by Mark Johanson for the Handyman Club of America
Note from NH... Unfortunately, Solid Surface Kits, the company who supplied much of the information and graphics for this article, has gone missing... either totally out of business or nearly so! I've received some negative feedback about them lately, so I have disabled all links to their website to protect the innocent. However, I believe the article does provide much valuable information that isn't readily available elsewhere, so I intend to leave it posted. Click HERE to visit our links to solid surface and countertop supplies.
If you tell an avid handyman that something is not a do-it-yourself project, he or she will likely take it as a challenge, not a prohibition. That's why DIYers have always had mixed feelings about solid-surface countertops. We love the product, but we're frustrated by the fact that it has been available only through professional installers.
With the launch of Solid-surface-kits.com, however, a band of enterprising Texans is planning to shake up the kitchen-and-bath industry by offering solid-surface countertops directly to the general public. Two leading solid-surface manufacturers, Formica and Montelli, have agreed to provide raw material to Solid-surface-kits.com, where it will be fabricated to approximate dimensions and shipped directly to homeowners (or independent dealer/installers). The homeowner trims the solid-surface sheets to finished size, makes the sink cutout, seams the pieces, bonds the new countertop to the base cabinets and installs the backsplash.
Often referred to by the brand name Corian (a registered trademark of the DuPont Co.), solid-surface material has been closely controlled by manufacturers and distributors since it first became popular in the 1970s. Except for the new Internet venture, it is sold exclusively through licensed distributors and installers. At $60 to $80 a square foot (installed), it is one of the most expensive countertop materials, rivaling imported granite and marble in cost. By contrast, Solid-surface-kits.com will sell the custom-fabricated material for less than half the price (depending of course on the style you choose) plus shipping. Visit their website for the latest pricing.
Purchasing the solid-surface countertops
To obtain the material, customers submit plan drawings and cabinet dimensions along with color and pattern preferences. Fabricators at Solid-surface-kits.com cut the sheets to rough size and form the front edges. They also cut matching backsplash strips and reinforce the 1/2-in.-thick material around areas where cooktop cutouts will be made. The countertop material is packed with the rest of the kit into special shipping crates. Along with the solid-surface material, customers receive a router template for an undermount sink cutout (if requested), tinted two-part epoxy and a modified caulk gun for seaming, end strips (if needed) and an installation video.
Installing a solid-surface countertop is relatively easy, says DeWayne Michaels, one of the founders of the new venture and an experienced installer. He rates it about a three on a one-to-ten scale of difficulty. But he concedes that working with solid-surface material becomes easier after you gain experience. That's one reason the company created a dealer/installer program. By enrolling in the program, anyone with a set of basic power tools can qualify to install solid-surface countertops as a career or a profitable sideline.
To show how the solid-surface kits are put together, DeWayne and Handyman Club Life member Rich Morin traveled from Texas to give a demonstration. The kitchen we worked on had perfectly nice plastic laminate countertops, but the owner wanted to upgrade. When purchased from Solid-surface-kits.com, the 90 sf of Formica material needed for these countertops cost about $2,900. A professional installer would charge $5,000 or more to do the job.
It took two days to remove the old countertops and replace them with solid-surface material (including the sink hookup and gas range installation). The results are beautiful, as you can see from the photo on the cover of this issue.
Tooling the material
The makeup of solid-surface material varies slightly by manufacturer, but the basic recipe is a blend of crushed minerals, plastic resins and binders. The biggest advantage the material claims over other countertop products is that the color and pattern are solid throughout. If the counter gets scratched, you can simply sand the damage away. The material is nonporous and very hard, but it is a bit more forgiving than natural stone or ceramic tile if you set down
your coffee mug carelessly. In addition, it is heat resistant and less likely to chip than harder materials.
From a machinability standpoint, solid-surface material is like very hard medium-density fiberboard, or MDF. Tooling it is a slower process, but with care you can get very smooth results on the first pass. It can also be sanded easily and buffed to a high gloss. A router and a trim saw can handle most of the cuts you'll need to make to install the countertop. Carbide-tip bits and blades are required.
