinges have leaves that wrap around the edge of the door and/or cabinet. Finally, think about special features. Self-closing hinges pull the door shut; self-opening hinges are activated with a push; soft-closing hinges softly shut the door when it is within a few inches of closing. Most doors work with two hinges, but a heavy or large mirror may require more.

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