For years I have been trying to find affordable (like SUPER CHEAP) ways to disguise my ugly, laminate countertops. With a budget of practically $0, I scoured Pinterest for acceptable DIY ways to hide the ugly. I covered them in shelf paper more than once, which was less ugly, but extremely cheap looking. (You get what you pay for?)
FYI–I have linked to some pages/products for convenience, I don’t get any credit/pay for doing so.
In 2018, I was gifted some talavera tile that was left-over from another project. It was about 2 boxes (200 tiles) of terracotta, and 2 boxes of cream colored 4 in tiles. While not enough to complete my kitchen, it was enough to motivate me to come up with a more permanent solution to my ugly kitchen problems. I determined I needed 3 more boxes of tiles (which actually ended up being 5 more boxes). I decided to use my tax return to begin this project which gave me a budge of approximately $1000. I had wanted to get cobalt blue talavera tiles, but after realizing they are about twice the cost of every other color I had to come up with another solution. I found that I could get mixed tiles on the cheap from eBay. Now I just needed to figure out how to make due with the selection of tiles I had available to me.
Fortunately, I was perfectly content to have my kitchen look like a Taco Cabana. I decided to order the mixed tiles (for less than $1 per tile) and use them with the solid tiles that had been gifted to me. Now I had 7 boxes of tile and no idea what to do with them. How hard could it be?
I borrowed (stole) an old book about laying tile from my parents (which through later research I found out is highly recommended when learning how to lay tile, find it here). I skimmed through and found out I probably needed to do a “wet installation” for the counters. I went to the hardware store and bought some plywood, and a bunch of .5 inch backer board (concrete board), and some mortar. I had the guy at Lowe’s cut the plywood to the width I needed, and used a circular saw to cut it to the length I needed later. Now to remove the existing countertops.
I thought this would be easy, and it wasn’t horrible, but who knew how HEAVY laminate countertops could be? Everyone? Fine, but I had no idea that they are basically 3 inches of solid glue and weigh a bazillion pounds. I had to crawl under the cabinets and use a drill to remove the screws that held them onto the cabinets. I used a pry-bar to pry off the 4 inch backsplash against the wall. Then I dragged all of them into my yard for eventual disposal. I could kinda manage the smaller counters myself, but the giant peninsula weighed about 200lbs so I had to enlist my dad’s help to drag that outside without damaging my doorways or my back. Since dad was there, I had him cut the angled pieces around the stove, and also use his jigsaw to cut the opening for the sink. Click here to see how I salvaged/cleaned my old sink.
So, have I mentioned I have no credentials that qualify me for this project? My cabinets are cheap, builder grade. They have wood doors, but veneer/particle board everything else. Due to this, it was impossible for me to properly attach the new counter tops the proper way (from underneath). I ended up screwing them down from the top. DO NOT DO THIS. I’m sure anyone that knows anything about this is cringing. It worked great! Only problem is that if I, or anyone in the future, would like to remove the countertops…good luck! They would have to be demolished. Now I am stuck with some super ugly cabinets (a project for another day).
After screwing the plywood down, it was time for the “wet installation” which basically means I had to screw some concrete board on top of them. This prevents the wood from getting wet if water seeps through the tile or the grout later. I borrowed a couple of trowels and a bucket from my dad and got to work. Basically, I slopped on some mortar, ran the slotted trowel over it, then set the backer board on top. Cutting the backer board proved messy, but easy. I used a t-square and and utility knife to score it, then it is able to be broken into the desired shape. I did buy the recommended rust proof screws to adhere the backer board. Apparently, if you get the cheap screws, they can rust and it can bleed into the color of your tile.
Finally, the fun part! Now that the new counters were prepared, it was time to lay the tile. I had laid out the pattern ahead of time, so I just stacked those tiles to the side and worked a few feet at a time. You start in the middle(ish) and not on an edge. (I hate measuring, by the way.) This is so you don’t get to the other side and realize you need a teeny tiny sliver of tile that would look weird on the edge. I put some mortar on the backer board, used the slotted trowel to score it, then added a little more mortar to the center of each tile and smeared it on like frosting. Since the tiles have a slight curve to them, the glob of mortar in the center provides strength. I also used the trowel to score the mortar on the back of each tile. Then I just pressed the tile down, repeat. Voila!
