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Installing Your Own Laminate Countertops

By Brett Freeman
Installing Your Own Laminate Countertops

Installing a laminate countertop is one of those projects that seems simple--until you actually dive in. Doing it properly requires solid carpentry skills, considerable patience, and an eye for detail. If you're debating whether or not to go the DIY route here, consider this: installing a laminate countertop yourself can cost half the price of calling in a certified professional.

In the most basic terms, installing a laminate countertop involves attaching a slab (or slabs) of plastic-covered particle board to your cabinets. While this seems like a simple task, a number of crucial steps must be followed to the "T" in order to navigate smoothly from start to finish. The following guide provides a basic overview of the project, and then delves into the many details involved in giving your cabinets the face-lift they've always wanted.

Project Overview

Your first step will be to measure the area where you want your counter to go. This is absolutely critical, since a proper measurement helps ensure that you order the right amount of material. Next, take some time to prep the installation area by removing excess debris and dust. The cleaner your workspace the better.

When your countertops finally arrive, they'll most likely be slightly larger than what you ordered. Most manufacturers do this deliberately, so you'll need to use a belt sander to trim them down to proper size. Once finished, you can start fastening them to your cabinets piece by piece, taking particular care at any corners or turns. Seems easy, right? Not exactly.

The Specifics: Ordering Your Countertop

The easiest way to gauge the size of your countertop is to measure both the length and the depth of your cabinets. Make special note of areas where the end of the counter will be exposed, because you'll need to order end caps to cover the counter's unfinished ends. Bring this information and a sketch of your kitchen to your countertop retailer, and let the salesperson walk you through the ordering process. If your countertop goes around a corner, make sure to order the miters pre-cut. Cutting them yourself is nearly impossible. Also, be aware that your counter's overhang will be one-and-a-half inches thick, which is the standard thickness for countertops, although the counter itself will only be about 3/4 of an inch thick. For the overhang to line up properly with your cabinets, you'll need to install buildup strips on top of the cabinets. These can be ordered when you send for your countertop.

Preparing for Installation

Step one: install the buildup strips. Using construction glue and screws to install them on top of the cabinet sides is your best bet. The buildup strips should be wider than the cabinet sides, so they will hang over just a bit. Pre-drill 3/16 inch holes into this overhanging portion, which is where you'll attach the countertop. Also note that in spots where end caps attach to the cabinet, you generally won't need a buildup strip. Check your countertop just to be sure.

If your countertop makes an inward turn and one of the mitered pieces runs wall-to-wall, you'll also need to drill a hole in the wall where that mitered edge and the wall will meet. The hole should be large enough to accommodate the back splash and up to an inch of the mitered edge.

Making It Fit

If your countertop doesn't make any turns, try putting it into place. Put masking tape along one edge of the counter, use a scribing tool to draw a line 1/4 inch in from the edge, and then sand down to the line until the counter fits into place. For counters that will butt against an appliance, you want the end piece to be flush with the side of the cabinet. Measure the distance the end piece hangs over the cabinet when the other end is against the wall (or is flush with the cabinet for pieces being installed between two appliances), draw a line that exact distance from the unfinished end of the counter, and then sand down to the scribed line.

Where you have an inside corner with a wall-to-wall piece, slide the mitered end into the hole you've made in the wall, position the other end against the wall, and measure the distance the mitered edge extends into the wall. Draw a line onto the other end of the countertop that's 1/4 inch greater than this distance and sand down to the line. Then put this piece in place and slide the other mitered piece tightly against it. The second piece will be sticking out too far. Where the mitered edges meet, press a straight edge against the front of the second piece, and slide it so it meets the front of the first piece. Now measure along the front of the first piece from the straight edge to where the mitered edges come together. Scribe and sand away this amount from the back of the second piece. When you put these pieces back together, they should fit perfectly. Check the fit of the other end of the second mitered piece, and scribe and sand away the edge to make it fit properly, if necessary.

Next, apply water resistant glue to both mitered edges and attach them with miter bolts. Using a block of wood and a hammer, tap down the top until the two edges are flush. When they are, tighten the miter bolts.

Before attaching your counters to the cabinets, press them against the wall. Your back splash will have a piece jutting out in the back known as a scribing strip. Sand away the scribing strip until the back splash is flush with the wall. Finally, attach the countertop to the cabinets, screwing up through the pre-drilled holes in the buildup strips, and being very careful not to use screws that are too long.

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