*Thank you to Z Counterform for sponsoring this post.
Alright, here it is…part II of my concrete countertop series! I know a lot of you have been patiently waiting for this post and I’m excited to share all the details. (Read part 1 here if you haven’t already.)
Before we get started on the tutorial, let me just tell you that neither Adam or I have ever worked with concrete, we are truly newbies at this. We spent a ton of time watching videos and reading tutorials online, but had no real life experience. We still felt fairly confident after doing all our research… but truth be told the pour went nothing like we thought it would. In each and every tutorial we watched or read the whole process seems so…I don’t know….calm. Slow. Like you have plenty of time to screed and trowel until the surface is perfect. Hours really. Our concrete didn’t act like that at all, so screeding and troweling was a frantic and rushed process that didn’t leave us a bit of time to work the concrete to perfection.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that even though our finish is far from perfect, it still turned out well and we are happy… which means that if we can pour our own countertops and be pleased with the results, you can too.
Now Adam and I had planned to do this with just the two of us, but we have quite a bit of family that is wanting to do concrete counters in the future, so they decided to come, watch, and learn from our mistakes. We ended up having about eight extra people there, and I’m glad we did. I expected them to just be spectators (and babysitters), but it was pretty much all hands on deck.
Alright, let’s get to it.
You will need…
Some sort of concrete mixer (we rented one from Home Depot for $45)
Five gallon bucket
Small shovel or trowel
Screed (basically a scrap piece of wood)
Spray bottle of water
Step one- Mix the concrete
We used the white concrete mix from Z Counterform. Not only is it white (the only concrete color I was interested in), but also has built-in Liqui-Crete, which is a mix of acrylic fibers and other additives that make the concrete easily workable and extra strong. You can use any concrete you would like for the countertops though (like the much cheaper Quickcrete) and add the Liqui-Crete separately. Or you can not add it at all, your choice.
The ratio we used was one bag (50 lbs) of concrete mix to a little less than a gallon of water. It’s important to know that the concrete will start to dry in the mixer fairly quickly, so only mix up as much as need for a section of countertop. At the same time, if you have a long section of countertop you want to pour it all together (not in sections) so you can work it at the same time. (This is where things start to get a little frantic and I was glad we had so many helpers).
Step two – Pour the concrete onto the counter and start screeding
Here we go, no turning back now. We transferred the concrete from the mixer to a five gallon bucket and poured it onto the countertops.
The concrete mix is thin enough that it flows easily through the mesh and isn’t hard to spread.
I used a small shovel to move it around where I needed it, making sure to work it into the corners. Then it was time to screed. The point of this is just to make it level (not particularly smooth) and work the concrete flat, making sure there are no high or low spots.
Now, when I watched the tutorials online this looked like it couldn’t be simpler. You just move the screed back and forth in a sawing motion to level the concrete. So easy a kid could do it. Except that it wasn’t.
I moved the board back and forth just like I was supposed to, but the wall was in the way. The board was going “thump thump thump” against the wall and the back wasn’t getting all that level. To make matters worse the concrete was drying WAY faster than it should. I was expecting to have to have plenty of time for this part (like, hours) but in reality the concrete started drying within about ten minutes of pouring. It was building up on the wall and starting to clump and I was thinking “Good grief, why is it drying to freaking fast?!” (Well, that is the family friendly version of what I was actually thinking.)
It’s was about this time I realized that in every single tutorial video I had watched online to prepare they were pouring the concrete onto an island. As in, there were no walls to get in the way. Screeding would be way easy on an island, but you aren’t getting the cleaned up version of a tutorial here on Domestic Imperfection…no, here you get to see all the frustrating crappy parts too.
Step three – Remove the bubbles
During the pour you will definitely get bubbles trapped underneath the surface, and you want to bring to the surface so they don’t show she you remove the forms. For this you will take an electric sander (with out the sandpaper) and gently run it along the edges of the form so the bubbles rise to the surface. We had fully planned on doing this, but in all the craziness of living in/working on two houses we couldn’t find the sander. The concrete was drying so fast that we didn’t have time to hunt it down, so instead we used the backside of a screwdriver to bang on the edges (which actually worked fairly well).
Even if you do everything correctly (like use a sander) you will probably still get some bubbles in the final product, which you can either embrace or fill with a patch.
Step four – Smooth with the magnesium float
When the concrete has set a bit (where you can touch it and it will leave a light fingerprint) start to smooth with the magnesium float. I was under the impression that this would be hours after screening, but in reality is was almost immediately after. Your concrete may act completely differently, so pay attention and be flexible. Just gently glide over it in a random, organic fashion.
