DIY Tile Countertop

A DIY tile countertop finished the installation of our DIY cabinets. With some inexpensive tools and a bit of practice, tile work was easy. Our guide book on masonry was a great help.

After our cabinets were attached to the wall with shelves installed, it was time for our counter top. We built our countertop in layers – plywood, backer board, and tile.

Our counter tops are used daily and support dishes, food prep, groceries and small appliances. We wanted them sturdy.

Plywood Tile Base

We attached 3/4” plywood to the tops of the cabinets after they had been attached to the base with recessed kick plate and screwed securely to the 2”x4” wall hangers.

We used sheet rock screws for the attachment. The cabinet cases were secure through this additional fastening and the plywood top provided us with a means of preventing shifting of the cabinet cases with time and usage.

After securing the plywood, we drew an outline of the kitchen sink and cut it out with a jigsaw. Care must be taken with the cutout as the tolerances for sink installation are a bit small.

Backer Board

Backer board aka Hardy board, etc. is a cementitious board that accepts the adhesive for holding tiles. We screwed the backer board to the plywood very securely. We didn’t want lifting or shifting.

Cutting the backer board for DIY tile work is both dirty and hard on saw blades. For the long cuts, we used the same diamond circle saw blade that we used for cutting flagstone. To make the cutout for the sink, we used heavy duty jig saw blades.

If you have a big sink or a number of cutouts, it would be well to have a supply of blades.

Tile Installation

We used an inexpensive Saltillo look-alike for our counters. We overbought one box of tile to compensate for breakage and mistakes. Typically, unopened boxes can be returned. Bullnose tiles to match are important for edging. Be sure to buy a few extra of these.

Barbara drew out a design right on the backer board. We dry-fit the counter and island tiles before applying any adhesive. Errors in cuts or measurement are a lot easier to fix this way.

Some tips on cutting DIY tile. I found that the saw kerf was a bit larger than the actual blade. Take a tile and practice measuring and cutting until you are comfortable with the process.

Be sure to keep your wet saw clean. Residue from the cut tiles will collect below the blade in the water and restrict the blade. Be sure you keep water in the reservoir.

For marking the tiles, I used a grease pencil and a speed square. Pencil marks wash out too quickly when using a wet saw.

After your DIY tiles are cut and dry fit in a pleasing pattern, you are ready for the adhesive. If you are doing a lot of tile work over a period of time, dry adhesive is probably more cost effective if a bit more labor intensive.

We bought premixed tubs of thin set adhesive and it worked fine for us. Our tile work was finished in a couple days and the premix did not have time to harden.

Laying Tile and Grouting

Before applying adhesive to your backer board, make sure you have your tiles arranged in order for accurate and easy application. Have a bowl of spacers, we used 3/8”, ready at hand. We put a “glob” of adhesive, perhaps 5” across, on the backer board where we wanted to begin laying our tile. Then we spread the adhesive with a notched trowel evenly over as much space as the adhesive will cover.

I prefer to spread enough adhesive to cover about four pieces at a time. Lay your tile down and place your spacers. The tiles will move on the adhesive, so be careful once they are in place.

I use a triangular grout remover to clean out the lines between tiles and have space for grout. A screwdriver or similar blade will serve as well.

Once the adhesive has set – I leave mine for a few days, but I don’t have a building schedule to keep – it is time for the grout. We mixed our grout to about the consistence of soft peanut butter. You want it to fill all the spaces, but not to run. This is especially true on the trim tile where the grout lines are vertical.

Again, pour out a quantity of mixed wet grout and, using your rubber float trowel, spread the mixture evenly with a bit of pressure to be sure the grout fills the spaces consistently.

After the entire counter top has been grouted, use a damp, not soaking, sponge, and begin gently cleaning the tiles. Try to achieve a very slight depression in the grout between the tiles.

Continue to clean gently, rinsing your sponge often, until only a fine powder of grout remains on the tiles and the grout in the spaces is smooth and consistent.

After the grout is dry completely, a final cleaning with a damp sponge will remove the remaining powder on the tiles. Seal the grout with a good grout sealer.

Tools for Tile Work

The tools we used included an inexpensive wet saw with 7” blade. These are generally available at any building supply store. We paid about $60 USD for ours.

Besides the saw, we used a speed square, grease pencil, notched trowels, a mixing pail or tub (about a gallon capacity), grout spacers, grout sponges, rubber trowel, and tape measure.

With these simple tools, we were able to create a custom tile countertop that we find attractive, durable, and easy to clean.

The cost of the tile and other material, plus the total cost of the cabinet bases, hardware, and doors was about $1,100 USD or about ten percent of a hired installer and purchased counters.

DIY tile counter tops saved us money and gave us a beautiful kitchen. Happy Building!!

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