Friday, September 9, 2011

The ULTIMATE Weekender: DIY Concrete Countertops

>> For an update on our concrete counters or to see our concrete resealing tips, check out our new post

Back in July, my husband and I took on our biggest DIY yet...a kitchen island with a concrete countertop. Concrete is a great material in the kitchen but can be scary for some.  Having concrete made and installed by a professional is more expensive than granite.  Not only is it cheaper to do it yourself, but it feels awesome knowing you made it yourself.  Though it seems like a huge, overwhelming project, it's not!!  In fact, we spent more time stressing about and building an island base from scratch that would be strong enough to hold concrete than we did working on the top.  As you know, I'm not much for following rules, instead I'm more likely to skip a few steps here and there in an effort to get things done as quickly and easily as possibly.  I learned that the hard way that this is DEFINITELY not the project to do that with!  For those who want to try their hand at making a concrete counter, I've compiled all the steps you need to make a basic countertop.  As I go, I'll give you tips on what to do by telling you what NOT to do.  But before we embark on the wonderful journey of mixing concrete, you should have some facts.

BEFORE: We were in desperate need of counterspace.  We started marking off floor space and got that awesome vintage cabinet from Take 2 Vintage.

AFTER:  Our completed island.  There's a hidden door next to the stool that gives access to the recycling bin tucked away inside.


LOOK  First, concrete is a great material that can be customized in various colors with all kinds of cutouts, textures, and looks.  We kept ours pretty basic, only adding die to make the concrete a darker charcoal color. If you want something a little more fancy, do your research before starting so you can learn about the various looks.  One resource I found especially helpful was this concrete countertop forum where there are tons of contractors and a few DIYers asking and answering just about every concrete question you can think of.  If you're stuck on a particular step or want to get an opinion on the difference between penetrating and topical sealers, these guys and gals can give you first-hand advice.  There are several talented pros on the forum sharing pictures of their counters.  Browse through and be amazed at all the concrete can do!

We LOVE the natural color variation of our counter.  Everyone thinks it's some fancy stone or something!  It actually happened by mistake (details below) but now I can't imagine the counters looking any other way.  We added charcoal coloring to match the island to our sink.

SEALING  Concrete itself is sturdy and resistant, however you'll have to seal your countertop to keep it free and clear of food stains and liquids.  There are all sorts of sealers you can use, none of which are perfect.  Some are better at blocking stains, other at resisting heat.  I found this website helpful in weighing the pros and cons.  Most choose to go with a topical sealer because they're easier to apply and are readily available at home improvement stores.  Unfortunately, concrete counters are still relatively new so the market for countertop products is still struggling to catch up.  You're not going to find a counter-specific sealer at Home Depot or Lowes.  Most people use a basic concrete sealer that can be used for a number of concrete applications, including floors and walls.  I can't remember the one we used...we borrowed it from our landlord's nephew and forgot to write down the brand.  It was just a basic sealer.  If you search online you'll see that a couple of companies, mainly Buddy Rhodes and Cheng, have come out with countertop sealers.  Just be warned that they're more expensive.  Epoxy is another sealer option but it will give your counters a plastic look which kind of defeats the purpose of using concrete!

Also pay attention to the different finishes of sealer.  There's natural-look if you want your counters natural and completely shine free, wet-look which will give the countertops a darker color and slight shine, and glossy if you want a deeper color and bright shine.  We didn't want to go shiny but also didn't want to go too dry so we used wet-look. Just a note, sealer typically come in gallons and goes for around $20. If you're doing a whole kitchen, buying a gallon won't seem so horrible, plus you'll have some left over in case you want to recoat again in a year. For our island, we did three coats and only used around 1 cup of sealer.

We sealed the top with a wet-look sealer and topped it off with paste wax.  It looks shinier in the picture than it does in person.  We left the sides natural.  The vintage cabinet on the left is from Take 2 Vintage.  We built the rest of the island from scratch.  The hole in the panel is for throwing things into the recycling bin.

You'll want to top your sealer off with a coat of wax.  The wax doesn't make a good sealer on it's on, but provides a wear layer to prolong the use of your base sealer.  You'll have to re-wax about once a month. We chose Johnson's Paste Wax simply because they had it at Home Depot.  It has a strong smell to it though so we'll be switching to a more natural beeswax or carnuba wax soon.  Note that after awhile, your counters will start to patina and you might get small, hairline cracks.  This is natural and doesn't mean that your countertops will break or that there's anything wrong.  Just fill any cracks and reseal.

