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Cutting and Drilling Plastic Laminate Countertops Q&A

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Dear NH,

I need to drill holes in plastic laminate-covered cabinets for drawer and door pulls in my kitchen. Is there a certain type of drill bit that I would use? Also is there an easy way to locate the holes? I don't want to make a mistake!

BF from Savannah, GA

Dear BF,

Drilling plastic laminate is not that much different than drilling into wood. Though the surface of laminate is indeed hard and durable, it drills easily with a sharp wood drill bit. There are, however, a few steps you can take to make the job easier.

A new, sharp drill bit will insure a clean hole. A dull bit may force you to exert too much pressure to get the hole started, leading to possible slippage and scratching of the laminate… a real no-no!! And use maximum drill speed for the cleanest hole.

Hard materials with smooth surfaces are the most difficult to drill into. The critical moment is right at the start… starting the hole! The drill bit wants to skid or "dance" all over the surface like a spinning top, resisting your efforts to keep it on the mark. Metals can be slightly dimpled with a pointed metal punch so that the drill bit does not drift from the desired drill point. However, hard-but-fragile materials such as ceramic tile and plastic laminate should not be banged with anything. Instead, put a layer or two of masking tape over the desired location and mark your drilling location on the tape. Acting as a stabilizer for the spinning end of the drill bit, the tape should keep the drill bit in place until the hole starts.

Drilling a starter hole with a very small diameter drill bit is also helpful. A 1/16" to 3/32" bit will penetrate the laminate easily, "dance" less and give you a great guide for the larger screw hole.

Locating the holes is not difficult but requires some precision. Be sure to make consistent measurements to insure that all your knobs are in the same "relative" position. You should use an adjustable carpenter's square to locate the holes precisely and consistently from the edges of your drawers or doors.

There is one situation where you might not want the pulls in the same locations. Before marking or drilling, note the alignment of the doors. If some doors sag slightly and you can't or don't want to adjust them, you might want to locate the knobs relative to each other so they are in visual alignment. This, of course, is an aesthetic choice and up to you!

As a final thought, don't make the mistake many novices do and drill your holes too small. The holes should be large enough so that the screws for the pulls will pass through easily. If you make the holes too small you may find that the screws will not thread into the pulls correctly. So allow at least an additional 1/16" to give yourself a little "wiggle room". If you have slightly goofed and the screws don't align, you can enlarge each hole slightly for a better fit. As long as the pulls cover the holes you have not passed the point of no return.


Dear NH,

I have about an 1 1/2" overhang on one end of my laminate countertop in the kitchen. Can I cut this extra off without taking the whole countertop off? I need this extra room for the new refrigerator to fit.

SB from Vienna, WV

SB,

Yes, you can. It is just quite a bit easier if you can move the countertop away from the wall. That's always easier said than done, considering moving the countertop can entail disconnecting the sink plumbing and disconnecting whatever fasteners hold the countertop in place. Since some are glued AND screwed down, moving a countertop can be a really challenging project.

The cut can be made using two saws… a circular saw and a jig saw. The circular saw will make most of the cut and the jig saw will finish up close to the wall. As an aside, I have heard some pros recommend using a jig saw for the entire cut. You can do this if you want, but I have found it to be less satisfactory since the jigsaw blade is more prone to "wander" giving you a less-than-straight line.

The first thing to do is to lay masking tape over the cutting line. This will protect the surface and also help prevent chipping. Apply a few additional strips of tape on the countertop where the saw base will travel. Reason? Because there is a slight chance that the circular saw base could scratch the countertop… especially if you have a beat-up-but-ever-reliable old circular saw like NH.

Since using some sort of guide is very helpful in making a straight cut, use the "rip fence" that came with your circular saw to guide your cut. You know… the T-shaped thing that slides into the base of your saw. If you don't have a rip fence or for some reason it won't work in your situation (usually when the cut is too far from the edge of the material), rig up a guide for your saw using a piece of straight wood or even a metal ruler such as a carpenter's square. Since you don't have a way to clamp it down on both ends, clamp one end of your guide to the overhanging edge of the countertop and tape the other end in place with duct tape. The duct tape should be near the wall... that way the circular saw blade will not hit it. You just have to be careful to follow the line and exert minimal force on the guide! If you do veer slightly off the line into the "waste" side of your cut, you will be able to clean it up later with a belt sander or sanding block.

Your circular saw should have a thin kerf carbide blade with at least 40 teeth... this will give a very clean cut. Set the saw blade depth so it just cuts through the thickest part of the countertop by about 1/8 of an inch. Cut slowly with steady movement. Since you are taking off more than an inch of countertop width, you might want to make a practice cut at around 1/2 inch to get the feel of the saw cutting the countertop... a little on-the-job training!

(The "kerf" is the width of the "slot" that a saw blade leaves when cutting through a material. Unlike the auto ads, thinner is better in saw blades because the saw is not working as hard. This produces a smoother cut because you also don't have to work as hard while pushing the saw through the material, producing a steadier and straighter cut… with or without a guide!)

Needless to say, the base of the circular saw will prevent you from cutting all the way to the wall. The cut can be finished with an electric jig saw using either a special laminate cutting blade or just a fine tooth metal cutting blade. The cut near the wall is always hard to get perfect. When I make the final cut, I cut just a little outside of the line so that there is a slight amount more to remove. Then I use a 3" belt sander with a fairly fine grit carbide belt... 120 or thereabouts is fine... to grind back the laminate to the line.

It is important to position the sander so that the belt is travelling downward (pressing the laminate against the substrate). I know this can be a problem if you are cutting the left side of the countertop... the body of the sander gets in the way as you approach the wall. I can only warn you... be very careful if you use the sander the other way. If the laminate is well-glued, you have a good chance of success. If not, it may chip. You could use even a finer sanding grit for the belt... up to 200... this will cause less lifting but also will slow down the sanding process.

Use a moderately rough metal file to do cleanup work, if necessary, right near the wall. Do all you filing in a downward direction... you don't want to lift the laminate. Then use a 220 grit sandpaper on a sanding block and run it along the cut edge of the laminate on a 45 degree angle, smoothing and slightly rounding it. This should visually eliminate any minor chipping that may have occurred and also eliminate the razor-sharp edge that laminates can sometimes have when cut.

NH

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Jerry Alonzy, the founder of Naturalhandyman.com

Written by Jerry Alonzy

Jerry Alonzy, a.k.a. the Natural Handyman, has been an active handyman for over 30 years with experience in most areas of home repair and renovation.

As a do-it-yourself author and web developer since 1995, he has been featured in USA Today, the Today Show and on radio shows, magazines, newspapers and websites. His material appears widely on the web, but primarily on his website... The Natural Handyman. You can also find him on Google+ and Facebook.