>Section: HOME & SHOP JOURNAL
Want to put ceramic tile over your laminate countertop? Here’s how to do it.
If your kitchen needs a facelift but your budget can’t handle a major renovation, a new countertop may be the practical answer. Replacing an old, worn work surface can go a long way toward giving your kitchen a new lease on life. However, while you might simply install new plastic laminate in a fresh color or pattern, you can make a really dramatic change by switching to ceramic tile. And if your plastic-laminate countertop is structurally sound, you can apply the tile directly to it. A wooden trim strip along the counter edge and a woodcapped tile backsplash finish the job.
While plastic laminate isn’t the ideal substrate for tile, it will work if it’s well bonded to its core and has a smooth surface. Don’t attempt the job with slate- or leather-textured plastic laminate. Cheek the counter edges and seams for lifted laminate and look for bubbles by tapping with the tips of your fingernails over the entire surface. If you encounter any loose laminate, you should not cover the existing surface with tile.
If you find that your counter is sound, the next step is to pick out an appropriate tile. Tiles vary in price from less than $1 per sq. ft. to more than $25 per sq. ft., with styles ranging from solid colors to hand-painted designs. When choosing your tile, keep in mind that it must stand up to the rigors of kitchen life. Avoid tiles with either a high-gloss glaze or an unglazed surface–the former will scratch easily and the latter will stain. To help you decide on color, many suppliers will let you take sample tiles home to match with your kitchen decor.
For our countertop installation, we chose a simple 4 1/4-in.-sq. solid-color tile with a matte glaze. Tiles of this type are simple to install because they have spacing tabs that provide uniform grout joints.
Determine the quantity of tile you’ll need by measuring the area of your counter and backsplash in square feet and then adding 15% to 20% for cuts, breakage and spares for future repair work. When you buy the tile, also buy a latex-modified thin-set mortar to secure the tiles to the plastic laminate. Then, choose an unsanded grout in a color that complements the tile and buy both a latex grout additive and a water-based grout sealer.
To cut the tile, you’ll need a tile cutter and a nibbler–you can often rent or borrow both tools from your tile supplier. Also, buy a notched trowel with 1/4-in. notches and a grout float. These tools are sold at home centers.
Begin preparing the counter by removing the sink. Shut off the water-supply valves and disconnect the supply lines that lead to the faucet. Remove the dishwasher drain hose from the sink tailpiece and then loosen the fitting that holds the tailpiece to the trap. Loosen the clips that hold the sink to the countertop and slide them along their track to the point where they can be removed. Save the clips for reinstalling the sink. Use a putty knife to break the caulk bond between the sink rim and the countertop (Fig. 1) and lift the sink from the counter. Depending on your situation, you may have to buy new supply lines and a tailpiece when you reinstall the sink to adjust for the added thickness of the tile.
Thoroughly wash and dry the counter and backsplash to remove any grease and dirt. Sand the surface of the laminate with 120-grit sandpaper to roughen it for a better mortar bond (Fig. 2). Wipe the surface once more with a damp cloth to remove any sanding dust and allow the surface to dry thoroughly.
Lay a row of tiles on the counter in front of the sink opening and adjust the row so that the last tile on each end extends equally past the opening (Fig. 3). Mark the counter at the end of the last tile (Fig. 4), then use a framing square to extend the mark from the front edge of the counter to the backsplash (Fig. 5). This line will serve as the starting point for your side-to-side layout.
At the edge of the counter, it’s important to have a tight joint between the first row of tiles and the wooden trim. Use a file or rasp to remove the tabs on each tile edge that will meet the wood facing (Fig. 6).
To accurately start the first row, hold a scrap of wood against the countertop and butt a trimmed tile tightly to it (Fig. 7). Align this tile with the layout line, on the side away from the sink. Continue adding tiles along the line, moving toward the backsplash. If the last tile needs to be cut, measure the distance from the next to last tile to the backsplash (Fig. 8) and subtract 1/8 in.
