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Step 1: Materials and Tools
We couldn’t purchase the usual style of pre-made countertops because they come in a fixed depth and we had a peninsula that was extra-wide to accommodate a breakfast bar. So I planned to make them all from scratch using two layers of particle board as a base and sheets of laminate glued down with contact adhesive. This wasn’t terribly efficient as far as the laminate material was concerned – I needed a whole 4 x 8′ sheet for each countertop, because all of them were >2′ deep. However, they only cost $70 each from the local hardware store so this was no big deal. I bought 3 sheets of 3/4″ particle board ($25 each), because even though the top sheets needed to be whole, the bottom layers could be made up of offcuts because it only needs to be two layers thick on the edges. I also bought a gallon of contact cement and used some wood glue I already had.
A laminate trimmer, which is basically a cute little one-handed router with a flush-cutting bit. The cutting was done with a circular saw with a fresh new blade intended for cutting laminate materials, and a jigsaw for the cutouts. I used a file to finish the corners that weren’t 90 degrees. My folding plywood sawhorses came in handy, too.
Step 2: Measure and Cut First Layer
This step is important and can be challenging if you don’t have straight walls and 90 degree angles. I had one easy (rectangular) countertop and two others that had angles on them. Make sure before you begin that the cabinets are all perfectly level.
We decided against a back splash – we liked the clean look of kitchens without them. We wanted an overhang of 1.5″, so I measured the width exactly and the depth slightly long and fitted the particle board in place so I could scribe the back edge against the wall. That edge got trimmed with a jigsaw, the countertop was refitted and the front edge marked to 1.5″. Any cutouts were marked here too – I had to accommodate a sink in one countertop and a cooktop in another. Mark the cabinet outlines from underneath, so you can place the cutouts with confidence (sinks and cooktops come with very clear instructions on exactly how large the cutouts need to be, you just have to make sure they’re in the right place!). Cut the front edge using a circular saw with guide* and the cutouts with a combination of drill (to get a starter hole) and a jigsaw.
* I just clamp a strip of plywood to a distance offset to cut line by the distance from the edge of the circular saw’s baseplate to the blade.
Step 3: Build Out to 2 Layers
Using particle board offcuts, I made the countertops two layers thick. I used wood glue and a nailgun to join them together. You could just as easily make the whole countertop first then make the cutouts later. I did it this way so I could do all the marking with a single rather than a double-layer countertop.
Step 4: Rout an Underbench Groove
All the edges of the countertop were grooved using a V-shaped bit on the underside. I did this so if there was any spillage, it would reach the groove and drip on the floor rather than bridge across to the cabinets. I don’t know if this is standard practice – I’ve not seen it on other countertops – but it made sense to me and only took a few minutes. Make sure it is back from the edge so it doesn’t mess up your laminate trimming!
Step 5: Laminate the Edges
Cut 2″ wide strips of laminate with enough length to do all the exposed edges of your counter tops. Paint contact adhesive on the particle board and on the laminate, and leave to dry for about 10 minutes, until dry to the touch. Get someone to help by holding the strip at the far end at the right height but NOT allowing it to touch the particle board. Stick the end you’re holding down, making sure you have overlap above and below, then carefully press the rest of it. I found pressing hard with the heel of my hand worked well. Now, get the laminate trimmer with flush-cut bit installed, and set it up so the bit is just a little more exposed than the depth of the laminate (about 1/16″ or 2 mm). Trim the laminate – this is fast and easy and leaves a pretty much perfect edge. You may have to clean dried contact cement from the bearing on the bit. Do all four sides. Repeat for the other exposed edges.
Like me, you might find yourself with some corners that are not right angles. I had three to deal with that were about 135° (you can’t see it in any of the photos, but one of the walls of the kitchen is at 45° to the rest). The laminate trimmer doesn’t work here, and you’ll have to use some elbow grease with a file in hand. This is slow, because laminate is pretty hard, but start by trimming it as close as you can with a fine saw and then take it slowly with the file. You have to do one side of the corner at a time, for reasons that will be obvious when you go to do it!
Step 6: Laminate the Top
The top is tricky to do only in the sense that it is bulky and you have two huge gluing surfaces to deal with. The way to deal with it is using dowels to keep the surfaces separated until you’re ready to press them together. If you have doubts about the contact cement process, there is an easy way to practice first – try mounting a poster on to plywood. This was a simple project that convinced me that doing the countertops would be no big deal.
Get the contact adhesive on both surfaces, then place dowels every 6″ or so apart on the particle board. Place the formica on top of the dowels then line everything up. Remove one dowel at one end and press the two pieces together. They will immediately and permanently bond. Keep going, removing one dowel at a time and pushing down as hard as you can. I managed to avoid getting any air bubbles at all, which I think is more down to the method being fool-proof rather than me being particularly skilled (I was doing it for the first time, after all).
Step 7: Cut Out Holes and Trim
I cut out the laminate where the cutouts were and trimmed the whole thing with the laminate trimmer. I painted the underside of the edges of the countertop, again to protect against moisture from spillages.
Step 8: Install
Because you already fitted it in place, installing is easy – put the countertops back in position and screw from the underside of the cabinets into the counter. Except if there is a sink – put the countertop upside down over the inverted sink on a soft surface and install the sink first. Pretty sure it would be impossible once the countertop is installed, unless you’re a masochistic contortionist.
Seal the edges against walls with silicone sealant, and you’re done.
This job is surprisingly easy provided if you have some DIY experience and you’re moderately careful. If you have any questions, I’d be happy to answer them.