Part II: The Concrete Countertop Project

Previous: Chaotic Kitchen Remodel
Previous: Part I: The Cabinet Refinishing Project

After that kitchen cabinet refinishing, my poor fingertips needed a break from all that tedious sanding.

Once I made up my mind to start the counterop process, I quickly realized the cabinets were just the beginning of my time with the sander during this kitchen project.

Let me back up.  I had intentions of replacing my well-worn Formica with the economic choice of new high-definition laminate countertops.  I’ve had these installed at numerous job sites, and I enjoyed their ‘ease of ownership’ factor (meaning first-time-homeowner-proof!), plus have you checked out the new modern patterns and prints? Formica(R) even has a Jonathon Adler line!

When the prices came back my jaw hit the floor – THIS is the price for LAMINATE?!

(In their defense, we have that weird angled corner that adds several cuts and seams)

Back to the drawing board. Er, the Pinterest board.  Try searching “cheap countertop alternatives” and a whole plethora of ideas come up with varying mediums.  I narrowed it down to three looks I felt I could work with:

  1. Building Wood Countertops.  Think butcher block look.  Ruled out because it wouldn’t work in a kitchen already boasting wood cabinets and wood paneled walls…
  2. Paint Kits.  Rustoleum has a great countertop kit that looks like a great alternative to breath new life into existing, solid laminate countertops. Ruled out after serious consideration because, well, I liked the third idea better.
  3. Concrete Countertops. So trendy. So cool. So contrasting to my current woody situation.

After I decided on concrete countertops I discovered there was a whole market of new products for concrete counters that include expensive concrete and edging forms, to build-your-own-box-and-pour.

Then I discovered Ardex. 

Oh it was love at first sight.  I read as many blogs as I could find on it – and luckily the blog world is so kind to link to other DIYers trying the same thing!

The folks over at Young House Love were the most thorough I found, and had follow up posts discussing different sealants and longevity.  They led me to other amazing sites that I suggest you read, take notes, and re-read before attempting this yourself!

With my decision made, here it goes…

Ardex Concrete Countertops Step-by-Step guide

Step 1: Get Husband’s Approval

I printed mood boards, examples, and finally told him “it couldn’t hurt?” He agreed. At least that’s how I remember it.

Kitchen Inspiration Board

I’m a mood board enthusiast. This was simply thrown together in Word.

Step 2: Source Supplies

For me this was one of the most time-consuming steps (and once you get to the bottom of the post, you’ll realize that’s saying something!).

Living in the middle of South Dakota, I had to order the Ardex (found it on Amazon) and the sealant (more on that later) online ahead of time.  I had no idea how much I’d really end up needing, and none of my trusty blog resources could really tell me.  For reference, I had approximately 40sqft of counter space and used 1.5 bags of Ardex.  In retrospect, I’d get an extra bag to be safe – as I mixed very sparingly to make sure I didn’t run out.

Step 3: Prep 

First and foremost, Ardex will get EVERYWHERE.  Dripping and dropping big splats of the mixture on your floors and cabinet fronts is inevitable, but the worst culprit is the dust. Fine, grey, light… dust.

It gets inside your closed cabinets.  It travels to the other end of your house into your bedroom. It settles in your ductwork; on your windowsills; in your carpet. So PLEASE. Seal your kitchen. I did not seal.  This is regret #1.

Step 4: Demo!

What day is it? DEMO DAY! (Anyone else a Chip&Joanna / Fixer Upper fan here?)

Replacing the sink and the cooktop was an easy decision for me since “we” decided both of these items lived through their useful life.  Couple things I learned from this:

(1) Look for any brackets, screws, or fasteners holding your appliances in place – taking out the stove resulted in a major chip in the laminate;

(2) Measure your new items and do a trail install to make sure your existing countertop holes are the right size. Both the sink and the stove were different than their predecessor… oops. Luckily we had some friends with the right tools to cut through the existing laminate;

(3) Take photos of the existing hook-ups – both electrical and plumbing.  This I did NOT do ahead of time, thinking the sink was pretty standard (because I know anything about plumbing…).  Come to find out that our sink drains were a bit of a headache and we had to hire it out in the end.

(Don’t mind the hideous state of my sink cabinet. Or the innovative duct taping of our dishwasher drain by my husband…)

Step 5: Sand

Wait… I thought countertops were supposed to be my BREAK from sanding!

HAHAHA. No. What DIY project would be complete without a bit of sanding and elbow grease?

