Why Choose Laminate?
Consider the characteristics laminate countertops offer:
- Lower cost - Granite, quartz, ceramic tile and all-wood countertop surfaces are all more expensive than laminate. This makes laminate the counter of choice when you?re on a budget. And when you decide to upgrade, you can simply lay your new countertop over the laminate.
- Low maintenance - Forget oils and finishes, sealing and scrubbing grout lines or fixing cracks in stone. Simply install the laminate and virtually forget it. It?s easy to clean, hard to stain and it?s waterproof, so you don?t have to worry about water seeping through to the wood and cabinets below it, as long as it?s installed properly.
- Sanitary - Most other counter materials have pores ? small openings in the materials where dampness, food, mold and bacteria can hide. Once mold and bacteria gets in there, they thrive and resist eviction. As a plastic product, laminate isn?t nearly as hospitable, with the exception of any seams or joints.
- Versatile yet highly personalized - There are a wide variety of colors, patterns and simulated textures available. You can even simulate stone surfaces for a higher-end look.
- Durable - Perhaps the most important factor to many, other than cost, is the ease with which laminate endures most normal wear and tear. It?s heat resistant and doesn?t shatter or chip like other products. It?s difficult to stain as well ? although it can happen if you try hard enough. The worst feature of laminate is only that it?s vulnerable to scratches, so you want to use a butcher board or another cutting surface to avoid marring its appearance.
What is Laminate?
Often referred to as a ?plastic,? laminate is actually more paper than anything. It starts with Kraft paper ? a heavy, strong paper used in grocery bags, shotgun shells, meat-wrapping paper, and various building applications where it shields surfaces from water, stains and dirt among other things. Saturated with plastic resins and pressed under high heat, the layers are fused together into a solid sheet of laminate. The top layer is colored or patterned to produce a variety of style choices. The surface is, finally, coated with a clear melamine finish.
Laminate comes in different thicknesses as well. Horizontal grade is thickest, designed for flat, heavy-use areas where the material needs to resist impact and damage. Curved areas require a slightly thinner grade to allow pliability. The thinnest grade, called vertical grade, is used for low-impact vertical surfaces such as cupboard doors or walls. It will not stand up to the use most countertops endure.
No matter which laminate product you choose or who installs it, make sure to check the grade first. Equally important, however, is the substrate ? MDF, particleboard or even plywood. When purchasing a preformed countertop from a home improvement store, this is less of a concern. Unless specified otherwise with a special order, most manufacturers will use particleboard to make their laminate countertops. If, however, you create your own countertops, you may prefer plywood. While solid wood is a little more vulnerable to warping, it won?t crumble if it?s ever exposed to water, and exterior-grade or treated plywood is especially useful in water-vulnerable areas like around your sink. Plus, plywood won?t outgas as particleboard is prone to do. Use 3/4-inch thick material ? skimping may save you a little money but could cost you in the long run. Ever seen anyone sit on your counters? You don?t want any accidents because your substrate is too thin.
Knowing the terminology you may encounter in your quest for laminate countertops is essential. You want to know exactly what you?re getting without becoming confused by the jargon. Some basic countertop and laminate definitions will help you navigate the process successfully.
- Postformed ? Postformed refers to manufactured laminate countertops with the laminate already bonded to the substrate needed. The term postformed arises from the fact that these countertops are one piece, without separate edge pieces and needing neither another substrate before installation nor a separate backsplash ? the countertop is already ?formed.? Installation of a postformed countertop is generally the simplest of countertop choices.
- Custom built ? Sure, postformed laminate countertops are convenient and seamless, but they tend to be more of a one-size-fits-all choice. A custom-built laminate countertop, sometimes referred to as square-edged, may incorporate a variety of choices, from special edge treatments like wood inlay to odd sizes and shapes.
- HPL ? Don?t let claims that a product is ?high pressure laminate? mislead you. HPL simply means it was laminated with resin-soaked papers under high heat and pressure, as explained earlier. Some manufacturers use the term, some don?t ? they are all made the same way.
- Grades ? Keep in mind that the thicker the grade, the more durable the surface. Grade refers to the thickness of the laminate, of course, independent of the substrate thickness.
- Solid core ? Laminates with solid cores, sometimes referred to as ?through color,? have color running through each layer, instead of on the top sheet alone, creating prettier edges and seams on square-edged laminate countertops.
- Counter-Seal ? In the past, laminate countertop owners were denied undermount sinks. There simply wasn?t any way to seal the edges of the opening. With Counter-Seal, now you can. Counter-Seal is a trademark product some countertop manufacturers are using to line the opening from which the undermount sink hangs. Of course, it also adds to the cost and is limited to stock colors.
- Texture or finish ? Also gone are the days of slick Formica. Today, surface treatments can render the laminate slick, glossy, or textured; add antimicrobial protection; or chemically alter the surface to enhance the wear resistance. Pay close attention to all the benefits and claims of the laminate manufacturer and ask questions about anything you are unsure of.