CARE  You also have to watch out what you put on your counters.  Beware of knives...concrete seems like a solid cutting surface, however it will dull your knife and scratch your sealer.  Wipe up acids like lemon and vinegar right after a spill so they don't etch the counter.  Don't use bleach or harsh chemicals because it will slowly ruin your sealer.  Instead, we use Method's stone cleaner.  It smells amazing and keeps things clean!  For disinfecting, we use Clorox Anywhere Spray or Green Works which are more gentle than bleach cleaners.  Water shouldn't be a problem once the countertop is sealed and waxed.  You can set a glass down without it ruining your counters, however if you leave spills on the counter for a prolonged time, it will eventually leave a mark.  We set glasses and wet towels directly on the counter all the time and the water marks evaperate after 15 minutes or so.  The only things we use coasters for are hot drinks or drinks that are ice cold.

This stuff smells like heaven!

Now that you have the facts, it's time to DIY.  This is the longest post I've written so be prepared.  Don't worry, it's not that complicated, it just takes care to make the most used surface in your kitchen!  I tried to include as many pictures as possible.  Hopefully this helps.  Enjoy :)

>> For an update on our concrete counters or to see our concrete resealing tips, check out our new post



LAZINESS SCALE:

***The following calculations are based on our kitchen island which was 2"deep and approximately 11sq feet


TIME: about 4 days start to finish
COST: about $100 for 11sq ft.  Prices go up for larger projects.  Cost breakdown below.
SUPPLIES:
  • 4 bags cement @ $4.77 - $19
  • 2 containers of cement color (optional) @ $5.17 - $10.50
  • 1 8'x4' sheet of melamine - $36
  • Sandpaper (we used 400 grit)
  • Sander
  • 100% Silicone clear caulk - $5
  • Sealer - $18+
  • Wax - $7+
  • Float/trowel
  • Chicken wire/rebar/remesh - $7.50+
  • Concrete mixer - rents for $30 for 4hrs from Home Depot
  • Grout/concrete filler - $5

BUILD Use the melamine to build your frame(s) to the dimensions of your new countertops. The coating on the melamine will keep the concrete from sticking. The concrete on the bottom of the form is going to be the TOP of your countertop so you want to make sure you have a super smooth surface. If you use regular plywood (not recommended), make sure it's sanded smooth so you don't end up with a texture and use a good release agent. You could try using plastic dropcloth/tarp to line the plywood but if you don't smooth out ALL wrinkles you'll see them in your countertop. Plus the plastic will give your counters a fake, plasticy finish. Make sure your frame is the exact thickness you want your countertop to be. Our countertop and frame were 2" deep. After the frame's built, caulk the edges and corner using 100% silicone caulk. Keep your lines clean...the caulk determines what the edges of your countertop will look like. Let it thoroughly dry. If you're going to make cutouts, now's the time to add the voids. We were planning to include a cutout for a knife holder but forgot so you'll have to find another source for advice on cutouts.

I made the mistake of thinking I could build my form by myself in the short time it took Jerome to mix the concrete.  In the end, he had the concrete ready and I was still struggling on the frame.  We were trying to finish before our mixer rental ran out, so we ended up adding the concrete before the caulk was dry which led to sticky silicone on the finished concrete.  Don't make that mistake!

MIX  We used Quikrete 5000.  We read that most people use regular 80lb Quikrete but once we went to purchase it, one of the guys at Home Depot convinced me that I needed something stronger, especially since the majority of our island was going to be unsupported to room for stools.  Afterwards, everyone told us we didn't have to use such a high strength and that we could have used the 80lb.  Oh well!  There are also several concrete mixes made especially or countertops.  Quikrete has one for special order, and people seem to like the Buddy Rhodes mix.  It's expensive ($44 PER BAG!!) and can only be ordered online.

