Granite has long been a popular option as a material for kitchen countertops. Hard, smooth and durable, granite offers both practicality and stunning good looks for kitchens of just about any type, but comes with a pretty high price tag. An alternative that is growing in popularity are granite squares, which are precut like tiles and offer both a lower cost and the ability for an ambitious do-it-yourselfer to undertake the project.

GETTING READY

Installation of the counter begins with a smooth, solid base material called a substrate. The preferred choice of most pros is exterior-grade ¾-inch plywood, topped with a layer of ¼-inch cement board. The plywood is strong and stable enough to span the tops of the cabinets, and the cement board offers a smooth and waterproof surface that the tiles adhere to very nicely. 

The plywood is cut to extend past the front of the cabinets slightly. The exact amount of the overhang depends on the type of edge treatment you’re using, but typically the distance from the face of the cabinets to the face of the edge is between 1 and 1½ inches. After careful leveling, the plywood is attached to the top of the cabinets with screws. Edge joints in the plywood need to be supported, typically by adding wood cleats under the joints.

The cement board is cut to fit the plywood, using a circular saw equipped with the appropriate blade. A thin layer of thinset adhesive is applied to the top of the plywood using a notched trowel, then the cement board is put in place and secured with flathead screws that are countersunk into the surface. Finally, cutouts for sinks and appliances are completed.

TILE INSTALLATION

Installation of the tile itself begins with a dry layout, where the tiles are fit together on the counter without adhesive to test the layout and make sure it looks right. Unlike typical ceramic tile installations, granite tiles are installed tightly against one another, with virtually no grout lines between them.

Straight runs of counters typically start with a full tile at each end of the counter, working in from each end toward the sink. The final cuts are made at the sink, where the narrower pieces are less noticeable. For L- and U-shaped counters, begin your layout at one of the inside corners and work out in each direction from there, again making the cuts at the sink, cooktop or range opening. If you will be using cut pieces of granite for the front edge of the counter as well, they are installed first, allowing the countertop tiles to overlap them and cover the cut edge.

Work with the dry tiles until you’re sure you have a pleasing layout. Now is the time to make any corrections in the plywood or cement board substrates if needed to square things up. Don’t wait until you lay the tile to make corrections because the mistakes will be very noticeable. Cut filler tiles to fit using a rented tile wet saw.

Lift the dry tiles off the cement board, keeping them in the order of the layout. Use a small brush to sweep off the top of the board, then apply a layer of thinset that is formulated for granite or other types of natural stone. Use a notched trowel, and work with no more than about three to four square feet at a time.

Lay the tiles in place, pressing them firmly into the thinset with a slight wiggling and rocking motion. Check the tiles with a straightedge as you go to ensure the counter is flat and level, and wipe up any excess thinset. If you are using tiles for the front edge, install them first; for wood edges, flush the tile out with the front edge of the counter, then install the wood edge after the tile is dry. Finally, install any backsplash tiles.

GROUTING

Grouting is the final step. Cover wood edge with masking tape to protect it, then mix the grout according to package instructions. For best results, you might want to consider using an epoxy grout, which is harder and easier to clean then most cement-based grouts.

Mix the grout to a soupy consistency, and pour it onto the counters. With a grouting sponge, work back and forth across the tiles at an angle to spread the grout and work it into the spaces between the tiles. Scrape off the excess before it dries. Let the grout set up, then clean the tops of the tiles with water and a sponge. Finally, polish the tiles with soapy water and a rag or sponge to remove the dried-on film of grout.

Tiles, grout, thinset, cement board, tools and complete installation instructions are available at most home centers and other retailers of tile supplies.

***

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