Concrete countertops – pros & cons…

I just finished a bit of maintenance/polishing up of our kitchen countertops. It got me thinking. I get a lot of questions about our kitchen countertops.  I talked briefly about our countertops when I was presenting our kitchen, but that was just a “these things are amazing and beautiful” kind of thing. So, I thought a little review in the form of a Q&A might be in order for those thinking about countertop materials.

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What is your countertop material?  It’s concrete. Interestingly, a lot of people initially think that our countertops are a metal of some sort. While it is concrete, it is a special concoction specifically for countertops. It includes some glass fibers for strength  – or so I was told by the countertop guys.

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Why did you choose concrete?  I wanted something with a bit of an industrial edge. I wanted something unique. I wanted something reasonably priced. Concrete won out over quartz and soapstone.

Did you make the countertops yourself?  No. I thought about DIY-ing the countertops – briefly. After doing a bit of research, I decided I would leave it up to someone who had done it before. I feel like it was money well spent.

Were the countertops poured in place?  No. The countertops were templated much like stone, made offsite, and delivered in a completely finished state. No mess. No dust. No noise. I didn’t have to do a thing – well, other than write a check.

Are the countertops as heavy as stone?  Yes. In fact, I am told that concrete countertops weigh more than stone ones. The weight of our countertops is enough to keep the countertops in place without glue – or any other securement method. That’s pretty heavy.

Is the concrete protected with some sort of sealer?  I am sure there are a number of different options out there. I went with just a wax finish.  It has worked out pretty well for us.  It has been a lot less maintenance than I expected.

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How do you maintain the concrete?  I am sure other people have a whole sealing routine down pat. I don’t. I have tried a number of things because I thought I was supposed to be doing something on a regular basis to keep the countertops in perfect shape.  I tried using the above pictured wax that the countertop guys recommended. It’s difficult to use and doesn’t really make the countertops look any better.  What it does do is provide a barrier to repel stains and such. So, I can’t really bad mouth it. It does it’s job. It’s just that I expected more from it.  I also tried the recommended countertop spray/polish. The directions say to use it weekly. I only tried it twice. Just as with the wax, it provides a barrier. It’s easier to use than the wax, but it doesn’t polish the countertop perfectly. I was expecting a shiny, perfect polish.  I didn’t get that. As a result, I am not sure it’s worth the effort of ordering it up (it isn’t available locally – another point against it) – and it is kind of pricey.  So, I decided to try out some other alternatives. So far, beeswax is the frontrunner.  It works as well in providing a barrier as the wax and polish. It is easy to apply and buff out (the photo below is beeswax maintenance in process). It is food safe. It provides a pretty decent shine – not perfect – but definitely decent. Chalk one up for the bees.

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Can you set hot pans on the concrete?  I haven’t tried to do this, but I am going to guess the answer is “no”. I think the wax on the countertop would melt pretty fast if a hot pan was set down on it.  I have a bazillion dish towels so throwing something down to protect the countertop isn’t a big problem for me. Better safe than sorry – don’t set hot stuff on concrete countertops.

Can you cut directly on the countertop?  I haven’t actually tried to cut directly on our countertop. Though I have used cookie cutters directly on the countertop with no problems. When I finally bought some decent knives, they (as in the people at the kitchen store where I got the knives) told me to always use a wood cutting board so as to keep the knives sharp and in good shape.  Plus, cutting directly on stone or concrete reminds me of fingernails on the chalkboard thing. I don’t like that. It makes me cringe. Eliminate cringing – please use a cutting board people.

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Does it stain easily?  I haven’t had any big problems with staining. The wax seems to do a pretty good job of providing a barrier. I have experienced problems with wax deterioration or concrete discoloration/etching with lemon juice splatters. Initially, I was sort of annoyed with this, but it has added to the patina-ed look and feel of the countertops. While I appreciate the patina of a well loved and used countertop, I still want to avoid any potential problems with excessive staining and etching. So, I am pretty consistent about keeping the countertops clean and wiped down when things get spilled. Concrete countertops might not be for you if a little “lived in patina” isn’t your thing.

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Is concrete durable for countertop material?  For the most part, yes. I have noticed a few small chips here and there with continued use.

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We had a bigger chunk break out when Tad accidentally dropped a cereal bowl from about 2 feet up.  I used epoxy to fill the hole. I also just filled the most recent chips/ pin holes with epoxy.  I initially tried using a slurry for filling (because I don’t much like to use epoxy), but the slurry didn’t work as well as the epoxy.

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If you could do it all over, would you choose concrete again?  Yes – definitely. I have ended up really liking the character and imperfections that have developed over time.  I thought that would drive me crazy – it hasn’t. I’ve embraced the lack of perfection. I like that it is unique to our house. My favorite feature is still the thick, flush edge. At this point, I can’t imagine any other kind of countertop in our kitchen.

