Creating a Happy, Colorful, Handmade Home & life on the shores of lake superior

April 25, 2014

Kitchen Progress: Our DIY Solid Wood Kitchen Counters

Ordinarily Hubby and I tackle projects together so I always say "we" did this, and "we" did that.  Concerning the construction of our beautiful new kitchen counters, however, Hubby and his woodworker Dad deserve all of the credit.  I only came into the picture to do the staining; it was Hubs and his Dad who did all of the hard work so today I'm handing over the blog to the Handiest Hubby out there, who is going to explain how he made our insanely gorgeous, solid maple kitchen counters:


I first measured the existing counters and drew up a fairly detailed plan in order to get the dimensions that we needed.  After my first draft it was noticed that the measurements did not add up.  I went over them again and they were closer, but still not exact.  There was no way that all the numbers were going to work.  This is because the house and existing counter was not perfectly square.  Of course.  I only have experience with two houses but have found that nothing is exactly square.  This is why I found it important to measure all sides of the installation, not just one side.

We chose to use solid maple for this project.  We purchased 2" rough planks in about 10 - 12" widths (which cost $611).  This wood was already dried and was ready to work with:


I didn't manage to get any pictures of this process (I was busy actually doing it), but here are the first steps.  We started with the largest section and cut the boards to length (about 2" longer than the finished length) with a radial arm saw.  We then ran one edge over a jointer to get one flat, straight edge.  Once that was done we were able to run the boards across a table saw and rip them into approximate widths of 5-6".  The one flat edge was necessary to be able to get a straight cut on the table saw.  The narrower widths will help ensure that the finished product will not warp as much when the humidity changes.

The boards were then run over the jointer again on one of the wider sides to get a flat surface.  Once this was achieved they were all put through a planer to get them to a uniform thickness.  The one flat side is necessary so you don't get a gradual curve over the length of the board.  A planer doesn't really make things flat, just thinner.


Here's what we ended up with (compared to the rougher wood underneath):


At this stage we laid out the boards to get the desired layout.  You may be wondering why we didn't keep the boards in the original widths instead of ripping them basically in half.  We did this so that when they change shape due to humidity the effect is not as great (you can see an example of a counter with wider boards which warped in this post Tanya wrote on wood movement).  If a narrow board curves one degree, it is harder to see than if a wide board curves one degree.  Also, when laying out the boards we do the "smiles and frowns" method.  If you look at the end grain of most boards (depending on how they were cut) the grain curves in a fairly obvious direction.  You lay the boards next to each other so that one curves upwards and the ones next to it curve downwards, alternating across the whole width.  This minimizes the overall warping of the counter as the moisture content of the board changes and they warp slightly.  Even if a slight wave develops, the overall levelness of the top remains decent.



Once the boards were placed in the correct order and orientation, we then fine tuned the edges that were to be joined.  Instead of making them perfectly flat we used the jointer and made them slightly concave, to the tune of about a half millimeter gap in the center, over the full length of about 77".  The reason for this is so that when it is glued and clamped, there is a bit more compressive force on the ends and it reduces the chances of gaps developing between the boards as they swell and shrink over time.


Next came the gluing.  The boards are simply butt jointed together with a strong wood glue.  There are no connectors of any kind.  We brushed the glue on to both surfaces and clamped it together.  The long pipe clamps are alternated along the top and bottom of the counter to ensure that the clamping pressure is even and doesn't curve the top.  The smaller clamps that are seen around the edges are holding a number of slats that are keeping the boards even with each other.  It is a good thing to be able to see a little bit of glue squish out, as this tells you that you have full coverage on the glued surface.

We allowed the glue to dry for awhile (follow manufacturer's directions) until the excess glue was not sticky to touch, but not completely dry and hard.  We then slowly removed the clamps while ensuring none of the joints moved.  The excess glue was then scraped off using a couple scrapers.  Then it was left overnight.


I don't have any pictures of this, but once the glue was completely dry I went over the seams with a cabinet scraper to remove all glue residue from the surface.  This not only increases the life of your sandpaper, but also speeds the sanding process.  You can also use a hand plane for this; just take very little off at a time.

We then put the pieces on a stroke sander (pictured below) to even out and smooth out the top.  The planer leaves slight marks on the surface.  A stroke sander is basically a large belt sander with a moving table under it.  You slide the table in and out while pressing the belt into the work piece.  You could also do this with a belt sander but a stroke sander is much faster and will give you a more even surface.

Once this was done we cut the pieces to their final length on the table saw.


In order to hold the counter pieces together there are a series of bolts on the underside that are basically clamping the sections together.  Below is a picture of the underside of the original counter joint where the bolts go.


We reused the original bolts and basically mimicked the original designed holes.  Using scrap plywood we made a template for the area to cut out and cut them using a plunge router.


The boards in our counters do not have any connectors between them but we did decide to use batons running across the grain.  These are there to help hold it flat as it shifts.  To make them invisible from the edges, we sunk them into the counter and set them back from the edges.  Using a template and plunge router again we cut them out.  To keep the template from moving we actually screwed it down.  It's the bottom of the counter and nobody will ever see the holes unless the counter is removed.


Below is a photo of the batons.  As you already know, you can't stop wood from expanding but you can control where it expands to.  We decided to have the counter expand towards the wall so that the edges that you see and touch do not move in relation to you or the cabinets.  This was more important for us because we have grain running 90 degrees to other pieces.  We didn't want to see an edge where one section slides against another.

To achieve this all of the holes in the batons are slotted except one.  This allows the counter top to slide on the baton as it expands and contracts.  We are not sure yet, but we will not be surprised if the largest section (facing the dining room) "grows" by half an inch in the warmer months.


