Finish for a Bathroom Vanity?

This week’s question comes from Gordon who asks:

Hi Marc. I have a customer who has requested a bathroom vanity, where the sink sits in the middle. My problem is that she is requesting it be made all of wood and I am worried about a top that could be exposed to sitting water. Is there a finish you would recommend that would hold up under those conditions as well as something that might not be too hard to apply?

This is one of those cases where you have a tough decision to make. True standing water protection just can’t be done without the use of a thick film finish. Since most people don’t want their vanity top to look like bar top, you’ll have to come up with a reasonable compromise between beauty and protection. But with a thinner film comes less protection. So this is definitely a a case where you need the clients input. Arm them with information and let them make the decision, since ultimately they have to live with the results.

I would start by making a bunch of sample boards, each containing a thicker/more protective film than the previous. Try boards with 2-3 coats of wiping varnish, 3 coats of brushed varnish, 3 coats of marine/spar varnish, and then one with an epoxy coating. Let the customer see what the visual effect is when you have a thicker more protective film. Letting them own the decision take a good bit of pressure off of you.

I don’t have wood countertops in my bathroom, but if I did I would probably do the following. Seal with CPES (Clear Penetrating Epoxy Sealer), then follow up with two wiped-on coats of a marine varnish such as Epifanes. This way the wood is sealed and protected fairly well, without a super thick film. But I would also be sure to wipe up ANY standing water, just to be safe.

Category: Finishing


  1. Dmitriy Vasilevskiy November 3, 2008

    Dear Marc, I am just starting out to explore my woodworking skills at home. I attampt to build my own kitchen, but to make things more interesting, I want it to have a tipical modern Italian look. Would it ever be possible for you to create another one of your one of the greatest tutorial videos ( I am not sucking up, I realy mean it) in respect to kitchen cabinets building and designs.

    Thank you for your time,

    Your Biggest Fan

  2. Dean November 3, 2008

    back in the day i have used fiberglass resin to water proof plywood. just a thought. it’s a clear finish but very tough. it can be sanded. i would try it with a top coat of polyurethane for the sheen.

  3. Paul-Marcel ST-ONGE November 3, 2008

    Maybe you could use a wood that is happy in water for the top. Something like teak, ipe, rosewood, or the other oily woods. I don’t know how large the top is, but if it is large and the wood expensive, you could resaw the wood into 1/8″ veneers that get glued up on top of a plywood base. I’d even consider using exterior sheathing ply since it is hidden anyway and it is made to hold up to a reasonable amount of rain when used in house construction.

    Now, as for a finish on the oily wood, that’s something to bounce back on Marc :-)

    Please post your final decision… many projects from now, I want to redo the guest bathroom vanity and wanted a top of ipe.

  4. Denis Rezendes November 3, 2008

    maybe he also might want to try a post cat lacquer. that would give it some good protection. or a pro grade wb poly.

  5. Phil Dimond November 4, 2008

    I’ve used a two-part brush on epoxy finish, obtainable in gloss or satin. Hard as a rock when finished, and the satin removes the plastic look. Not nearly as thick as the pour-on stuff. However, cover the complete top in at least one coat (I use 2-3 coats on the tops, which I do in solid timber, no cracking issues with the epoxy at all so far).

    • Sheldon March 14, 2014

      To: Phil Dimond,

      Could you tell me a name brand of the brush on expoxy you use, I am finishing a walnut slab table that I applied 4 coats of Livos 244 clear oil on. My goal is to have a durable matte finish that is not to thick.

  6. Tim November 5, 2008

    Gordon, I re-did our bathroom vanity about three years ago. I found an inexpensive butcher block top to use for ours. It is made of rubber wood, and finger joints were utilized to join shorter pieces. I stained it dark (to match the rest of the vanity and to hide the finger joints) and then used 4 coats of a wipe on poly. I attached it to the base using figure eights. After three years of high humidity changes, and my wife dropping and sliding her curlers, straightening irons, and other items… it’s held up quite well.

  7. medmisfit November 5, 2008

    I just made a 4′ x 8′ kitchen island countertop with undermount sink out of vertical grain pine…recycled wood from an old local bowling alley. After some research, a tung oil based product called Waterlox seemed to be the best. Has a simi-gloss finish and can be rubbed with some 0000 steel wool for a matte finish. After working with it and seeing the results first hand…that it what I would recommend. No build up…soaks in and “protects the wood fibers”.

