If my kitchen were to be radiocarbon dated, it would fall somewhere between the fall of Rome and the discovery of electricity. My house, built in 1920, originally didn’t have much in the way of kitchen cabinets. One tall cabinet, secured opposite where the original stove would have been, was all the home’s Roaring 20′s inhabitants required. Sometime between the birth of rock-n-roll and the summer of free love, the home’s occupants decided they were going to need some place to store their Correlle and Tupperware. A decision was made to renovate the kitchen.
I’m not entirely sure just when this renovation started or ended. Left behind scribbled notes on plaster seem to indicate that a “major” renovation (that word is in quotes for irony purposes) began sometime in the early 60′s. What came out of the renovations stood nearly unchanged until my wife and I decided that, if the kitchen were ever to be avenged, it would fall to us.
So what does a 60′s kitchen look like? Well, the original stove, which would have sported a stovepipe, was tossed in favor of a gas-fueled model. The original kitchen chimney still proudly butts out into the kitchen adding character and frustration to anyone who has ever tried to design a cabinet layout. A compromise must have been made with the chimney at some point, because a small dishware cabinet now hangs just below it. We decided to leave this cabinet, as it appears any new cabinets in that area might break the treaty that the kitchen has with the old chimney. In addition to the tiny “compromise cabinet”, a large L-shaped slab of cabinets were firmly anchored to the kitchen; along with a more modern sink.
“Why not just REPLACE all of the cabinets in your kitchen?” you might ask. “Put in some nice solid-surface counters.” It’s a valid argument, and one that we contemplated . . . right up until the estimate came back. Anyone got a spare $10,000?
The countertops born from this renovation are true 60′s kitsch. Made from some sort of man-made board, laminated with what looks like floor tile from a junior high school lunch room, and trimmed with a stainless steel band. Hard, durable and horrible. I can only imagine that the same people who developed this countertop were the same men who spearheaded the Apollo moon landings.
Sometime in the 70′s it appears that there wasn’t enough room for the home’s growing collection of fondue pots, so another cabinet was added. This cabinet, which upon installation of my D.I.Y. Countertops, was discovered to be held together with nothing but Elmers Glue and prayers. It also appeared to be entirely constructed of single-ply toilet paper. I ended up having to repair this cabinet during installation. It can be seen at the end of this blog in its new life as a coffee bar.
“Why not just REPLACE all of the cabinets in your kitchen?” you might ask. “Put in some nice solid-surface counters.” It’s a valid argument, and one that we contemplated . . . right up until the estimate came back. Anyone got a spare $10,000? Well, we didn’t. So the decision was made to sand all of the cabinets, swap out the ugly black hardware and only spend the “big money” on new countertops. We estimated the countertops would run somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,500 -$2,000 for a solid-surface material. Had we chosen a more expensive solid-surface or granite material the counters could have run as much a $4,000. Nuh uh. Not gonna happen.
Then came the idea: Laminated Maple Bench Tops. At Woodcraft, we sell these terrific maple bench tops. They’re inexpensive, and on sale many times throughout the year. They also have a beautifully finished top. At 1-3/4″ thick they’re heavy, durable, and we thought perfect for our ancient kitchen. The best part? It all cost less than $700 (now your kitchen might be smaller or larger than ours, so you’ll have to do the math for your kitchen or bar).
My first thought upon having this idea was, “Will they even work as kitchen countertops?” So I sought out the help of George Snyder. George is Woodcraft’s Product Development Guru for all things wood. It turns out that George has already tackled this exact same project. So, great minds and the like, he offered to help out! What follows is a summary of the process it takes to go from the “off-the-shelf” Laminated Maple Bench tops we sell at Woodcraft, to beautiful “butcher block look” countertops. Let me also preface this by saying – when you install wood countertops of any kind, do not use them as a cutting board. It’s a really bad idea, really bad, stomach-wrenching bad. Luckily I had a bit of bench top left over, and I promptly sanded it, finished it with butcher block oil, and used it to create a matching cutting board.
1. In the Before Time
Getting the Kitchen Ready to Be Awesome
I’ll spare you most of the details here as much of the prep had little to do with the actual countertop project.
The original kitchen had some wear. Walls and trim needed touch-ups and the old hardware was ugly – so it had to go. This meant that the cabinets had to be sanded and repainted. In the photo above, the end result of sanding, filling, painting, and new hardware can already be seen. The kitchen already looks better. Now we’re ready for some countertops right? Well, no. First we’ve got to measure.