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The Kitchen – it’s done – thanks to a little weekend lighting project…

As Tad likes to say (and did say this weekend) “It’s not a project without at least 3 trips to Home Depot”.  Our weekend only included 2 trips to Home Depot, but there was the initial trip a week ago for a total of 3 trips.  So, we’ve got a project to report here – we installed a recessed can light in our kitchen – or pot light as the Canadians like to say.

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Trip #1 (just me – a week ago because I thought I was doing this project last weekend) – I picked up the supplies.  A recessed can fixture that was the right size and IC rated – check.  The trim piece that was the correct size – check.  I figured we had everything else already – tools, wire, stuff – this isn’t the first recessed fixture we have installed.

Trip #2 (both of us – on Saturday afternoon – after I had lunch with friends, and Tad went to work for a bit and then the grocery store for some pop in preparation for the project) – We picked up a hole cutter that attaches to the drill even though we had a hand drywall saw at home.  I like to say “It’s not a project unless Tad convinces me that another tool is needed”.  We also ended up with an unplanned purchase of 8 LED bulbs because the ones that I like had a huge price drop – down to $12.97 each – more on that later!

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Trip #3 (both of us – on Saturday night at 8:30pm in the snow) – As we were excitedly finishing up the project, I discovered that I had bought the wrong trim piece – it was the right size, just not the right style.  If we were in The Amazing Race, this lack of attention to detail would have likely gotten us eliminated:(  On a side note, we tried out for The Amazing Race a week or so ago.  We love “The Race”, as we both like to call it.  The chances that we will get picked are pretty slim since we are pretty normal and happy, but at least we can say we tried.  Anyway, if we do make it to The Amazing Race and we have a task that involves installing a recessed light,  I will make sure the trim piece is the right size and style.

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It is hard to believe – but – we have a room in our house that is completely finished,  The reason I say it is hard to believe is because this is the only room in our house that is finished or has ever been finished the entire time we have lived here – in over 15 years.  So, in the famous words of others, it is “done”, “good to go”, “the final piece of the puzzle has been placed”, “the fat lady has sung”, “the curtain has dropped”, “it’s a wrap”, “the last chapter has been written”, “the sun has set”, “the last word has been spoken”, “that ship has sailed”, and simply “it’s over”…

Our kitchen is officially off the To Do List!  Well, really I left it on the To Do List, but crossed through it – to highlight that we have successfully completed everything in one of our rooms – at least for now.

The last light fixture has been recessed!

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You might recall (or not) that our open shelving/dish storage area was a bit dark.  I was too lazy to go to the store to get another fixture when we were installing the electrical during our kitchen renovation.  I knew I was going to regret that initial decision.  At the time, I insisted that all the other lights in the room would be enough to illuminate my open shelving nook.  I was wrong.  The lighting in the majority of the kitchen is so great that it really highlights the fact that the open shelving area doesn’t have it’s own light – and it really should.

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Well, this weekend project idea of mine got me motivated.  As I mentioned earlier, I had actually gathered all the supplies last weekend and was ready to knock this out.  Then, Tad was all wanting to be involved, but he was working last weekend.  So, I had to postpone the event until this weekend.   Then, Tad asked me several times if I really wanted to do this. My answers were yes, yes, and yes – I still want this additional light.   Then, he mentioned that his electrician friend – who helped us with the electrical when we first renovated the kitchen – doesn’t really like recessed lights because they are task lights.  My comment back was that I want some task lighting in my dish nook area so I figured Joe, the electrician friend, would have to agree that one more recessed light was in order.

The first thing we did was check to see where the ceiling joists were – to make sure we could get this light somewhere in the general vicinity of where I wanted it.  We used the stud finder for this.

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We then measured out from the wall – with a tape measure – to determine the center of the open shelves.  We also measured out from the back wall in an effort to locate the light right in front of the shelves.

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Then, Tad pulled out the plumb-bob so we could see where the center of the light would shine below.  Tad also quizzed me about when we last used the plumb-bob.  I couldn’t remember.  He reminded me that we last used it for our center surface mounted kitchen light fixture – to make sure we had that fixture centered in the room.  Then, Tad mentioned that a laser level or some such thing would be better than the plumb-bob.  I ignored this comment.  The plumb-bob did the trick – no need for a laser on this project, Tad.

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We drilled a small hole in the ceiling where we wanted the fixture to go.  Tad then headed up to the attic (the photo is blurry because Tad was moving at lightning speed – he doesn’t like being in the attic).  I offered to go instead, but he reluctantly said he would do it.  I say this to get it on record – that I did offer.   He pulled back the insulation and checked to make sure there wasn’t anything in the way of our next light fixture.  There happened to be a wire right in the area where we wanted the new fixture, so we had to adjust and move our new fixture out about 1-2 inches, which wasn’t a problem.

