Hey guys! Remember those counters I showed you on Saturday?
Awww yeah. Wanna know how I made them? Okay!
First let me tell you a little bit about why I chose Faux-crete counters. And also why I keep calling them Faux-crete (I’m capitalizing it, it’s a word, patent pending). Ummm, I hate laminate and I can’t afford stone or solid surface. That’s pretty much it. And 10 months ago (back when I thought I was going to be totally awesome at DIY and the whole reno would take 3 months), I figured that I could handle making concrete countertops.
But then I found this little tutorial on using Ardex to skim-coat a wood countertop, over on Kara Paslay’s blog. And we were somewhere around the 6-month mark on our 3-month remodel, and Kara’s way was fast. And our basement was so full of kitchen stuff that I had no room to make concrete forms, and Kara’s way is done in place. And we were over budget, and Kara’s way was cheap. And Kara’s way required no special skills, like knowing anything at all about concrete.
Only two little problems stood in my way.
- These tutorials assume the pre-existence of countertops, albeit ugly ones. We did not have said countertops.
- Chris was not sold on the durability or strength. He was
overly paranoidconcerned that the concrete skim coat would crack if there was any flex in the countertops (especially our breakfast bar, which has a 12″ overhang). He was also worried about cracking if water somehow got through and made the wood underneath swell.
This tutorial is about how I solved those problems. But I also have helpful hints along the way that you can do to make these even easier, if you aren’t encumbered by the same problems that I was.
Oh, and if you haven’t guessed it, I call it Faux-crete because it’s not concrete all the way through. It’s mostly wood. But you’d never know by looking at it.
Okay, here we go!
Helpful Hint #1: If you do not have pre-existing counters but you are NOT worried about strength and durability, you can simply buy a particleboard countertop — essentially a laminate counter that hasn’t been laminated yet. That’d save you Steps 1, 3-5, and 7-10. There, didn’t that just get a lot easier?
Step 1: Build your frame.
We used 1×2’s laying flat as our frame. Why? We wanted our counters to be one-and-a-half to two inches thick, and we used 1/2-inch thick OSB (to satisfy my need for “cheap”) and 1/2-inch thick cement backerboard (to satisfy Chris’s need for stability and water-resistance), so we had 3/4 inch to spare. 1×2’s are actually 3/4-inch wide. Perfect.
And that’s the last time you’ll see me do math correctly in this post.
Here’s an important detail to bring up now: you’re going to need a trim piece around the edge of your countertop, like so:
The trim piece will cover the different layers that make up the countertop and give the Ardex a solid surface to stick to. I wanted a beveled edge on the counters, so we used a 1×2* with the corner cut off (a table saw or router will do it). I suppose you could use any kind of decorative trim that you wanted, but keep it simple because the concrete will obscure any little details. I suggest a bevel or chamfer (like we did), a round-over, or simply keeping the edges square.
*Edited 11/7/2016: We cut a 1×4 in half, then cut the corner off. A true 1×2 is only 1.5″ thick, and our whole counter is 1.75″ thick — and it just so happens that half a 1×4 is 1.75″.
Why is this important? Because when you’re measuring for your frame, you want to measure the exact outside dimensions of your cabinets. You don’t have to add anything for an overhang, because the trim piece will provide the overhang.
We cut our pieces and attached them to each other as we went, using clamps to hold the growing frame in place while we measured and cut.
Most of the joints are held together with long trim screws (the same ones we used to attach the cabinets to each other).
On a couple of joints that weren’t going to be supported directly by the cabinets, we used pocket screws for an even stronger joint.
While you are building, make sure you leave enough room between the cross-pieces of your frame to put your sink in. If you have an undermount sink, leave enough room for the entire sink, including the lip. We did not leave enough room, and didn’t discover it until the counter was already attached to the cabinets. Luckily, it was nothing my Ryobi JobPlus multi-tool couldn’t handle.
