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How to Install Granite Tile Kitchen Countertops

Updated:2010-02-21 17:54:34

Granite tiles are as easy to install as ceramic tile, except for the edges. We show you a slick jig that makes it simple to cut strips for the edges and the backsplash.

In this story, we'll show you how to install an alternative—a solid-granite-tile countertop that costs less than $30 per sq. ft. for all of the materials you'll need (or about the same cost as a professionally installed plastic laminate countertop). That's for a wide variety of tile selections that cost less than $20 each for 12-in. square tiles, but be aware that you can pay more than $50 each for premium selections. Natural beauty, durability, resistance to heat and a sense of permanence are the hallmarks of a granite countertop. But ordinarily solid-stone countertops are a pricey proposition ($65- $100+ per sq. ft.) due to the special tooling and installation required.

We'll cover preparing a solid subbase of 3/4-in. plywood. Next we'll add a new lightweight tile-backer material called "Denshield" over the plywood. And finally, we'll lay out and install the 12-in. granite tile surface itself. The trickiest part of installing stone tile countertops is cutting a crisp, clean countertop "nosing" (or front lip). This difficult task is simple when you use a homemade jig that's clamped to a tile saw's sliding table to cut perfect 45-degree miters. To finish off the gap at the backsplash of the counter, we've designed a unique, easy-to-install detail that efficiently uses the leftover tile trimmings from the nosing cuts. Tile Store Materials

If You've Tiled With Ceramic Tile, You Can Handle Granite
At first it might seem intimidating to work with tile that's made from rock, but it's not difficult. While you can't score and snap it like ceramic tile, it cuts easily on a conventional diamond tile saw. In fact, you'll make all of your cuts that way. Other than that, you'll use the same tools, materials and techniques needed for ceramic tile except for the grout and sealer types.

In addition to standard carpentry tools, you can rent or buy the tile-cutting saw. A middle-of-the-road tile saw like the one we show costs about $275, or you can rent a contractor-quality saw for $45 per day. If you're really organized and have underlayment installed and all the tile laid out and planned ahead of time, you can do all the cutting in one day. But if you want to take more time, it may be worth buying a saw, especially if you plan on tiling floors or perhaps a bathroom in the future. Also buy four rubber-padded mini-clamps ("QuickGrip," $14 per pair) to hold the tiles to the jig. Steel C-clamps may crack the tiles. But use a couple of small C-clamps to secure the jig to the saw table.

How to Install Granite Tile Kitchen Countertops: Preparing the Cabinets
Removing the old countertop can be easy if it's just screwed to cabinet corner braces or tough if it's glued down. One peek inside the cabinets will tell you how it's secured. If it's glued down you'll have to pry it loose with a flat bar. It's best to pry from inside the cabinets to avoid damaging the finish.


The key to flat, long-lasting tile countertops is a solid plywood base. Thin cabinet sides or corner braces simply won't provide enough anchorage to hold the plywood flat and stable. After the tops are removed, you'll have to build up cabinet edges with 1x4 or 2x4 blocking along cabinet backs, ends and areas where plywood splices will fall.

Cut the 3/4-in. plywood underlayment to length so it splices over blocking using the factory edge of the plywood in the front for straight nosings. Cut plywood to length to fit flush with finished cabinet ends and 1 in. short of cabinets that butt against appliances like stoves or refrigerators.

Use Cement Board or Denshield for the Tile Backing
You're probably already familiar with cement tile backer board, which is completely acceptable, but a new gypsum-based material called "Denshield" is gaining popularity. It's also a great choice for countertop tile bases. It has a gypsum core like drywall, but the core and the sheathing have been modified to repel moisture and accept a tile overlay with conventional bonding adhesives. If you've ever struggled with cutting and installing cement board, you'll appreciate working with Denshield. It's lightweight and you cut, snap, rasp and fasten it exactly like standard drywall. It's sold throughout the country, and home centers usually stock the 32 in. x 60 in. sheets— the best size for countertops.

Splice the Denshield where ever you wish, but keep in mind that all of the splices and the outside and inside corners need to be taped with fiberglass mesh tape and a thin layer of thinset, so avoid using lots of little pieces.

Building and Using the Tile Mitering Jig
This miter jig will fit on most tile saws, but it may need alteration for some models. See Fig. B for the cutting sizes of the mitering-jig components. Use any flat 1/2-in. plywood for the jig. A table saw is the tool to use. Cut the parts, then spread exterior-grade woodworker's glue on the edges and tack them together with 1-in. nails.

Rest the jig on a flat table and clamp a tile to the angled jig surface with the bottom of the tile resting on the tabletop. Then rest the narrow stop block against the top of the tile and glue and tack it to the jig.

Positioning the jig and clamping it securely are crucial for consistent miters. The objective is to get a perfectly even miter that ends right at the edge of the 1/16-in. factory cut micro-bevel on the tile edge. You'll have to make some fine adjustments. Cut some test tiles with the jig and make the fine adjustments until you're satisfied. Use rejects for the rear row of tiles with the bad edge against the backsplash.

