Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Building Counter Tops

Hello and welcome to the first ever episode of the Handyman Kevin Channel!  This week, we look at how to build your own counter tops.  In the video, I covered a particle board workbench with tempered hard board (Masonite).  You could use a similar technique with plastic laminate (Formica) to build custom counters for your kitchen or store.  Or substitute fiber reinforced plastic (FRP) panels--the kind you see on the walls of commercial restrooms, and create a nearly indestructible counter.  

Pre-laminated counter top slabs in boring colors and standard widths are sold in many home centers.  However, once you can make your own from scratch you become free to make curves, odd angles, and multilevel counters.  Plus, any sheet material that you can cut with a router becomes fair game for the surface.  The Formica catalog alone has hundreds of laminates in different patterns, textures, and thicknesses.  Then add in all of the different types of hardboard and plastic sheet, and the combinations are nearly infinite. 

Back when I worked at Golden West, the ability to quickly make fancy custom laminate desks, tub surrounds, and shelves was one of the weapons that allowed us to dominate the manufactured home shows more years than not.  True, we also did tile and granite counters, but laminate was always the most popular.

The project in our video isn't nearly that ambitions; just a flat, durable workbench top that will last for years and be easy to replace when it finally gets chewed up.

Step 1:  Build your counter slabs.


I don't show this part in the video, but obviously you need a substrate to which you can glue the top.  By far the best choice is particle board underlayment.  For something like a shelf or a bathroom counter you can get away with a single thickness of 3/4" particle board.  For a work surface like a workbench or a kitchen counter, however, you want to use a double thickness with plenty of glue between.

When using a single thickness, you will usually want to build up the lip on the edge with a 3/4" x 1" wooden cleat.

Or, for a fancier and more durable edge, you could apply a hardwood molding or a tile edge.

Step 2:  Square Up the Slab


If your slab isn't square, the counter never will be.  The normal tool used for this job is a portable belt sander.  It takes practice to learn how to keep the sander square to the counter and not let it dig in.  This is a good reason to build a workbench first, and wait on those custom kitchen counters until you've mastered the technique.

If you don't have a belt sander you could try an orbital sander with a course disk.  It will take longer and require more care than a belt sander, however.  If you are limited to hand tools you can make an effective sanding block by buying an 80 grit sanding belt and stretching it over a scrap of board with rounded ends.

 Step 3:  Glue the Front Edging


Cut strips of edging a little wider than the edge of your counter.  Always dry fit your pieces before you put glue on them, especially if you have corners or butt joint seams.  Apply contact cement to both the edge of the slab and the back of your edging.  Let the glue dry until it is no longer liquid and just the barest bit tacky to the touch.  Press the edging against the edge of your counter and it should immediately stick.  Apply enough pressure (somewhere around 20 psi) to really activate the bond.   On edging, this is almost always done either with a rubber mallet or with a claw hammer and a scrap of wood (it's hard to use a roller effectively on the edge of the counter).

A Few Words About Contact Cement

Contact cement comes in two main styles:  brush-on and spray-on.  The brush on stuff is slightly cheaper and seems to hold better.  You slop it on with a paintbrush and spread it with a notched trowel (check the can for what size trowel you need).  The whole process gets very sticky, very fast.  Spray-on contact cement is applied from either an aerosol can or some type of spray gun.  The best spray-on contact cement ever is Sta'-Put, but it seems nearly impossible to find in regular home centers or hardware stores.  Try online or at RV stores.  Other brands work adequately as long as you apply them evenly and use plenty of pressure.   Production counter shops use a two-part adhesive system that is catalyzed as it is used and can be applied with an HVLP spray system by either humans or robots.  The system works great, but is totally overkill for a do-it-yourself-er or small cabinet shop. 

Crosscutting and Seaming Edging

With thicker materials like Masonite or plastic sheet, you will want to cut them to length with a miter saw or table saw and a fine tooth blade.  These tools leave nice square edges that will match up nicely, either on a scarf (straight seam) or a corner.  You can also cut it with a hand saw and square the edges with a sanding block.  Occasionally (if you messed up on  Step 1) corner joints aren't quite at right angles.  In that case you can adjust the ends of the edging with a belt sander.

Laminate is thinner and can be cut with tin snips.  You can often spot the counter top guy in a cabinet shop because he has a pair of tin snips struck through the hammer loop on his tool belt.  With practice and a sharp pair of snips, you can cut it quite square, to where it only needs a few swipes of the file to make it perfect.

Step 4:  Flush Rout the Front Edging

Chuck a flush trim bit in a router that is small enough to hold and control easily.  Rout all the way around the edge to trim off the excess, being sure to move in a counter-clockwise direction. 