2. Measure & Choose Your Bench Tops
The most important thing I can stress at this point is measure, measure again, and then just when you think you’ve got it, measure again. You don’t want to make a mistake here because it will cost you money. Oh, and these bench tops are heavy – you don’t want to have to move them around anymore than is absolutely necessary. So get your measurements down pat, and the create a little drawing of exactly what you need. Being able to visualize where your cuts are going to be made can help you determine how many bench tops you need and whether or not you want to tackle this project with this product.
For my purposes I needed only two pieces to make this project work. I don’t have a lot of counter space so two of the 7′ x 24″ bench tops would serve my purposes. As it turns out I ended up getting one 7′ x 24″ and two of the 5′ x 30″ bencthops instead. Truth is, I lucked into a return at our local Woodcraft store in Parkersburg, WV.
3. Examine Your Material & Rip the Bench Tops
With your drawing and measurements in hand, survey your recently purchased Laminated Maple Bench Tops and start to build a list of how you plan to make your cuts. Inspect the bench tops. With this particular product, the manufacturer has worked hard to create a bench top that has a beautifully finished top and sides – the bottoms and interior pieces however may have voids. Make sure you examine and plan your cuts to showcase the best parts of the wood. This might seem straightforward at first, but really think about what you’re doing. The final look of your bar or kitchen countertop is on the line.
For my project, because my existing cabinets were made by early stone-age Americans, I needed to rip each of the bench tops down to 23″ wide. Standard countertops aren’t 23″, so make sure you double-check your cabinets. If possible, a 1″ overhang is preferred on the front of the cabinet. Using the 84″ bench top might not be an option for some cabinet bases because it is only available at 24″ wide. Many cabinet bases require a 25-1/2″ countertop.
Making a long rip cut on stock that weighs as much as these maple bench tops can be difficult – the length doesn’t help either. Make sure you have help. The 84″ x 24″ bench top weighs in excess of 90 pounds; it’s not easy to maneuver. Fortunately I had George to help make these cuts. We used a SawStop 10″ Professional Cabinet Saw loaded with a 40T Forrest Woodworker II blade to make the cuts. This gave us a fine cut with very little dust and almost zero burning – something that can happen easily when cutting large laminated materials. The added safety of the SawStop was comforting too because I had to keep my hand pretty close to the blade to help guide the oversized bench top as we made the cut.
Once we completed ripping the bench tops down to size we needed to cut them to length. Doing so on the cabinet saw wasn’t a practical option.
4. Cutting to Size
Since we are talking about countertops that are in some cases 7′ in length, doing the crosscuts on the SawStop didn’t make sense. So in comes the Festool Plunge Cut Saw to save the day.
After once again verifying that we were making the cut on the proper end of the bench top we measured out the length. Here’s a tip: Apply blue painter’s tape in the general area of your cut. Measure your cut and make your pencil markings on the blue tape. This actually does a few things for you. It means you don’t have to sand or erase your pencil marks – handy on these pre-finished bench tops, it also adds a little bit of slip protection for a cutting guide, and it can also help prevent tear out.
Once we clamped our cutting guide in place and had our work piece sufficiently secured, we made the crosscut. This was repeated for each piece. The Festool Plunge Cut Saw was terrific for these cuts. I have to say I was very impressed with the quality of the cut. No sanding was ever required.
These bench tops come with already rounded-over edges on their long sides. These edges are pre-finished and will work for many applications. For the purposes of my countertops, however, not so much. To give just the profile I want, a simple roundover, we turned to our trusty Porter-Cable Router and a Freud 1/2″ roundover bit. The pieces were secured to the workbench with a non-slip mat and we made our first cuts, not all of the cuts though. . .
Before we could make all of the cuts, a problem needed to be solved. Like just about every countertop in every kitchen, my countertops formed an L-shape. This meant that we couldn’t just rout around the countertops at will. There was going to be a butt-joint between two of the counters. That meant that we needed to figure out just how far we should put our profile on the joining pieces. The two countertops were going to have to be mocked-up so we could plan our cut. That meant putting the two heavy and long pieces together. Who has a workbench that large? No one. Not Woodcraft, not even Norm. Then the voice of reason hit. Why not use the floor?
