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.
Overview of Laminating a Countertop
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.
Build the substrate
Using a circular saw, cut a sheet of particleboard to fit your countertop, adding a 1-inch overhang to edges that don’t abut a wall. Cut 4-inch strips of particleboard to line the underside of each edge. Glue and screw the strips to the sheet with 1¼-inch screws. Make sure the edges are perfectly flush. If you will be connecting two countertop sections, size and arrange the strips on one piece to extend beyond the end of the sheet and fit under the adjacent piece (see overview). Use shorter strips on the other piece to accept the extensions.
Dry-fit the countertop sections before laminating them, and make sure pieces fit tightly. Sand the seam with 100-grit paper to correct any mismatches.
TOH Tip: To make a really tight seam between two particleboard pieces, back-cut the end of one piece by tilting your circular saw blade to 5 degrees.
Cut the laminate
Carefully unroll the laminate and lay it on a flat surface, faceup. Add 1 inch to the length and width of the counter and mark these dimensions on the face. Clamp the sheet to a straight length of lumber at each mark. Line the marks up with the edge of the lumber.
Using a trim router fitted with a laminate-cutting bit, cut the sheet along the mark. Use the lumber as a guide for the router bit. Always cut laminate good side facing up.
Mark out the side strips—2½ inches wide and an inch longer than the sides—from the remaining pieces. Cut these strips with the keep piece off the lumber. Project the cutline ½ inch past the edge (to account for the router bit’s width).
TOH Tip: When using a router, cut from left to right as you face the edge (and the tool is upright), to keep the bit from pulling.
Adhere the side pieces
Using a chip brush, apply contact cement to the back of the laminate strips for the counter’s short sides and onto the substrate sides. Wait 15 minutes, then coat the sides again.
Allow the contact cement on both parts to dry to the touch. Take a strip and position it over the side without letting it touch, making sure it’s evenly aligned all around. Working from one end to the other, stick the laminate to the substrate, smoothing it as you go. Press the laminate firmly with several passes of a J-roller; be careful not to roll over the edge, which could snap the laminate.
Touch up uneven edges
Using the router turned on its side, cut off the overhanging edges of laminate, running the bit counterclockwise around the edges. Touch up uneven edges with a file or sander, keeping it flat on top of the particleboard and pushing away from the laminate.
With the sides done, glue and trim the front edge.
TOH Tip: Don’t let the router linger in one spot or it can burn the laminate. Keep the bit free of adhesive by occasionally unplugging the router and soaking the bit in water.
Cover laminate back and substrate with contact cement
Turn the top laminate sheet facedown. Pour contact cement onto the back and, using a paint roller, spread the adhesive over the entire sheet. Roll any excess onto the substrate. Pour more contact cement onto the substrate and, using the roller, spread it out until it is fully covered. Allow the contact cement to dry to the touch on both parts.
Laminate the top
Lay wood scraps or dowels across the substrate every 12 inches or so. Flip the laminate so that it is adhesive-side down, and rest the sheet on top of the scraps without allowing it to touch the substrate. Align the laminate’s edges with the edges of the substrate, allowing ½-inch overhang on all sides.
Starting in the middle, remove a scrap and press the laminate down. Working out from the center, continue removing scraps and pressing the sheet into place, until the whole sheet is adhered. Roll over the counter with the J-roller, using firm strokes.
Using the trim router, cut off the excess around the perimeter. Then create an even bevel with a file. Hold the file at a consistent 45-degree angle to the edge, and carefully push it away from you along the entire perimeter without changing the angle.
Create a backsplash
To make a backsplash, cut a piece of particleboard 5½inches wide and as long as the counter. Do not double up the wood. Laminate this piece, adhering first the short sides, then the wide face, and finally the top.
Using a caulk gun, run a bead of clear caulk along the bottom part of the face of the backsplash. Align it with the back side of the countertop surface, making sure the bottom edges are flush. Using a drill/driver fitted with a 1½-inch bit, create pilot holes through the backsplash and into the edge of the countertop every 6 to 8 inches. Drive 1 5/8-inch screws through the pilot holes. With a wet finger, smooth any caulk that oozes out.
Attach the countertop to the cabinet
Dry-fit the countertop pieces. First lay down the piece with the extended strips, then fit the second piece on top.
Remove the counter. Run a bead of caulk along the tops of the cabinets and on the sides of the counter where the two pieces will meet.
Finish it up
Lay the counter in place, and from inside the cabinet, drive 1 5/8-inch screws up through the mounting blocks in the cabinet corners and into the counter. Drive 1¼-inch screws through the extended strips to fasten the two sections together.
Wipe away the caulk that squeezes out at the seam with a wet finger to create a smooth seal between the two pieces of laminate. Then caulk wherever the countertop directly meets the wall and smooth that bead for a finished look.