Money, time and tools
Gorgeous and tough, granite makes a great
countertop material. Unfortunately, greatness
has its price: Granite slab countertops
start at about $100 per sq. ft. But you can
have granite countertops for half that cost (or even less)
by using granite tile instead of professionally installed
granite slabs. Budget-conscious builders and homeowners
have done this for decades—and now there are granite
tiles designed especially for countertops.
This article will show you how to install these special
tiles. Since a countertop sits just a couple of feet below
eye level, minor mistakes are easy to see. So we'll show
you how to set your tiles flat, even and perfectly aligned.
The materials bill for our countertop and backsplash was
less than $50 per sq. ft., including everything from screws
and backer board to the tiles themselves. The number of
inside and outside corners has a big impact on the total
cost: Corners cost us about $40 each. Standard bullnose
tiles cost $20 and field tiles just $10 each.
This is a two-weekend project for a typical kitchen.
You'll spend about half that time tearing out your old
countertop and creating a solid base for the tile. A countertop
requires a bit more skill and precision than a wall
or floor, so we don't recommend this as a first-time tile
project. In addition to standard tile tools, you'll need to rent a tile saw for a day. You
can't cut the tiles with a manual cutter.
Aside from the tile, all the tools and materials
you'll need are at home centers. Tiles are available at tile stores or online (search for “modular granite tile countertop.”)
Granite Tile Made Just for Countertops
The tile we used has a thick, rounded “bullnose.” That
gives the front edge of the countertop a more elegant look
than standard tile can and eliminates the slow, fussy task
of cutting and installing thin strips of tile to cover the
edge. There are outside corners, premitered inside corners
and standard bullnose tiles. Special backsplash pieces are
available too. The field tiles are just like standard
granite floor tiles.
Order the tile
A few weeks before you tear off your old
countertops, pull out a pencil and pad and
calculate the number and types of tiles
needed. Measure, then sketch your countertop
on graph paper, including the sink.
Label the tiles (bullnose, field, corners) to
assess what's needed where.
When you arrive at a final count, you're
almost ready to place your order. Because
the tiles are color-matched before shipping,
order a few extra to allow for cutting
mistakes. Three extra field tiles and two
extra bullnose tiles is a safe allowance for
a simple job, but for a complex project,
you might want extra insurance.
Build a solid base
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Photo 1: Waterproof the base
a coat of
According to the manufacturer of our
tiles, they can be installed directly onto an
existing laminate countertop if the laminate
is attached to a 3/4-in.-thick plywood
substrate. Since the vast majority of countertops
have a particleboard core, chances
are you'll have to tear out your countertop and start from scratch. For construction
details, see Figure A. Seal the backer
board with a waterproofing membrane
(Photo 1) for extra insurance. This coating
prevents moisture from passing
through the backer board and causing the
plywood to swell or delaminate.
Figure A: Granite tile countertop
Figure A: Granite tile countertop
layer of backer
a stiff, moisture-resistant
base for the tile.
Make a dry run first
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Photo 2: Support tiles when cutting
scraps of plywood
to cut them.
Granite is difficult
to mark clearly, so
stick on some
masking tape and
mark the tape.
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Photo 3: Smooth cut edges
edges with a
honing stone to
bevel the edge
slightly. Rub in a
circular motion to
avoid wearing a
groove in the
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Photo 4: Layout and mark tiles
sketch a layout
map after the dry
run. Remove the
tiles and use the
map to put each
tile back in the
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Photo 5: Draw layout lines
Draw a baseline
inside corner tiles
to the end tiles.
Use this line as a
guide as you set
the front row of
Once the base is in place, you're set to start
laying tile. But first do a dry run. Dry-fitting
gives you time to experiment with the
arrangement of the tiles so that the natural
color and grain variations flow from
one tile to the next. A dry run also lets you
cut the tiles all at once and minimizes the
total rental fee for the tile saw.
The manufacturer recommends setting
tiles tightly together and filling the shallow
V-shaped bevels between them with
grout. But we left 1/8-in. gaps between
tiles using tile spacers. That gave us a little
room for error in cutting and placing tiles
and allowed the tiles to conform to our
L-shaped countertop, which wasn't perfectly
Start the dry run from an inside corner
and work outward so that the two mitered
inside corner tiles fit together perfectly.
Continue working out from the corner,
laying a few bullnose tiles and filling in the
back with field tiles.