I'm pretty sure every DIY needs Big League Chew!
Use the regular 80lb bag. This stuff was stronger than needed.
Once you've got your mix, follow the directions on the bag.  This is the easy part!  Add your color pigment if desired, following the manufacturer's directions.  Save the bottles...the little drops left inside will come in handy later on.  Add the concrete to the mixer slowly to get a good, even blend.  We mixed 2 bags at a time, per the directions on the mixer.  Start off with the least amount of water specified and slowly add more if necessary.  We used an old milk jug to make sure we were adding perfect gallons of water.  Apparently the final consistency should be thick and creamy like a milkshake or Wendy's Frosty...with rocks in it!  Too much water will make the concrete weak.  Oh, and don't worry about the rocks...your end result will be smooth.  We actually got this part right.  Yea us!!

Jerome testing the mix.  The coloring goes in with it.

The mix should be thick but still flow.  Too much water will make your counters weak.

POUR  Another easy part, pouring.  The mix is heavy so Jerome carried the buckets in for me and poured it into the frame. Use the float to smooth things out as you go.  A magnesium float is best because it smooths without digging in, but they're also about $25. Borrow one if you can, or you could just stick with the trowel to save money.  Thankfully our landlord had a float so we were good.  Keep pouring and smoothing as you go.

The first pour.

Even though it looks rocky now, you'll end up with a smooth finish in the end.

REINFORCE  Once you get about 3/4 full, add your chicken wire or rebar.  We used remesh.  Cut your metal so it's about 3/4" away from the edges of the frame so it won't be seen on the finished edges.  Continue pouring and smoothing the rest of the concrete.  We actually forgot about the remesh and had to push it in once the whole frame was full.  Oops!

Here the form is 3/4 full so we should have added the wire here instead of at the end.

Since we added the remesh at the end we had to work hard to push it down beneath the surface.

VIBRATE and SCREED  Use your sander (with the sandpaper removed) to go along the outside edges of the frame and vibrate out any air bubbles.  You can also use a hammer to tap along the outside but this takes a LOT more work.  Once done, use a 2 x 4 or extra melamine piece to screed the excess concrete.  What does screed mean?  Well, move the 2x4 across the frame in a back and forth sawing motion until the concrete is completely smooth and level.  Fill in any gaps as necessary.  We got things mixed up and screeded before vibrating so there was tons of concrete spilled over the frame that clogged up the sander.  I tried removing air holes with the hammer instead but it was a lot harder than I thought and didn't work as well.  Urgh!

TWIDDLE YOUR THUMBS  Now you wait. The concrete will start to "sweat" on the surface. Once all the water is absorbed, use your trowel to smooth and level any rough spots. If you want to put your initials or handprints, this is the time. Our concrete didn't need any reworking so we put our handprints, name, and date, then left it alone.

The concrete "sweating"

We put our handprints on the sides (he's on the right, I'm on the left), the date, and "Jindy" our celebrity couple name.  Yes, we're geeks!

COVER, WAIT, then REMOVE  Cover the frame with plastic.  We stapled the plastic to the frame to secure it. Wait 24 hours and then remove the frame and plastic.  If you read other blogs out there, you'll find that some DIYers waited a week or more before removing the frame because they were nervous about ruining the concrete.  This is NOT necessary.  Though it takes 28 days for concrete to fully cure, it is ready to use after 1 day.  Quikrete, the pro forums, contractors who'd done this before, and even the Buddy Rhodes FAQs confirmed this.  Leaving it in the frame longer won't damage the counters, it just doesn't help either, unless you made your mix too watery.  Score one for me and my impatience :)  We poured our counters on a Sunday and uncovered on Wednesday.  We could have taken it out sooner but we were busy building the island frame.

Once you remove the frame, grab your favorite friends and flip the concrete over to reveal your new, gorgeous countertop!

Here you see our mistakes. Using the hammer to remove the air bubbles instead of a sander left us with lots of air bubbles on the edges. This section of the concrete was the worst.  The silicone stuck to the concrete because we didn't let it dry. Still, everything turned out fine in the end!

FILL No matter how well you vibrate out the air holes, your going to have some. Use concrete filler or grout to fill any air holes on the surface. It's easier if you use your finger. If you colored your concrete, add a dab of the pigment to your grout/filler mixture so that it matches the rest of your counter. See, I told you those few drops would come in handy :) I only filled the holes on the top and left the holes on the sides and edges of the top open because I liked the character that they added. Be warned that if you leave holes on the top, they won't seal and will collect food and dust. We've had ours for over a month and haven't had any problems with holes. The ones on the edges of the surface aren't deep and clean up fine with a towel.

The whitish stains on the left side are the milky spots I mention below. The dark spots are excess grout and color tint from filling holes.

