Concrete Counter Tutorial

 

It truly is the small things in life: like having a kitchen sink! With running HOT water! It’s been months since our kitchen was in working order, and we’ve been microwaving most meals and doing dishes in a tiny wet bar sink which only had ice cold trickling water! And I thought I hated doing dishes before… As we mentioned, we’ve been trying to move away from the purpley-ness of the original kitchen and head towards more of a neutral/classic look. It turns out, doing things yourself (and with the help of awesome family members), during the holidays, and with a one year old running around is kind of slow going (who knew?), so we are just now finishing up the counter tops. As a reminder, this is where we started:

The kitchen when we purchased the house.

The kitchen when we purchased the house.

There are a lot of things wrong with this situation, but the biggest thing that bothered me was how the sink wasn’t centered under the window! We wanted to reuse the existing cabinetry as much as possible since the cabinets are solid wood, so we were able to shift the bottom cabinets over, cut one down, and get a new sink base cabinet in order to get that sink centered. Symmetry is very important to me, I think it really helps things look like they are where they’re supposed to be. Plus, it was a great excuse to get that disposal switch off of the cabinet face by the sink-Lelia would’ve had a field day with that one!

New sink base, plumbing, and wiring, and the cabinet on the left was cut down to fit the new space.

New sink base, plumbing, and wiring, and the cabinet on the left was cut down to fit the new space.

Here you can see how we moved the cabinets around in order to get the sink centered under the window.

Here you can see how we moved the cabinets around in order to get the sink centered under the window.

So, once we got the cabinetry where we wanted it, and the electrical and plumbing roughed in, Joe and his Dad put in the MDF base for the new concrete counters. If you already have laminate counters you can skip this step because the concrete adheres directly to it (that’s what we did on the island), but the hole from the old sink placement made the old perimeter counters unusable. To make the guide, we started with some MDF from the hardware store (plywood works too, but the MDF was way cheaper) and had them cut it down to the depth and length we wanted for the counters (25″ deep in our case). Then, to make sure there was enough support they built a “frame” on the walls for the counters to sit on (see the pink?).

This is what the counter will sit on once it's installed. We drilled the 2x4s into the studs so it would be secure.

This is what the counter will sit on once it’s installed. We drilled the 2x4s into the studs so it would be secure.

Next, we had to beef up the MDF so it would look like the right thickness for a counter top from the front. Our boards were 3/4″ thick, and most counters are 1 1/2″ thick, so in order to save some money we used scraps of MDF we had laying around to thicken the edge along the front of the counter. If you aren’t a cheapskate like me, you could also just buy two sheets of MDF and screw them together-that definitely would be easier! Here’s a picture of the underside of our counter showing the fake “thickness” (remember, you won’t see the seems between the layers once the concrete is applied).

The white boards on the top/bottom will make the edge look like it's 1 1/2

The white boards on the top/bottom will make the edge look like it’s 1 1/2″ thick from the front, and the boards on the right will sit on the seem where two cabinets meet for extra support.

We cut out the openings for the range and sink with a jigsaw, using the holes from the old counter tops as a guide for size. Then the MDF counters were screwed into the cabinets from below and it looked like this:

Next up, the hard part… Spreading the concrete! Here are the materials I used for this part.

Ardex Feather Finish for the actual concrete, Black Powder to make it a darker color, and throwaway containers for mixing and measuring. I used several different sizes of plaster knives to mix the mixture and just followed the manufacturer’s directions on the packaging for ratios of powder to water. The mixture went on just like icing, and was pretty easy to work with while wet, but hardened quickly after about five minutes or so. Once it had begun to harden I found it best to leave whatever mistakes were there and sand them down later and/or add more product over it on the next round. But, you basically just put a blob of concrete on the counter and then spread it around until you’ve got it all covered (I did the sides last). I did a total of three layers of concrete, with a round of sanding in between. Each layer was thin so I found I needed the multiple coats to get even coverage. Here’s how it looked after the first coat went on, you can see it starting to dry much lighter:

By this point, I was excited because it was starting to look like what I’d imagined in my head, and I hadn’t yet experienced the horrors of sanding that were about to come… Let me just say that this project is not for the faint of heart. For one thing, it was incredibly messy, a fine black dust settled on everything on the first floor of our house even with plastic sheets up over the doorways. We’re still scrubbing. It was also incredibly time consuming, which we knew going into it and were ok with because we saved so much money by doing this ourselves, but just be ready to spend a week or two in a mask! I also would not recommend going with this finish if you are a perfectionist. I found it impossible to get the finish uniform and even in color/texture. Lucky for me, I tend to embrace the rustic look and found the imperfect look we ended up with reminds me of soapstone or slate so it doesn’t bother me.

Once I had the concrete layer on, I used an orbital sander with 100-120 grit sandpaper to knock down all the ridges and to smooth out the surface. I also used a small plaster knife to scrape off the excess concrete that had collected on the edges (above right picture). Be very careful with this part, I ended up accidentally knocking off chunks of concrete and exposing the wood layer by doing this so I think next time I would just use the sander since it was more gentle on the concrete. The edges in general were tricky to get just right, I found the best way to approach them was to put the concrete on thick in that spot and then use a sanding block to lightly remove the excess otherwise too much concrete got taken off and I’d have to go back and redo the edge. Not fun!

Above you can see the before and after of the surface once it had been sanded-big difference! It felt really smooth and level afterwards. FYI if you use an orbital sander like I did you will see some light swirl marks from the rotation, so you might want to go back over the final coat with a really light grit sandpaper like 220 at the end.

Once the final sanding was done, I used this concrete sealer to finish it off. I wanted something that was food safe and not too expensive, and that fit the bill. I put two coats over the concrete using a thin cloth, but we are noticing some leakage now after about a week of use, so I’ll probably put a heavy third coat on with a foam brush just to be sure it’s really sealed well. Below you can see the white sealer on the left (I used an old jar to put it in), then in the middle photo you can see the surface begin to darken as I applied the sealer, then in the right photo you can see the final product. It’s a satin finish, but it has a nice sheen to it!

So, that’s it! Joe and his Dad installed the stove top and the sink after the sealer had dried for 24 hours and we started cooking! For those who are curious, we had a large surface to cover, so we ended up needing two bags of the concrete mixture ($25/each), three bags of the black powder ($8/each+shipping), and one container of sealer ($30). So for a total of $104 (plus sanding supplies ~$28) and a sheet of MDF ($35) we got new counter tops, which if you’ve priced any out, is a pretty darn good price! Comment below if you have any questions!