Countertops: An overview
Are your old countertops looking a little worn and outdated? Is the sink showing its age? Installing new countertops is a quick and affordable way to give your kitchen a makeover. And it makes sense to put in a new sink while you’re at it. You can update the look and pick a sink-and-faucet combination that works with your style of cooking.
In the first part of this article, we’ll show you how to take out your old countertops and install new plastic laminate countertops. Then we’ll show you how to complete your kitchen transformation by installing a new sink and faucet.
Our countertop installation is a little tricky because the sink section has to fit between two end walls. You have to plan this installation sequence carefully. We’ll walk you through the steps. If your countertop sections are open on one or both ends, your job will be considerably easier. On the other hand, if you have a kitchen with a continuous U-shaped countertop that’s enclosed by walls, fitting is more difficult. We’d recommend hiring a pro.
If you’re handy with power tools and used to precision measuring, you can install your countertops in a weekend. You’ll need basic hand tools, a jigsaw, a drill and a belt sander.
We ordered these custom-size post-formed countertops about three weeks before we needed them. You can order countertops from a home center, full-service lumberyard or countertop fabricator. Since countertops are bulky and easily damaged in transit, it’s best to have them delivered.
Countertops: Draw a sketch and measure carefully
Careful measuring is the most critical step in any countertop installation. Countertop fabricators and retailers may ask for different information, so first ask for measuring instructions from your supplier. The most accurate method is to order the countertops from cabinet dimensions. Make a sketch of your kitchen. Then measure the width and depth of the cabinets and record these dimensions on the sketch. Include the sink, stove and refrigerator locations. The ends of countertops that don’t butt into a wall will have to be finished with matching plastic laminate end caps. Indicate where end caps are needed.
The salesperson will be able to convert these measurements to a countertop order and include allowances for overhangs and extra material for scribing to uneven walls. In this article, we’re showing how to install preformed (also called post-formed) countertops without a backsplash. Use the same techniques for counters with a backsplash. If your countertop has an inside corner like ours, order your tops with precut miters. It’s nearly impossible to cut these accurately yourself. Ask for buildup strips with your countertop order (Photo 3). These should match the thickness of the buildup under the front edge of the countertop.
A Few Things to Check Before You Order New Tops
- Measure the depth of your cabinets. Standard 25-1/4 in. deep countertops are made to fit cabinets that are 24-3/4 in. deep, including the doors and drawers. If your cabinets vary more than 1/4 in. from this, you’ll have to order custom-depth counters.
- Compare the height of your existing backsplash with the one you’ll be ordering. If the new one is shorter, you’ll have to patch or redecorate the walls. If it’s taller, watch for conflicts with outlets and window trim.
- Use a straightedge and framing square to check the walls for straightness and to make sure the corners are square. Standard preformed countertops allow you to scribe and cut off up to 1/4 in. to compensate for irregularities. But if your walls deviate by more than 1/4 in. or your corners are way out of square, you may have to order tops extra wide and long to allow for more scribing. Discuss this with a knowledgeable salesperson and order your tops accordingly.
Countertops: Start by removing the old tops
Photo 1: Remove the sink
Shut off the water supply valves and disconnect the tubes to the faucet. Disconnect the sink drain. Pry up the edge of the sink and slide wood blocks under to provide space for a handhold. Lift out the sink.
Photo 2: Remove the countertops
Inspect the underside of the countertop for screws and remove them. Slice the caulk joint along the backsplash/wall joint with a utility knife. Then lift or pry off the countertops.
Photo 3: Attach buildup strips
Glue and screw down buildup strips to the top of the cabinet sides. Hold the strips 1-1/2 in. back from the cabinet fronts. Add strips to support corners.
First you’ll have to shut off the water supply to the sink and disconnect the plumbing (Photo 1). Keep in mind that old plumbing may need new valves or drain parts. If you have a heavy sink, remove it now and carry it outside. You may have to slice the caulk joint along the edge to get it to release. Otherwise, leave the sink in place and remove it along with the countertop.
Some older countertops may be nailed to the cabinets. You’ll have to pry these off. Most newer tops like those shown here are screwed or glued down. Remove the screws (Photo 2). Then pry the tops loose. Cut the countertops with a reciprocating saw if it simplifies removal.
Prepare the cabinets for countertop installation by screwing down the buildup strips (Photo 3). The edges will overhang. Later you’ll screw through them to fasten down the top. Predrill 3/16-in. clearance holes for the mounting screws (Photo 13). Then screw through them to secure the tops. Ends finished with end caps usually don’t need buildup strips under them. Check the construction of your tops to be sure. Use metal L-brackets to secure the tops in these areas. Also hold the strips back 1-1/2 in. from the front edge of the cabinets.
Countertops: Scribing is the key to a good fit
Photo 4: Place the countertop
Slide the point of the miter into a hole in the drywall (inset photo) and lower the counter into place. With the front overhang even with the cabinet fronts, slide the top against the end wall.