SAND Here's where we messed up big time. We got a milky build-up on one part of our concrete (see above pic). According to the forums, this is unpreventable and just happens sometimes. I wiped it up with a wet towel but the stain was still there. You can wash your concrete with an etcher before sealing but I didn't want to spend the money buying a gallon of something I would only use once. Instead I tried vinegar, which I read was an all-natural etcher. I ended up with a streaky mess that was all faded (see above). To make it better, I tried rubbing leftover charcoal coloring on the surface but the streaks stayed. I was terrified that I would end up with a horribly ugly counter. I checked with our landlord's nephew who's a contractor. He's built several bathroom and kitchen counters out of concrete so he knew what he was talking about. He said to scrub the concrete (we used a bathtub scrub brush),  wet sand it, spray with water, and then use a squeegee to dry. I gave this a try using 400grit sandpaper for the wet sand and it worked like a charm! As you see in the pictures, there are still some lines because I got to a point where I liked the finish and stopped sanding and spraying.

The various stages of the concrete being fixed.  The left side is good.  The middle and left have yet to be touched.

So what SHOULD you do? Well this depends on the look you're going for. Some people use a grinder with a diamond blade but this will expose the rocky aggregate below the surface. If you like this look, then use the grinder. I wanted a smooth, less grainy surface so I stuck with 400 grit sandpaper. It's as smooth as can be and looks great! I saw that someone else used 80grit on their counter and got a great outcome. It's all up to you. I recommend wet sanding to minimize dust and give you a nice finish. Clean with a wet towel. If you're using a stain or etcher, follow the directions on the package.

Fixed!  We liked the color variations.  It looks like a natural stone that was plucked from the earth!

PLACE You can either place the counters before or after sealing, it doesn't matter. We did it after. Before placing the countertop in its new home, apply dollops of the silicone caulk to the cabinet top where the concrete is going. The silicone acts like a glue and will keep the countertop in place. The concrete will be HEAVY especially if it's large. It took four strong people (including me of course!) to lift ours. Grab your best friends and remember to lift with your legs...no need for anyone to get hurt!

SEAL As mentioned above, there are several options for sealers and they all have they're own drawbacks. This website has great info on the pros and cons as well as a handy chart. You also have to decide whether you want a wet, glossy, or naturally dry look. We went for wet-look which darkens the color but is less shiny than glossy. We saved $20 here because our landlord's nephew had sealer so we didn't have to buy any. Yea! He recommended spraying the sealer on and smoothing it with a roller. Awesome idea! I put it in a cheap, $2 spray bottle and used a foam roller to smooth. The foam from the spray dissipated on it's own so the foam roller wasn't really necessary but it came in handy few times. I've heard of people only using the roller and ending up with streaks. I definitely suggest spraying!!

The left is first coated, the middle in progress, and the right not yet done.

First coat done!

Third coat done.  We chose not to seal the sides because we liked the contrast.  We may go back and seal them one day if we decide the drip marks drive us crazy but for now, we like it.

WAX When the sealer's dry, apply the wax. Beeswax, carnuba wax, and paste wax are the top three used. We chose paste wax, though it does have a strong smell. The other two are also awesome options, however we couldn't find them at Home Depot and were too lazy to order them online.

SMILE  You're finally done!!  Aren't your new counters awesome?  Sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor :)


There were many awesome websites that helped me along the way. Here are a few:

19 comments:

  1. Fantastic job India - it looks AMAZING!

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  2. This looks Great, Ive always wanted to try this at our house!

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    1. Thanks! You should definitely try it. Looking back, I would recommend doing a small test square first, especially if you're doing your whole kitchen, that way you can figure out what finish you like and replicate it on all of the counters. We only did the island so we didn't have to worry about the counters matching but it still would've helped. Good luck and send pics if you do it! It's a fun project and only takes a weekend.

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  3. Thanks for sharing this and you done great job

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  4. You mention that you sanded the surface with 400 grit paper, as opposed to using a grinder with diamond blade. I assume this means you hand sanded it. Is that true? WHat kind of sandpaper did you use? Was it regular old sandpaper, or the kind that you can get wet? Or what? I'm really curious about this step, because I am NOT interested in the expense of the grinding step. It seems that one can get a reasonable smooth surface simply by using a smooth mold.