DIY Laminate Tools and Supplies
Get organized before you begin your laminate countertop installation. The things you need will hinge on which type of laminate installation you undertake. Installing a manufactured laminate countertop requires only attaching it to the cabinet bases, while laminating your substrate necessitates a few extra tools. Following are some of the essential tools and materials typically needed for either installation method.
- Steel tape measure ? Don?t even think of starting without it.
- Carpenter?s level ? There?s not much you can do to level an attached substrate, but to install a premade countertop or install the substrate yourself, you?ll need a good level.
- Clamps ? Helpful to hold countertop pieces securely in place.
- Belt sander ? Smooth edges or trim away material to ensure a proper fit.
- Caulk gun and silicone caulk ? Use a colored formula if there?s any visibility.
- Rubber mallet ? Just in case you need to show the countertop who?s boss. Well, kinda.
- Shims ? To level the substrate or a manufactured countertop.
- Contact cement ? If you laminate your own countertop, you?ll want decent cement, and lots of it.
- Drawing compass ? Helps you scribe (mark) the excess material that sometimes needs removal in order for a preformed countertop to fit properly.
- Router or jigsaw ? You?ll need to cut out openings or trim edges.
- Laminate roller ? Installing your own laminate requires a roller, although you could use a marble pie roller in a pinch.
- Wood dowels ? May help you position laminate over the substrate.
DIY Laminate Installation
The easiest method is to install a prefabricated countertop. Preformed are easiest, but you can also obtain just the countertop (called a blank) or separate counter and backsplash as you wish. If you DIY, the most important thing is to take the time to double-check everything you do ? it?s much easier to correct a mistake before you make it. Plan to spend several hours to do it right (professionals are much quicker, of course).
- When you set the countertop in place, adjust and position it properly, then level it from front to back as well as side to side. Shims are indispensable for leveling.
- Once it?s level, check the gap between the countertop and the wall. If you?re lucky, it?s a good fit ? lacking significant gaps ? and it?s ready to be secured. Or, on a countertop with a separate backsplash, any small gap is easily covered when you set the backsplash on top. A preformed countertop, however, may need fine-tuning. Simply scribe the back of the backsplash, using a compass set to about ? inch or as wide as the deepest portion of the gap, and drag the pointer along the wall, allowing the marker to scribe (draw) a line along the top edge of the laminate. A belt sander or file will trim this excess easily, allowing it to fit properly.
- ?To attach the countertop, reposition it if necessary and check for level again. Sometimes a tap or two with a rubber mallet over a block of wood (you don?t want to damage the counter before you even start!) helps position it if you?re joining seams between pieces. Run caulk across the backsplash or backsplash portion of the countertop to adhere it to the wall. Glue other spots as directed by the manufacturer, then secure with screws driven from the bottom, through the cabinet supports (usually blocking in the corners) into the countertop.
At this point, the countertop is complete. However, if it doesn?t already have cutouts for a sink and faucets, you?ll need to do it yourself. Use either a sink template or the sink itself. Center the sink in the countertop, trace around it, then cut it free with a jigsaw. Hook up the plumbing and your new countertop installation is ready to go!
Installing laminate on your own substrate requires more patience and time. If you choose to go this route, it?s helpful to get a little experience on a scrap piece of wood, a desk, or some other small project where the results are not critical.
- Before you can do anything, you must either install a substrate (as discussed earlier) or sand an existing surface to scuff the finish. This helps the laminate glue adhere.
- Measure the countertop dimensions carefully. Add about an inch to the width and length ? this can be trimmed later. Don?t forget to measure the counter edges if you plan to laminate exposed edges.
- A router is useful in cutting the laminate to size. Use a straightedge to ensure precision.
- Spread contact cement across the back of the laminate. Allow it to cure for about 10 minutes or as directed by the manufacturer. Aim for a layer about as thick as butter on bread. Proper gluing is essential to prevent the laminate from ?bubbling up? later down the road.
- Position the laminate carefully before you allow it to touch the substrate. Once it comes in contact, it?s going to grip, making repositioning next to impossible. Some installers use wooden dowels, laid across the cabinets, to make positioning easier. The glued laminate is placed on top of the dowels, moved as needed, and then the dowels slide out the front ? one at a time ? once you?re satisfied with the alignment.
- A roller will force out any air bubbles and ensure good contact. Start from the middle and work outward. Watch for glue squeezing out the edges; if you get it on your roller, it will make a mess.
- The edges can be trimmed precisely with a router, or use a jigsaw as second choice. However, jigsaws leave rougher edges, which should be sanded smooth.
To customize your look, consider special edging. Wood edges, for instance, have a ridge (called a spline) across the back that fits into a groove you router into the substrate edges. With a little glue they look good and fit securely. You can also build a laminate backsplash by cutting strips of substrate to the size of backsplash you want (typically about 4 inches) and laminate similarly. Glue to the wall to complete.