I did not use spacers for the countertop. This is why talavera tiles were an awesome and appropriate choice for me. Since the tiles are all handmade in Mexico, they are not square or even. Therefore, you do not use spacers with them, because then one line would be evenly spaced, but the other side would look like a mess of uneven edges. I just eyeballed the grout line, centering each tile according to its neighbor. This worked great for me. If you like to measure, or like precision, or like perfectly straight, modern looking lines, this is not the tile (or the method) for you. Thankfully my OCD does not extend to this area of my creative life. It did come in handy when wiping off the grout, however!
I did all the whole tiles, first, leaving the edges and any tiles that needed cut for later. You will need a wet saw/tile saw to cut tiles for the edges, by the way. I borrowed one from my uncle, but I am pretty sure you can rent one. When time came for cutting, I just took a whole tile, flipped it over, and marked it with a sharpie. No measuring! I also left enough space at the edge of the counters for the corner and edge pieces. I didn’t measure this (with a ruler) either. I just took an edge piece, placed it in its eventual position, and marked the backer board with a sharpie. That was my visual of where to start each row of tile.
After cutting and mortaring all the cut tiles in their places, it was time to do the edges. Expect edge tiles to cost about twice as much as a regular center tile, by the way. I did get the cobalt blue for the edges and corners. I applied these the same way (mortar on countertop and on back of edge piece). I made sure to apply a generous amount of mortar to the curved part of the edge piece, so that it would be supported later when I am leaning against the counters while cooking.
So, I forgot to mention I also prepped the walls where the backsplash would be by screwing on backer board (directly into the drywall/studs) before laying the tile on the counters. I used a thinner concrete backer board for the walls than I did on the countertops, I believe it was about 1/4″ thick. For the backsplash, I did use spacers, but not for their intended purpose. I used spacers only vertically, because I found that they prevented the tile from sliding slowly down the wall onto the top of the tile below it.
For the backsplash, I didn’t apply mortar to the wall first. Instead, I just applied it to the back of the tiles, and scored it with the slotted trowel. This way, I could follow the vertical lines I drew on the backer board as a guide. (I relented and had to do a small amount of measuring.) I found the center, and drew vertical lines to help guide where I placed each column of tiles for the backsplash. Again, you need to start in the center and work out, so that when you get to the edges the tiles are as even as possible.
After hours and hours and hours and hours of laying tile, it was finally time to do the grout. The tile does need to set for about 24 hours before it is grouted, anyway, so this allows for some time to sleep and read about grouting. Basically, I find that you don’t want to add to much water to the grout, and that you shouldn’t put grout in the joints where the counters the walls to prevent cracking. Instead, get a caulk that is matched to the grout color. This allows those joints to expand and contract with your home and prevents cracking.
Grouting proved to be quite laborious, especially on the vertical parts. Girls, you know how your arms get tired from curling or braiding your hair sometimes? Multiply that by hours and hours of grouting. I purchased a rubber grouting float. It looks like a trowel except it is about an inch thick and made out of rubber. It is used to squish the grout in-between the tiles. It was a pretty effective tool, but I found it easier to just use my fingers to place grout between the edge pieces. The book said to “sponge off” excess grout. I found that a dry sponge worked much better than a wet one. You can buy a sponge for this purpose, but I used old kitchen sponges and they worked fine.
As the grout began to set, I used the float’s corner to scrape off excess grout and make the lines look nice. This took some trial and error. I can see the difference in the dried grout before and after I discovered this method. This step included lots of sponging and lots of scraping. Once I realized the damp sponge was not ideal, I just grabbed the vacuum cleaner and used it to suck up the extra grout as I dry-sponged it off. Once most of the excess grout was removed, and the lines looked nice and even, I used cheesecloth (recommended) to wipe away and shine the tiles. This took many times over each tile to complete. Fortunately, this is exactly the kind of tedious task my OCD craves. Polishing every tile to perfection 1×1. JOY!
Now it’s almost a year later, and the counters are holding up fine. (I am horrible at getting around to blogging, obviously, since it has taken 9 months to get around to posting this.) To my discerning eye, there are some parts of the grout that I want to go back and fix that dried before I discovered the best method for using the grouting tool/sponge. I have found that I can use a nail file to fix most of these areas. Maybe there is a better method, maybe not. I am pretty sure it is not noticeable to anyone other than myself (or any other meticulous-eyed designers, but I don’t often have this type of guest). Overall, I am thrilled with the results!
This summer, the cabinets are on my to-do list. They can’t be removed/replaced, so they will be receiving a make-over. Stay tuned…maybe I will have that project posted before another year passes.
Rustic Style to me: “Do you even love me? Or do you just love the fact my aesthetic makes mistakes look intentional?”