To kick off the updates for my circa 1969 family room, I started with a new, built in espresso bar. I started with a new cabinet, added some plumbing, wiring and topped it off with a concrete counter top. The counter cost about $100 in materials and took about two weeks from start to finish. Rather than re-create the book in blog form, I'll walk you through the process and try to share my experience with this entertaining project.
The best place to start on this project is Fu-Tung Cheng's book
on the subject. If you're serious about taking on this project, don't even think about not reading it. The process for making the counter is relatively simple. Build the mold, caulk the seams, build a re-bar structure inside the mold and fill it with concrete.
Before I could begin making the counter, I built a new cabinet. The sides and center panels are cabinet grade birch plywood, the back is 1/2 inch ply and the top and bottom are 3/4 inch sanded ply to provide plenty of support for the heavy counter top. After cutting a hole for the cast iron sink I scored off of ebay, I used my router to cut a lip in the 3/4 plywood top to allow the sink to sit flush with the top of the plywood.
Once the cabinet was in place, I was able to determine the dimensions that I needed. My cabinet is 24 3/4 inches deep, so I added 1 and 1/2 inches for overhang and 1 inch to the length to come up with the dimensions. Then I measured the location of the sink and noted where I wanted to add holes for the faucet, soap dispenser and the power and water lines for my espresso machine.
I built the mold out of 3/4 inch melamine coated particle board, from Home Depot. (My local Lowe's charges $10 more and their panel saw has been broken for over 2 months!) I had them rip a few lengthwise pieces off the top, and I did the final cuts on my table saw with help from my wife. The parts were screwed together with drywall screws, and PVC pipe was used to create the holes for the faucet and espresso line feeds.
Once the mold was built, I caulked the seams with silicon caulk. After it dried, I used pre-cut lengths of 3/8 inch re-bar to build a metal reinforcement grid inside the mold. to keep the re-bar in place, I used wire to float it above the bottom of the mold (where the top of the counter would form.)
The prep work took forever. Once it was done, I rented an electric cement mixer for $30. Mixing the cement and filling the mold took several hours. I made the mistake of pouring a bag of cement into the mixer before adding water - half the bag ended up stuck to the back of the mixer for the duration of my session. I had to use a shovel to loosen it later on.
I used 5 bags of Quickrete 5000 pro finish concrete along with about $10 of red and black concrete pigment from Lowe's to create the actual counter top. I couldn't help but feel like a mad artist as I grabbed handfuls of cement in my rubber gloved hands and packed it into the mold. Despite the recommendation to use as little water as possible for the concrete mix, I found that it was quite a bit easier to evenly fill the mold and reduce air pockets by adding a bit more water than the minimum.
Once the counter cured for a few days, I pulled the mold apart. The PVC inserts popped out with some light hammering. Since the counter weighed at least 200 pounds, I found that I couldn't turn the counter over to check out the top without some help from my wife. After another week of curing, it was a bit easier to handle.
I bribed a friend with steak and beer to help me relocate the new counter top from my garage to the bar top. We made it, but I'm glad that I didn't make the counter any larger. The book suggests a good coating of silicon caulk to adhere the top - I opted for a set of Tap-con style concrete anchors. the counter is nicely placed, and a thick bead of silicon seals the top to the under-mounted sink.
Because i didn't vibrate the mold after I added the concrete, I was rewarded with loads of air bubbles. I applied a slurry of concrete to fill the voids, then smoothed everything over with a grout sponge. Since concrete is very porous and will absorb liquids like a sponge, I sealed the surface with three coats of semi-gloss tile and grout sealant that I already had on hand.
After a day of curing, I installed my faucet, set up my trusty espresso machine and got down to business.
Making your own counter is a challenging and rewarding project. You can try to control everything to achieve a specific look, or just go for it like I did and treat is as a learning experience. Personally, I love the earthy, rocky look of the new counter top.