Tips for Successful Kitchen Countertop and Backsplash Installation
September 15, 2003
CTEF Tile Talk
A ceramic backsplash is and has been for many years a popular use of ceramic tile. Indeed, I often thought I could make a living doing those alone with the occasional countertop. It is one area of tile that customers are not afraid to spend some money on materials due to the typically small footage. For your average tile guy, it is a real treat to be allowed to be creative and get off your knees for a day, or two if your lucky. And, be they functional or whimsical, customers always enjoy the end result. Both backsplashes and countertops bring their own unique requirements for success. We will explore them a little in this article. This is by no means a definitive article covering the endless variations that occur, but is rather meant to be a primer on some of those little things that make a difference.
As always, first and foremost, proper selection of materials and methods is the key to customer happiness and contractor profits. For backsplashes, there are minimal concerns. They are not subject to stress, foot traffic, or harsh chemicals. The tile used has to have minimal functional properties and be readily cleanable.
Delicate decals and glazed listellos are often used to spice things up a tad. This is one area where aesthetics is king. If it is more than your typical L-shaped counter, layout is also critical. For the typical L-shaped counters, we usually start our tile in line with the bottom of the soffit cabinet, with full tile at the countertop, and work our way in to the corner.
(There may be a reason not to, but it is rare.) Application of tile in backsplash areas is most often over drywall, as it is not subjected to prolonged water exposure, just the occasional splash, get it? If there is wallpaper or an unusual amount of soiling, the surface must be prepared. If the area is currently painted, make sure your setting material is approved over painted surfaces. Either mastic or thinset mortar are quite suitable for this installation followed by the appropriate grout for the joint width. One area of caution I have found is an electrical outlet. There are several things to be aware of. Customers rightly want their outlet covers on top of the tile. This can be done quite simply. Most outlets have plaster “ears” that rest on the drywall. To extend the outlet receptacle or switch, simply remove the existing screws and installer longer ones that will allow it to sit on top of the tile. It is a good idea to have the power turned off to the outlets. If this is not practical because of the refrigerator or other reasons, you would be very wise to wrap electrical tape around the sides of the outlets before turning the power back on. While ceramic is a great insulator, there are few better conductors than a nice trowel; from personal experience, you can take my word on this. Do not cover the outlet box with tile, just up to the sides. Receptacles and switches have been known to fail! Often you will find a window and wooden trim right behind the sink. To avoid small cuts, we would often ask the customer if they would like the trim removed, in some cases, permanently. In others just to set it on top after tiling and prevent a difference in thickness of the tile to wood. Once you have all your tile installed and before you grout, caulk the joint where the wall meets the cabinets and countertop.
This will provide a long lasting joint and prevent what is otherwise sure to be a callback. Kitchen countertops are a very popular and, relatively speaking, inexpensive choice for many homeowners. While dull and mundane, laminate surfaces are usually half the cost, and the attractive looks of solid surfacing and stone are usually double or more. The typical reason consumers don’t want ceramic countertops is of course, grout. This was a view shared by my wife when we built our home. I am happy to report that after 12 years of living with unsanded beige grout joints every six inches, she now gleefully recommends ceramic countertops to all her friend and associates. Indeed, our counters have carried their burden much better than our porcelain sinks. Once again, it is all a matter of good installation technique. All counter applications share some common general requirements. While there are many variations, the basic methods of countertop are detailed in the Tile Council of America (TCA) Handbook. TCA has graciously given their permission to use their details for this article. We will examine each one in short fashion as we are somewhat limited by space. Some shared requirements; first and foremost, regarding the tile itself. Not all ceramic tile is suitable for counter installations. The primary concern is cleanabilty, scratch resistance and acid resistance. Many items common to the kitchen such as vinegar, wine, and certain juices can etch some glazes. While the kitchen counter does not receive foot traffic, it is one of the most abused surfaces in the house; sliding bowls, pots, and baking pans are abusive, select the tile accordingly. Dishwashers create both heat and moisture. Waterproofing and insulating the counter area above them is a wise precaution. All edges of the plywood must be supported. Some of the newer cabinets are held together by braces that leave the top of the cabinet at the wall unsupported; blocking should be installed on these types of units to support the panels or mortar. Make sure your trim will allow clearance for removal of the dishwasher if necessary. Tile trim is another concern. Many of the popular and well-suited tiles do not offer counter trim, also known as sink cap or v-rail. Sometimes bullnose tile is available; other times there may be none. Corners can be fabricated out of bullnose trim quite nicely.