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So I sanded by hand. Then my friend and co-worker (sounding board, craftsman, remodel extraordinaire…) convinced me a rotary sander was the way to go.  As little as I admit it, he was so RIGHT!

The process calls for lightly sanding the laminate countertops, followed by a light sanding between each layer. Ardex is specifically engineered to stick to smooth surfaces – the sanding was just to get any sealant and leftover food gunk that could come back up through the finish.

This is where I remind you about the fiiiiiinest layer of grey dust will end up settling over EVERYTHING in your house by the time you are done with this?  If you were smart enough to heed my advice and tape plastic over your doors and enclose your kitchen for this project, props to you.  If you’re like the rest of us, just leave it until the end.  There’s no winning in a war against air particles.

Step 6: Mix, Smooth, Sand, Repeat.

This part I found oddly satisfying.  Working in small batches,  I found it much like a recipe:

Ingredients:
1c Ardex Feather Finish
1c Water

Equipment:
1 Disposable Mixing Bucket
1 Mixing Tool
1 Spreading Tool

  1. Combine ingredients.  1:1 ratio Ardex to Water.
  2. Mix mix mix. This mixture only gets better the more you mix it – so give it your all!
  3. Rest. Leave the mixture alone for 10 minutes. Mainly for the Ardex to set a bit, partially for your arm muscles to recover.
  4. Spread. The goal is for thin, even layers. Remember (or maybe I haven’t told you yet…) this entire project takes 3-4 coats minimum!
  5. Touch-Up. Wet your fingers and lightly smooth out any imperfections, bubbles, humps, divots, or scratches.
  6. Cure. I left the countertop alone for a minimum of 8 hours – but I waited and did one layer each day after work.
  7. Sand. For this I used a mixture of rotary sander on the flat surfaces and hand sanding around the edges.
  8. Dust. You will want to vacuum as much the dust off the surface as you can, then use a  damp paper towel to remove any of the remaining particles.  Tack cloths can leave a residue, so I do not suggest using one.

It doesn’t set too quickly, but you do want to work fast.  I plopped concrete on the countertop and spread it across in a thin layer – as thin as I could without scraping the countertop.

The trick here is having a well-mixed, consistent mixture so that when you’re doing an excellent job spreading it thinly, you don’t get a hard chunk of concrete scraping through your smooth surface.

For the edges, I did my best using what professionals call an “extra-wide taping knife” to pull the concrete down from the surface, then I’d repeat coming up from the edges.  Eventually it dries a little to a pliable consistency like clay where you could use your fingers to smooth it out.

Step 7: Seal.

Much like the previous step, it consists of a series repetitious steps. This is where you follow the instructions of the sealant that you chose.  Not knowing much about this ahead of time, here’s what I concluded:

  1. Wax. Does not work. This is made for actual concrete countertops, not Ardex.
  2. Penetrating Sealant.  I saw a post use it and it seemed to work, but as I did  not quite understand it, I cannot speak to this method.  I worried it was much like the Wax and meant more for concrete countertops.
  3. Polyurethane.  Gives a high-gloss, hard surface when dry.  Can be very tricky, and if applied wrong it’s next to impossible to remove.
  4. Acryllic/Lacquer. A hybrid between an acryllic seal and a lacquer. Still glossy (although you can get Matte), a thinner mixture, but requires multiple layers to apply.

For me, my biggest concern was choosing a food-safe option and fairly idiot-proof in case I applied it wrong or didn’t like the affect.

After reading endless reviews of the sealants mentioned in the other blogs, I went with AFM SafeCoat Acrylacq found on GreenBuildingSupply.com

The product itself was very easy to use and the smell didn’t bother me at all.  It went on with a simple bristle brush and I ended up doing 3-4 layers.

*I’ve added my thoughts on my sealant at the bottom*

Step 8: Dust, Vacuum, Wipe, Dust.

I ended up taking every single item out of my lower cabinets and wiping them down before replacing since the dust penetrated every nook and cranny.  After this was complete, I was able to have the sink re-installed with the new plumbing and disposal; as well as the new stove placed.

I removed the tape, dusted again, and tore up the floor coverings.  Then swiffered the floors from all the dust.

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I added the cabinet knobs back onto the doors after a quick spray paint with Rustoleum Oil-Rubbed Bronze to make them pop against the golden oak and add more of an industrial feel to tie in my new countertops.  Oh, did I mention dusting again?

