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
Photo 1: Waterproof the base
Protect the tile base against water damage with a coat of waterproofing membrane.
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
Plywood covered with a layer of backer board provides a stiff, moisture-resistant base for the tile.
Make a dry run first
Photo 2: Support tiles when cutting
Set bullnose tiles on scraps of plywood to cut them. Granite is difficult to mark clearly, so stick on some masking tape and mark the tape.
Photo 3: Smooth cut edges
Rub cut edges with a honing stone to bevel the edge slightly. Rub in a circular motion to avoid wearing a groove in the stone.
Photo 4: Layout and mark tiles
Number the tiles and sketch a layout map after the dry run. Remove the tiles and use the map to put each tile back in the correct order later.
Photo 5: Draw layout lines
Draw a baseline from the inside corner tiles to the end tiles. Use this line as a guide as you set the front row of tiles.
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 square.
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
Photo 6: Set tile in sections
Work in small sections, spreading just enough thin-set to set eight tiles. That gives you plenty of time to set and adjust tiles before the thin-set becomes too stiff.
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.
Photo 8: Clean grout lines
Plow out thin-set that oozes up between tiles before it hardens. An old credit card fits into the narrow gaps and won’t scratch the tile.
Photo 9: Shim edges
Shim the narrow tiles in front of the sink to keep them from tipping forward. Align the tops and fronts of these tiles using a straightedge.
Photo 10: Add the backsplash
“Back butter” the backsplash and cap pieces to minimize the mess on the wall. Support backsplash tiles 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 guideline.
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 chipped edges.
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 neighboring tiles just to get at one sinker.
Grout, seal and caulk
Photo 11: Seal the countertop
Seal the tiles with a penetrating stone sealer after the grout has dried. A foam paint roller applies the sealer quickly and evenly.
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.
Required Tools for this Project
Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.
- Caulk gun
- Framing square
- Grout float
- Notched trowel
- Paint roller
- Paint tray
- Safety glasses
- Utility knife
Required Materials for this Project
Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here’s a list.
- Granite tile
- Grout sealer
- Masking tape
- Unsanded grout
- Waterproofing membrane