    • Mark S April 21, 2010

      Did you treat the end grain just above the rim of the sink any differently or just Waterlox?

  8. Your site and posts are very interesting ! Thanks for providing such a great resource. With so many junk sites out there it’s refreshing to find one with valuable, useful information ! I’ll be back to read regularly !

  9. Jane July 3, 2011

    I purchased an American Cherry butcher block for my bathroom vanity. Now I am ready to seal and finish, but looking for a recommendation of a clear coat to preserve the wood in a bathroom setting. I saw some posts, but curious about your recommendation for cherry wood.


      Hey Jane. The recommendations I made in this article apply to all woods. So you still have the same decision to make in trying to balance protection with the look you are going for. You might buy a few of the recommended products to see which one you like the best.

  10. Great info, a friends been working with spar on an antique oak buffet I’m turning into double vanity. I didn’t like the finish so I started striping all his hard work off last night hope to finsh today. Will test above mentioned finishes on the end not seen. I’m a period primitive collector so I prefer satin finishes and spar is far from flat, anyway I do have one question. In some areas the spar would bubble, do you know what would have caused that? Thanks for all your info, you’d be surprise at how hard it’s been to find good info on this subject, thanks again! April…


    Well bubbles can be from a few things. One is if the can of finish was shaken instead of being carefully stirred. Another could be from the brush or applicator. And a third could be from the wood itself. Sometimes open pored woods like oak will have air trapped in the grain. It then works its way into the finish. You can prevent this last one by filling the grain. I also like to apply light coats at first so its easier for the air bubbles to pop through the finish.

  12. Jenn October 15, 2012

    I sanded and applied one coat of polyeurathane to an oak dresser (we intend to use as a bathroom vanity) before a friend referred me to your site. What should be my next step?

  13. Tiffany March 7, 2013

    Can you follow this process ie:
    “Seal with CPES (Clear Penetrating Epoxy Sealer), then follow up with two wiped-on coats of a marine varnish such as Epifanes.”
    with wood that has already been stained? P

  14. Traci W August 19, 2013

    We have an old oak teachers desk that we made into a vanity in the bathroom. We installed a copper bowl sink. I want to know what the best thing to seal the sink to the wood. We had it sealed, but now it is loose.
    Thank you!

  15. Hi – I see similar posts, but I want to turn an old dresser into a bathroom vanity. I want to add a vessel sink on top. What exactly should I be doing to protect the dresser itself (especially the top) to prevent water damage and overall ‘kid’ damage. Are there any protective coatings that at matte. I don’t like the shiny look and I want it to still look weathered and old. Thank you.

  16. Cindy November 7, 2013

    We are remodeling our bathroom, and we purchased a finished, wooden sideboard to use as a vanity with a vessel sink on top. Is there any way to waterproof the top of it without it being noticeable since it has the same finish on the entire piece? I’m afraid if I have to paint on a sealer, it will have a different sheen on top and show brush marks.

  17. Katie February 28, 2014

    the one product you mentioned above CPES (Clear Penetrating Epoxy Sealer) you had linked to Amazon. They say it is not available any other recommendation for the CPES?

  18. I have read that using tung oil on an antique cabinet will be sufficient for waterproofing for a bathroom vanity. Do you think this would work? The recommendation is to apply and let the tung oil cure for a week and reapply over several weeks. Would this work to keep the natural beauty of the cabinet?


      Hey Carol. I don’t really agree with that advice. I suppose if applied routinely over the course of a long period of time, you might have some waterproofing to speak of from tung oil, but most of us don’t have that kind of patience. Especially since you can get decent results with a simply polyurethane finish. So I would recommend going with a good quality interior varnish. You might also consider a marine varnish if you really anticipate lots of water exposure.

  19. Hi,

    I to am making a bath vanity out of a sideboard. Two concerns for me is protection and not taking away a gray limed wash look in the sideboard. Any ideas how to keep the gray look in the walnut finish and still protect it from the water in the bath?

  20. Rita Di Niro December 15, 2014

    Hi Marc. I have a 1970s dresser that I transformed into a bathroom vanity. The top is lacquered (I think). My problem is that I now have water stains on it. I would like to know what I could do to fix it and protect it from further damage.

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