Although cutting, profiling and drilling solid-surface material isn't difficult, it is very messy. Whenever possible, do the work outdoors, and use dust extraction to manage the resinous shavings (which will cling to almost any surface). Wearing a particle mask is recommended.
will ship countertops in sections based upon the measurements you provide. The
maximum length of each section is 10 or 12 ft., depending on the material
manufacturer. At the seams, an underseam support strip is grafted onto one
If your countertops will have open, exposed ends (other than at an opening for a freestanding range), you can fill in the area beneath the countertop surface at the ends with strips of solid-surface material.
Installation of the solid surface countertop...
For any successful project, a logical work sequence is critical. On countertop projects, begin with the cabinets, removing the old countertop material and inspecting the base cabinets to make sure they are sturdy and flat across the tops. If not, adjust and shim the cabinets until they are flat (and preferably level).
Well-constructed, properly installed cabinets should bear the weight of a solid-surface countertop. But because the material will flex slightly, you may want to attach additional support cleats to the cabinet tops, particularly in areas where the countertop will be unsupported — above a dishwasher opening, for example.
If you're installing an undermount sink (a great option with solid-surface countertops) fasten support cleats for the sink across the tops of the sink-base cabinet make sure all cabinets are sturdy, aligned and flat across the top.
If the cabinet layout includes an island or peninsula with more than a few inches of countertop overhang, attach 3/4-in.-thick plywood to the cabinet tops prior to installing the countertop. The plywood should be sized so the front edge of the countertop fits neatly over the edge of the plywood. The bottom face of the plywood should be flush with the bottom of the countertop edging. For added reinforcement, attach corbels to the cabinet frames.
Each sheet of solid-surface material should be fitted, cut to length and scribed (if necessary) before you continue with the adjoining sheet. Start the installation project with a section containing a seam support strip on one end. Lay the first sheet of solid-surface material in position and fit it against the wall, scribing (inset in photo) and contouring the back edge with a belt sander if necessary. Mark a cutting line on one end for trimming. (Note: Drawing the lines on masking tape makes for more accurate cutting.)
Make cutouts for the sink and cooktop after cutting the section to length and scribing the back edge. Clamp the sink cutout template (supplied with the kit) to the countertop section so the template is aligned with the centerline of the sink location. Cut through the material along the template lines with a router and straight bit. Cooktop cutouts should be reinforced from below at the corners.
Once you have cut all of the solid-surface sections to size, begin seaming them with epoxy and bonding them to the cabinet tops with silicone.
Position the solid surface sheets on the base cabinets. With a helper, tip each sheet back and up (photo 10) so you can apply a bead of silicone caulk to the cabinet tops where they fit against the countertop. Lower the sheet.
Clean the mating surfaces and edges with denatured alcohol; then apply a heavy layer of tinted epoxy to the strip (photo 11). The epoxy and specialty caulk gun are supplied with the kit. Hot-glue a pair of clamping points (solid-surface scraps) near the mating ends of the sheets being seamed. Use clamps to draw the sections together (photo 12).
Do not wipe off epoxy squeezeout — you will remove important hardeners from the epoxy, which will slow curing time and weaken the bond. Instead, sand it off after it dries (photo 13). Use alcohol to dissolve the hot glue so you can remove the clamping points.
Exposed countertop ends will need to be filled. Special filler strips are supplied with the kit, glued in place with the same two-part epoxy filler used to seam the countertops together (photo to right).
Sand the seams smooth after the epoxy cures, using power sanders and a succession of finer sandpapers (100-, then 150-, then 220-grit). Also sand the entire countertop, ending with 220-grit paper,. For a high gloss surface, buff the countertop with a polishing bonnet attachment for an orbital sander (photo 13) or synthetic scouring pads and vegetable oil. After all of the sections are in place, install the backsplash, sink and faucet and hook up the range or cooktop.
If you have installed an undermount sink, drill holes in the countertop for faucet and sprayer (and optional dishwasher air gap or soap dispenser). An ordinary hole saw attachment and drill will make clean, smooth holes (photo 14).
Secure the backsplash strips to the wall with silicone-caulk adhesive. If the wall profile is irregular, hold the backsplash in position by wedging wood strips between it and the upper cabinets (photo 15).
Complete the faucet, sink and stove installations, sealing around the rim of the sink with silicone caulk as necessary (photo 16).
Save a few scrap pieces of solid-surface material in case you need to make repairs in the future. Solid-surface repairers use special tools to cut out damaged areas and fill them with plugs cut from the extra material.