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How to Install Granite Countertops

In this project, expert stone masons Derek Stearns and Dean Marsico use a system of granite pieces to simulate the look of slab granite

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newly installed granite countertop system

Step 1: Begin with Demolition and Substrate Prep

Note: The quantities needed for each of these materials varies with application. For your specific project, Dean and Derek suggest taking the dimensions to a local distributor, where they will calculate the amount of each product needed.

After taking measurements of the existing countertops (Images 1 and 2), Dean and Derek begin this project with demolition. The kitchen they're revamping has old laminate countertops, a tile island and tile backsplashes, and they're going to demo everything. It is possible for this system of granite tile components to be installed over laminate, but since they're adding new appliances to the kitchen, they opt to simply start from scratch.

First remove all of your appliances and have a licensed plumber disconnect the gas lines. Demo the tile using a hammer and wood chisel (Images 3 and 4).

If you're keeping old laminate, first make sure it's sound and then rough it up before beginning installation. Since Dean and Derek are starting from scratch, they remove the laminate covered countertops (Image 5), but set them aside to use as templates for the new countertop substrate. The countertop substrate is constructed from a layer of 5/8-inch plywood and a layer of 1/4-inch concrete board. The concrete board acts as a moisture barrier.

Step 2: Secure the Plywood and Countertop

Get the plywood and 1/4-inch concrete board to size using the old countertop pieces as templates. The plywood can be cut with a circular saw (Image 1) and the cement-board with a grinder or a utility knife. Cut the substrate materials so they sit flush with the cabinetry, and have as few seams as possible.

Secure the plywood island and countertop with screws. Measure and mark out the openings for the stovetop, sink, and any sunken appliances.

Remove the appliance cutouts using a jigsaw (Images 2 and 3).

Rock Solid Tip: To make the removal easier, driill a hole in the corner of the template with a wood drill to get a starting point for the jigsaw.

With all of the cutouts removed and the plywood attached, set the cement board flush with the plywood and secure with screws set at six-inch intervals – make sure to cut out for appliances before setting the cement board.

Cover the seams with mesh tape and thinset to create a smooth masonry sub-base (Image 4).

If your countertop or island is going to have an overhang, Dean and Derek suggest reinforcing the underside of the overhang to give support to the heavy granite.

Step 3: Dry Lay and Cut the Components

The next step is to dry lay the countertops by piecing together the five granite components:
-outside corner
-bull nose
-inside corner right
-inside corner left
-12x12 square granite tile

The pieces not only incorporate a standard thickness of 3/8 inches, but edge-pieces also include a 1-1/2 inch bull-nose designed to overhang your substrate and create the look of a consistent 1-1/2 inch thick granite countertop.

Before ordering the materials for the countertops, Kelley recommends measuring and graphing out your kitchen countertops to scale, along with the location and size of all of your appliances. You can then measure and determine the number of each type of tile needed. Round up a bit when you order though, it's better to have a few extra tiles around in case you make mistakes.

Dry lay the components based on your graph drawing. The number of shapes should minimize the number of cuts necessary. As you dry lay, try to get the color and grain flow consistent as you move from one tile to the next. The goal is to make the tiles look like one single slab of granite.

Start with your corner and bull nose pieces and then lay in the square field pieces. As you dry lay the tiles, keep your joints very small and work from the countertop towards the backsplash area. Cuts should be in the back. Measure and mark all of the cuts (both at the back and where appliances will sit) using a measuring tape, a straight edge, and a pencil or whiteout pen.

Rock Solid Tip: Once you've decided what flow you like best, number the pieces with a white out pen so you don't forget where they go. The white-out will come off easily with a fingernail.

Number all of the tiles, including tiles that need to be cut to size.

Rent a wet saw to cut the granite. Double check the measurements, align the mark with the blade of the saw and cut from the bull nose first (Image 1). Apply a light steady pressure when cutting and let the blade do the work (Image 2).
After you've cut a tile, dry it off and then use a rubbing stone to smooth the new edge; you want it to feel as smooth as an uncut tile.