Below are the counters, all ready for a final hand sand and finishing.  Once they were at this stage we had laid them out in their final orientation and ran a trim router with a 1/8 inch round over bit along all the edges that would be exposed.  We did not route any edges that joined with another section so that the seam was smooth and square.  But by routing the edges that we touch, they became smooth and not sharp.


After my father and I finished building them, Tanya stained them white (which you saw here) and then we left them with my father who applied the top coat.  He used Campbell brand Krystal high-solids conversion varnish in semi-gloss (pictured at the bottom of this post).  He applied it with a sprayer, sanding between coats.  The Saman stain and Krystal varnish wasn't the best combination, because the grain was raised a lot (we think from the water-based stain) and sanding to a smooth finish required a lot of extra effort, but in the end the finish looks great and is very durable - perfect for kitchen use.  The stain alone seemed chalky in my father's woodworking shop, but once varnished and in our kitchen, the finish is warmer and creamier.  Tanya wanted it whiter (and regrets not applying the fourth coat), but I think the colour is perfect and I like that the grain of the maple has not been hidden. 


Regarding installation [Tanya's making me write this: because my wife is so awesome and wanted to make things as straightforward as possible], we chose not to go with mitered corners.  Instead, we opted for 90 degree joints.  This is a lot easier to make; we did not have access to machinery that could accurately cut a 45 degree angle across a 39" piece.  It was a good decision, because I think 90 degree corners look better with the blocky 90 degree corners on the counter edges and sink.  Mitered corners would not have suited the style of the counters or sink as well, in my opinion.


To attach the counter to the cabinets, the tops are simply screwed to the cabinets from underneath.  I measured out where I wanted to put the screws and pre-drilled the holes into the tops of the cabinets before the counter sections were in place.  This stage of the process definitely requires a partner, as there is a lot of lifting and shifting of the pieces for correct placement.  We left about a 3/8 - 1/2 inch gap between the counter and the wall to allow for expansion (which will be covered by the wood paneling).  Before driving the screws we ran a very small amount of clear kitchen silicon along the seams between the sections.  We didn't want any to squish out (because when it did, it stained the wood!).  The sections (one at a time) were then bolted together (with the bolts you saw above), and screwed in by driving the screws from the bottom. 

The photo below shows the joint between two sections.  The round peg is at the front.  This places the section in relation to each other and does not allow one section to slide against the other.  The biscuits that you see in the other slots are there to prevent any relative vertical movement between the pieces while still allowing one to slide in relation to the other.  As the grains run 90 degrees to each other there will be relative movement.  This it just to direct it away from where we will see it.


It definitely wasn't a quick project, but that's how I took a pile of lumber and made kitchen counters!

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20 comments

  1. The counters look great! I'm not sure I'd be able to do all this work, but I really love the end result.

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    1. They worked for days and days. The biggest piece weighs 130 lbs, so it was a lot of physical labor, too.

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  2. It looks amazing! Can't wait to see how you finish the space...

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    1. Hubby will be pleased to hear your compliment :) He's so proud of these counters, and rightfully so.

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  3. I can't believe how much detailed work went into making your counters (and the construction-speak lost me at times) but they look amazing! I love the light wood with the blue cabinets.

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    1. It was definitely a lengthier process than what I thought would be involved when I said, "hey, why don't you just whip up some counters out of wood?". I'm so happy Hubby is so handy - we make a good team! While he was building the counters, I was painting the cabinetry.

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  4. Replies
    1. I'm certain Hubby will be tickled to hear that!!

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  5. Tell the hubby that I am sooooooo impressed with the job he and his dad did. The countertops are beyond gorgeous!

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    1. He will be so happy to hear that from you, Dana!

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  6. These came out looking amazing. The workmanship really shows.

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    1. Thanks, Julie. I'll be sure to pass along your compliment. After all was said and done, I felt so bad because I didn't realize it would have been less expensive to buy ready-made countertops from Ikea, but anyone who has seen them in real life says they don't hold a candle to what Hubs and his Dad made. The nice thing is, when we move on with phase II for the kitchen, we can sand these down (even cut them down), re-stain and add welded legs for a sweet pair of end tables and a substantial dining table.

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  7. Looks amazing. Excellent tutorial from Hubby. Thanks.

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    1. Thanks Suzanne! I'll be sure to let Hubby know. He felt bad that he didn't take more photos of the process but he had his hands full :) We have more woodworking projects planned (most of them much easier!) and we will endeavor to take more photos of those.

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  8. Wow! These counter tops are beautiful. You, your husband, and his father did a beautiful job. This is a great explanation of the entire process. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Thanks Margaret! I'll be sure to pass on the compliments. Although the stain (my part), really makes them...lol.

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  9. Wow beautiful, I made similarly constructed wood counter for my laundry room but out of pine for a more rustic style...http://chriskauffman.blogspot.ca/2012/11/how-i-built-diy-wood-counter-top.html
    great project guys

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    1. Your counters are stunning! The darker stain looks incredible - very sophisticated. Thanks so much for sharing the link with me.

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  10. I love maple and this has to be the most beautiful countertop I have ever seen! Some of the explanation went over my head and it is an obvious labor of love.

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  11. Hi Tanya,
    I just emailed you about being featured over at Remodelaholic, but my emails sometimes get caught in spam filters, so I wanted to leave a comment, too. Drop me a line at hello@remodelaholic.com, please! Thanks!

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You've made my day - I love hearing from you! I approve comments only to keep out the spam, so don't worry if your comment doesn't pop up right away.

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