Remember what I said about me doing math correctly?
Step 2: Attach the frame to the cabinets. Or if you’re just using an un-laminated countertop and avoiding Step One, attach that to the cabinets the same way that we attached our frame.
Run a bead of construction adhesive or silicone around all the top edges of the cabinets.
Place your frame in position, lined up with the edges, and use clamps to hold it down while you use screws to attach the frame from underneath. Most pre-fab cabinets have some sort of corner piece to put the screw through.
Step 3: Cut your OSB. Once you’ve got your frame attached, you can use it to get exact measurements for the “sub-counter.”
We cut and dry-fitted the OSB panels, making sure that they fit on top of the frame. You want them as exact as possible, but a little bit smaller than the frame is okay as well. (Small gaps can be filled with Ardex.)
Step 4: Attach the OSB to the frame. Run a bead of adhesive or silicone around the top of the frame, just like you did in Step 2. Set your OSB panel in place, and secure to the frame through the top with screws. Make sure your screws are slightly counter-sunk, so their heads don’t stick up past the surface of the OSB.
Congratulations! The first two layers are done.
Step 5: Cut your cement backerboard. We used our old circular saw, fitted with the diamond blade we used to cut through the stucco way back when. If there’s an easier way, I’d sure like to know. Anyway, you want to make your cement board the same dimensions as your OSB, but — and this is a very big BUT — the seams in the cement board should not line up with the seams in the OSB.
When it’s all cut and dry-fitted, the cross-section will look like this:
But before you attach the cement board to the rest, you’ll want to make a couple more cuts.
Step 6: Cut the hole(s) for the sink. Our sink came with this template to tell us exactly how to cut. Undermount sinks usually do. If you have a top-mounted sink, you won’t have to be quite so precise, but it doesn’t hurt.
We traced the template out on the cement board. Then Chris took the cement board outside and cut the straight lines with the circular-saw-diamond-blade combo, and finished the curved lines with a jigsaw. The jigsaw did not appreciate cutting through cement board. But it made it.
Then we put the cement board back in its place and traced around it, onto the OSB.
But before cutting the big hole, we thought it’d be easier to cut the holes for the faucet and soap dispenser first.
Once those were cut, we removed the cement board and used the circular-saw-plus-jigsaw method to cut the OSB on the line we had traced.
Now there’s a hole in your hard work!
Step 7: Attach the cement board.
Helpful hint #2: Personally, I think screws alone would do the job. But Chris went online and discovered that the manufacturers of the cement board recommend using mortar as well. I didn’t argue because we had plenty of mortar left over from our floor-tiling adventure. I’m no expert, but if it were up to me I would have skipped this step. Don’t tell anyone I told you that.
We used a 3/16″ V-notch trowel to spread the mortar on the OSB.
First I would spread the mortar…
Then we’d set the cement board in place, using a straight-edge to make sure that it didn’t overhang the frame anywhere.
Then Chris secured it with screws.
I set a few screws along the way as well, and this was my first time using Ryobi’s impact driver. I gotta tell you, that thing would have come in handy when we were still framing out the kitchen. I didn’t even know what an impact driver was a couple of weeks ago, and now I’m pretty sure I’ll never build anything without one again. It counter-sunk those screws into the cement board with almost no effort, and without stripping the screws. Ryobi #ForTheWin.
Alas, my mad skillz with the trowel meant that Chris got to have most of the fun with the impact driver. Efficient division of labor strikes again.
Step 8: Fill in the seams. Mesh tape — the stuff you use for drywall — works well here. Just stick a strip to the seam…
…and fill in with the same mortar you just used to attach the cement board.
Step 10: Cut and attach the trim pieces. Look out, there’s math involved here. You probably won’t have this problem, but I have these angled cabinets.