Step five – Smooth even more with the steel trowel
Once the concrete has set a little more, gently go over it with the steel trowel. If you need to add a little moisture use the spray bottle of water to add a bit and make it more workable. I’m not going to go into a ton of detail of the finishing process, because I’m no expert. I would recommend watching this video on YouTube to get a better idea of what all the finishing steps should look like.
Step six – Remove the forms
Wait at least 24 hours for the concrete to set, and then you can remove the forms. To do this you will gently sand the top edges of the form to remove any extra concrete (this prevents chipping). Then you just pry the form away from the concrete and break it off. There is no gentle way to do this. It is fast, loud, and a little scary. The ultimate moment of truth. Here is a four second clip of us breaking the forms off –
Here is what the forms look like after you break them off (this picture is from the side where the oven slides in, so it didn’t need a finished edge).
You can see the plastic part on the bottom that is intact and will stay forever, and the rest of it snaps off leaving you with a beautiful smooth edge.
Some of the sections are completely perfect, while others have quite a few bubbles.
Honestly I thought the bubbles would drive me crazy, but I actually kinda like them. If you hate them Z Counterform sells a concrete patch so you can make them disappear.
We also have a seam where to pieces of the form came together.
I prepped the seam really well (or at least I thought I did) by glueing another form to the outside, taping it for extra strength, and caulking the inside…but I’m guessing the weight of the concrete shifted it a bit. I definitely do not feel the same fondness for the seam as I do the bubbles.
Step seven – Sand for a smooth finish
This step I really didn’t want to do. With the white concrete, the more you sand the grayer it becomes, since sanding exposes the aggregate. However, ours were not all that smooth when everything was said and done, so we decided to sand a bit.
I was hoping we could lightly hand sand it and have it be white and smooth, but even an extremely light sanding exposed the aggregate. Here is a (pretty terrible) picture as an example, the left is lightly sanded and the right isn’t sanded at all.
After I realized that there was no avoiding exposed aggregate, I let Adam loose and he went to town on it with the electric sander (which we finally found!). Also, you should be aware that sanding the concrete is a very messy, dusty process. If you are actually living in the house (we’re not) you should take measures to block off the area and keep the dust off all your stuff.
And so, here are some pictures of the final product…
Here you can see the finish on the side versus the top…
And here is a close up what the top looks like…
It’s not a pure white and it’s not uniform…the low spots are brighter and the high spots are grayer. Here it is even closer..
I’m not saying this is good or bad, I just want you to know that if you are planning to pour your own white concrete countertops you will probably not end up with pure white, slick smooth surface. It is definitely more of an organic looking countertop. The good news is that if you step back, overall it reads as very white.
Overall, I am very happy with the countertops. I think they look great and I would definitely do them again. That being said, I am not 100% thrilled with them either…they are not quite as smooth and white as I had hoped for. That’s not even the part that I think is bothering me though, I think I’m mainly disappointed because Adam and I learned so much during this process, and if we did it again the results would be much better. It’s kinda crappy that our first time to ever work with concrete is set in stone (literally) for forever.
So, if you are planning to pour your own countertops and don’t have any previous concrete experience, I have a couple of recommendations.
1. If you want a perfect finish, hire a concrete professional. I’m not saying to hire a professional to do the entire process for you (because that is $$$), but if you could bring someone in for an hour or two to do the finish work (last steps) I think it would make a huge difference. I can’t imagine it would be that expensive and you definitely won’t regret it.
And / or…
2. Do a test run. If you’ve never done concrete work before, buy a few extra bags, make a quick wooden form in your garage, and do a practice run before you jump right into pouring your (very permanent) countertops.
And that’s it! If you have any questions please leave them in the comments and I will answer them (or e-mail my contact at Z Counterform if I don’t know the answer).
Oh! I almost forgot the most important part…the price breakdown.
- Durock – $50
- Edge profile – $200
- Fiberglass Mesh – $50
- Z Clips – $20
- Concrete – $435 (15 bags at $29 each)
- Concrete mixer rental – $45
- Magnesium float – $27
- Steel trowel – $37
- Sandpaper – $40
- Other supplies (caulk, tape, screws, etc) – $30
Total – $934 + shipping
(Freight charges will vary depending on how much concrete you order and where you live, but plan on it being at least a couple hundred dollars.)