What Is a Dry Sink? Beginner Guide on Uses and How to Repurpose

Not sure where to put the washstand you inherited? I have some ideas.

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A primitive dry sink next to a Victorian dry sink

People placed dry sinks in kitchens, bathrooms, porches, and bedrooms for centuries. As society learned more about proper hygiene, dry sinks became more popular and elaborate—until they were no longer needed. As indoor plumbing advanced, these mobile washstands were replaced with modern sinks and vanities. Learn more about their design history, view some examples (and prices), and get ideas for repurposing to make them more functional.

Antique dry sink features a recessed basin top. The base has two doors with ceramic knobs that open to a shelved interior.
Credit: Antique Primitive Dry Sink from 86home

Design History

An antique dry sink (or washstand) was a staple in most households before the early 20th century. Dry sinks allowed people to wash hands, produce, or linens before they could access running water. Most dry sinks have a space for a pitcher and a basin. In addition, the front of a dry sink usually has a couple of drawers and a cabinet for towels, linens, and other personal care items.

Credit: Victorian Pitcher and Basin from MadGirlRetro

The first dry sinks had a primitive look with a recessed top panel to prevent excess water from splashing on the floor or walls. During the Victorian era, most dry sinks had a flat top and tall backsplash. More elaborate designs were topped with marble or copper and had carved wood features. 

In most cases, larger double-wide dry sinks were designed for the kitchen. These were typically painted and had a recessed top. Homeowners kept smaller dry sinks with more Victorian-style detailing in the bedroom. 

timeline

  • Colonial (1600s-1700s): Basic, rectangular basins. Constructed from durable woods like pine or oak. Simple backsplash, shelf, or cabinet underneath.
  • Victorian (1800s): Ornate carvings and intricate molding. Introduction of marble tops. Elaborate hardware, painted or stained finishes.
  • Transition to Modern Plumbing (Early 1900s): Simplified, functional designs. Integration of features like towel rails, cutting boards. Start of decline in traditional use due to built-in plumbing.
  • Mid Century (Mid 1900s): Resurgence for nostalgia and decorative purposes. Repurposed as sideboards, bar cabinets, plant stands. Emphasis on preserving historical value.
  • Contemporary (Late 1900s-Present): Fusion of antique style with modern functionality. Commonly used in creative ways, such as bathroom vanities. Reproductions maintain historical design aspects.
A beautiful 19th-century dry sink cupboard with four pull-out dovetailed Chamfered drawers and original hardware.
Credit: 19th Century Primitive Dry Sink from 86home

Identifying Features and Value

Dry sinks are characterized by their distinct function. These antique pieces usually have a spacious, rectangular basin crafted from durable woods like pine, oak, or maple and lined with waterproof materials such as copper or zinc. The lower section often has a cabinet or open shelving, ideal for storing essentials like washbasins and towels. If there is no basin, there is a flat surface to place a pitcher and basin set.

Dry sinks can also include:

  • Tall backsplashes that connect to a towel bar
  • Upper shelves attached to the backsplash
  • Hand-carved, uneven dovetail joints
  • Older style nails

More simple dry sinks sell online for between $175 and $500. You can find cheaper options on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace for $150 and under. (The listing and shipping fees push up the price on marketplaces like eBay and Etsy.) More elaborate dry sinks—like Victorian-era pieces with marble tops or authentic primitive pieces—sell anywhere between $450 and $2,000.

An antique dry sink in a Victorian style. The cabinet is in good condition with what looks like an original finish. 
Credit: Antique Victorian Dry Sink from KarensChicNShabby

Clever Repurposing Ideas

Dry sinks are still popular today, even if their initial function only exists if you live off the grid. Most people purchase dry sinks because the furniture matches their aesthetic, whether farmhouse, country, primitive, or Victorian. Here are some ways to make new use of these pieces:

  1. Nightstand: Use the top for a lamp and books and the shelves or cabinet for storing nighttime essentials.
  2. Workbench: The sturdy structure is ideal for holding tools, with ample surface area for small projects.
  3. Kitchen Island: Add wheels for mobility and use the top for food prep, with storage below for kitchenware.
  4. TV Stand: The flat top of most dry sinks can support a TV, while the compartments below can house media devices and accessories.
  5. Bathroom Vanity Conversion: Fit a sink into the top and utilize the storage space for bathroom essentials.
  6. Dresser: The shelves and compartments can be used for clothes, making it a unique and rustic bedroom addition.
  7. Coffee Bar: Set up a coffee machine on top, with spaces below for mugs, coffee, and tea supplies.
  8. Gardening Station: A dry sink is perfect for holding pots, soil, and gardening tools, with a work surface for potting plants.
  9. Home Bar: Convert it into a chic bar area, with spaces for bottles, glasses, and mixing tools.
  10. Console Table: Place it in an entryway or hallway for decorative items and use the storage for keeping daily essentials handy.
Luxurious dry sink has a raised burl panel and a marble top. The extra-tall backsplash features two built-in shelves.
Credit: Antique Victorian Marble Top Dry Sink from MaineAntiqueFurnitur

Reproduction Alert

There are a lot of reproduction dry sinks that look older and more primitive. Typically, it is easier to recreate a primitive dry sink than to remake one in a Victorian style. Some people even make dry sinks out of old wood and nails to fool buyers. Look for key identifying features listed above, and always purchase from reputable dealers who can help you authenticate a piece. 

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