Monday, March 5, 2012

Granite tile counter top tutorial

We're still waiting to seal the counter top (you have to wait 48 hours after grouting to let it cure properly), but in the meantime I can share how we got from this:
To this:

Step one: Measure your counter top
This is probably the most important step of all. You will want to measure your counter top very, very, carefully. Also make sure you calculate the square footage. Our counter top had some weird sections (you can see off to the far left of the above photo that our counter has a bit of a jog to it) so we just divided up our counter into "sections" and calculated the square footage that way. Math is definitely not my strong suit, so making it as simple as possible is important to getting an accurate number.

Step two: Set your budget
Once you have the square footage calculated (don't forget to measure the overhang too!) add 10 - 15% to that and you'll have the total square footage of tile you will need. Sometimes you'll have to make weird cuts that waste a good chunk of the tile that aren't the right size for anything else. There's nothing you can really do about that.

Setting a budget is important because you want to make sure you can actually afford the project before you start tearing things apart and realize you don't have enough money to finish everything. Take into consideration things like if you're planning on keeping your existing sink/faucet (but be prepared to have to replace them if it gets destroyed during the removal of the old counter) and if you're planning on extending/shortening the counters in any way. We went with the existing layout and knew we were replacing the sink/faucet and budgeted accordingly. Other things to consider are:

  • Rental/purchase of power tools (mainly a wet saw) 
  • Purchase of other related items (will be listed later)
Just like making sure you add 10 - 15% to the amount of tile you buy, make sure to add 10 -15% to your budget too in case you go over. 

Step three: Make your materials list
When you know how much money you have to spend, now is the time to make your list and attach prices to them to make sure that this project will actually fall within your budget. I will outline materials needed in sections according to their steps.

Prepping step: 
  • Tape measure
  • Sharpie marker
  • Belt sander
  • 3/4" Plywood (in the linear feat of your counter top. Make sure the width is wide enough)
  • Concrete backer board (same as plywood) 
  • Jig saw
  • Box cutter (and/or hand saw) 
  • Plywood screws 
  • Backer board screws
  • Electric drill
  • Level
  • Thinset
Tiling step: 
  • Tape measure
  • Sharpie marker
  • Square footage of tile 
  • Level
  • Wet saw 
  • Thinset (for natural stone) 
  • Putty knife 
  • Notched trowel
  • Grout (you will want unsanded grout for natural stone) 
  • 1/16" Spacers
  • Mixer attachment for drill
  • 5 gallon bucket
  • Grout float 
  • Large sponge 
Finishing step:
  • Cheesecloth or microfiber rag
  • Stone and grout sealant 
  • Glass of wine (trust me, you'll want one after this is done)
Step four: Shop around for/purchase materials
When you have a good idea of the amount of money you have to spend on this project (as it can easily get expensive) you should start shopping around for deals on the items you'll need. Try to use coupons if you can (if you just bought a house, most of the time you will get a coupon from Lowes or Home Depot for 10% off a purchase when you change your address - save all of those coupons!) and look for any sales/deals out there. 

The majority of your supplies you'll get at your local home improvement center. Tile you can purchase either in a home improvement store, or online. If you plan on purchasing something from an online vendor, make sure to order a sample because the colors/patterns on your computer screen may look very different in person. We decided to purchase what was available in the store, so if we ended up needing more we could just run to the store and grab it instead of waiting for another order to come in (which can take a week or so). 

Another thing you'll want to consider if you're buying natural stone, make sure to get premium or choice tiles. These will have the fewest imperfections. Also, natural stone can etch and stain if you're not careful. If you choose a light colored stone you will need to remain vigilant on wiping up spills and crumbs immediately. Anything that is acidic (tomato sauce, coffee etc) will etch the material and leave a hazy film-like appearance on your tile. 

Of course that doesn't mean you have to freak out every time someone goes in your kitchen. Just make sure it's clear to everyone that they wipe up after themselves. Have towels at hand for folks too. 

Once you purchase your materials and have them at hand, it's time to start the project!

Step five: Removing the old counter top
We lucked out a bit with our counter top because we were able to pull the old tile right off, sand the existing plywood smooth (they tiled right on top of the plywood) and then start from there. It really did save us a lot of hassle trying to measure the sink hole correctly. 

Make sure to remove the sink. If your sink is stuck on there with silicon, use a box cutter to cut through the silicon. Make sure to disconnect the plumbing too. Once your sink is removed, it's best to keep it in a place where it's not going to be in the way (a garage is a good idea) if you're planning on reusing it. Or if you're getting rid of it, then do so according to the guidelines of your municipality.