Here’s another good tip: Keep your shop free of dust and debris. It’s not only safer and more efficient to have a clean shop, but you never know when you might need to use the floor as a work surface!
After manhandling the pieces to the floor with the help of Woodcraft blogger Frank Byers, we were able to determine where our routing needed to stop and hand sanding needed to take over. We routed the two front edges of the countertops almost to the point where they met. Here I turned to a small file, a Soft Sander sanding block and a little oldschool patience. After a few minutes or sanding and tweaking and second-guessing, the joint was finished.
Here’s our day in the Woodcraft Shop cutting the Maple Bench Tops to size,
6. Installing the Countertops
The actual installation of countertops is going to vary here. If you’ve got newer cabinets installing countertops is pretty easy. The corners of each cabinet typically have a brace where you can quickly drive a screw into the underside of your countertops. The toughest part is getting the counters in place and choosing a fastener that won’t go all the way through your counter.
My cabinets, though, were built by the founding fathers and thus had no such brace. But what my cabinets did have was an existing countertop that had been developed by the Space Administration – out of plywood. This meant, with properly pre-drilled pilot holes (not too deep – use a stop collar or at least a piece of tape on your drill bit), I could quickly attach my countertops right over top of the existing ones. Why do this? Well, the existing counter actually seemed kind of low. I guess people were shorter during the paleolithic period. By putting my new maple countertops on the old ones, I had raised my counters to the height of “modern” people.
Like most houses built in the 20′s, not everything in my house is totally square and level. So leveling the countertops was accomplished with regular old wooden shims. The real trick was getting both counters as close to level as possible, but still keeping the butt-joint as tight and consistent as possible. It took a little elbow grease and fretting, but this was actually pretty easy to accomplish.
I added a little bit of Titebond Waterproof Wood Glue to the joint for good measure, but once the counters were secured to the cabinets, no glue or joinery was required at the butt-joint. If you are making a longer counter and need to join multiple bench tops, using dowels is a good way to go.
7. Sinking the Bismark
Okay, so far it’s been pretty easy. Heavy, but easy. The cuts are all perfect, the butt- joint looks stellar and I’m starting to get pretty excited about these countertops. Now it’s time to install the sink. This shouldn’t be too difficult, right? Well, if it’s a project that I’m involved in, one can pretty much assume that something won’t go according to plan.
This is probably a good time to point out that these countertops probably aren’t well-suited for under-the-counter mounted sinks. I chose a drop in. I imagine that a curtain sink would probably work well and look really nice as well.
When installing a sink, which is generally pretty easy, you start by inverting the sink on your countertop. Trace the outline of your sink. Remove your sink and then, depending on the manufacturer, you’ll need to make another line 1/4″ or so in from your original traced line. For my sink from Kohler, it was 1/4″. Once your lines are in place, start by cutting pilot holes around the perimeter of your line. Don’t be stingy here. These things are heavy and having more pilot holes makes the process easier. I also secured a couple of large screws to the middle of my cutout area to make grabbing and removing the piece a little easier. You then use a quality jigsaw with a good strong woodcutting blade and follow your cutout line. That was the plan anyway. . .
In reality, because I left the existing countertop in, and my new sink cutout didn’t exactly match the old sink cutout already in the existing counter, I had to do a lot of pilot hole drilling and went through probably 8 jig saw blades before successfully cutting out my new sink hole. If I had to do it over, I would have removed more of the existing counter around the sink. Oh well, live and learn. The final result, however, was a hole perfect for my new sink. No harm, no foul.
8. Trimming & Backsplash
Because I had to level and install on top of my existing countertops, I needed to trim out under the front of my new countertops to hide any gaps and the edge of the old counters. I chose some maple trim and applied a water-based gloss poly. Once they were dry I simply use a Porter-Cable Finish Nailer to attach the trim. The result is a smart, custom look. To complete the back of the countertops I used some more trim, finished with the same poly and installed some very cool stainless steel tiles.
Remember that roundover profile we put on the counters? Using the same water-based poly and a small sponge brush, I applied a thin coat to all unfinished cut our routed edges.
The Finished Product
Below are some photos of the finished project. The combination of the stainless and the maple has created a much warmer and timeless look than the old and stark-white outdated countertops. We added some under cabinet lighting that also adds some warmth and usable light. The final verdict was a happy wife and a happy bank account. Two things that make for a happy guy.