Thursday, April 1, 2010

Kitchen Countertop Project - Part 4 "Second Base"

If you've been following along you'll know that so far we've: planned our project, removed our laminate countertops and installed plywood as a first base for our new granite tiled countertops, and the result is that our kitchen currently looks like so:

And if you notice that in the photo we are missing: 1) a stove, 2) a sink, and 3) real countertops, then you'll understand why we grilled earlier this week.

Barley surpervised. As usual.

Yup, grilling was pretty much the only way we could actually have a meal at home with our kitchen the way it is. So we made more than 10 burgers. I kid you not. We've been eating on those microwavable babies all week long, with our paper plates and plastic cups and little paper napkins. They're pretty tasty, actually. I still miss the healthy homecooked meals we usually eat, but I don't miss them enough to use any real dishes - we had a few to wash after our big BBQ. Yup, we felt like peasant people washing them in the tub. Almost like the time Tom tried to wash our bed comforter and it wouldn't fit in the washer...

But that's a whole 'nother story. Back to the topic.

Step 4 involves installing the cement backerboard, and I'm not gonna lie - this right here was pretty tough for us. Cement backerboard, or some other type of underlayment for placement under tiles, is pretty essental in most tiling projects. Especially if you are using any sort of wood as a base, which we were (plywood). Because wood warps and moves with different temperatures, climates, humidity, etc, and tiles and grout don't, we needed something in between to stabilize the tiles and ensure they didn't move with the wood, thereby causing the tiles and grout to crack (we also needed a water-proof barrier to prevent the plywood from getting wet and rotting).

Enter our friend, or rather nemesis, the cement backer board (enter evil villian music "duh duh dunnnnn").

We needed to cut the cement backer board the exact same size as our plywood base, and then secure it down as a top layer above the plywood. We also needed to add small strips to the front of the countertops as the overhang.

Sounds easy, doesn't it? Yeah, usually when you start thinking that it's a sure bet that it's harder in reality.

First we used a hand scoring knife/tool to try to cut the cement board. We were told that we should be able to score and snap it just like drywall.

Yeah, right.

So, we used a jigsaw to try to cut the cement board. The thing started smoking and sparks started flying (remember, this is a solid piece of cement we're trying to cut here), and upon inspection we found that the blade had melted.


So, when in doubt, go to Lowe's, as we usually do. We spoke with an employee in the tools department, and he suggested we try a circular saw with a special cement cutting blade.

So we did. And guess what? Yup, that blade melted, too.

So we were in a right state. We had no kitchen, no countertops, we were in the middle of a project, and the one blade that was supposed to work didn't. And that blade was expensive, too. So I went back to Lowe's and spoke to the manager in the tile department this time, saying that I couldn't cut our cement board because it was eating through all our tools. Nothing was working.

He directed me to another employee who could answer in more detail, and lo-and-behold, we were doing everything right - except lowering the blade down as far as it could go on the circular saw. This allows the smallest area of surface to be touched by the blade, letting the carbide tips on the saw do their thang and slice through those babies like butter. I tell ya, it made all the difference in the world! And there was no smoke and melting this time, too... which is always a good thing. (Although really, we woulda thought that someone - the first employee in the tools department, or the blade we bought, or even the circular saw user's manual would mention that we needed to lower the thing to cut through cement board! Sheesh.)

So after a couple frustrating days of trying to cut through the cement uselessly, we were happy to say that we finally cut those babies like there was nothin' to it. Ahh, sweet victory at last.

While Tom was out finishing up cutting the edge sections for the overhang...

I was busy mixing the thinset mortar inside the garage.

It was hard. We followed the directions, did the math, and made half the bag of thinset mortar. It was tough - like stirring thick mud. I started out using a paint stir stick (pictured above), but quickly gave that up when the thing threatened to break on me. Instead I went and found a halfway-broken broom that we had bought awhile ago for a dollar.

That worked like a charm. In the end, the consistency was like that of really, really thick peanut butter.

