You have a lot more leeway in your choice of a sink for your bathroom than for other bathroom components such as toilets and shower stalls, because of their relative simplicity and wide choices of materials and types. First, we’ll look at materials.
Vitreous china is a ceramic material that most wall-hung and pedestal sinks are made from. It has a surface with good resistance to abrasion, durability and easy cleanability which will keep its luster for many years.
Because ceramic manufacturing processes produce a high proportion of seconds, you should use care when selecting a sink from brands you’re unfamiliar with, or any for that matter. Look for defects such as minor surface blemishes, hairline cracking and warped or out of plumb mating surfaces. You want to avoid buying a two piece pedestal sink which will not assemble flush or a drop in sink which wobbles or will not sit flat on the countertop.
Although they have the same quality of surface as vitreous china, enameled cast iron sinks are much less prone to cracking due to its rigidity and strength. They are also quieter when water is running onto their surface. The enamel finish is, however, vulnerable to chipping if mishandling occurs during installation or shipping, and since they are quite heavy, can be difficult to lift and position during installing, particularly larger sinks.
Less heavy and expensive than enameled cast iron is enameled steel. Since steel is less rigid than cast iron and their porcelain coatings are less thick, these sinks are more likely to chip. Running water produces more noise in them because of the thin steel walls, which in addition dissipate heat fairly rapidly, so a sink full of hot water becomes lukewarm soon. These sinks are losing their niche as a lower cost alternative to enameled cast iron sinks to synthetics, which are a better buy at the same price.
The synthetic materials for bathroom sinks include cultured marble, cultured onyx and cultured granite. These are cast polymers formed by combining crushed stone (the marble part) with polyester resins, which is then poured into molds and cured at room temperature. A gel-coat with the final visible pattern and color is then added to the surface.
Low end gel-coated cast polymer type sinks are prone to cracking and blistering in the gel-coat, also known as “crazing”, as well as having low scratch resistance. The higher cost cast polymer sinks are not gel coated, and contain higher amounts of quartz which give them better heat, scratch and impact resistance.
Their surfaces are more easily repaired and refurbished, because they can be sanded. Rather than having their decorative color coated on, the coloring is an integral part of the material. These higher end cast polymer materials include Swanstone, Royal Stone and Wilsonart Gibraltar.
Another type of synthetic material used for bathroom sinks is called Solid Surface Material, and includes Corian, Avonite, Fountainhead and Surell. These proprietary materials are often cast into one piece countertop/sink units which are one of the most expensive options.
The fact that they are non-porous means they are highly resistant to staining. Any damage to their surface is easily repaired, simply by sanding with fine grit sandpaper and re-buffing. Shower and tub surrounds are available in solid surface materials as well, so creating an elegant looking matched bathroom can be achieved if desired.
On the other end of the aesthetic continuum are hand thrown ceramic earthenware sink bowls. If you want to give your bathroom an organic, handmade country touch then go with one of these. Many are hand painted with unique patterns and coloring, and often these sinks are made available with matching ceramic tiles for the adjacent countertop and backsplash.
You will need to take care, when selecting one, that it has an overflow outlet if your local building code requires one, and also to make sure they will fit your countertop, as they are often made in non-standard sizes. And they need special care during installation, being fragile and sometimes one of a kind.
Although stainless steel sinks are used more effectively in the kitchen, their minimal, industrial appearance can work well in some bathroom decors. The best stainless steel sinks are 18 gauge steel, which makes them stronger, and are made of a higher percentage of nickel and chromium, which gives them higher stain and corrosion resistance as well as higher luster. Less expensive stainless steel sinks are usually 18 gauge material and are noisier, prone to warping, duller and stain more easily.
Other metals are used for bathroom sinks, including copper, brass and even bronze. These are more difficult to maintain and more expensive, since they will likely be custom or hand made. Fitting and installation is going to be more of an issue with these than with other sinks, but for some bathrooms, their unique appearance will make them a perfect choice.
Clear and colored tempered glass sinks are becoming more available and come in many styles, from above the countertop basin to pedestal sinks. Although striking looking when new, they are difficult to keep clean and scratch-free. Consider this material for low use guest and secondary bathrooms.
Styles of Bathroom Sinks
Owing to the open space under them, wall-hung sinks are the best choice for accessible bathrooms. They are usually attached to the wall with simple brackets fastened to their frame, though adjustable mounting systems are available from some manufacturers which can further enhance accessibility.
Also available are wall hung sinks which will fit into a corner; these can be offer a little more strength, which is this style of sink’s “downfall”, pun intended. Some types of wall hung sinks have additional support in the form of a pair of legs mounted on the front of the frame, though these will compromise accessibility to some extent.
Freestanding pedestal sinks have an antique charm to them and they are sturdier due to the central column supporting them, which also helps hide the unsightly plumbing lines and connections. They might seem like they would be a good choice for bathrooms with less space, but a pedestal sink looks most appealing with abundant space to either side of it.
Cabinet Mounted Sinks
Following World War II, bathrooms sizes shrank and sizes of fixtures were standardized to accommodate the ensuing building boom. Pre-manufactured bathroom vanities were introduced consisting of sinks mounted into base cabinets that were easy to economical and install and they quickly became standard in new construction.
Your best choice in terms of value, ease of installation and range of style, material and color is an integral one piece sink/countertop. If you want an even wider range of choices for sink and counter top materials and styles you can purchase separate vanity sinks and cabinets. Sinks come in self-rimming, rimless or under mount types.
Self-rimming sinks have an integral rim and are held in place from below with clamps or blocks underneath the countertop cutout. They work best with smoother countertop materials like ceramic tile or cut stone, because water will seep underneath the rim and ingress into the cabinet if the countertop material is porous or rough. Since the rim hides the cutout in the cabinet, the cut does not have to have be perfectly cut, and most drop-in sinks comes with cutout templates to help lay out the work.
A rimless sink is mounted flush on the countertop using a separate mounting ring rim of stainless steel or aluminum. It can be difficult to clean the areas around the mounting rim, and the use of these sinks is losing popularity. Another drawback is that they are best used on plastic laminate countertops, which because of their smoothness, eliminate seepage of water under the mounting ring into the cabinet material.
Undermount sinks are installed from below the cabinet cutout and mount to the underside of the countertop with bolts. They are a good choice for when you want to draw attention away from the sink and to the countertop design and material, as they de-emphasize the rim. Use of this type of sink with cultured marble or solid surface material countertops will allow you to create a virtually seamless edge between the sink bowl and the countertop by laminating them to the countertop. Undermount sink types have the added advantage of having no seepage or cleaning issues around the rim.
Above Countertop Sink Photo by Naomi , Creative Commons Attribution License
Wall Hung Sink Photo by David Hunter, Creative Commons Attribution License
Copper Bathroom Sink Photo by Tom Smith, Creative Commons Attribution License
Leopard Skin Countertop Photo by Dan Perry, Creative Commons Attribution License