DIY Tile Countertop
Save money by installing a tile countertop yourself.
By Matt Weber
Available in a wide range of patterns, colors and prices, porcelain and ceramic tile make a durable countertop that can be installed by the handy do-it-yourselfer to save considerably on installation costs. By mixing and matching various colors and sizes, tile can also be installed in a variety of patterns complete with borders and accents to enhance the décor.
A tile installation can be fairly simple or complex, but with this particular countertop application I wanted to minimize my number of grout lines for a nearly slab-like appearance. Using larger tiles for the countertop surface kept the layout fairly simple and straightforward. On the project shown I used 18-inch tiles for the countertop surface with 4-inch tumbled marble tile for the backsplash, all installed with a square, uniform layout. Regardless of the type and size of tile you select, the installation instructions that follow remain largely the same.
Shop carefully for tile and don’t be afraid to ask for samples to take home and compare to your interior décor. My wife and I had two very different criteria for our countertop. Shanna was all about the look. I was interested in easy installation, low maintenance and the longevity of the finished project. And, we were both interested in saving money.
Lucky for us, we moved across the street from a professional tile installer, Frank Cantey, a super-nice guy who had a selection of tiles leftover from previous jobs. Shanna was partial to earth tones to complement the porcelain floor tile and the neutral kitchen color scheme. I was partial to easy installation. I liked the idea that large tiles would equate to fewer grout joints (less to clean, less worry of cracks), as well as the prospect of fewer tiles to install. I reasoned that the larger the size of the tile, the fewer tiles I would have to ensure are completely level for a flat countertop. Frank had a perfect fit, a selection of 18-inch tiles in brown tones with a natural, mottled appearance, which he kindly donated to our project.
We wanted to differentiate the backsplash to spice up the décor, so we bought the smaller tumbled marble tiles at out local Lowe’s store. The marble had a naturally warm and random color scheme similar to the countertop tile, but unlike the large tiles, the smaller ones weren’t polished. And, the face of the marble tiles featured many irregular pits and cavities, which we knew would drink up the colored grout for a really neat, cohesive look we had seen modeled at a local tile store.
Once you’ve selected your tile, gather all materials and tools on site. For materials, you’ll need the tile, tile adhesive, tile backerboard, plastic spacers, grout (tinted to your preference) and tile sealer (depending on your type of tile). Along the edge of this countertop I installed custom-made oak trim. In some cases, you may opt for edge tiles, which are usually rounded with a bullnose to prevent chipping. For tools, I recommend a tile saw with a diamond blade, tile nippers, a utility knife, hand level, power drill and paddle attachment to mix the mortar, a notched trowel, a rubber float, and a bucket and sponge for cleanup.
Out with the Old
If there’s any old tile on the countertop, you’ll need to remove it, as well as any sinks, stoves or other obstacles in your way. (If possible, don’t try to tile “around” the obstacles—it’ll look unprofessional). On counters that won’t be exposed to water, you can install the tile directly to the plywood. If installing over bare plywood in a moisture-prone area, first cover it with a moisture-resistant membrane such as 15-pound felt paper or 4-mil polyethylene sheeting.
The kitchen countertop shown in this article was originally covered in plastic laminate over a plywood subsurface. I left the laminate in place to serve as my moisture membrane. I then beefed up the countertop by laminating some Hardibacker cement board over the surface, which adds extra strength and provided a good surface to which the tile adhesive can securely bond.