Overview

diagram of how to laminate a countertop
Illustration: Gregory Nemec
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A laminate countertop installation is basically a grade-school cut-and-paste project writ large. You build the substrate, cut out the laminate, and paste the two together with contact cement. Starting with the proper substrate creates a good foundation for the countertop. Particleboard has a uniform, clear surface perfect for accepting the contact cement and leaving a smooth finish. Unfortunately, it doesn't come any thicker than 3⁄4 inch, which isn't enough for a countertop. You'll need to double up at the edges to create a 1½-inch face and raise the counter higher.

This Old House general contractor Tom Silva prefers particleboard to MDF, which is too susceptible to expansion and contraction from water. However, he makes sure to paint the underside of any counter that will sit over a dishwasher, washing machine, or dryer with a thick coat of primer to protect against moisture.

Pasting the laminate to the particleboard is the trickiest part of building a counter. Two surfaces coated with contact cement bond the moment they touch. "You have to have both parts lined up correctly," says Tom. "Because once it's stuck, it's stuck." Separating the two surfaces with dowels will give you the chance to line everything up before you adhere the parts.

There's a sequence to the way you laminate any counter in order to hide visible edges. The side edges go on first, then the front edge, and finally the top. Each piece of laminate should be cut larger than the surface and trimmed flush with a small router and a file before the next piece goes on, ensuring a tight seam at all corners.

Matching laminate edges is very difficult, which is also why you should plan for as few seams as possible; if they are necessary (as with an L-shaped surface, like the one shown here), your best bet is to laminate two pieces separately, then join them. You can also choose to make a backsplash piece, which attaches to the back of the counter before you mount the whole slab to the cabinets or the wall.
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      Okay, people, give us a little room to work here. Because we'd like to fold the laundry without having the delicates drop off the dryer into the dust bunnies, and we sure could use a place to lay out the parts of those "some assembly required" projects. Please, we beg of you, give us a proper countertop.

      We're not holding out for granite—save that for the dream kitchen. All we really need is some smooth, clean laminate, a surface that can serve its purpose simply and with style. Laminate is inexpensive, comes in hundreds of designs (some to mimic that out-of-the-budget granite), and when glued onto particleboard makes a rather convenient work surface. As This Old House technical editor Mark Powers shows on the following pages, it's easy to turn a disorganized garage, mudroom, or shed into a multifunctional workroom in one quick weekend. With that kind of setup, we'd really be able to spread out and get something done.

      Crystalline Dune laminate, about $3 per square foot, WilsonArt.

      Cabinets from Omega Cabinetry, through Jilco Window Corp.

    Shopping List

    1. LAMINATE
    Order at home centers or through kitchen designers (allow two weeks for delivery). Laminates range from about $2 to $5 per square foot, but they come in 4-by-8- or 5-by-12-foot sheets. Because you want as few seams as possible, choose a size that will yield the longest uninterrupted pieces, taking into account not only the surface of the counter but the sides and backsplash as well.

    2. 3/4-INCH PARTICLEBOARD
    to form the substrate to which you adhere the laminate. A 4-by-8-foot sheet should be wide enough to create all the pieces needed for one standard 25-inch-deep countertop section and backsplash, up to 8 feet long.

    3. WATER-RESISTANT WOOD GLUE
    to glue together pieces of the substrate. Look for PVA wood glues rated Type II. 4. PRIMER
    to protect the particleboard from moisture.

    5. NEOPRENE CONTACT CEMENT
    Look for a water-based or low-VOC product rather than a solvent-based one, which will dry faster but can only be used in a well-ventilated area. One gallon will cover about 250 to 300 square feet.

    6. 3/4-INCH DOWELS
    to hold the laminate off the particleboard before adhesion. Plan on one 3-foot-long dowel for every 12 inches of countertop. Clean scrap wood will also work.

    7. CLEAR LATEX CAULK
    to seal and waterproof seams between two countertop pieces and to seal edges where the countertop meets a wall.

    8. 11/4-INCH and 15/8-INCH DECK SCREWS
    to assemble the substrate and to attach the countertop to the cabinets.