By Tim Carter
Cheaper, But No Picnic to Install
Granite countertops are still very popular, and I love the look of natural stone. But I can't afford the giant thick slabs of granite. I've seen the thinner affordable granite tile and wonder how well these work for a kitchen countertop. What can you tell me about granite tile? Is it hard to work with? What are the challenges will I face if I try to do this job myself? --Kim S., Chicago
I'm also smitten with granite, no doubt in part because my college degree is in geology, but also because many varieties of granite are drop-dead gorgeous. The mineral crystals, when highly polished, can absolutely grab and hold the attention of anyone who looks at them. When you then add in the range of color and the randomness of the crystal matrix found in most granite, you have the perfect storm for a material that's a showstopper.
I've used both large slabs of granite for countertops and the granite tiles you're looking at as a substitute material. The actual granite in the two products, assuming they come from the same quarry, are identical in durability, look and performance.
The difference is finished appearance. When you use the granite countertop tiles, you'll have to deal with grout lines in most instances. Grout is used to fill the gaps between the tiles.
However, with practice and great skill you can substitute colored epoxy for grout. Professionals use colored epoxies to hide the seams of the large slabs used for most granite countertops. A real pro can tint the epoxy different colors along the seam to match the colors of the mineral crystals in the granite matrix. This secret trick cleverly disguises the seam. Imagine doing this between each piece of granite tile.
When you use granite tiles, you have to construct a hidden countertop that supports the tiles. This step is not necessary with the thick, giant slabs. The thick one-piece granite slabs have the strength to span the open void spaces of the base cabinets.
This hidden countertop can be fashioned with high-quality plywood that is not warped. Look for plywood that's 3/4-inch thick and has at least six or more plies of veneer wood that are cross-layered to make the plywood. The more plies, the more likely the plywood to be perfectly flat.
Once the plywood countertop is fashioned and secured to the base cabinets, you'll need to apply a second substrate that's water resistant. Before you do this, coat the plywood with at least three coats of water-based urethane. Each coat will dry in less than an hour, and this coating will prevent the wood from rotting or warping in the event water reaches the wood.
The second substrate can be a 1/4-inch layer of cement board or a waterproof gypsum board that has a waterproof fiberglass coating. The granite tiles will be adhered to this thin substrate.
You'll quickly discover at this point that you have an issue with the exposed edge of the plywood and thin substrate. You need to cover this unsightly edge with thin cut pieces of granite tile. If you're lucky, you may be able to discover granite countertop edging that matches your granite tile and has the shaped profile you want. But my guess is that you've got a better chance of winning the lottery.
You'll need a diamond saw to cut the granite tile. You can't use the inexpensive ceramic tile snapper tools on granite tiles. A wet saw cuts without creating any dust.
If you decide to just fashion a square edge at the countertop overhang, note that most granite tiles do not have a polished edge. You'll have to figure out how to polish this. It's not hard, but you do need special tools to do it.
It won't take long for you to discover that applying the small pieces of granite to hide the plywood is problematic. The heavy granite, under the perpetual influence of gravity, will want to fall to the ground. You'll have to devise a temporary support system until such time as the adhesive is fully cured.
You'll also have to get special diamond drill bits to cut the circles for your sink faucet. Wait till you see what those bad boys cost. Ouch!
Once your new granite countertop is installed, you'll discover it's pretty easy to care for. The lighter granites need to be sealed well. These clear liquid granite sealers are easy to apply. Darker granites often are denser, and, while they need to be sealed, they're not as susceptible to staining.
I've discovered a great granite countertop cleaner in oxygen bleach. Oxygen bleach is a powder you mix with warm water to make a powerful cleaning solution. You just apply the liquid solution and billions of oxygen bubbles attack food stains as well as oils. Fruit juice stains and wine are also rapidly removed by oxygen bleach.
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