It'll take some doing, but if your confident with your DIY skills you can make a kitchen counter upgrade with solid results. How? With step-by-step help from the pros at This Old House, of course. Here are our top projects to help you along. -Tabitha Sukhai, thisoldhouse.com
1. Install a Soapstone Countertop
Too often the price of granite or engineered stone is out of reach of the average renovation budget. Not soapstone. This traditional kitchen topper is easy for a do-it-yourselfer to install, meaning you could save big on the labor, which usually accounts for half the cost. Available to be shipped nationwide from companies such as M. Teixiera Soapstone, where this counter came from, and starting at less than $25 per square foot, soapstone is a great, inexpensive DIY project.
Relative to other stones, soapstone is soft enough that it doesn't require special tools to machine it. You likely already have what you need to cut and shape it: a circular saw, a jigsaw, a drill/driver, a grinder, and a sander. Here's How to Install a Soapstone Counter in just an afternoon or two.
2. Install a Butcher-Block Countertop
Sleek granite and sharp stainless. It looks all luxe and modern-and maybe just a little bit, you know, cold. So what to do if you want more warmth in the heart of the home? Cozy things up with rich-looking butcher block. Not only are its well-oiled tones welcoming, it's easy to install, as we demonstrate in How to Install a Butcher-Block Counter. Just order it to size, and then fasten it down. In hours you can turn a chilly steel-and-stone room into a charming cook's corner.
If you're going for homey and cozy in your kitchen, skip the built-in cabinet-base island and instead make the central work area a furniturelike table with a butcher-block counter. Because these thick wood-slab tops have their edge or end grain exposed, they are stronger than wood laid on the flat. That means they resist warping and nicks better than laminate and almost as well as stone.
With this durability comes an old-fashioned warmth. The trend for wood and furniture in the kitchen is in full swing, and butcher-block islands mimicking 19th-century worktables are perfect for toning down the coldness of stone counters and metal appliances in modern cook spaces. You can bring this classic aesthetic to your kitchen by constructing a prep island from easy-to-buy materials or choosing one of the dozens of styles available through retailers and furniture makers. Whichever path you choose, you'll end up with an island that can be at the center of the cooking action and still take whatever you can dish out. Here's How to Build a Butcher-Block Island in 5 steps.
Here's another variation on this style, which combines iron threaded pipe and butcher block to create a kitchen centerpiece.Get the steps.
4. Other Kitchen-Counter Hacks: Remove Spots from Kitchen Countertops
"Stones are basically sponges," says Fred M. Hueston, director of the National Training Center for Stone and Masonry Trades, in Longwood, Florida. He's working in a kitchen, mixing up an odd-smelling poultice of flour and hydrogen peroxide in the hope of removing a stubborn coffee stain from an island countertop. Spread over the stain, the paste should literally pull the discoloration out of the red travertine. "Granite, marble, and limestone consist of interlocking mineral crystals with pores between them," he explains. "So spills soak into unprotected stone in just 15 to 20 minutes for granite, and 30 minutes to an hour for marble and limestone." The liquid evaporates, but a mark remains.
Hueston, who literally wrote the book on the subject of stone restoration (Stain Removal Guide: For Stone, Tile, and Concrete), will leave the poultice in place for 24 hours. This will allow it to "wick" the stain out of the countertop, in the same way that poultices made with other ingredients pull oil stains out of concrete or venom out of snakebite victims. He determines his recipe on the basis of the stain and stone types: an absorbent base like dry clay, flour, or a paper towel, and a wicking chemical such as detergent, bleach, or hydrogen peroxide. If the countertop has been both stained and etched, the stone must be polished and a new sealer applied. "Cleaning spills right away and using coasters is a lot easier," he says. See all the steps here.
5. Other Kitchen-Counter Hacks: Install Undercabinet Lighting
There's a missing element in most American kitchens, and it's not a $7,500 range or a 4-acre refrigerator. No, it's simply good lighting. And a well-lit kitchen begins with undercabinet task lighting. These hidden fixtures, which are fairly easy to retrofit beneath upper wall cabinets, bathe the countertop in bright white light-a boon for everything from dicing veggies to reading recipes. Connect the fixtures to a dimmer switch, as shown here, and you also have the key to dramatic accent lighting or a night light for midnight snackers.
If you're a bit tentative about working with electricity, don't worry. This installation is simple and shock-free, as long as you cut the juice at the breaker box first. Get the rest in How to Install Undercabinet Lighting.