Countertop basics

Two types of countertops are available for the do-it-yourselfer: tile and prefabricated laminate. You’ll learn how to install these countertops in this section. Other choices—granite, solid-surface, metal, concrete, soapstone, and slate— should be installed by professionals. Some, such as granite, are difficult to install, and you probably lack the skills and equipment to complete the job. Others, like solid-surface, can’t be installed by the homeowner without voiding the warranty. Despite these limitations, you can still consider some of the ritzier counters. Here’s a brief comparison of countertop materials:

Laminate: Generally the least expensive of the lot, it’s low-maintenance and durable. Prefab counters called postform are made for do-it-yourself installation. Home centers, kitchen suppliers, and local cabinetmakers can supply countless custom variations.

Ceramic: As tough as they come, it’s easy to clean, although the grout can be a nuisance, and it’s moisture- and heat-resistant. You can do it yourself or hire a pro.

Solid-surface: Durable and available in many styles and colors, it can be special-ordered with a built-in sink. It looks like it would make an ideal chopping board, but knife marks ruin its surface. Avoid sanding away dings, dents, and stains, unless you want a big divot in the middle of the counter.

Stone: Cost-competitive with solid-surface, stone is beautiful and durable, cleans easily, and stands up well to water. Marble, however, can stain and is not recommended in the kitchen or around sinks. Granite is the best all around but should be sealed to protect it from oil stains.

Butcher block: A wood counter is beautiful but hard to protect from scratches, water, and hot pans. Coat it occasionally with mineral oil. It’s about the only finish that’s considered “food safe,” but it isn’t as durable as other countertop options.

Installing countertops

MATERIALS: Postform countertop, miter-clamp kit with glue, end-cap kit, wood glue, drywall screws, masking tape, finishing nails, galvanized nails, silicone caulk

TOOLS: Tape measure, sawhorses, level, drill with 1/2  or 3/4-inch bit, hole saw, saber saw with laminate blade, compass, caulking gun, hammer, iron, laminate trimmer

If your cabinets have lived on long after your countertop died, it’s possible to fix the problem without ditching the cabinets. As always, there’s a catch: If you want solid stone, such as granite, or a wood solid surface, don’t do it yourself. Let the pros come to the house, do the work, and give you a guarantee. (Some solid surface manufacturers will void the warranty if the installation isn’t done by a certified professional.) But if you like laminates and don’t mind using a saber saw, you can do the work yourself. Go to the home center, and look at the “postform” counters. Postform counters come with a pre-attached backsplash, plus a sheet of laminate that starts on the top of the backsplash and continues around the counter’s rounded front edge. You’ll find several varieties and lengths, as well as counters with precut miters and counters that are square on both ends. The ends come unfinished and are later covered by an iron-on piece of laminate. If your cabinets require a nonstandard countertop length, you’ll need to have one custom-made. The built-in backboard on postform counters makes them almost impossible to trim.

1 TAKE ACCURATE MEASUREMENTS OF THE CABINET LAYOUT and draw a plan on a piece of graph paper. Plan for a 1-inch overhang at any exposed end, and subtract 1/16 inch from pieces that will butt against an appliance, such as a range or refrigerator, to allow for easy installation and removal.

WHEN TO HIRE A PRO - If two counters come together in a corner, verify that the corner is square. Start by marking 3 feet from the corner on one wall, and U feet from the corner on the second wall. If the distance between the marks isn't 5 feet, your corner is out of square. Prefab counters are made to fit in square corners, and cutting a new miter is hard, even for a pro. Have the counter custom-made and professionally installed. The cabinetmaker will solve the problems right in the shop, and the installer knows how to solve the ones that crop up during installation. If you’re considering installing a prefab U-shaped counter, you're considering one of the hardest installations. Not only must both outside corners be perfectly square, any irregularity along the wall will affect how the counter sits against the other walls. Hire a pro.

2 PUT THE COUNTERTOP UPSIDE DOWN ON THE SAWHORSES AND CLAMP IT IN PLACE. If either end of the counter will be exposed once installed, you'll need to put laminate on the end. End cap kits are available from home stores that sell countertops; the kits contain everything you'll need, including battens that you glue underneath the counter to build the ends up to the proper thickness. Begin by gluing the battens in place and fasten with finishing nails or screws.

