Easy, frugal DIY towel bar aka, The best towel bar in the whole wide world of history

When my daughter was a little girl, her way of saying something was the most awesome thing possible was to declare it

“the best ___ in the whole wide world of history.”

We are happy to say that our new towel bar is the best towel bar in the whole wide world of history. For us, anyway.

It’s turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the renovated bathroom. It’s frugal and green, it functions exactly the way we wanted it to, and it’s pretty stylish (we think).

This (sorta) Old Life: Custom DIY towel bar

First, the function:
(because function is always first)

More than anything, Rita and I wanted a towel bar that would hold all the towels we wanted without any doubling-up or fussy folding. That’s just what we got, and I love the luxury of an extra long bar that can easily hold 3 (or even 4) towels.

This (sorta) Old Life: Custom DIY towel bar

It’s super-sturdy ,and despite the long stretch between ends it doesn’t flex or dip a bit. I love that it’s a one-of-a-kind piece that perfectly fits the space. It adds a bit of drama and sculptural quality to the room that was a nice surprise.

This (sorta) Old Life: DIY custom towel bar

Before coming up with this, Rita and I did look at quite a few towel bars. Before the unplanned-for demo of our bathroom, we’d really disliked the towel bar situation we had.

This (sorta) Old Life: old towel bar

This early-demo shot shows our pathetic old towel bar. It fit only one towel. We hung a second towel on the shower door, and had no place for a third towel.

We couldn’t find anything long enough, though. One solution we considered was buying three towel bars and installing them side by side. This would have been an OK solution, but we wondered if it would function the way we wanted. We also wondered if it would look too busy, and it would be dang expensive. (The least expensive towel bars we liked were in the $30 range.) We decided to investigate making our own.

A trip to Home Depot’s plumbing  section was in order. We first thought about something super-creative. We were going to use plumbing fixtures to create something sculptural and unique. We thought maybe having a length of pipe with several knobs attached would create a unique towel bar that could serve as a sculptural piece as well.

This (sorta) Old Life: Edgefield Manor garden sculpture

Maybe something in the same vein as this plumbing parts sculpture we saw on our mini-staycation last summer, we thought.

We started with cast iron pipe and grabbed all the parts we’d need and put them together in the store to see how it’d work. Here’s some of the parts we were looking at (all images from Home Depot):

You get the idea. We thought it could look really cool, but we weren’t sure about going quite so industrial. We know that the galvanized pipe as towel bar/shower curtain bar/ curtain rod has been done quite a bit. We like that look, but wondered if it would be trendy-dated in just a few years.  We didn’t want anything in our bathroom renovation that would be the equivalent of 80s parachute pants.

Remember parachute pants? They were super-cool back in the day, but you’d get blank stares if you wore them today. I have fond memories of  my friend Chris Ladoux in his red parachute pants, Van Halen t-shirt and long, wavy mullet. He was the epitome of cool. In my mind he had crystallized it, and there would be no way it could ever go out of style.

This (sorta) Old Life: parachute pants

Believe it or not, you can still buy parachute pants. Click on the image if you want to go to the Parachute Pants Store.

Well, with age I now have the perspective of having seen many things come and go. I know that the more in-style something is right now, the harder it will fall out of style later. So, we wanted to go a slightly different way. No parachute pants in our bathroom.

The cost was also prohibitive.  When I added up all the parts I’d need for the plumbing pipe towel bar, it was getting up near a hundred bucks with all the fancy valves and parts. It would actually be more expensive than buying standard towel bars.

We didn’t quite give up on it right away though. We are lucky enough to have a plumbing salvage store near, so off we went to Hippo Hardware to see if we could score some cheap retro valves, knobs, elbows and other cool parts.

This (sorta) Old Life:  Plumbing parts at Hippo Hardware (bathroom)

Nothing doing. The prices weren’t any better than the Depot. The stuff wasn’t really that cool either. It turns out that there hasn’t been much design innovation in knobs and elbows and such in quite a while. So other than being dirtier, the old ones look much like the new ones.

After thinking about it for a bit, we decided that maybe we could go with copper pipe and paint it. I had some copper pipe and elbows left over from plumbing the shower so we’d use something we already had that would otherwise be discarded, which we always really like doing.