The jig is set up only for full tiles. If you need to cut bevels on narrower pieces like at countertop ends, mark those tiles during layout and cut them before cutting the tiles to width.


Tiling Installation
Laying Out the Tile
After the tile base is in place, spend some time dry-laying the tile to work out the best looking top. Inside corners are critical because the grout lines have to align in two different directions. So start at inside corners and work your way towards the countertop ends. Spacers aren't necessary, because you can easily eyeball the 1/8-in. grout lines for both dry-laying and the actual installation. On the countertop section containing the sink, work from both ends toward the sink. That way, you can custom cut one or more shorter tiles near the center of the sink where they won't be as noticeable.

Another advantage to laying out the tile ahead of time is that you'll know if you have enough tiles, and you can mark the backs of tiles (write on masking tape) that need special cuts like narrower tiles at countertop ends or in the middle of the sink. Also mark the tiles that need 45-degree angle cuts and the outside corner tiles. 20021001_Granite_Countertops_page008img004.jpg

Cut miters on all countertop front and end tiles (outside corner tiles need miters on adjacent edges), then cut miters on opposite ends of half that quantity for the nosing. Cut the nosing tiles 2 in. wide. Use the leftover sections for the backsplash.

Avoiding Bumps in the Road
Here are some of the major things to be aware of so your countertop project will be as smooth as polished tile:

Before you pull your sink and trash your old counters, get all of your materials together, including the tiles, which may have to be special ordered.

TIP: Tape cardboard or paper over cabinet fronts to protect them.
If you're replacing the sink and/or faucet, get those in your hands too. After the plywood is down, use the old sink or the template from the new one and lay it out exactly where it goes to make sure it'll fit between the inside of the cabinet and the outside of the finished backsplash. If clearance is an issue, you can use thinner backsplash underlayment, or, if it comes right down to it, you can even thinset the tile directly to the drywall. But you may have to cut thin tile strips for the back edge of wider counters.
Make sure you leave plenty of space for appliances. With the stove or refrigerator pulled out, it's easy to hang counters too far so appliances won't fit back into their homes between the new countertop edges. Most appliance openings between cabinets are sized exactly, so you'll have to keep finished edges flush with the cabinet end. You can saw those nosing pieces narrower than the others. Don't beat yourself up mitering nosings in areas that'll be hidden.
Other Edge Treatments
Our mitered nosing technique is just one option for finishing the front edges of stone tile countertops, but the truth is that the pros use several different methods. The tile underlayment techniques we show are similar for all three methods shown below. Here's a rundown of three of the most common edge treatments.


Wood edging: If you're used to working with wood, this edge is by far the fastest and easiest of all methods. Before installing any tile, rip 1x3 wood that matches your cabinetry down to 2 in. wide, then rout the outside corner with any profile you wish. Leave off the Denshield nosing strip so you can glue and nail the nosing directly to the plywood. Sand and stain the wood then cut it to fit and fasten it to the plywood with construction adhesive and 3-in. finish nails driven into the plywood core. Use tiles and add another 1/16 in. to allow for the tile thinset to gauge how far the wood edge should project above the countertop surface so the wood and the finished tile top will be flush. Finish with three coats of polyurethane. Fill the grout line between the wood and the tile with matching caulk rather than grout or a crack will eventually develop between the wood and the tile.

Overlapping tile edges: As you can see, the front edge of the top tiles overhangs the nosing tiles, so the exposed, unfinished edge needs to be polished (we cut a simple 45-degree chamfer with the mitering jig, but you can leave it square too). This technique works best for marble or limestone tops because the material is soft enough to finish with an orbital sander and progressive grits of 100, 150 and 220 silicon-carbide or aluminum-oxide sandpaper. Begin by installing the countertop tiles first, overhanging the front edges using the same technique described above. Then polish the edges with a 4" grinder fitted with a marble-polishing disk and install the narrow front pieces as we show in the main story. 20021001_Granite_Countertops_page010img003.jpg

Bullnosed edges: This is by far the trickiest method because it takes skill to freehand consistent edges with a right-angle grinder. Check around to find a stone fabricator who uses special machinery to bullnose individual tiles for a cost of about $12 per lin. ft. Lay out the tiles, then mark the tiles that require edging. The downside of this method is that you won't be able to finish your counters for several days while you're waiting for the fabricator to finish. So it's a good idea to lay out the tile on the old countertop and take the tile in for grinding before the demolition work starts.

Finishing Touches
One downside of any tile countertop is the potential for grout to get stained by food or beverages. We recommend two coats of grout sealant applied about a week after grouting.

Also, an ordinary wall backdrop can drag down a beautiful countertop. While all of the tools are at your fingertips, consider tiling adjoining walls. We used various-sized tiles of tumbled and honed (matte finished) limestone along with a metallic tile listel to finish the wall above the backsplash.




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