3 THE END CAP IS OVERSIZED—PUT IT OVER THE BATTEN SO THAT IT COVERS THE EDGE OF THE COUNTERTOP. The end cap is backed with a heat-sensitive glue. Press the end cap against the end of the counter, using an iron set at medium heat, for the time suggested by the manufacturer. (If the iron is too hot, it will damage the laminate.] Wipe off excess adhesive while it's still hot.

4 ROUT THE END CAP FLUSH WITH THE COUNTERTOP USING A SMALL ROUTER CALLED A LAMINATE TRIMMER. Work carefully and hold the trimmer flat on the end cap—tipping the router will cut into the surface of the counter.

5 SET THE COUNTERTOP ON THE CABINETS, CLAMP IT IN PUCE, AND CHECK IT FOR LEVEL Shim it if necessary. Typically, you'll have small gaps between the wall and backsplash; fill them later with caulk. If the gaps are large, however, you'll have to sand the countertop's edge so that it fits against the wall. Set the span of a compass to the size of the largest gap between the backsplash and the wall. Mark what you'll have to remove by pulling the compass along the wall.

6 REMOVE THE COUNTERTOP AND CLAMP AND PLACE IT BACK ON THE SAWHORSES. Use a belt sander to sand the backsplash to the line you drew with the compass. This will eliminate any gaps between the countertop and the wall,

7 TO HOLD PIECES TIGHTLY TOGETHER AT THE CORNERS, most counters have grooves that hold joint-fastening bolts that span the seam. You'll get the best seam where two pieces of countertop meet if you join them before you put them on the cabinet. Start by gluing them together with the glue from a miter-clamp kit. If the kit has no glue, apply a thin bead of silicone caulk to the edge of both pieces and paint the rest of the edges heavily with wood glue. Then press the edges together.

8 MAKE SURE THE ENTIRE SURFACE IS FLUSH AT THE SEAM ALONG THE FRONT EDGE OF THE COUNTER. Adjust as necessary and tighten the nearest miter clamp. Wipe away any excess glue. Standing behind the backsplash, push the countertops up and down as necessary to make the seam flush along the back of the counter. Tighten the miter clamp nearest the backsplash.

9 LOOK AT THE REST OF THE SEAM. If one side is higher than the other, tap the countertop with a dead-blow hammer like the one shown here. If you use a regular hammer, protect the countertop with a piece of wood. Once the seam is level, tighten the remaining miter clamps.

10 FASTEN THE COUNTERTOP TO THE V CABINETS BY SCREWING UP THROUGH THE TOP OF THE CABINETS. If your cabinets have no tops, screw through the front rail and through any blocks built into the cabinet for that purpose. SEAL THE SEAM BETWEEN THE BACKSPLASH AND WALL with a silicone caulk that matches the color of the countertop.

Sink cutout - All sink manufacturers supply a cutting template, or directions for making one, with their sinks. Set the countertop across a pair of sawhorses. Position the template on the countertop, following the manufacturer's instructions. Tape it in place and trace the outline with a pencil. Mark separate holes for the faucets, if necessary. Clamp the countertop to the sawhorses and drill a 1/2-inch starter hole inside the outline with a spade bit. If other holes are necessary for faucets or other fixtures, drill them with a hole saw. Fit a saber saw with a laminate blade, which has special teeth to minimize chipping. Insert the blade into the starter hole to begin the cut. Cut carefully along the outline. Once you've cut along part of the outline, screw a drywall screw into the gap left by the saw cut to keep the cutout from vibrating. If the backsplash interferes with the cut, change to a regular blade, turn the counter over, and continue the cut from the bottom to avoid chipping.

DON’T SCREW UP - Check, countercheck, cross-check, and double-check the length of every screw before you drive it through the cabinet and into the countertop. One lousy screw that's wrong spells disaster. A really good installer I know got a long screw in his pouch by mistake. He was in a hurry and not paying attention so he drove the screw right through the top of the laminate counter. An expensive mistake because all you can do at that point is ask the dealer to order some matching seam-fill and hope you can hide the damage. Seam-fill comes in a small, plastic tube. It's designed to help hide bad seams, but it can hide other mistakes too. Squeeze some on, work it flush using a small and flexible putty knife, and let it dry.

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