How To Build A Tile Countertop

by Darwin Hall

black granite tile countertop

Before people used granite, quartz, and other stone slabs for countertops, many were made with typical ceramic tiles or Formica laminate, glued to plywood.

The handmade countertops included a base sheathing (usually plywood), cement backer board, a mastic adhesive (to hold the tiles), and grouted joints.

The countertop’s sides were finished with wood strips, bull-nose tile, or anything that completed the look.

Today, the main reasons for installing a hand-built countertop is the cost.  Material cost for the project is much cheaper than having a company come out to your house, take measurements, and create a template to cut you a countertop from a solid slab of stone.

In the past, small 4-inch by 4-inch tiles made up the counter space.  Now, to give them a more modern look, 12-inch by 12-inch tiles or larger are used.  There are a bunch of styles to pick — from granite squares to marble — you name it.

When choosing a stone for your counters, look at the lot number and if possible, purchase them from the same lot.

Take the square footage of the counter space you need by measuring length x width.  Add 15% to the total answer for mistakes and waste.  The same goes for the plywood, which should be ¾-inches thick.

See also:  How To Install A Vanity Countertop

It doesn’t have to be high-quality plywood, because it won’t be finished or exposed.  You should buy the sheathing in 4-foot by 8-foot panels, which you’ll cut to size with a circular saw.

plywood countertop

When you measure for the size of your countertops in relation to the base cabinets, the countertop should overhang the edge of your base cabinets by 1 ½ inches.  For example, standard size base cabinets are 24 ½-inches wide.  The plywood countertop above it should be 26 inches wide.

Step 1

countertop2.1Place the plywood sheet on two sawhorses.  Use clamps to hold the plywood down before you cut it.  Measure and mark the width by using a tape measure or T-square.  Snap a chalk line on the width measurement and cut the piece.

As you cut the piece, hold the falling cut piece by it’s edge so it won’t split the sheathing.  Do the same for the length.  Then, dry-fit the piece onto the base cabinets and check the overhang for the fit.  Once satisfied with the placement of the wood, mark the underside corners or overhang to indicate it’s placement, then remove the piece from the base cabinets.

Step 2

Prepare to screw the sheathing to the cabinets.  Typical 2-inch coarse drywall screws work best.  Run a thin bead of construction adhesive along the top rail of the base cabinets.

Then place the sheathing over base cabinets again, lining up your marks.  Give the top of the plywood a slight push down, embedding the undersides into the adhesive.

Bend down to the height of the base cabinets.  Place a mark indicating the face and back of the cabinets on top of the countertop.  Then find the furthest wall where the countertop meets the edge of the base cabinets and make two more marks.

Now that you have four marks in four corners of the countertop, measure about ¼ inch inward of these marks and snap a chalk line — indicating where you will place your drywall screws.  Make sure these measurements are correct, or else, you may see drywall screws poking out the front of your base cabinets.

Step 3

Place one drywall screw in each furthermost corner, securing the plywood to the cabinets.  Then, place drywall screws 6 to 8 inches apart through the sheathing and into the rail along the base cabinets.

Next, prepare to make a cut-out for the sink.  Use the template included with the sink’s installation instructions, which usually involves taping or pinning the paper to the sink cut-out area.  Then draw your cut-out marks on the plywood.

cutting out plywood for kitchen sink

cutting out sink

Remove the template and drill two semi-large holes in adjacent corners of the sink’s cut-out marks, so the blade of a jigsaw can fit through the holes.  You then cut the hole out with your jigsaw, being extra careful around corner cuts.

testing cut-out for kitchen sinkTo prevent the piece from falling into the middle of the base cabinet, place a screw partially into the middle of the cut-out.  Then attach a pair of vise-grip pliers onto the screw head.

As you are about done with the cut, hold the vise grips so the piece won’t drop.  Finally, test the size of the hole by placing the sink bowl into the area, then remove it for later.

Step 4

Prepare to install ¼-inch thick cement backer board.  You can buy it in 3 x 5 -foot sheets.  Install it in such a way that the joints of the backerboard won’t line up with the joints of the plywood.  Cut it exactly the same size as the plywood sheathing.  Use a backerboard tool and a straightedge to score the board on one side, then snap the piece in half.

After cutting the pieces, apply a coat of thinset mortar to the plywood, using a ¼-inch trowel.  I like to mix my own in a spare bucket, however there is pre-mixed versions available, but they will cost you more.  Set the backerboard pieces in place on top of the mortar.  Leave ¼ -inch gap at the walls and 1/8 -inch gap where pieces butt up against each other.

Drive in backerboard screws randomly, about 6 to 10 inches apart.  For seams, apply a coat of thinset and embed a piece of 2-inch fiberglass backerboard tape into that.  Cover the mesh tape with another smooth coat of thinset.  Then, let it dry completely for a day.

Step 5

Begin to plan the layout for the tile.  Start at the center and place tiles in the order you wish to get an idea of the spacing.  Just make sure you don’t have small cuts of tile at the corners and edges.  You may try planning the layout on graph paper.

Snap two parallel chalk lines indicating the center tile borders.  Then spread a layer of tile adhesive with your notched trowel, starting at the beginning of one end of the countertop.  Lay the first few feet of full tile up the middle of the layout.

Using a tile wet saw, measure and cut the side pieces and place them firmly into place.  Use 1/8-inch tile spacers to keep everything evenly spaced apart.  Also note the height of each tile.  You may have to lift a tile to remove or add to the bed of adhesive to keep the countertop surface level.  Use a 24-inch level for this step.

You’ll probably have to make a lot of cuts, according to your layout and have a significant amount of waste.  Continue on until the entire countertop is finished with tile.  You can even add a backsplash to the wall.  Simply cut your pieces no wider than 3 ¾-inches.  Let everything dry again, for one full day.

tile installed on countertop

Step 6

Apply edging to the countertop.  For the countertop I built, I used a decorative wood trim that was 1 inch wide.  This size covers the ¾-inch plywood and the ¼-inch thick tile.

Measure and cut the pieces to fit.  Outside and inside corner ends should be cut at a 45 degree angle.  Fasten the pieces to the edge of the countertop with construction adhesive and 2-inch finish nails.  Countersink the nail heads and use wood putty to cover them as well as seams as needed.

countertop edging applied

Use a combination of small clamps, construction adhesive, and tape to hold the outside corners as tight as possible.  Once everything dries, sand the putty down with a palm sander.  You may stain the trim to match the countertop.

Step 7

Time to grout the joints.  I like picking a smooth grout material that matches the general color of the countertop.  You should remove all the tile spacers at this point.  I mix the powered grout up in a separate bucket and apply it with a grout float, working the mix into every crevice in a diagonal, back-and-forth motion.

As the grout sets and the tiles develop a haze on their surface, I get a clean bucket of cool water and use a grout sponge — which is simple a sponge on one side and has a scrubby surface on the other.   Dip the sponge in the water and squeeze out as much water as possible.

Wipe down the tile as diagonal motions in separate cycles:  Let it haze-up, then wipe it down.  When you are satisfied with the look, use a clean, dry terry cloth towel to give the countertop surface a final polish.

The next day, spray a grout sealer on the countertop according to the manufacturer’s directions.

grouted countertop tile

Tools You’ll Need:


Extra Photos:

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