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.
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
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
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).
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
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
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
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.
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.