You might have heard me mention them before. Possibly in the context of me not being able to figure out how to build things with angles other than 90 or 45 degrees. This was no exception. It took me 3 tries to cut the trim pieces correctly to fit around those angles. First there was this:
Then there was this:
But finally, I got it.
And I wrote the correct angle right there on top of the counter, so that I wouldn’t forget it before I cut the next three awkward corners.
Anyway, once those four were done, the rest were easy. I cut all the pieces ahead of time, but I left them all just a tiny bit long just in case. Because I’m not good at math. And as far as I know they haven’t invented a board-stretcher yet.
We used wood glue to attach the trim, because we figured the frame-to-trim joint would be the strongest. We put a couple of screws through the trim into the OSB, but we figured that wouldn’t be as strong. And we didn’t want to put any screws though the trim into the cement board. With that in mind, we pre-drilled the holes. I used a straight-edge to make sure that the top of the trim didn’t stick out over the top of the cement board, while Chris drilled.
Then we glued.
And Chris got to use the impact driver again while I was relegated to the job of “clamp,” making sure the trim didn’t move when the screws went in.
Hey look! A countertop! And guess what? The hard part’s over.
I wanted black counters, so I added pigment, as Kara suggested here. Then I just used the flat side of that V-notch trowel I mentioned earlier to spread it on.
A smaller putty knife was a bit easier to work with on the edges.
Then I let it dry for a little bit. This stuff goes on in thin layers, and dries really fast. You can move on to the next step within a couple of hours. And that step is…
Step 12: Sand and repeat. You don’t have to do a meticulous job…yet. You’ll probably do three coats, so this first sanding is just to knock down the high spots or ridges left by the trowel. After each of the first two coats, I used medium-grit sandpaper on a hand-sander.
Each time I sanded, I vacuumed and wiped the dust off before putting on the next coat. When it came time to sand the final coat, I used a much finer-grit sandpaper (220) and I sanded by hand to get it as smooth as possible.
The Ardex sands really well, and you can keep as much or as little of the concrete texture as you want. My rule was that it had to feel smooth to the touch. But that still left a lot of really cool variation in color.
Step 13: Seal the concrete. Once you’ve got as many layers as it takes to get the look you want, it’s time to seal. It just so happened that I had the exact same sealer sitting around that Kara suggested in her tutorial. (I bought it to seal the brick in the newly exposed chimney, but I haven’t even cleaned the brick yet, so this was a better use). It’s a pretty high-gloss sealer, but that’s the look I was going for: shiny black.
I just used a foam brush to apply it. We ended up doing 3 coats.
Step 14: Wax your new concrete counters! The sealer will make it water-resistant, but it’s still highly scratchable. For a more durable finish, channel Mr. Miyagi and the Karate Kid: wax on, wax off.
We used actual car wax for this step. This Formula 1 stuff is almost pure carnauba wax, with minimal solvents. I decided that was “food-safe” enough for me.
I figure, I’m not going to be licking my countertops. And I’ll be using cutting boards anyway, so I won’t worry about chipping pieces of car wax off the counter and into my salad. But if you’re concerned, you can buy this stuff from Cheng, specifically made for concrete countertops. It’s also $22. Just sayin’.
And that’s it! I know it’s a lot of steps, but trust me when I say that even if you have to build your countertops from scratch (or even heavily overbuild them, like we did), it’s way faster and easier than pouring real concrete countertops. Start to finish, this whole project could be done in less than a week. Oh, and it’s cheaper. Did I mention that even though we spent a bit more to use cement board, all our counters — about 45 square feet — came out to about $150? My estimate for pouring concrete was $400-$500. And in the last 10 months, we have all seen how woefully inadequate my estimates are.
So I’d say it was worth it. Wouldn’t you?
Gratuitous money shot (taken after the final kitchen reveal)!
***UPDATE Jan 21, 2014*** If you’re wondering how durable these things are, click here to read my 4-month report.
***UPDATE Oct 25, 2014***Read about my attempt to refinish the counters here.