End Reviews + 4 Months

I love how these turned out. For a mere ~$300 I have modern, “new” countertops.  I produced almost no waste in the process, which is always a bonus.

Of note, the countertops are neither heat-resistant, nor are they meant to be used without a cutting board.

Standing back, the variations in grey color that is natural in concrete is exactly what I wanted.  I love the imperfections, the darker areas and the texture naturally created when I troweled it smooth.

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And… the *’s

I do have one problem: sealant.


I did the water-bead trick to make sure the sealant layer was thick enough and didn’t let water soak through to the concrete.  It worked like a dream.  Water is quickly wiped up and whisked away.

Oil and acid is a different story – and a huge problem in a kitchen.

At this point, I can sand (oh no…) off the sealant and top layer to apply one additional Ardex layer + new sealant.  I’m debating using a polyurethane this time, but am still terrified to use it for fear of permanently screwing it up.


The moisture along the seal of the old laminate concerns me as well. Wondering if moisture is coming up from under the sink cabinet and seeping through? We may never know… 

After 4 Months:

Would I do it again? Yes. Absolutely, yes.

What would I do differently?  Take more precautions against the dust; use an electric sander from the start; and obviously choose a different sealer.

Would I recommend it?  Probably.  If you have the time, patience and willingness to tackle a week-long project, then yes.  If you can afford an actual concrete countertop, then probably not.

Any and all comments and advice would be appreciated!

Thanks for reading about my Kitchen Remodel!  I’ll be sure to update with any new information I get from you readers 🙂

Also, how do we feel about painting the cabinets a dark color (see mood board above)?

 

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Part I: The (Old, Stained, Mid-Century) Cabinet Project

It would be easy, they said. It would take one-day, they said.

Oh Pinterest, you pretty little liar.

If you haven’t discovered #PinterestFails (check some out here), well then let me advise you that any Pinterest project should be approached very cautiously and plan for ample mistakes and re-dos.

I’ve done what I can to preserve the character of my Mid-Century home while giving it modern updates where I can.  This means putting up with the obscene amounts of golden oak wood paneling.  It means appreciating the history of the red-brick recycled to make our two-sided, monstrous fireplace that acts as the dividing wall between our kitchen/dining room and the living room.  It means I’ve learned to ignore popcorn ceilings (or the unspeakable ceiling tile in my kitchen).

So painting the cabinets was obviously not an option, especially with hubby displaying his distaste for painting ‘authentic, hard-wood, beautiful oak cabinets’. Mmk.

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We call this look “well-loved,” as calling it “gross, grimy and worn-out” is too accurate.

Pinterest (specifically, this great post by Young House Love) introduced me to MinWax PolyShades – which is a product I could theoretically apply over existing stain that had been lightly sanded down, and it would miraculously even out scratches and stains. BINGO! 80% of the cabinets were decent, but there were several with large water/wear stains around the knobs, and others that had just collected so much grime it stained the topcoat black (ew?)

Step 1: Remove hardware.

I used my hand-held power screwdriver given to me when I was a single woman as a new homeowner in Minneapolis.  It may be tiny, but man it saves time!

Step 1a: Realize the hardware is disgusting.

So my knobs weren’t the coveted Oil-Rubbed Bronze as they appeared… they were coated in some gross goo that made them appear black. Maybe the finish was supposed to look like this, but after so many years it just sort of ‘melted’ and turned into a goopy, sticky black mess. Again… ew.

Step 1b: Clean the hardware.

I quickly referred back to my many Pinterest posts about refinishing furniture hardware.  I ended up following this post from This Old House and soaked the knobs for several hours in my trusty crockpot with a bit of laundry detergent in water.

I also used Hubby’s toothbrush* to scrub it. The before/after is pretty shocking, isn’t it?!

*Don’t worry, I gave him a new one 🙂

Step 2: Sand Doors

Lucky for me, the doors have a raised detail piece in the middle of the door:

(Yes, that’s sarcasm)

So instead of being able to take a power sander to each door, I had the pleasure of hand-sanding each of the 27 doors.  Since it was winter and a cool 25* outside, I made the decision to take my crafting to the Farm and utilize the heated shop – bonus it had an air compressor to blow off the sanding dust!

From the tutorial and my online research, all it would take was a light sanding.  This took a few hours. I blew off the dust and finished wiping down with a tack cloth.