If you have a tile counter top: 
You're going to need a crow bar, a hammer and some patience. Unless your counter top isn't attached to the cabinets and you're not planning on salvaging the wood, this is going to take a while. 

If you have laminate counter top: 
You should be able to just unscrew it from underneath and lift it right off. I've only installed the cheapie prefabricated stuff, so I really don't know what to do if it's something else. However, please RESIST the urge to tile right over it. 

If you have solid surface counter top:
Why on Earth are you getting rid of it and replacing it with tile?!?!?!

If you're able to salvage some of the wood, do it. It does save you a bit of money and trouble, and it also helps the environment. If you can't salvage the wood, then by all means, make sure you put down new plywood. 

Our counter wasn't actually secured to the cabinets. Once you have either your pre-existing plywood prepped, or you've removed the old counter completely you will probably have to remove some (or all) of the back splash too. Chances are, you were probably planning on re-doing that anyway right? If not, try to be very careful pulling the back splash off (you can always re-attach it later). If not, well hack away. 

Back splash and old tile pulled up to expose the pre-existing plywood. Make sure to sand the wood down if you're using the pre-existing stuff.


When the plywood is put into place, take some plywood screws and drill the plywood into the tops of the cabinets. This makes for a much more secure counter top and it will make installation a LOT easier without the counter sliding around. You will want to put a screw in every 5-8 inches. Make sure everything is level!

If you used a new sheet of plywood you'll want to cut the template for your sink as well. If you bought a new sink, the template should be with it. If you are reusing your existing sink, make a template out of cardboard, paper, or something that is easy to trace. If you're using an over-mount sink (which in my opinion looks really nice with tile counters) you only need to trace a template for the widest part of the bowl. 

Cut out the template and with your jig saw, cut the sink hole into the plywood. 

Step six: Install concrete backer board 
Before you break out the thinset, you'll want to dry-fit the backer board. The easiest way to cut backer board is by scoring it with a box cutter and snapping it along that seam. You'll want it to measure flush with the plywood. 

Once your backer board is dry-fit, you can apply the thinset to the plywood.
It looks like frosting!

We found it was easier to take a large putty knife to scoop the thinset out of  the enormous bucket and "dot" onto the plywood than trying to get it out with the notched trowel. 

Tilt the trowel at a 45 degree angle with the smooth side resting on the thinset and smooth it out (like you would icing on a cake) until that section is covered with an even coating. You don't need it to be really thick, but you shouldn't be able to see the plywood through the thinset. Let's say about 1/8" or so. 

When your section is smooth, add a little more thinset on top and take the notched end of your trowel and drag it slowly through the mixture until all of the section has the ridges going through the thinset. These ridges help create a strong seal to keep the backer board in place. You will do this same step with the tile later on. 

Once you have the ridges in the thinset, place the backer board where it belongs. You will have a little time to move it around if you need to, but not much. 

Make sure you don't work too far ahead with the thinset. You only have about a half-hour to put the backer board down before it starts to harden, so it's best to do just one section at a time. 

When all of your backer board is down, you will need to let it cure for 24 hours before you can start laying the tile. Make sure it is all level! If it's not, you can use a wood block (just any old block of wood 6" or more in length) and a rubber mallet. Place the wood block on the thinset, use the mallet to hit on the block to level out the backer board. Make sure to clean up any excess thinset that happens to get on your cabinets or the floor. 

Step seven: Cutting tile
This was probably the most frustrating part of the process for Garry. We have an oddly-sized and shaped counter so this process proved rather difficult. Part of the problem we knew we would have is that the facing of the counter was going to be difficult because only one side of the stone we were purchasing was finished. If you can find stone with three sides finished, good on you, it will make everything much easier. It wasn't the case for us, so we ended up bevel-cutting all of the edge pieces, which we learned was really hard to do accurately. 

At this point, you may want that glass of wine now. Chances are, you did the plywood and the backer board on a Friday after work instead of going out with your friends and it's getting late. By now you're already probably saying "this looks a million times better than it did before" even though in truth, your kitchen looks like a bomb has gone off in it. 

If you waited until you had a day off or used a vacation day or something, then you can go ahead and start cutting and dry-fitting your tiles. 

When you're using the wet saw, make sure to place it somewhere that you don't mind getting really filthy. (garage is good) The water from the saw mixes with the stone dust and turns into mud (essentially) and gets everywhere. Also, make sure to have safety glasses on at all times when using the machinery. 