Measure the distance from the layout line to the sink opening for cutting the sink side tiles (Fig. 9). At each sink corner, hold a full tile in place and trace along the opening (Fig. 10) to transfer the profile to the bottom of the tile. Use tile nibblers to break away small pieces of each corner tile (Fig. 11). Avoid heavy cuts that can break the tile. Small bites with the nibblers yield the best results.
Use the tile cutter to make the straight cuts. First set the adjustable stop to the size of the cut tile. Put the tile, glazed side up, against the stop and pull the scoring wheel across the face of the tile (Fig. 12). Press the pressure bar on the cutter across the face of the tile until it snaps along the scored line. If you need to make a cut close to the edge, it’s best to use the nibblers.
After cutting all the tiles that need to be cut, lay them in place on the countertop and check that each piece fits (Fig. 13). Mark each tile with chalk to indicate its position on the counter, then remove the tiles and set them aside in a convenient location.
Mix the mortar according to directions and let the mixture stand, or slake, for 10 to 15 minutes. This allows the mortar to develop better bonding strength. Stir the mortar again before using it.
Use the flat edge of the trowel to spread a 1/8-in. layer of mortar over the countertop (Fig. 14). Beginning around the sink, cover an area no larger than what you feel you can tile in 20 to 30 minutes. Use the notched side of the trowel to comb the mortar to a ridged pattern. Run the ridges across your layout line so that you can see it clearly (Fig. 15).
Starting at the front of the counter along the layout line, butt the first tile against a scrap of wood trim held against the countertop edge (Fig. 16). Continue laying tiles next to the sink opening, working toward the backsplash (Fig. 17). Press and gently twist each tile into place to ensure a good bond with the mortar. With the tiles around the sink in place, finish the rest of the countertop surface.
Line up the joints of the backsplash tiles with the counter joints (Fig. 18). If you have cut tiles for the backsplash, place the cut edges up.
After the tiles are in place, use a dead-blow hammer or rubber mallet and a piece of plywood to gently beat the tiles down into the mortar (Fig. 19). Use a barely damp rag to wipe any mortar off the tile surfaces, then leave the counter to cure overnight.
Mix the grout according to directions and blend in a latex additive to increase the grout’s flexibility and make it more durable. Spread the grout into the joints with a grouting float. Hold the tool at a shallow angle to force the grout into the joints. Then, hold the float at a steep angle to scrape the excess grout from the tile surface (Fig. 20). Let the grout set for 16 or 20 minutes, then use a damp cloth to wash the residue from the tile surface (Fig. 21). Frequently rinse the cloth in clean water and wring it out thoroughly. It’s important that you completely clean the tiles, but do not flood the grout joints with water.
Let the grout dry overnight, then use a small artist’s brush to apply grout sealer to the joints (Fig. 22). Use a clean cloth to immediately wipe excess sealer off the tile to avoid shiny spots.
Rip the wooden backsplash cap to the thickness of the backsplash plus 1/4 in. for overhang and rip the counter edge trim to fit. Cut all the pieces to length and prefinish.
Install the cap by first boring nail pilot holes through the trim. Angle the holes to miss the tile and secure the cap with 4d or 6d finishing nails (Fig. 23).
To secure the edge trim with plugged screws, first bore screwholes along the strip 10 to 12 in. apart. Then counterbore with a 3/8-in. bit so the screwheads will sit well below the surface. Clamp the trim in place and bore pilot holes into the counter edge (Fig. 24). Apply a bead of silicone caulk along the back of the trim (Fig. 25), reposition the piece and secure with 2-in. No. 8 fh screws (Fig. 26).
Make 3/8-in. plugs of the same wood as the trim, using a plug cutter and drill press. You can also buy plugs at hardware stores and through mail-order catalogs. Apply glue sparingly to the plug holes and tap in the plugs (Fig. 27). After the glue dries, saw off the excess (Fig. 28) and trim flush with a sharp chisel.
