How to Remodel Your Bathroom Without Destroying It

Add space and give your bathroom a new look with new medicine cabinets, lighting, tile and paint.

Plan ahead

You don’t have to completely gut a dull bathroom to make the room feel fresh, bright and inviting and improve the storage. If your sink, tile and shower are still in good shape, handsome light fixtures, a stylish mirror and a fresh, new medicine cabinet may be all you need to revitalize the space. These upgrades will cost only a small fraction of a total redo, and you can install them yourself in one sweat-free weekend.

Select your mirror
Mirrors come in many sizes, so before you run off to the store, map your wall (Figure A and Photo 1). The object is to select a mirror size that’ll not only look good but also leave ample room for the light sconces. Use a stud finder to locate and map out all of the framing within the wall and the distances from the center of the sink to neighboring walls or other cabinets.

Measure from a center line over the sink and then mark all of the framing and clearances on a drawing. Next, mark the distances from the neighboring studs to the center line. That’ll help you position the new electrical boxes in the available open stud spaces.

When you shop for a mirror, your goal is to pick the widest possible one that’ll fit in the space above the sink, while making sure the light fixtures fit into the open stud spaces. We show you one of many mirror mounting systems, which vary widely. Most mirrors come with the hardware and instructions for simple installation.

Select your sconces
Choosing your lights calls for some thought. Generally select light fixtures that have finishes and styles consistent with other bath fixtures. Avoid colored globes because they’ll cast less light and affect makeup tones. We recommend white frosted lenses to lessen the glare of the bulbs. If good makeup lighting is important, select fixtures that are rated for 100-watt bulbs. Then replace the existing light switch with a dimmer switch ($15) so you can set the lighting intensity to fit your needs (and mood!).

Select the medicine cabinet
Most medicine cabinets can be either surface- mounted (screwed to the wall) or flush-mounted (inset into the wall). Choose one that’s less than 30 in. wide to avoid cutting more than one stud (Photo 1). To gain more shelf space, pick one that’s taller rather than wider. For the easiest installation, get one that has a face frame (rather than flush sides like ours). That way the frame will cover the rough edges of the opening in the wall. By the way, you could certainly remount the old medicine cabinet behind the door. If you do so, remove it with care.

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Remove the old medicine cabinet and overhead light

Before you tear into the wall, plug the sink drain to keep fasteners and debris from going down. Pull the old medicine cabinet free from the wall by removing the screws that hold the cabinet sides to the framing. Those screws should be obvious when you open the door. (Sometimes you’ll need to cut through caulk between the drywall and the cabinet frame with a utility knife as well.) Then turn off the circuit breaker that powers the existing light and remove the light fixture.

Fixtures vary, but most have a finished cover that’s held on with thumbnuts. Remove the thumbnuts to get access to the mounting bracket screws that hold it to the wall (Photo 3). Once you have access to the wiring, check it with a noncontact voltage tester to make sure the power is off. Then disconnect the wire connectors and work them through the bracket as you pull the fixture mount free of the wall. If there’s a cable clamp at the back of the fixture, loosen that first.

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Mark the new mirror and sconce locations

With the old cabinet removed, mark the new mirror location (Photo 4). Use a level to mark the center of the sink above the opening. Center the mirror in place and ask family members to vote on the best height. (Some mirrors will come with instructions that include recommended heights or even templates to help with placement.) After the position is decided, outline the mirror on the wall. Use those marks to help position one of the sconces. Then trace around the base (Photo 5) 65 to 75 in. from the floor. Better yet, simply hold the sconce up and adjust it up and down until you find a pleasing position.

Center a remodeling box in the circle and trace around it. Then position the box on the other side to match the first (Photo 6), leveling across to mark the bottom and measuring from the mirror edges to mark one side. If this position falls over a stud, readjust both boxes. Draw the second remodeling box hole and cut out both openings with a drywall saw. Push the boxes into the holes as far as you can and mark the shoulders that surround the flipout clamps (Photo 7). Pull out the boxes and cut out those areas as well, testing and recutting as necessary until they’ll slip into the holes. You want them to fit tightly for maximum sconce support. Then set the boxes aside for now.

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Wire the junction box and sconce lights

Let the cable hang while you nail in the drywall backing (Photo 6), then nail a round junction box to the center framing and feed the existing power cable into the box. If you have to deal with more wires than we show, calculate the box sizes needed. Drill 1/2-in. holes through the framing and run the new cables through the sconce holes. Wherever cables run into a box, strip off 8 in. of sheathing and strip 5/8 in. of the insulation from the ends (Photo 7). Then slip the cables through the clamps at the back of the boxes until at least 1/4 in. of sheathing penetrates the boxes. Join the black (hots), white (neutrals) and bare or green ground wires as we show. Protect each insulated wire end in the sconce boxes with another wire connector. Fold the wires into the boxes for now and patch, tape, sand and repaint the wall (Photo 9). Finally, mount the lights following the manufacturer’s instructions (Photo 10).

Getting Power to the Sconce Lights

In most cases, you can use the same cable that fed the overhead light to supply power to the new sconces. But the cable is rarely long enough to reach either sconce position. The best solution is to route the existing cable to a new junction box positioned close to the old light but hidden behind the mirror. From there you can feed two new cables to both new sconce boxes.

The existing cable’s path usually leads from the wall switch up into and across the ceiling and then down through the framing above the old light. To find out if that’s your situation, drill a 1-1/2-in. hole through the 2x4 at the top of the medicine cabinet recess and try to pull the cable into the opening (Photo 4). If there’s enough cable to reach a new junction box, you’re good to go as long as the box remains “accessible.” That means you have to fasten the mirror to the wall so you can easily remove it. There are three other alternatives for handling the junction box:

  1. If the cable comes from an accessible attic above, pull the wire up into that space and mount a covered junction box in the attic.
  2. If the cable comes from above and is too short or the space above is inaccessible, install a new junction box at the old fixture location and cover it with a decorative cover plate painted to blend with the wall.
  3. If the cable comes through the wall studs to the old fixture, pull it back and run it to the nearest sconce box. Then run a second cable from that box to the sconce box on the opposite side.

Fasten the flush cover plate to cover the junction box.
The plate will be hidden behind the mirror.
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Mount the mirror

Mirrors have a variety of mounting systems. The manufacturers supply directions and often even a template to help position the wall fasteners accurately. Work off your center line and make sure the mirror is level (or plumb). We highly recommend that you discard the plastic drywall anchors that come with some units and replace them with "EZ Ancors" for a safer, stronger mounting system. You’ll find these at any home center or hardware store.

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Install a behind-the-door medicine cabinet

The biggest challenge in installing a recessed cabinet is finding unobstructed stud cavities in an open wall. The wall behind the door is usually open, but make sure that pipes, ducts and wiring don't get in the way. To choose the location for the cabinet, begin by finding the studs with a stud finder. Hold the cabinet to the wall at the best height and mark the cabinet near one side of a stud. Find the exact location of that stud by sawing through the drywall until the blade is stopped (Photo 1). Use the cuts to define one cabinet side, and draw the cabinet outline. Cut out the drywall and then cut off the exposed stud (Photo 2). Add the framing, then screw the cabinet to the framing (Photo 5). Add trim around the edges if necessary to conceal the rough drywall edges.

Tip:

Drive 3-in. "tune-up" screws into the blocks. If you push the blocks past the opening, pull on the screws with a hammer claw to pull them back into place.

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