DIY concrete counter tops

When brave, experienced “Do It Yourselfers” think of a concrete countertop project, it seems easy and inexpensive, nothing to be intimidated by, just mix some cement, pour, and spread.  Sounds simple, but let’s explore the process.  While cement counter tops are lovely, there is much to be considered when the bare facts are examined. Let’s look at both the positive and negative aspects of the project.

On THE POSITIVE side, concrete counter tops are thick and rich looking and you can select different profile edges to suit your taste and style.  The uneven color and texture gives the countertop a movement like natural stone, which is very appealing.  They are much less expensive than natural stone and you can do the project yourself, which has a positive impact on your wallet.  There is a nice variety of colors to choose from due to the dye additive.  Another design advantage is that the damp cement allows an opportunity to stamp a pattern on the top.

For example you can make the outside top edge of the countertop look like a brick border or slate tile border by pressing an overlay form made of plastic that leaves a pattern impression in the cement or stamp. You can make a concrete outdoor kitchen countertop to look like canyon stone or slate.

Another positive aspect is the durability, we all know that cement holds up for many years even under harsh usage, such as in warehouses that use heavy equipment like forklifts. The fact that concrete is durable makes it a great product for indoor counter tops and excellent for outdoor kitchens as well.   For all of these reasons, cement for countertops are an excellent choice, but let’s look at the flip side.

THE NEGATIVE aspects of the project are as follows: Concrete countertops take a lot of prep work. It is what it is, you have to decide if this is a positive or negative. After all, many DIY projects (like painting) require a lot of prep. The first thing that must be done is to cover all of the cabinets and floors with plastic as the cement is messy, drips and spills will occur.  Next you must attach the Durock to the top of the cabinet bases.  Then lay the wire mesh on top of the Durock and attach at least the top and bottom of each piece to the Durock to prevent the mesh from floating to the top of the wet cement.  Next, attach the profile edge to the Durock with screws. Once all of this is accomplished, the real work begins.

HARD LABOR: Begin by pouring the bags of concrete into the mixer, add water and mix.  Next scoop the cement into a 5 gallon bucket, carry and pour the cement onto the counter area.  Warning, the bags of cement are heavy and they get heavier as the day goes on! This job takes at least 2 people, but three makes the project go much smoother.  While one person mixes and pours the concrete, the other person trowels and spreads the mixture. If there is a third person, they can help at each station and pack the cement mixture against the counter edge form.

Please note that the person mixing and carrying the cement has to have a strong back to pour the bags of cement into the mixer and to tote the buckets from the mixer to the counter, over and over again.

The person that trowels and spreads the cement to create the concrete countertop has to keep a level on it or it will dry uneven and the counter tops will appear to tilt.  Once you start this process, you cannot stop for several reasons: the cement will harden in the mixer and on the counter top as well. Once it is poured, troweled, and leveled the entire surface has to be patted to remove the air bubbles or the counter top will dry with little holes throughout the surface that cannot be removed.  The counter edges have to be vibrated with a vibrating sander to insure that the cement is firmly packed. This prevents gaps and weaknesses in the finished edge. Timing is critical. You cannot stop during this phase of the project because if the mixture dries, bubbles, gaps and imperfections will remain. The flawed result may not be acceptable.

The next step is to sand the dry counter tops 12 hours after completion.  If you let the cement get too dry it is more difficult to get a good finish.  The last step in the process is to seal the counter tops with a chemical that prevents stains.  This can be applied with a special roller.

Some of the unexpected expense of the project lies in the purchase of the forms and additives. However, without these the look is less than desirable and without the concrete additives that release agents to prevent cracks, the countertop will not hold up and perform well.  Bear in mind what a daunting job it would be to remove undesirable cement counter tops!

The last negative is the clean up work.  Removal of the plastic is standard, but the dust from the sanding extends into other areas of the house even when plastic temporary walls are created.

Now that you know the truth about the project, the basic process, and materials you can weigh the facts. The result of the hard work is gorgeous countertops at a fraction of the cost of natural stone, not to mention the satisfaction of doing it yourself!

Lee Anne Culpepper is an interior designer who works with Atlanta concrete contractors.

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