INSTALLING A TILE COUNTER
PHOTO (COLOR): 1. After removing sink clips and disconnecting pipes, use a putty knife to break the caulk seal under sink lip.
PHOTO (COLOR): 2. Wash and dry the counter to remove dirt and grease. Then, roughen the surface by sanding with 120-girt paper.
PHOTO (COLOR): 3. Begin layout by placing a row of tiles along front edge at sink. Measure tiles at each end to center row at opening.
PHOTO (COLOR): 4. Mark the counter at the end of the centered row of tiles. This is the starting point for the entire countertop layout.
PHOTO (COLOR): 5. Use a framing square to extend the layout mark squarely from the counter front edge to the backsplash.
PHOTO (COLOR): 6. To create a tight between the edge tiles and the wood trim, file down spacing tabs on one edge of each tile.
PHOTO (COLOR): 7. Hold a piece if wood against the counter edge and butt an edge tile against it. Align tile with layout line.
PHOTO (COLOR): 8. Lay a row of tiles along layout line to backsplash. Measure for the cut tile and subtract 1/8 in. for actual tile size.
PHOTO (COLOR): 9. Measure distance between the tiles and sink opening. This space should be the same on both sides of the sink.
PHOTO (COLOR): 10. Place a full tile over each sink corner and trace along the opening to transfer the profile to the bottom of the tiles.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): 11. Use the nibblers to break away the waste area of the sink corner tiles. Approach cut line with small bites.
PHOTO (COLOR): 12. Score the tile with cutting wheel of the tile cutter. Then use pressure bar to snap the tile along scored line.
PHOTO (COLOR): 13. Place all cut tiles in position and check that each piece fits. Make sure tiles don’t extend into sink opening.
PHOTO (COLOR): 14. Spread 1/8-in. bed of mortar over a countertop area that you think you can tile in 20 to 30 minutes. Use flat side of trovel.
PHOTO (COLOR): 15. Use notched side of trowel to comb mortar to a uniformly ridged pattern. Make sure you can see your layout line.
PHOTO (COLOR): 16. Begin setting tile at front edge of counter and along layout line. Butt first tile against a piece of wood edge trim.
PHOTO (COLOR): 17. Continue laying tiles between sink and layout line. After finishing around sink, move to the rest of the counter.
PHOTO (COLOR): 18. Place tiles along the backsplash and align each with a counter tile. If backsplash tiles are cut, place cut edge up.
PHOTO (COLOR): 19. After tiles are in place, use a dead-blow hammer or rubber mallet and plywood to gently beat down tiles.
PHOTO (COLOR): 20. After forcing grout into joints by holding trowel at shallow angle, tilt trowel up and scrape excess grout away.
PHOTO (COLOR): 21. When the grout has set, use a damp cloth to wash residue from tiles. Rinse cloth often and wiring out thoroughly.
PHOTO (COLOR): 22. When the grout is dry, apply grout scaler to the joints. Keep sealer from tile surface or wipe away immediately.
PHOTO (COLOR): 23. Nail the backsplash cap using 4d of 6d finish nail. Set the nails and fill the holes with a matching wood filler.
PHOTO (COLOR): 24. Use clamps to hold the edge trim in place. Use counterbored screwholes in trims as guides for pillot in counter.
PHOTO (COLOR): 25. Apply a bead of sillicone sealant along the back side of the edging strip before attaching it to the counter.
PHOTO (COLOR): 26. To attach the wooden edge trim to the countertop edge, drive 2-in. No. 8 fh screws through each screwhole.
PHOTO (COLOR): 27 After applying glue sparingly to the plug holes, use a hammer to tap each wooden plug into position.
PHOTO (COLOR): 28. Use a small sawato cut the plugs to within about 1/8 in. of the trim surface. Cut the plugs flush with a sharp chisel.
BY NEAL BARRETT,
PM Illustrations by George Retseck
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