You will first want to decide how you're going to lay out your tiles. The best method is to start from the center and work your way outwards so it's uniform. If you have a weird-sized/shaped counter like ours, it might not matter where you start. 

Once you have the design down, measure and cut your tiles with the wet saw. If you're planning on beveling the edges like we did, make sure you keep that extra half inch you'll end up cutting in consideration when you start cutting the rest of your tiles. 

We started in one spot and worked our way across the counter (again, because it's such a weird configuration, it didn't matter really where we started) until we reached the wall. As we went, we laid the tiles on the backer board and added the spacers to make sure everything lined up nicely. 

We actually waited a day and let the backer board cure before cutting the tile, but if you're planning on doing all of this in the same day, at least wait a few hours to allow the thinset to harden before placing tiles on top of it.

When all of your tiles are cut and your backer board has had 24 hours (or so, it doesn't have to be exact) to cure then you screw the backer board into the plywood with special screws. Do this every 5-8" as well. 

Step eight: Laying the tile
This is probably where you start getting pretty excited over the whole process. Chances are, your kitchen is a mess and has been for a few days and not having a use-able counter top (or a sink) has been driving you a little crazy. Yep, I hear ya, but don't worry, you're almost there. 

When you have all of your tile cut to size and dry-fit, now you do the same thing you did when you installed the backer board. Apply a thin, even coat of thinset with your trowel, then add some more and create the ridges with the notched end of your trowel. You're probably feeling like a champ at this point. Yay you!

Once you get a section of thinset applied, lay your tile like you did your backer board. You can wiggle it a bit and move it around if need be, but again, you only have about half an hour to lay that section of thinset so don't work too far ahead of yourself. Also make sure to add the spacers between the tiles. I like to add three to each side. One in the middle and one about an inch or two from the corner. 

If you did a beveled edge, line up the shallow end of the bevel with the edge of the counter. You'll need that overhang to connect with the facing pieces. 

When adding the facing pieces, you'll want to secure them with some painter's tape. 

Again, you'll want to make sure that the counters are level. Sometimes there is a slight variation in the thickness of the stone tiles, so you'll want to measure carefully as you go along and use the same method to level the backer board with the tile (only you won't have to hit nearly as hard). Wipe up any excess thinset and make sure that the channels are clear between the tiles. The grout needs somewhere to go!

Once you have all of the tile laid, wait 24 hours (again) for the thinset to cure properly. 

Step nine: Grouting the tiles
This is probably the easiest part of the whole process. Once the thinset has cured, pull out the spacers and take the painter's tape off of the facing tiles. If you bought pre-mixed grout then you can start going to town. If not, you'll need to grab that bucket, some water, grout mix, electric drill and the mixer attachment. 

Mix the grout according to the company's directions. Chances are it will take about half an hour to do this. Once the grout is mixed, apply it with your float and squeegie it into the cracks. Make sure you really get it in there and that there aren't any little bubbles or spots that are missing grout. The float will also help you squeegie the excess off the tiles so there is less to clean up later. 

When all of the tile is grouted and you've squeegied as much as you could off, wait about 20 minutes for the grout to start to harden. 

After 20 minutes, take a big sponge, dampen it, and wipe off any of the left over grout that wasn't squeegied off. You're still not going to get all of it, but you'll get most of it. Wait 2 hours. 

After 2 hours you can take your cheesecloth or microfiber rag and buff off the rest of the grout that was on the tiles. This will help get rid of that hazy appearance in the tile and will make it nice and shiny. 

You can re-install your sink now if you would like. Just make sure you scrape off ALL of the silicon that you get on your tile. Otherwise it becomes a huge mess later on. 

You'll need to wait about 48 hours before the next step, so take a breath and you'll probably want that glass of wine now while you're dancing about your kitchen because now you have a sink again and don't have to do dishes in the bathtub. 

Step ten: Sealing the counter top 
You are SO CLOSE to being done! 

Get your sealant (hopefully it is one that is good for grout and stone) and apply it as directed on the container. You'll want to redo the sealant every year or so in order to protect the stone and keep the grout clean. 
This is what it will look like sealed (yes I know the facing isn't on yet, we ended up doing that separately)

At this point you can start on the back splash or just replace the pieces that you had to take down. 

We're still waiting on our delivery of back splash materials before we start this portion of the project. This weekend is pretty busy for us, so we may not get around to it until next week. 

At least our counter tops are done though... :)