Then it was time to actually spread out the goop. But before we got to that part, Tom wrote a little something on our plywood countertop base, as a little message to leave to the next homeowners (if they ever discover it):

Sometimes I wonder if the future homeowners will ever find our little messages. We left a few inside one of our basement walls when we put up new drywall, and we also left a special little "time capsule" in another section of wall... yeahhh, don't ask.

Anyways, then we got to work. First we gooped the mortar onto the plywood and then spread it around using 1/4" notched trowels. It was messy work.

Then it was time to lay the cement board down, wiggling it a little to get a better grip and get the air out, just like you would do with tiles. Then we used these special auto-countersinking screws:

To secure the cement board down into the mortar and plywood beneath. We spaced the screws for the top area accordingly: on the edges we did 6" spaces, and across the face we did 8" spaces.

The top went down well but we had a few problems on the overhang edges. The mortar was drying pretty quickly, and we realized we had to work fast or when we screwed in the edges the cement would crack. Oops.

We got half of the countertops done before we called it a day. The next day we got back to work, and then realized we had made an initial error:

We had mixed the first batch of mortar completely wrong! We didn't put enough water in. We put in 2.25 liters of water, but needed to have put in 2.75 liters. No wonder it was drying so quickly (and was so hard to stir, to boot)! We had a few laughs, and alot of eye rolling, at the fact that of all the complicated measuring and math we had to do for the countertop parts so far, of all the miscalculations to do we screwed up the simplest one: 5.5 liters divided by 2. I'm blaming it on the concrete fumes we were inhaling.

Anyways, this time around we made the mortar correctly, and it was much easier to stir, spread, and didn't dry quite as quickly. We also found that if we predrilled the holes for the screws when we were attaching the overhang strips, it tended not to crack as much.

So, after lots of frustration, work, sweat and blood (yup, we're not lying here - Tom actually cut his finger during this!), our new countertop base was complete!

Next up: we could finally start tiling! Stay tuned for a play-by-play on the Terrific Tiling Tale.

Next Phase: Kitchen Countertop Project: Part 5 "Cutting the Tiles"


  1. Chelsea! What an **awesome** blog you have going here! I'm so glad you commented over at my place, just because then I got to see what you guys are up to. You've been up to some exciting stuff. Demolition is my favorite :)Your house is great, you're working your tails off, and it's totally making a difference in your fossil. Yay for you guys!!

    And your blog layout is very fitting - "fresh" like your blog name. Great work.


  2. Man - I don't think I ever want to make my own countertop, but I suppose I can use your experience as a guide. Who knew all the roadblocks you would encounter!

    It's looking good! Thanks for being so honest about the process - sometimes renovations in the blogging world go almost too smoothly and I start to think I'm stupid when something I do gets messed up.

  3. What an adventure, lol! Ah the memories... they're always hilarious once they aren't frustrating anymore! This may be a lot of work, but it will be totally worth it.

  4. Wow, hopefully you two don't lose any body parts completing this. lol

  5. I love all the messages you leave for the next homeowners - such a great idea! And Barley is adorable :)

  6. Chelsea - why did you put mortar on the plywood, instead of just screwing the backer board on? I've never heard of doing that before...please share!

  7. Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment! I really appreciate comments and new readers. :)

    From the research we've done on the underlayment structure for new tile countertops, there is definitely more than 1 way to skin this cat! We found that there are a few different ways for doing this step of the construction process, and that both methods (using mortar between the plywood and cement backerboard vs. not) worked well and held up just fine over the years. We decided to go the mortar route because it just sounded "right" to us, and being amateurs and all, essentially "glueing" the cement board down to the plywood in addition to screwing it down sounded to us like the most foolproof and sturdiest way for our countertops to be constructed! And we think it further ensures that, as the temperature and humidity changes throughout the year (being in Nebraska, temperature range is always a concern) as the plywood expands/contracts the cement board will not move an inch. Perhaps adding the mortar was taking it a step overboard (we've been known to do that!), but we want to make sure our new countertop will remain as good and solid as it was the day we finished building it. :)

    Thanks again for your wonderful comments! And I hope I answered your question. :)


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