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    1. Hi Michael. Using a diamond blade will reveal more of the rocks below the surface so if that's the look you're going for, a diamond blade is a good purchase. I wanted a smoother surface so I used 400 grit wet sandpaper. I can't remember for sure, but I THINK I used my palm sander, though I may have done it by hand. Your mold will be smooth enough that you just need a light sanding to remove any fine particles. Good luck and make sure to send pictures when you're done!

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    2. Correction, I DID hand sand the counter!

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  5. I'm getting ready to embark on doing a countertop myself, but I'm unsure if I really want to spend three times the money on counter specific mix. It just seems odd to that much extra on a little added fiber and water reducer. So my question to you, since you used only the the quikrete 5000, have you seen any cracks showing up due to shrinkage?

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    1. We've had our countertops now for almost 2.5 years and haven't had a single crack! Our counter is 2" thick (1.5" max is recommended due to the weight) so I figured the extra weight would cause cracks but so far so good. I think the reason ours has stayed strong is that we were *super* careful about how much water we used and we reinforced with thick remesh. Too much water makes your counters weak and causes cracks. I also wouldn't use chicken wire since it's not that thick/strong. I would stick with thicker gauge rebar/remesh and if you decide to go with chicken wire anyway, maybe do double layers or something.

      Personally, I don't think the countertop mix is worth it. I spent months researching concrete countertops before we built ours and based on all the advice, regular concrete is just fine. Save your money for something awesome like celebratory pizza to pig out on when you're done!

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    2. Fantastic! Thanks so much for the help! I'll be sure to watch my water closely.

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  6. Can you tell me what wax you used that you were able to find at Home Depot? Having a rough time finding one that is for concrete. Is that necessary or does it need to be "food safe"? Thank you! I'm hoping to start something like this over the weekend!!

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    1. Hi Jolene, sorry for the late reply! We used regular Paste Wax by SC Johnson. It was pretty much all they had at Home Depot. It's not rated food safe, however, a lot of the people in the forums we read used paste wax. We don't make a habit of rubbing our food on the counters so there wasn't any fear of toxic chemicals being transferred to our food! If I were to do concrete again in our new space (I'm still trying to convince the husband!) I would use something more natural like carnuba wax or beeswax just to switch it up and see how they compare. Whichever way you go, you'll be good!

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  7. I want to make a counter similar in size to yours and was wondering how much yours ended up weighing approximately? I need to make sure the structure I am using can support the weight without breaking.

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    1. I'm actually not sure how much it weighed, maybe 400lbs? It took 4 people, 2 of which were extra strong to lift it and event then we barely did it! Ours was supported by a mix of 2x4 and 4x4 posts plus a rickety vintage cabinet reinforced with 2x4s on the other end. So far it's been years and it hasn't crashed to the floor!

      We made our counter way too thick. We could have done 1inch which would have cut the weight in half! I'd highly recommend keeping it then if you build one. And send pics so we can see your awesome counter!

      Good luck!

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  8. Great Job! This was really well written. I liked that you put in simple details like all the stones and how they will smooth out as you finish everything. Little tidbits like that I feel don't get mentioned on a lot of the instructions I've seen. I also wondered about the different concretes. Regular concrete is 4,000 PSI vs. the expensive stuff is 5,000 PSI. Is 1,000 PSI going to make a big difference I feel like it won't. Seems like the only advantage is the 5000 gets its strength faster so if willing to wait someone could just buy regular concrete. I'm trying a test piece tonight with regular. thanks for all the tips.

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    1. Thanks! I probably put in TOO much detail but I figure it's always better to have more than less!

      You can definitely go with the regular concrete. After I was finished, multiple people said that I could have stuck with regular concrete which would have reduced my overall weight. Lesson learned! Good luck with your test piece. Make sure to send pics!

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  9. Hi! This has been SO helpful during my first concrete project. I also used quikrete 5000 (no added color) and am wondering what product you used for both the filler and the sealer. I love how yours looks so I'd like to use the same!

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    1. Hi Kait, glad to be of help! To fill the holes, I used Quikrete Paching Compound. It was super easy to use. For the sealer, I'm not sure what brand it was, however it was a penetrating, wet look sealer if that helps. I kept it "fresh" by waxing it once a month and it lasted for almost 2 years!

      Good luck with your project and make sure to send pictures. I'm sure it will be great!

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