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Next, we cut the hole for the fixture – after Trip #2 to Home Depot for the hole cutter, and a stop for an early dinner, and a stop at Enstrom’s for some Almond Toffee Popcorn.

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I will admit that this little tool was a pretty good thing to have.  It was $20 so we could have saved by using our hand drywall saw that we already had, but it made the project a lot quicker.  It’s adjustable so you can cut any size hole you need.  It fits onto the drill like a drill bit without needing to purchase additiional adaptive accessories.  It comes with a plastic bowl that catches the majority of the drywall dust.  It took about 1 minute to cut a perfectly sized, clean edged hole.  If only I had been the inventor of this thing…

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Tad wired up the new fixture, turned off the breaker to the kitchen, and headed up to the attic again.  This time it was in the dark so I couldn’t get any photos.  The new fixture was to be tied into the center fixture so work in the dark attic was minimal.  Tad just had to secure the new fixture to the ceiling joists and thread the wiring through the box of the center kitchen fixture.  The rest of the wiring was done from the kitchen.

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We replaced the center light fixture without any problems and turned the breaker back on.  It all worked!

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The final step was to put up the trim.  That is when we discovered I had purchased the wrong trim piece…

Back from Trip #3 to Home Depot – we’ve now got light shining down on our open shelving/dish nook area – and we’ve got a completely finished room at the old bungalow!

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Time it took:  3pm to 9pm – not including trip #1 to Home Depot – but including the 2 additional/unplanned trips to Home Depot – and a dinner break – and some Almond Toffee Popcorn snacking.  So, not totally quick and easy, but not too bad either – and we’ve got a completely finished room at our house.  Sorry, I can’t stop thinking or talking about that.

See the entire kitchen project or any part of it below:

It was totally worth it.

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Very Bright!  Very Exciting!

Kitchen – the finale…

This kitchen “finale” is about bringing it full circle – the planning phase, did it work out like we expected, and highlights to remember.  Fair warning – it is a bit wordy…

We had 3 goals we wanted to accomplish with our kitchen project – we wanted our space to be functional, open and visually unobtrusive, and unique – previously presented in our biggest DIY to date.

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Goal#1:  Functional – accomplished.  This is how I got an organized and functional kitchen.

1.  I went through my kitchen stuff and got rid of the stuff I didn’t use, didn’t like, or didn’t need.  I also got rid of the duplicate items I had collected over the years.  Kitchens are expensive and I didn’t want to pay for cabinet space that I didn’t need.

2.  I then took inventory of what I had – dishes, glasses, mugs, silverware, utensils, pots & pans, baking dishes, cheese grater, pot holders, serving dishes, mixing bowls, toaster, dish cloths/towels, paper towels, food storage containers/lids, plastic baggies, foil, parchment paper, garbage bags, baking stuff (hand mixer, measuring cups/spoons, cake pans, muffin tins, rolling pin, cookie cutters), miscellaneous (drink containers, blender, lunch bags, small food processor), cookie sheet, cooling rack, extra cutting board, minimal cleaning supplies, fire extinguisher, recycling bin, garbage container, a single cookbook/binder, fondue pot (we love fondue), essential spices/seasonings, tea, minimal “pantry” items, cat food, and a “junk” drawer.

3.  I assigned items to specific cabinets/drawers in my proposed cabinetry plan – to make sure I planned the right amount of storage space (I didn’t want to under or over plan).  Item locations were based on where the items are used (for example – utensils and pots & pans next to the stove).  Here is my proposed plan.  Pardon the hand drawings. It’s not fancy but they were good enough to get a permit and got us to the finished product.  So, I figure they are good enough to show off here as well.

The South Wall – proposed and actual…

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The skinny cabinet next to the stove was a source of much discussion in the planning and implementation phase.  It seemed kind of weird being only 6-ish inches wide but it was necessary because I didn’t want the stove right up against the wall. The 6 inch countertop provides an area for my container of kitchen utensils. The cabinet itself ended up working out perfectly for the cookie sheet, cooling rack, and extra cutting board. I was skeptical at first, but it worked out great.

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The drawer next to the stove is for the potholders, knives, and other miscellaneous utensils.  The pullouts below house the pots and pans and baking dishes.  I initially thought I would do lid storage in one pullout and the pots/pans in the other pullout.  I ended up with plenty of space so I am able to store the lids with their respective pots/pans – this is optimal in my opinion so I am happy with this outcome.  The cheese grater also ended up there – only because I thought it looked good there.

Under sink storage – my cleaning supplies are minimal so they fit in there just fine – along with the fire extinguisher.

Next is the dishwasher – right next to the sink – and the reason we expanded the kitchen 2 feet into the sunroom.