Cutting bullnose tiles with a wet saw
isn't any more difficult than cutting regular
tiles, except that you'll need to stack a
few plywood scraps under the tile so that
you can cut the bullnose edge first (Photo
2). To avoid chipping or cracking the tile,
guide it slowly and steadily past the blade.
It's OK if a wall-facing cut is a little rough,
but for visible cuts, smooth the sawn edge
and create a slight bevel along the top edge
with a honing stone (Photo 3).
After laying out all the tiles, label them
and make a simple layout map (Photo 4)
so you can set each tile right where it
belongs later. Finally, remove the middle
tiles and use the remaining end and corner
pieces to draw guidelines (Photo 5).
Set the tiles
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Photo 6: Set tile in sections
Work in small
to set eight tiles.
That gives you
plenty of time to
set and adjust
tiles before the
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Photo 7: Check for flatness
Lay tiles perfectly flat using a straightedge. Set a “tester” tile on a spacer to
account for the thickness of the thin-set. Run the straightedge from the tester to
the tile you're setting to check for flatness.
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Photo 8: Clean grout lines
oozes up between
tiles before it
hardens. An old
credit card fits
into the narrow
gaps and won't
scratch the tile.
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Photo 9: Shim edges
Shim the narrow
front of the sink
to keep them
from tipping forward.
tops and fronts of
these tiles using
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Photo 10: Add the backsplash
cap pieces to minimize
the mess on
the wall. Support
with spacers to
leave a 1/8-in.
gap for caulk.
It's time to mix the thin-set. To prevent the
tiles from sinking, aim for a peanut-butter-thick mix. When combed out with a
3/8-in. notched trowel, the thin-set should
hold sharp ridges without slumping.
Lay the tiles from the inside corner out
(Photo 6), just as you did during the dry
run. Instead of fussing over each tile, lay
two or three tiles at once, then treat them
as a unit. Once you've positioned the tiles,
use a straightedge to make sure they're set
flat (Photo 7). At the beginning, you'll
need to place a dry-laid tester tile on top
of a 1/8-in.-thick spacer (such as a layer or two of cardboard). As you proceed, rest
the level on the first tiles you've laid to
help gauge the rest. After checking the
height, nudge the straightedge against the
bullnose edges to be sure the front edge
stays straight and lines up with your
Be careful when adjusting tiles. Granite
is tough stuff, but it's surprisingly easy to
crack. To slide freshly set tiles, use your
utility knife. Stab the point of the blade
into the backer board, then lever the side
of the blade against the bottom edge of the
tile. If a tile sinks lower than its neighbors,
lift it straight up with a suction cup (see below), scrape off the old thin-set, trowel on a
fresh layer, then reset. Trying to tap down
a high tile almost always causes a crack.
Instead, try gently pressing and wiggling so
the excess thin-set can squeeze out an
open end. If that doesn't work, lift the tile
and scrape away the excess thin-set. Clean
out any thin-set that oozes out between
the tiles as you go, before it has a chance to
harden (Photo 8).
Thin-set sets quickly, but to be safe, give
the counter a few hours (preferably
overnight) to harden before starting the
backsplash (Photo 10). Make sure your
new backsplash isn't higher than your
outlets before mixing any mortar. To prevent
sliders, give your freshly tiled backsplash
a day to cure before removing the
spacers and packing the grout.
A Tilesetter's Lifesaver
A suction cup tool is typically
used for handling glass.
But it's also great for tricky tile
situations. On this project, you
set the front tiles first and then
insert field tiles between them
and the wall. The suction cup
lets you set these tiles perfectly.
Without it, you'd have to drop
the tiles into place, risking
Better yet, a suction cup saves
the day when you notice a
sunken tile that's already surrounded
by other tiles. The ability
to lift a tile straight up saves
you the hassle of removing
and resetting several
just to get at
Grout, seal and caulk
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Photo 11: Seal the countertop
tiles with a
sealer after the
grout has dried.
A foam paint
roller applies the
sealer quickly and
Once the granite's in place, this job is like
any other tiling project. Use a float to pack
grout into most of the lines, but you'll
probably need to use your finger to work
grout into the curves, such as the bullnose
front edge and the backsplash cap. Sponge
off the excess when the grout begins to
harden. Wait until the grout is fully dry
before buffing off the remaining haze with
a clean cotton towel. You can now reinstall
the sink, stove and other appliances.
Some foods and cleaners can stain or
even etch granite and grout, so apply a
stone sealer (Photo 11). Finally, lay a thin
bead of caulk along the joint where the
counter meets the backsplash.