Break a hole in the drywall at the miter if the counter fits between two walls.
Photo 5: Scribe the end
Measure the distance the miter extends into the hole, subtract 1/4 in. and set the scribing tool to this dimension. Scribe a line parallel to the end wall.
Photo 6: Sand to the line
Sand to the line with a belt sander. Set the top in place to check the fit. Make sure the front edge of the countertop is parallel to the face of the cabinets.
Photo 7: Check the fit at the miter
Set the adjoining countertop section into place, fitting the two miters together tightly. Set the scribe to remove the distance shown.
Photo 8: Scribe the adjoining countertop
Scribe a line along the back of the adjoining countertop. Sand to the line and replace the top to check the fit. Connect the tops temporarily with miter bolts.
Photo 9: Check the overhang
Check the position of the adjoining countertop end cap in relation to the cabinets. At stove and refrigerator openings where the end cap must be flush to the cabinet end, set the scribe to the amount of overhang.
Photo 10: Subtract the overhang from the opposite countertop
Scribe a line on the backside of the countertop opposite the end cap. Remove the tops and sand to the line with a belt sander. Set the tops back in place and check the fit to the wall and the end cap overhang.
Photos 5 and 6 show the scribing process. Scribing allows you to fit the countertop tightly to uneven walls and out-of-square corners. You’ll also scribe a counter to remove excess material, as in Photos 9 and 10, where we scribe the entire length of the counter to make the end cap flush with the cabinet side to allow the stove to slip in. Order your tops with an extra 1/4 in. of length and depth to allow for scribing and fitting.
Post-formed counters with backsplashes come standard with a large lip that extends past the backsplash (see “Counters with a Backsplash”). This is the scribe material that you’ll sand to conform to the walls.
Countertops that are sandwiched between two walls are tricky to scribe because initially they’re too long to fit in. Photo 4 shows one solution. Study the photos and text until you understand the fitting process. Then you can adapt it to other (usually simpler!) situations. The hole in the drywall allows you to tilt the counter into place and scribe it. Once it’s in place, measure the amount of counter that’s sticking into the hole and scribe off all but 1/4 in. of this distance from the opposite end (Photo 5). After you sand to the scribe line (Photo 6), you’ll still have 1/4 in. extra, allowing you to scribe the adjoining section for a tight fit at the opposite end (Photos 7 and 8).
In our situation, we first scribed the end of the sink counter where it butts the adjoining wall. Then we scribed the counter opposite this end and loosely connected the miter. Finally we slid the assembled counter against the wall behind the sink and scribed it both to get a tight fit to the wall and to move the end cap near the stove flush to the cabinet. If your countertop configuration is different, think about the result each scribe will have on the position of the counters and plan a scribing sequence accordingly.
Don’t worry; it’s normal to have to scribe some counters more than once to get a good fit. It takes time and patience, but the result is a tight-fitting, professional-looking installation with almost invisible caulk joints.
Countertops: Attach the countertop
Photo 11: Join the miter
Spread water-resistant wood glue onto both miters, slide them together, and snug them together with miter bolts. Don’t tighten the bolts yet.
Photo 12: Line up the miters
Align the top of the miters by tapping on a wood block placed on the high side. Tighten the bolts when the miters are flush.
Photo 13: Fasten the top to the cabinets
Secure the tops by screwing through the 3/16-in. predrilled holes in the buildup strips into the countertop (1-1/4 in. drywall screws usually work, but double-check the thickness of the top and buildup strips for your counter). Where there are no buildup strips, use metal L-brackets and shorter screws.
Finish the job by gluing and bolting the miter (Photos 11 and 12) and screwing down the tops. Be careful to check the length of the screws. They should extend no more than 1/2 in. into the counter. Use matching tub and tile caulk to seal the joint between the countertops and the walls.
Counters with a Backsplash
We ordered countertops without a backsplash because we wanted the wall tile to rest on the countertop. The techniques for installing a countertop with a backsplash are the same. But you’ll have to cut a larger hole in the drywall to tilt the countertop in (Photo 4). The other difference is in cutting the sink hole. With some sinks, the space between the cutout and the backsplash is too small to fit a jigsaw. In that case, either use a handsaw for the back cut or cut out the sink hole from the underside of the countertop before you install it.
Sand the protruding lip (scribe material) on post-formed tops to conform to wavy walls and out-of-square corners.
Sink and faucet: An overview
Installing a new sink and faucet is one of the easiest things you can do to make a big impact on the way your kitchen looks and functions. With the wide selection of sinks and faucets available from home centers and on-line plumbing suppliers, you can choose features that match your cooking style (such as a deep sink for extra-large pots) and colors that complement your countertop and appliances. And most are designed for easy installation, even for a novice.
We chose a stainless steel sink to coordinate with the new appliances and for its classic looks and durability. The 8-in. deep bowls along with the arching faucet spout make it easily accommodate large pans. Both the sink and faucet were in stock at a local home center.