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Turning the corner – we do have a dead space corner here.  I felt like it wasn’t needed storage so I was ok with not utilizing the space (and the access options seemed odd.)  We put a note in there for the next people who remodel the place (we are hoping it won’t be us!)  Since we finished the project, we have seen a couple of mini wine refrigerators that we think would fit in there (access would be from the other side of the peninsula) – we don’t really drink a lot of wine but it would be a cool feature to have and a great place for bottles of sparkling water…

The West Elevation/Peninsula – proposed and actual…

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The junk drawer houses the flashlight, scissors, extra keys, the occasional coupon, etc.

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The pullouts below store serving dishes, mixing bowls, and the toaster.

On the end is the silverware drawer and the cookbook cabinet below.  Tad also stores extra bottles of pop here.  This cabinet was originally planned to house the garbage container.  When it finally came together I didn’t like the idea of garbage in a cabinet – I know it is weird because everybody has garbage containers in cabinets – I am just not used to it.

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The North Wall – proposed and actual…

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The upper part of the left hand cabinet is our “pantry”.  I can see the shocked faces and hear the doubting voices out there.  It is unbelievable (maybe even unfathomable to some) that we don’t have a pantry the size of a small bedroom.  Here’s the story – I work hard to not eat  prepared food, processed food, and junk food – so, I don’t  have the need to store a ton of canned goods, boxed goods, bagged goods, snacks, and such.  We also aren’t the buy in bulk kind of people – we only buy what we use – it works for us.  As a result, we have a single shelf for cereal, oatmeal, brown sugar (for the oatmeal), pasta, dried beans, back up Nance’s mustard (the best mustard ever) and the occasional bag of chips or crackers.

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Another shelf is dedicated to a few basic spices, salt, pepper, vanilla, baking soda and powder, olive oil, vegetable oil,  flour, sugar for the occasional cookie recipe, tea – and the fondue pot (yum, yum fondue!)  We like to keep food preparation basic and simple – if a recipe calls for a bunch of specialty items, I don’t make it.

The additional upper pullouts are for items not used very often – extra dishes mostly.

Below the microwave is a pullout with foil, parchment paper, food storage baggies, and garbage bags.  Below the pullout is the recycle bin and the cat food (both of which were stored in another room in the old kitchen – good to have these items conveniently located now).

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In the middle of this wall is obviously the open shelving for every day dishes, glasses, mugs.  You can see that initially I thought I would do only one shelf and and an upper cabinet to hide the mugs (I thought the mugs didn’t really fit in with my desired design look).  We ended up with 3 open shelves – it has worked out perfectly and the mixed up mugs don’t really bother me that much).

Below the shelves is a countertop – planned specifically so we can set things down next to the refrigerator and microwave.  Also, a lovely little area for the canister set and some pretty accessories.

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Below the countertop on this wall is the bulk of our miscellaneous (but still organized) storage. I went with deep drawers.  The drawers are a bit more expensive than just a cabinet with some doors, but the amount of increased storage and ease of access to the items with the drawers is hugely worth the few extra dollars.  One drawer has linens and paper towels (conveniently located near the microwave – to cover up food being microwaved – so it doesn’t splatter everywhere). The drawer below holds baking items – hand mixer, cake pans, muffin tins, measuring cups, measuring spoons, the rolling pin, cookie cutters, and the ravioli mold (nothing is better than homemade ravioli). The other upper drawer contains food storage containers. Below that is miscellaneous drink containers, the blender, a small food processor, and lunch bags.

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Finally we arrive at the refrigerator.  The bulk of our food storage is here. We always have tea (for me), milk (for Tad), Lindt chocolate balls (for Tad), a few condiments, fruit, veggies, lemons, arugula, cheese, and leftovers.

There is no East elevation – so no sketch for this elevation – it is just glorious open, free space!

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See here for the entire cabinetry story…

Goal #2 :  Open and visually unobtrusive – accomplished.  The open concept is better than we expected.

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This is the before and after layout of our kitchen.  We expanded our kitchen space by about 2 feet into the new sunroom addition.

Old floor plan:

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Kitchen Before 2

New floor plan:

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Goal #3: Unique – accomplished.  I believe I am safe in saying that our kitchen is definitely one of a kind – mostly because of the decor choices – see here for paint & color inspiration, countertops, floor tile, wall tile, finishing touches, and accessories.

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The budget

We ended up being $4698 over our initial budget.  $3763 of it was add-ons (vent hood, framing, insulation).  The rest of it – about $1000 – was because I under estimated the plumbing price.

The money we saved by doing most of this project ourselves is significant – we think it is about $10,000.  The vast majority of our savings came from pure and simple labor – we did our own demo, framing, sub floor, electrical, insulation, tiling the floor, and tiling the walls.  And we did it all legally – see here for permit and inspections.

Whew!