Kitchen Counters

After Aramis and I completed fabricating the kitchen cabinet frames, it was time to make the concrete counter tops. But first, I sprayed three good coats of black paint on the frames. The paint fumes made Jabo a little goofy:


We almost decided to use granite for the counter tops, but concrete fit the Natural Industrial Bling style of the house just fine and is a lot less expensive.

I wanted to use plywood or particle board with a melamine face for the forms. But I couldn’t find it without a trip to the city. So I bought three sheets of 3/4″ plywood and three sheets of plastic laminate. I bonded the laminate to the plywood with contact cement:


Here I am waiting for the glue to dry.

After applying the laminate to the plywood, I cut the sheets to size and made forms. I planned to pour the counter tops upside down so that the laminate would make a nice smooth surface on the concrete. Here are the forms with rebar reinforcement:


The boards sitting edgewise on the forms are supports — using baling wire, I hung the rebar mesh an inch off the surface of the laminate. The drop cloths will keep the painted cabinets from getting splashed with concrete.

We wanted black or at least dark grey concrete tops. The river-run sand and gravel that we have used for all the concrete in the house is quite brown. But some time ago, I bought a few yards of unsifted black sand that was left over from when the main road was resurfaced. I also bought a half-yard of #2 (1/2″) crushed gravel. It is dark grey in color. And lastly, I bought 20-pounds of black colorant for concrete.

Friday was pour day. Armando, Aramis, and I needed to calculate how many five-gallon buckets-full of concrete we would need. We had to mix enough from the start, because it would be difficult to match the color of the first batch if we needed to make a second batch.

We did our best to estimate how much area of the forms would be covered with one bucket-full of concrete. We moved our hands; this much? More? No. Less? We finally found consensus. We then moved our hands, spread to the estimated distance, over all the forms. One bucket, two buckets, three buckets…. twenty buckets total. We decided to mix the equivalent of twenty-two buckets of concrete.

At the mix pile, we got eleven buckets of sand, the fourteen bags of gravel (one bag equals about 3/4 of a bucket) and three-and-a-half sacks of cement and mixed them all together:


Then Armando sprinkled the colorant onto the pile. We turned the pile two more times:


I wanted a relatively dry mix. The local men find it easiest to put a ton of water into the mix. Very soupy concrete is very common. Not only does this make for weaker concrete, but the surface is soft and pasty. I wanted the surface good and hard, with more sand and gravel and very little cement paste, especially if I decide to grind it smooth with diamond pads on the wet grinder. So I told the guys to pretend that they were mixing mortar to spread on concrete block walls. I made a super-big deal about this and told them that if it was too wet, it was not usable and we would have to start from scratch. And they could buy the materials!

As they mixed, I made last minute preparations in the kitchen. Armando delivered the first bucket full…. ….. ….. (insert anticipation here) …. …. …. IT WAS PERFECT! They had done what all us gringos thought was impossible. The concrete was well mixed; everything was wet, but it was good and stiff. I packed it into the forms and around the rebar. The mix was like jelly and compacted well when I pounded and jiggled it with the wooden float. There was no excess water!

Aramis continued mixing, Armando continued delivering, and I continued spreading and compacting the concrete. Every once in a while Armando would stop and assist me with screeding the surface smooth. Here are the tops all poured:


You can see that there is very, very little jobsite mess from excess water coming out of the concrete. This will make strong, dense, scratch- and ding-resistant counters.


Foreground island: breakfast bar, kitchen sink. Next island: stove (remember, the concrete has to be flipped over). Last island: bread/pastry prep.

We were done before noon. I had the guys clean up and told them that I was so happy with their concrete mixing that they could take the rest of the day off. I stayed and troweled the surface (what would be the underside of the counter top) smooth.

By the way, we had about a gallon of concrete left over. I tallied the number of years of experience that it took to make a rule-of-six-thumbs estimate; Aramis’ ten years, Armando’s fifteen years, and my, um, fifty years (if you don’t count my tree house constructing years). Seventy-five years of experience. One gallon of extra concrete. Good deal.

I wanted to let the tops cure for at least a week. But given how dry the mix was to begin with, on Monday morning I couldn’t discern any water or moisture on the surface. I decided to flip the slabs and remove the forms.

Aramis and Armando arrived for work. I also recruited neighbor workers Ramiro and Samuel. Together, the five of us removed the forms and flipped the slabs over so that the smooth side would be up.

These two-and-a-quarter-inch thick beasts are hundreds-of-pounds heavy! And with the cutouts for the sink and the stove, we had to be very, very careful to lift the slabs evenly and not introduce hairline cracks at the weak inside corners. I also kept stressing to the men to count their fingers. We took our time. We had to because the weight worked every muscle that the five of us had. At the end, all the slabs were sitting face up and no fingers were mashed or muscles pulled.

Here are some photos of the counter tops:

Looking in the kitchen door to the left:


Looking in the kitchen door straight ahead:


Looking in the kitchen door to the right:


Here is a closeup of the kitchen sink. We can’t wait to see the faucet in place:


The Schock brand sink is a granite composite made in Germany. With headquarters in the Bavarian forest,  the company appears to be very environmentally aware.

I still need to fill the tiny holes and then run an angle grinder with a diamond polishing pad over the tops. But for today, we are considering the job a huge success. We couldn’t be happier!

That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.



16 thoughts on “Kitchen Counters

  1. Hi Fred,
    Very impressive project. Looks terrific from way up here. I will have to come by and get a first hand look in Jan. Love following the progress.
    Happy Holidays to you and Cynthia!

  2. I too have struggled with the locals tendency to add too much water, creating watery mud. It be pretty stiff (for any use). Then keep it moist for a week.

    I’ve seen some beautiful counter tops where the entire surface was ground down to expose aggregate. Not so successful was what I tried – only grinding the few areas that needed it.

  3. This is EXACTLY what I have always wanted, but my husband thinks that sheets of granite might be cheaper than the labor and effort required where we are. Just LOVED seeing this method, as when I have previously seen the lovely thick cement counters (though tiled afterwards…) I never quite could figure out HOW they were made.
    Bravo (again!!)

  4. Great work Fred. Ingenuity at work.
    I have tile counter tops. I built all the kitchen cabinets from cedar. It’s nice when you build your own house you know what is in wall and where.
    Keep up the good work Fred and crew.

  5. I have in mind building a Home out of shipping container’s as a base like yours I think you are doing a vary good job at it, you must be a constructor of have lot of know how doing so, I’m a retired Boilermaker, and steel as been my everyday life for some time, congratulation on your project and keep up the good work Joe

    • Thank you Cuban Joe. Funny, I’ve been a carpenter most of my life but now I am barely touching wood in this project. I am looking forward to making the dovetail wooden drawers for the kitchen! Everything on this project has had a learning curve for me. As a boilermaker, I’ll bet that you would innovate the shipping container house style! Thanks for your comment, Fred

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