The most critical step in the sink installation is cutting an accurate hole in the countertop. Some basic carpentry and plumbing experience would be helpful, but by following our instructions, you’ll be able to successfully complete the job in a day.
In addition to basic hand tools, you’ll need a drill and jigsaw to cut the hole, and wrenches and a large slip-joint pliers to connect the plumbing. Any fine-tooth saw will work to cut the plastic pipe.
If you have chrome drain parts, we recommend replacing them with new plastic drains. Plastic is much easier to work with, seals better and doesn’t corrode like metal. Buy the drain parts you need to fit your situation, including parts for a garbage disposer or dishwasher if you have them.
Sink and faucet: Mark the sink cut-out
Photo 1: Trace the sink
Mark the center of the sink cabinet on the countertop. Center the sink (or sink template) on the mark and set the front edge far enough back to fit inside the cabinet frame. Trace around the sink or template, then add an inner cutting line.
Photo 2: Cut the sink opening
Drill a 1/2-in. starting hole in each corner and cut out the sink opening with a jigsaw and fine woodcutting blade. Screw a strip of wood to the cutout to prevent it from falling in when you complete the cut.
Some sinks include a paper template that you cut out and use as a pattern. Others, like ours, instruct you to use the sink as a template, and then draw a second cutting line 1/2 in. inside the outline. The key is to locate the sink cutout just far enough back from the front of the countertop to fit inside the cabinet frame (usually about 2 in. back). This will then leave room behind the sink. In Photo 1, we show how to center the sink on the sink cabinet. We put down masking tape to make the pencil lines more visible on the dark laminate and to protect the top from scratches (Photo 2).
Mark the cutout line according to the instructions and then saw out the hole. Drill 1/2-in. starting holes in each corner to make turning the corner easier. A jigsaw works well for cutting the hole. Just be sure to use a top-quality wood cutting blade and cover the bottom of the saw bed with tape to avoid marring the counter. Screw a scrap of wood to the cutout (Photo 2) to keep it from falling through as you complete the cut. Use a handsaw to cut the back line if your jigsaw doesn’t fit.
Sink and faucet: Install the basket strainers and faucet
Photo 3: Install the basket strainer
Roll plumber’s putty into a pencil’s-width rope and press it around each drain opening. Set the basket strainer into the opening and press it down.
Photo 4: Tighten the nuts
Install the rubber washer then the cardboard washer (if included). Assemble the remaining parts. Tighten the nuts with a large slip-joint pliers.
Photo 5: Attach the faucet assembly
Install the faucet handles, spout and spray attachment before you set the sink. Follow the faucet manufacturer’s instructions.
Photo 6: Set the sink
Apply a bead of mildew-resistant tub-and-tile caulk to the countertop perimeter and lower the fully assembled sink into the opening.
Photo 7: Tighten the sink clips
Snug up the sink clips according to the instructions. Be careful. Overtightening can dent the sink. Then wipe off excess caulk around the sink.
Photo 8: Connect the supply lines
Connect the faucet to the shutoff valves with braided stainless steel supply tubes. Hold the valve with one wrench while tightening the nut with a second wrench.
Photo 9: Connect the drain line
Mark and cut the new plastic drain parts and connect them with plastic nuts and washers. Hand-tighten the nuts. Run water in the sink and check for leaks. Tighten the connections if necessary.
The less time you spend on your back under the sink, the better, so install as much of the hardware as possible before setting the sink. Photos 3 – 5 show how. Follow the instructions included with your faucet. If you use the countertop as a workbench, protect the surface with a sheet of cardboard or a dropcloth.
The next step is to caulk around the opening and set the sink (Photo 6). Stainless steel sinks like ours are held in place by clips. These are included with the sink along with instructions on how they work. Tighten the clips from underneath (Photo 7). Cast iron sinks usually rest on the counter and are held in place by the caulk. Cast iron is heavy. You’ll need a helper to set a cast iron sink in the hole. Clean up the caulk with a wet rag after you tighten the sink clips.
Complete the job by connecting the supply lines and hooking up the drains (Photos 8 and 9). Turn on the water and check for leaks. Most leaks are easy to fix by slightly tightening the supply line connections or slip-joint nut on the drain lines.
Required Tools for this Project
Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.
- Belt sander
- Cordless drill
- Scribing tool
Required Materials for this Project
Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here’s a list.
- 1-1/2-in. plastic drain parts
- Braided stainless steel supply tubes
- One "disposer" waste arm if you have a disposer
- One "end" or "center" outlet waste kit
- One P-trap assembly
- Plumber's putty
- Two basket strainer assemblies (only one if you're installing a disposer)
- Two sink tailpieces - only one if you’re installing a disposer (Or if you have a dishwasher and no disposer then get a special “dishwasher” tailpiece with a tube to connect the dishwasher drain hose)