If there is no trim available, it does not have to stop the use of a particular tile. There are many manufacturers of metal trims suitable for this application, some available in stainless steel. Following are some examples. The traditional method of countertop installation was and in many areas remains the mortar bed method. This type of installation offers the ultimate in durability and flexibility. Most often, undermount sinks are used with this method. This allows for easy cleanup of the cooking area, as there is no sink flange sitting on the counter. Often consumers will choose to install drain boards, which are pitched to the sink for ready drainage of washed dishes and utensils.
There are some geographical variations on this method of which I have used extensively. When working around a sink, support can sometimes be quite marginal. If you only have a small area of exposed mortar between the sink and outer edge of the cabinet, some steel “pencil rod” could prove quite advantageous to reinforcing the mortar bed in those areas. There are two other cautions other than those previously mentioned with this method. The wire reinforcing should stop short of the backsplash and a joint placed to allow for the certain difference of movement between the floor and the wall. The front edge of the counter offers the greatest concern of this method. A punched metal strip is available that acts both as a screed guide and reinforcing for the edge of the countertop. Whatever type of tile the counter trim edge is, V-Cap or Bullnose, it must have 100% coverage at both the top and face of the countertop to avoid cracking. Probably the more popular method today is the use of backerboard over plywood, as shown in TCA detail C-513. If you look carefully at the detail you will note some items commonly omitted in this installation essential to long-term performance. At the edge of the countertop, 3 pieces of alkali-resistant fiberglass tape are used. The first one should be creased in the center and placed at the edge followed by an additional full width on both the face and the top of the counter. It is also unwise to bridge and bond the trim tile over the cabinet. In most cases, this would necessitate the use of 1/2-inch backerboard over 3/4-inch plywood to achieve the thickness required.
The use of a membrane under the backer board is recommended to stop or slow the possible intrusion of water into the supporting plywood. You would still place thinset under the panel to provide support. Make sure you are using corrosion resistant fasteners in this application to avoid potential moisture causing fasteners to rust possibly causing the tile or grout to become discolored. Use of waterproof membrane would a very good idea on the surface of the backerboard, and would allow for elimination of the underlying barrier. In any event, a trowel or roller applied waterproof membrane should be applied to any exposed plywood surface. The last detail we will look at is C-512. I suppose I mentioned this one last because they call me an old tile guy. From my perspective, plywood has no place in an environment sure to receive moisture. But, plywood remains a popular choice. New for the 2003-2004 handbooks is a second layer of plywood. The TCA Handbook is recommending 2 layers of 5/8-inch (19/32-inch) for this installation. Installing tile over a single layer of plywood even in a counter application can be too demanding for a surface bound to receive moisture. You will note it makes reference to dot and dash cuts. These are simply saw cuts in the panel to provide a place for moisture expansion thus reducing the possibility of a warped countertop. Common sense should prevail when suggesting or using this method. If ever there were a place for surface applied waterproofing, this is it. To avoid the number one complaint in any of these installations, grout, you have several options.
When using cement based grouts, always use latex or polymer modified products. These types of grouts have greater water resistance than standard cement grout. If you want to increase the value of these products even more, a little technique used by many professionally trained tile setters is “striking the joints.” To do this, you may use a radius wooden handle on your margin trowel or even a broomstick. After filling the joints, you take the radius tool and compress the joints throughout the installation. You may also use a tool made specifically for this purpose available at a masonry supply store. Metal tends to make the joint smooth and shiny. The texture is a little rougher with wood. This will also aid in your cleanup efforts, as you no longer have to sponge the joints to the proper height. How about that? It’s better, and easier. For cement grouts, a sealer is always a good recommendation. With sealers, you get what you pay for. Some are not recommended for countertop application, so check the instructions. For the ultimate joint, use epoxy. It will not stain and never requires a sealer. Some of the products available today make it as easy as cement, with a similar appearance. I would not hesitate to recommend an epoxy for any application but even more when it comes to countertops. As we leave this article on countertops and backsplashes, I’d like to offer a few words about function. Consumers want ceramic backsplashes for not only decorative purposes, but also durability and ease of cleaning. We have always found customers to be very appreciative of suggestions that some may not consider typical “backsplash” type applications. Many garages are drywall, and there can be no argument those walls that take more abuse than any other. It is a great place for tile! Many homes now have tiled laundry room floors. Some especially enlightened homeowners may even install a drain and waterproof their floors. The insurance industry is especially appreciative of these efforts. Did you know overflowing wash machines result in 100s of millions of dollars in claims? Where do all the miscellaneous household cleaning tools and buckets end up? In the laundry room. It is also a great place for some ceramic tile walls. There are many areas both in and out of the house that benefit from ceramic tile beyond the traditional areas. Back yard barbeques, decks, walks, maybe even a fountain. Consumers do not consider some of the many applications where tile can be used in. If you are able to interact with the homeowner whether in the store or on the job and point out some of these areas, you may find yourself some additional creative work; for many of us, that is the most satisfying kind.