This (sorta) Old Life: bathroom plumbing

Why not use the same plumbing pipe that’s now hidden in our walls? (And, yeah–we did connect those two pipes before we buttoned it all back up. :-)

Aside from environmental benefits, there would also be cost benefits. Copper parts are cheaper than galvanized parts, so the pieces we’d need to fill in with would be less expensive.

Another benefit is that the pipe is smaller diameter and lighter. We could go long with the bar and it wouldn’t be excessively heavy. It would also hug the wall a little tighter, keeping the small space from feeling quite so crowded.

We liked that the towel bar would have a bit of an industrial look, but one not quite as aggressive as galvanized pipe–especially if we painted it to match our other fixtures. We both thought it would be different enough that it would survive the industrial trend and still be OK in 10 years. (We’ll see.)

Back to the Depot I went. I figured I’d grab the parts and put it together and see how it looked. This time it cost me less than thirty dollars for the parts. I got back home and quickly dry fit everything to see how it would look and function. Everything slid together well and the bar felt very solid and light.

After we knew it was a go, I bought a piece of 5 inch wide fir to attach the bar to. The idea was to attach the bar to the wood and then attach the wood to the wall. This would make it very sturdy and disperse the weight of the towels onto the wood and not the wall anchors.

Once we had all the parts and tools, it was really simple to make the towel bar. You can see everything you’d need to know to make your own in these pictures:

Some of my tools. I decided to go ahead and solder everything together. I don’t think it is absolutely necessary. The pieces fit snugly enough that a few drops of super glue would probably work great. I had the gear to solder it together, though, and I like playing with the torch so why not!

Here’s the parts laid out for the bend and base attachment. Just need to push everything together and solder.

Here’s the bend all pushed together before solder.

Both ends after solder. Just need to clean up and get ready for soldering the long bar between the two bends.

Not a great photo but here you can see the whole thing done and ready for primer and paint.

It wasn’t too difficult. I enjoyed doing the solder joints. It was nice because I didn’t have to worry about doing high quality solder joints since no water was going to enter the pipes. I just needed enough solder to hold everything together. A quick coat of primer and some antique bronze spray paint from the Depot and we were done with the bar.

This (sorta) Old Life: spray paint for bathroom project

We know that oil-rubbed bronze is all the rage right now, but we’ve gone with antique bronze (on the right). We chose that because it was popular in the 70s (when our house was built) and it fit best with the vintage lights we wanted to use.

This (sorta) Old Life: bathroom light fixture

We liked the lighter bronze color in our bar light glass. I originally painted the base of the light with the dark oil-rubbed bronze, but this looked much nicer with antique brass on the base.

The wood base was easy. I cut the wood to size and put a coat of poly on it for protection. Once it dried, I attached it to the wall with 4 anchor screws. I put them in where the flanges on the bar would go so they wouldn’t show. Just to make it extra-secure, I also put construction adhesive along the entire length of the wood. Then, I just screwed the flanges into the wood with wood screws.

Here’s a good look at the towel bar without any towels on it. I love how it takes up the entire wall, one of the benefits of a custom built piece.

We think it was just the right solution for our room. It’s not too industrial and blends right in to the decor of the room in a way that unpainted copper wouldn’t. It turned out to be a just-right solution that we both love in a way that we’d never feel about a store bought piece.

I really like how the antique bronze spray paint softens the metal here and blends all the pieces together. It works nicely with the other browns in the room, too.

One of our favorite parts of the towel bar story is how that trip to Hippo Hardware to check out plumbing parts led to the art now hanging above the towel bar.

We didn’t create a plumbing parts sculpture to fill the large blank canvas of that wall, but we did end up filling it with plumbing parts (sorta).

This (sorta) Old Life: Custom DIY towel bar

We’ll tell that story–and share how you can turn your own photos into bathroom-safe art–in our next post.

Hope you’ll come back to see it.

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In the meantime, we’d love to know what you do with towels. Are we the only ones who’ve spent much of our life frustrated by insufficient towel bars?

And PS:  We’ve linked this post up to the Fall in Love with Spray Paint event happening at It All Started with Paint, Thistlewood Farm, Finding Home, and Top This Top That. Even though it’s sponsored by Krylon and we used Rustoleum. Gotta use what you already got, you know? If you’re so inclined to like our linked project, we’d be in the running for a bunch of spray paint, which would be cool.