Step 4: Set the Countertop

After all of the tiles have been dry laid and cut to size, it's time to set them. Begin by mixing up the thinset. You should use quick-setting modified thinset since the tiles are heavy and you want them to set before they move. Dean and Derek also suggest using white thinset as colored thinset can bleed through your tile.

You can mix the thinset with a trowel in a clean five-gallon bucket or use a paddle mixer. Add water until you reach a consistency of peanut butter.

Start setting tiles at an inside corner. Use the square notched trowel to spread a layer of thinset on the countertop. Smooth a layer first and then go over it with the notched ends of the trowel.

Next, spread a thin layer of mud on the back of the tile. The total thickness of the thinset should equal the thickness of the 3/8 inch granite piece. Set the tile in the thinset, level it left to right and front to back, and move to the next tile.

Work in small sections, and remember to level and maintain very small joint sizes. You want the tiles to run smoothly from one into the other. If you need to make adjustments, you can lightly tap the tiles with a rubber mallet. If you need to reset the tile, you can pop it using the suction cup and then reset it.

If you find that your substrate is not perfectly level as you set the tiles, you can beef up your thinset bed, throw in a tile shim underneath, or tape the two pieces together with blue quick-release tape. These will prevent the tiles from sinking or sliding. Finish setting all of your tile pieces.

Rock Solid Tip: If thinset squeezes up between joints, immediately wipe it away with a grout sponge.

spread thin layer of mud on back of tile

Step 5: Install the Backsplash

The outdated kitchen Dean and Derek are revamping included ugly countertops and an ugly backsplash, and they can't remake one without remaking the other. They have several options for the backsplash: they can use the solid pieces they're using for the countertops, create a decorative mosaic or combine the two to create a unique backsplash. They work with mosaic tiles that come in 1x1 inch and 2x2 inch sizes and are set on a mesh backing for easy installation. Dean and Derek decide on a backsplash that puts the tiles on the diagonal and incorporates decorative granite trim. You can do whatever you like best. The installation methods are essentially identical.

Dean and Kelley find the exact measurements of each backsplash wall section and then transfer those measurements to a flat surface. They use the floor of the garage to lay out the entire design (Image 1) and mark where cuts will need to be made. The advantage of using small mosaic pieces is that most cuts can be made by cutting the mesh.

If you need to cut the tile itself, measure and mark the cuts with a whiteout pen and then cut them with the wet saw. As you work, make sure that everything is square and the joints are uniform (Image 2).

With all of the backsplash sections laid out and the cuts made, apply the tile to the wall (Image 3). Dean and Derek use a margin trowel to apply the quick-setting thinset. You can press the tiles into the thinset with your hands (Image 4) or using a grout float but make sure they bond with the thinset. Dean and Derek suggest also using small shims to hold the pieces in place until they dry.

Step 6: Complete the Grouting and Finish Work

Because the quick-setting thinset sets up in about 30 minutes, you can begin grouting almost immediately. Dean and Derek use coordinating black unsanded grout for their black countertops to further the illusion of slab granite. Mix the grout following directions.

Rock Solid Tip: Wear gloves when mixing colored grout (Image 1) to avoid staining your hands.

Put a dollop of grout on the counter and work it across and into the joints with a grout float (Image 2). Grouting on the diagonal keeps the float from digging out the joints as you work.


For the bull nose edges, use your fingers to work in the grout. Wipe up excess grout as you work using a grout sponge to make clean up easier (Image 3). Repeat the same process for the backsplashes. You can change your grout color if you like. Dean and Derek selected a lighter grout for the backsplash.

After the grout has dried, seal the countertops with a penetrating stone sealer (Image 4). (Check the manufacturer's instructions for proper drying times.) Apply the sealer generously with a pump sprayer, wait a few minutes, then wipe it off with a clean rag. The sealer should take 15 to 20 minutes to penetrate.

After re-installing appliances, this kitchen transformation is complete--a designer revamp that you can say you did yourself.

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