Step 5:  Sand the Top (Laminate Only)

Flush trim router bits are not perfect, especially if you use a cheap brand or have had them resharpened a few times.  Often, the very top of the edge will be slightly proud of the particle board, causing a bad glue joint later.  For this reason, most people take a belt sander at this point and flush the top.  Make sure that the sanding belt is always pulling the edging against the slab.  If you sand the other direction it will pull the edging right off and you will need to go back two steps and start over.

I sometimes skip this step when working with thick materials like Masonite, since the glue joint problem doesn't seem as critical.

Step 6:  Protect the Edging With Tape

The front edge might not be perfectly square, causing your router to dig in too deep.  Or the bearing on the flush trim bit might seize up, scorching your edging.  For these reasons, smart counter top builders pause long enough to put a strip of tape along the edging for the router bit to ride against.  Duct tape works best because of its thickness, but a layer or two of masking tape will do in a pinch.

Step 7:  Glue Sheets to the Top

If you will be seaming any pieces, make sure to dry fit them before you apply any glue.  Try to match factory edges against each other, because they are usually straighter than those you cut yourself.  When there is a strong pattern printed on laminate, try to match up the pattern on the two pieces.  In a seam you will often need to adjust the pieces for a good fit, using a file and/or a block plane.  This takes patience and a good eye, but is absolutely necessary for a quality counter top.  Many people lay out the seams so they are partially hidden by the lip of a kitchen sink or other feature.  Also, it is a good idea, structurally, not to line up the laminate seams with the seams in the particle board.

If you need to cut laminate, you can use a table saw with a fine tooth blade set all the way up.  This will minimize chipping.  Or you could score it with a straight-edge and a laminate cutter then break it over the edge of a table.  The table saw method is faster and less likely to wreck your laminate.

Laminate Cutter

Pros will often lay several smaller counters next to each other so they can cover them all with a single 5'x10' piece of laminate, without having to measure and cut each piece.  Just make sure they are all on a level surface and that you leave enough space between to get a router bit through.

Once you have everything fitting nice, put some bits of masking tape on the pieces with notes about what goes where and which end is which.  It only takes a minute, and saves having to think about it while you are holding a big, sticky sheet of material.

Spray the tops of the counters and the undersides of your sheets with cement and give it time to dry.  Don't let anyone in the shop stir up dust while this is happening, because it will get caught in your glue.  Once the glue is dry you can put the sheets on the counters.  This is the trickiest part of the whole operation.  As soon as the glue on the sheet touches the glue on the particle board it will stick, and you won't be able to adjust it.  A second pair of hands can be invaluable here.  You can also stick scraps of 1"x stock between the counter and the sheet while you position it, then pull them out one at a time as you smooth it down. 

Once all the sheets are in place, you need to pressure them down.  Most people use a laminate roller (available in any specialty woodworking shop) for this.  Personally, I prefer a linoleum roller, which is a heavier, two handed tool that lets you apply more pressure to a wider area.  You can rent these, but they don't cost much more to buy outright (between $30-$50).  If you don't have a roller, you can get adequate results with a mallet or hammer and block.  Be especially careful to pressure around the edges, where the sheet is most likely to hook on something and peel off. 


Step 8:  Flush Rout the Top

Using your flush trim bit, run the router counter-clockwise around the counter to trim off the extra material.  Take care at corners to avoid snagging your edging.  If you have sink cutouts or other holes in the middle, you can (carefully) punch a hole in the middle with a hammer to give your router a starting point.  

Strip off the protective tape from the edge when you're done.


Step 9:  Bevel The Leading Edge (Laminate Only)

With laminate counters you normally do a second pass with a special, slightly beveled bit.  This breaks the corner just a bit so it isn't as sharp, and so you don't need to do as much filing later.  If you don't have this bit you can use a small round-over bit, adjusted so only about 1/64" or less of cutting edge is exposed. 

Set of Router Bits for Laminate Work. 

Flush Trim and 7 Degree Bevel are the Most Important

Step 10:  File the Edge

Edge filing rounds finish corners ever-so-slightly so they won't cut people or catch on things and allow the top to break off.  Go slowly until you get the knack.  Use long strokes parallel to the edge.  You want to take off just enough, without over-filing and wrecking the counter.  The ideal file to use is a new, sharp, flat bastard-cut, about 12" long.   

Hopefully, between these notes and the video, you will now be ready to go out and make your own counters.  As always, feel free to post your comments and requests for clarification.  In the meantime, I'm headed out to use my new workbench.  See you next week.


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