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I’ve fabricated kitchen and bathroom countertops from plastic laminates and most of the solid-surface materials on the market. In the past few years, though, I’ve been making most of my tops from one material — Swanstone’s 1/4-inch sheet material (Swan Corp., One City Centre, St. Louis, MO 63101; 314/231-8148). Swanstone, which is also available in 1/2-inch thickness, is a solid-surface material made from modified acrylic resins reinforced with fiberglass. Although the material’s hardness makes it more difficult to work with than some softer solid-surface materials, it’s this very quality that I like: I’ve hammered on it without so much as leaving a mark and have put a propane torch to it without doing more harm than warming the surface. With the ability to withstand this kind of abuse, it makes a great kitchen countertop material. Swanstone’s durability is also helpful during fabrication and installation, because it’s forgiving of the occasional bumps against other surfaces and the inevitable scratches that seem to plague plastic laminate fabrication. But while the material is virtually shatterproof, it can’t be thermoformed, which means I can’t use radius corners like you commonly see on island and peninsula tops. Instead, I use either 90-degree or clipped corners.

Easy Fabrication

The 1/4-inch-thick sheets are easy to handle, and the countertops are fabricated much like a plastic laminate top. Depending on your choice of color and pattern, the seams are inconspicuous if not practically invisible. Regardless of whether the countertop is to be installed in a new or existing kitchen or bath, I first rough-cut the 3/4-inch high-density particleboard substrate in my shop, take it to the job site, and lay it on top of the base cabinets. I scribe the edge against the rear and side walls and trim or shape the particleboard as needed with a jigsaw and belt sander. Once I have a tight fit to the walls, I mark the outside edges of the cabinets. On the substrate top, I make notes, such as where a stove abuts the countertop, as well as hatch marks across butt joints to help me align the pieces during assembly. I also mark the inside of the sink base cabinet so I can center the sink during fabrication. I make sure to locate any nearby substrate seams at least 12 inches away from the sink. Fitting the particleboard substrate at the site allows me to follow the contour of the cabinet layout; if the cabinets are out of alignment, the top will follow them. This makes final installation much easier than if I had to scribe the finished top.

Preparing the Substrate

Back in the shop, I flip the substrate upside down and, working with the scribed pencil lines, I subtract 1/4 inch from any edges that butt against appliances or cabinets (a refrigerator end panel, for instance) and draw a parallel line. This marks where the inside face of the 1/4-inch-thick Swanstone edge will go. Since I typically project the countertop front edge 2 inches beyond the cabinet face to cover drawer fronts and hardware, I draw another parallel line 1-3/4 inches in front of the cabinets (again subtracting for the thickness of the Swanstone). End overhangs are 1 inch. Using these lines as references, I glue (carpenter’s glue works best) and staple 2-1/2-inch-wide buildup strips ripped from the substrate material along the front and sides (see Figure 1).

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Figure 1. Working to layout lines, the fabricator glues and staples edge buildup strips in place (top). The top is then flipped over and routed flush to the buildup strips. The final step in preparing the substrate is to cut an expansion kerf 3/4 inch in from the edges, per the manufacturer’s instructions (bottom).

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Substrate expansion joints.

I make sure to place some of the staples within 3/4 inch of the edge. This is because later, I’ll have to flip the top and saw a 3/4-inch-deep expansion kerf 3/4 inch in from the outside edge of the top. According to the manufacturer, this kerf allows the substrate to expand slightly if it takes on moisture without breaking the bond with the Swanstone surface material. (I’ve never had a problem with moisture expansion, but I follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for warranty reasons.) The glue and staples keep the 3/4x3/4-inch strip attached to the buildup. I also leave a 1/8-inch gap between abutting pieces of buildup — again, because the manufacturer recommends it, but also because this gives me a good place to attach the spring clamps that I use to hold the edging in place during glue-up. I use 1-1/2-inch-wide buildup strips along the back, setting them about 3/4 inch in from the edge. Where sections of the substrate butt, I stitch the pieces together with pneumatic corrugated fasteners, then glue and staple a 10- to 12-inch-wide piece of particleboard reinforcement over the joint. Finally, to finish the substrate blank, I flip the top over and using a bit with a bottom-mounted bearing guide, I rout the sides and ends of the top flush with the 2-1/2-inch buildup strips. I touch up any ripples in the cuts with a belt sander, and square up inside corners with a chisel.

Sink cutouts.

For sinks and drop-in cooktops, I lay a template on top of the substrate, holding back the appropriate distance from the front edge, and mark the outline. I drill a pilot hole, and carefully make the cutout with a saber saw. At this point, the top is almost ready for the solid-surface material. If at all possible, however, I first take the top to the site for a dry fit. I bring along a belt sander, hand plane, and jigsaw to make any adjustments. This may seem like a waste of time, but I learned the hard way that a simple layout error can eat up valuable time correcting the mistake, to say nothing of the extra material I’m forced to buy.