Severely aging laminate counters usually need to be removed and replaced. Unlike marble, soapstone, granite, wood, and even solid surface counters, laminate counters do not develop an attractive patina. Over time, laminate only becomes more scratched and chipped, with the top wear layer scuffing away and revealing the lower image layer and, finally, the core layer.
But there is one alternative to a full countertop replacement: installing tile over the laminate countertop. It's fairly easy to do, plus it's fun and creative. For little more than the cost of tile and accessories, you can revitalize your worn laminate countertop.
Basics of Tiling a Countertop Over Laminate
If the laminate surface and its lower substrate are in good condition, you can apply ceramic or porcelain tile directly on top of the laminate. In fact, a laminate countertop in good condition is nearly the ideal surface for tiling: flat, smooth, and level.
Four-inch square tile is commonly used for tiling over laminate. It is large enough that it doesn't create as many seams as 1-inch mosaic tile. Yet it is smaller than 12-inch or 16-inch tile, making it more visually appealing and easier to cut and fit.
The working time is about six to eight hours for an average-size countertop. Because the grout needs time to cure, the total time can take several days.
Fast completion time
Wide range of style choices
Materials easy to work with
Square-edge laminate only
Only for structurally sound counters
Potential of lower resale value
Wrapped edge laminate is attractive and it resists chipping better than square edge laminate does. But you won't be able to tile over the rounded profile of wrapped edge laminate countertops. Only squared-off, 90-degree angle countertop edges can accept tile.
Equipment / Tools
- Wet tile saw or rail tile cutter
- Tile nipper
- Tack cloth
- Orbiting oscillating electric sander and sanding discs
- Tile spacers
- Trowel: 3/16-inch to 5/32-inch V-notch
- Rubber tile float
- 4-inch square ceramic tile
- Bullnose or other profile 2-inch ceramic tile trim
- Ceramic tile adhesive such as thinset
- Tile grout
- Trisodium phosphate (TSP)
Assess the Base for Structural Support
The laminate usually rests on a base of particleboard (medium-density fiberboard or MDF). If the laminate countertop has been well-maintained, the particleboard may still be in good condition for tiling. If water has contacted the particleboard, the board may sag, break, or flake away. Check underneath: around the sink and especially toward the back. Water stains are common but do not always indicate structural failure. Probe the board with a screwdriver to see if it is stable.
Fix Peeling Laminate
At the top, make sure that the laminate is not peeling away from the particleboard toward the edges. If the countertop is delaminating, the tile will eventually lift up.
Use contact cement to reapply the laminate. Separate the laminate from the base with a piece of wood as a riser. Apply contact cement to each surface and let them dry to tack. Then, press the laminate down to the base.
Remove or Cover Obstructions
The sink, faucet, cooktop, and all other items that cover the top and sides of the laminate counter must be removed or covered. Removed items is always the best choice, if possible.
Roughen the Laminate Surface
Give the laminate surface a single pass with an orbital oscillating electric sander outfitted with 60 grit paper. The aim is not to sand deeply but to give the surface a sanding that covers it in a field of fine scratches. Avoid chipping the edges with the sander.
Clean the Laminate
For cleaning the laminate, use TSP rather than household cleaning products that may leave a residue. Afterward, use a tack cloth to remove the rest of the dust.
Dry-Fit the Tile on the Countertop
Four-inch-square ceramic tile may not perfectly fit the countertop depth. Prioritize placing uncut tiles in front, with cut tiles in back. If using a rail style tile cutter, you will want to position the ragged cut side against the wall to be later covered up with a backsplash.
Cut the Tiles
In advance of mixing mortar, do all of your tile-cutting. It's best to have all of the tile-cutting done before the more time-sensitive step of working with mortar. Cut the tiles to size either with a wet tile saw or a rail-type cutter.
Spread the Mortar and Lay the Tiles
Working in manageable 2-foot square sections, lay down the mortar and trowel it out with the V-notch trowel. Keep the front and side tiles flush with the edge of the countertop. Use plastic spacers to maintain proper seam width.
Around the sink cutout, bring the tile about 1/4-inch to 3/8-inch away from the edge of the cutout. If the tile is too close, it may impede re-installation of the sink. If the tile is too far away, the lip of the sink may not cover the tiles.
Let the Tile Cure
With most ceramic tile adhesives, the full cure time is 24 to 72 hours. Consult the instructions on the adhesive. It is important to let the tile fully cure or the tiles may shift when grouting.
Grout the Tile
Grout the tiles with the rubber float, moving the float diagonally against the tiles and fully pressing the grout into the seams.
Cover the Laminate
If the laminate is peeling too much and cannot be repaired, cover it with a backer board layer. A cement backer board can be applied directly to the laminate. Tape up the seams with fiberglass mesh tape. This gives you a fail-proof surface on which to install your tile, plus it eliminates the need for sanding.
Add a Backsplash
The backside of the tile, closest to the wall, will later need to be covered with a backsplash. A backsplash can be created with more of the same tiles that you used on the countertop or you may choose to use marble, copper, or peel-and-stick materials.