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Laminates  are one of the quickest, easiest, and most economical ways to upgrade counter tops. With a little planning, basic DIY skills, and the right tools a first timer can get excellent results. The basic tools required are a circular saw with fine tooth blade, router/trimmer with carbide trim bit, a couple of hand  files, large framing square,  fine tooth hack saw blade. The materials required are the laminate sheets, contact cement, brush, and masking tape.

Once you have selected the style of laminate you want, the next step is lay out. Laminate sheets are available in a variety of lengths and widths. Common sizes are:

4’ x 8’     3’ x 6’     3’ x 8’        3’ x 10’    3’ x 12’    4’ x 8’        4’ x 10’    4’ x 12’    5’ x 12’

However you should check to see what sizes are available before you finalize the layout. Measure the length,width, and depth of the counter top using a large square.  Make sure to measure for the longest distance of any dimension and add an inch or more for overhang and scribing for out of square walls.  If possible I try to cover the entire counter without joints, unfortunately this is rarely possible for a variety of reasons.  When a  joint is needed, I attempt to align the seam in a manner that it will show the least.  One way would be to locate the seam in the middle of a sink or stove cut out.  The advantage here is that the seams will be much smaller than if it spanned the entire depth of the cabinet. The disadvantage is that the seam could fail if not sealed properly. Another method is to locate the seam longitudinally to your main source of light or vision. This would be either inline with a window (source of light) or in line with the longest dimension of your room. You could also do a diagonal joint in corners, however they would be longer and more difficult to accomplish. With all this said I usually layout my sheet to minimize waste. Here is the layout I used for this project.
Cutting the large unwieldy sheets is the most difficult part of installing a laminate counter top. I have learned a few techniques that help a great deal though. I start with a piece of oriented strand board for my cutting top. Since I used this for the counter top substrate, I  had several scrap pieces laying around already, but if not, I would have gone o the local lumber yard and get one. For under $5.00 you can insure straight accurate cuts, have a clean level cutting surface, and minimize errors and waste in cutting the laminate sheet. Another technique I have learned is to turn the saw blade backwards in the saw. Extreme caution is advised here, but it can work quite well. Cutting with the back of the blade minimizes chipping. In some ways it is more of a melting process than a cutting process, however I have managed much cleaner cuts this way.

I begin by cutting the end strips from both sides of the large sheet. The reason for this is that by using a factory edge, an accurate square cut is ensured and this edge can be used as a finished edge. I use the factory edge as the underside of the cabinet edge. as long as you place it accurately, you will not have to trim the underside. It is much easier to trim the top edge than it is to trim the bottom edge near corners and walls. I simply lay the laminate sheet on the plywood, line up the edges and use the saws built in rip fence to cut the strips. The blade depth is set just deep enough to the laminate. As long as I cut carefully the weight of the laminate sheet is enough to keep it from moving. I have always got very accurate cuts using this method

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At any joint a completely straight and clean cut is required. I use a couple of c-clamps, and a level as a straight edge to cut my seams. One added precaution is to place tape on both sides of the cut. This will protect the surface from scratches caused by the heal of the saw and reduce chipping

Once all of the pieces are cut dry fitting the cut pieces will show if further trimming is required. On this project the wall on the right of the cabinets was so far out of square there was about a 3/4 inch gap in the middle. I began by placing both top pieces on the counter, butting the two together, then running a small 3/4 block of wood with a pencil in front scribed the contour of the back wall. Since we will be putting up a tile back splash, this cut did not have to be extremely accurate or clean so I cut at the pencil line free hand with the circular saw.

The gluing process is fairly straight forward. Starting with the sides, I brush an even coat of contact cement on the counter top and laminate strips. Once the contact cement has dried to the touch on both, I carefully position the factory edge of the strip along the bottom of the cabinet face. The good news is that once the strip is applied, you can immediately trim the top flush with the router. I use a fine tooth hack saw blade to trim the last couple of inches close to walls where the router stops.  Then I run a file flat across the top to make sure the strip is perfectly flush.

The top is applied almost in the same way. I’ve found the quickest way to glue the top pieces is to pour the contact cement directly from the can, and spread a thin  even coat with a pieces of scrap laminate, somewhat like a squeegee. Not only is this method quicker, it also can produce a much more even coat. Brushing large areas with contact cement can get a little tricky since it starts to dry immediately and begins to gum up on the surface. Once both surfaces are dry I place scrap strips of quarter round on the surface of the counter top before I place the laminate on top. This allow me to control how and when the two glued pieces make contact. Once the laminate is exactly where I want it I begin removing the quarter round strips one at a time and press the pieces together. Extra special care is required to butt the seam together.

Trimming the top is a little more difficult. One trick i have learned is to stick masking tape along the side of the cabinet where the trim bit roller bearing makes contact. This will prevent scarring by the bearing and also move the cutting blade a few millimeters away from the edge. It is possible that the trimmer blade will scar and remove potions of the laminate face if not very careful.

The final edge detail is done with a mill file. I prefer to use a course file to quickly take of the bulk of the remaining edge and finish with a finer mill file to create a smooth edge. I leave the tape on the edges until after filing the edges to help protect them. Careful attention must be take to exactly how much edge you are taking off and at what angle. You can easily remove the face of the laminate if not careful. Once the filing is done, remove the residual glue and tap with acetone and a soft cloth. I also like to use a counter top cleaner/polish to finish the job, however it is not requires

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