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Left: Original Cabinet Door. Right: Sanded Cabinet Door. Top: Cutest Sidekick Ever (waiting for me to throw the ball)

Step 5: Touch-ups

There were some scratches and wear spots that were more prominent than others. For this I simply took a stain stick and colored it in, let it dry, and wiped it off.  Seemed to help so I continued onward!

Step 6: Apply Stain

Like a good crafter, I went by the directions printed on the can rather than the blog post steps.  I applied a nice even layer going with the grain, let it sit, then wiped it off with a rag.  Look at the difference!

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Left: New Top Coat Applied. Right: Sanded Door

 

Step 7: Let Dry

I let these sit overnight in the shop.  To my horror, it was decided that the feed wagon should be parked in there overnight – so the next day I ran out there hoping that it didn’t cover my freshly finished doors weren’t now embedded with stinky dust particles.

There was a layer of dust, but thankfully (wait, something went RIGHT?) it wiped right off!

Step 8: Uh-Oh…

So I first noticed something wasn’t going exactly as planned in Step 6 when the directions on the can asked me to wipe off the excess, and the Young House Love I was following mentioned no such thing!

Then as it dried, the doors in good shape looked refreshed and glossier. But… the wear marks and scratches on the “well-loved” doors came right back to the surface.

Hmm…

After investigating, going over my steps, I discovered that I bought MinWax Stain, not PolyShades! This is bad for two reasons, (1) it’s a stain instead of a polyurithane blend, so it needed to be stripped completely of any old stain or paint to work; and (2) I had just wasted 8 hours of my life.

 vs 

I frantically ran back up to my local Ace (“The Helpful Place”) where I bought the stain.  They don’t carry PolyShades. So I went up to the DoIt Best lumberyard – again, they could order it for me but they didn’t carry it.  The TruValue didn’t have it either.

60mi away from a Menards and I was out of luck, out of patience, and very much over this cabinet refinishing project.  {I couldn’t even bring myself to take photos of them}

Discouraged, I left the doors laid out in my basement for weeks deliberating what to do (Re-sand and try PolyShades? Paint it? What color would I paint it? But I didn’t WANT painted cabinets! But dark painted cabinets would be cool…).

During this time, I ordered the supplies to start my concrete countertop project, and buried the thoughts of my failed cabinet staining in the deep corners of my mind.

Next: Part II: The Concrete Countertop Project

 

Kitchen Chaos

We have no yoga studio here.  No place for that hour of stretching, inward self-reflection that comes with doing yoga in a temperature-controlled room with the soothing words of a yogi teacher leading you through the moves.

Truth is, I hate yoga anyway.

I do, however, love cooking.  Food prep has turned into my meditation.  Isn’t there something immensely therapeutic about chopping vegetables into to exactly the same shape and size?  Except onions, they’re pull you back to reality real quick.

For as much time as I spend in it, I never loved the kitchen in our new house.  I didn’t hate it, but I definitely wouldn’t have chosen it.  White cracked laminate countertops and water-stained cabinets from  years of love and abuse.  But we were newlyweds and new homeowners, so we made it work.

See?  Our kitchen style used to be “trendy.”  However, I do not have shoes and a belt that match my appliances, so it was time for a remodel! (Photo Cred: Retro Renovation)

It wasn’t more than a month into living in our new house that one of our large burners on our cooktop started acting up (read: sparks flew when I turned it on).  Around the new year, one of the smaller burners suddenly stopped working.  Working with three burners I could do; working at 50% was not something I was going to settle for – I have needs.

So, with a minimal budget, lots of sweat equity, and many hours watching DIY tutorials, I started my chaotic kitchen remodel.

As any remodel goes, it ends up encompassing more than you initially set out to accomplish.  So for you, reader, I broke it down into two parts:

Part I: The (Old, Stained, Mid-Century) Cabinet Refinishing Project

Part II: The (Modern, Cool, Edgy) Concrete Countertop Project

If you think the posts are long, let me tell you the process was MUCH longer.  My fingers have yet to recover from the many hours of sanding (even with protective gloves!); my neck is still suffering the consequences from being hunched over for long periods; our laundry room sink has a new layer of concrete mud stuck to the edges; and there is a never-ending layer of fine, grey concrete dust covering everything.

All casualties aside, I think the finished product is absolutely worth it:

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So follow me on a trip down memory lane as I recount the best and the worst parts of the remodel; the successes and the setbacks.

Next: Part I: The (Old, Stained, Mid-Century) Cabinet Refinishing Project