Concrete bathroom countertop FAIL

Update:  I think that the Feather Finish is softer than it needs to be in order to withstand daily wear and tear.  The Feather Finish was SUPER sandable.  Cement used for floors (like a garage at least) is NOT sandable with a little hand sander.  I proved this when we were trying to clean gross carpet glue off our garage floor (the previous owners had glued carpet squares to the whole garage to use it as a lounge…ah, California).  To sand that cement (and the glue with it), we had to use a diamond-tipped grinder and it just barely touched the cement.  While the feather finish was easy to use and looked good, I’m really skeptical that it is durable enough for counter tops – at least how I use them

Update #2: see Sarah’s outcome on her Ardex countertops.  While they look great in her house, she also notes that they get dinged up.

Update #3: Charlie the contractor kindly wrote in below and mentioned that too much water can make concrete softer when it cures, although easier to spread.  So, if using feather finish, try to stick closer to the ratio described on your bag rather than in tutorials.  Thanks, Charlie!

Remember that this blog is about the good, the bad and the ugly?  Yeah, this is the ugly – fortunately we’re just talking about the countertop.  If you read nothing else: not all concrete is created equal.  This particular concrete may have coated my plywood countertop nicely, but dented and chipped easily.  It also just flat out did not look good.  So, if you do this, don’t do it my way….

Our house has two bathrooms, one closet-sized bathroom off of our bedroom and one that is much more comfortable off of the hallway which is the subject of this post.  Here is what it looks like today:

unnamed2 unnamed

The tile is actually a yellowish brown, despite my phone’s rather sad attempt at a photo.  Aesthetics aside, this bathtub is a waste of space to us because it 1) does not have a shower and 2) the water handles do not work properly.  Furthermore, the sink faucet doesn’t turn off properly, the pipes and sink are suspicious-looking, the window ledge is wrong for a shower and the tile does not go high enough up the tub wall to support a shower.

Since our house is full of contractors already, we decided that this would be a good time to have them tap into the water and install a shower, as well as fix up that window frame so that we don’t end up with a mold problem.  Having been a student and living in rentals for 9 years, I have met my fair share of bathroom mold and I don’t want to run any risks of this in our own house (although mold is by far not my best bathroom story, but that is a whole entry in itself).  We have signed up to try tiling it ourselves to save a bit of money.

Tthe countertop is also going to go because 1) it houses the sketchy undermount sink and 2) general de-beige-ing of the bathroom.  We simply refused to spend more money on another cabinet after buying all new kitchen cabinets, so we are going to try and salvage the vanity cabinet itself with some paint and hardware.  In fact, I should really get on painting that!  So, our choices are:

  1. Buy new vanity top from Home Depot or Lowes or similar ($150-350)
  2. Get a chunk of our kitchen granite cut for $900 and installed at additional cost
  3. Buy granite or marble remnant for $70 and have it cut for $900
  4. Make our own

Salvaging a crummy 60 year old cabinet is hardly worth it if we spent $1000 on just the countertop, so we ruled this out pretty quick.  There’s also a chance that I will botch the paint job on the cabinet and have to start all over anyway, so didn’t want to pay a lot for a countertop.  After shopping around for vanity tops, I realized I would have to hunt one down in exactly the size I wanted and I would have to like it.  I didn’t find that the readily available off-the-shelf countertops appealed to me, so that left my rather fussy self with option 4.  I thought concrete would be a good option since it’s durable, easy to seal (and reseal) and would be low up-front cost for supplies.

Plus, I found this great tutorial on how to make a concrete countertop by Kara and Tim Paslay.  Concrete countertops look awesome in all of their posts, and it didn’t look very difficult to execute.  I will certainly say that their blog is one of my favorites – very inspirational in life and in design.  This being said, I’m sorry to say that the tutorial didn’t work out so well for me…

First lesson: if you are going to change a recipe, try it out first.  Thankfully, all I botched was a piece of plywood.

Since the old countertop is tiled and for an undermount sink, it will just be outright demoed.  Therefore, I had Home Depot cut a piece of 3/4″ plywood to size, 32″x22″.  I sprayed the bottom with Kilz wood sealer that I had from an outside project, then flipped it over.  I wood glued and screwed two pieces of 2×1 pine board to hide the edges of the plywood on the two exposure sides of the countertop and used wood filler to make everything nice and flat.  My patient husband used our neighbor’s jigsaw to cut a hole in the middle after I measured it out using the template that came with the sink.

edged

Look how clever – I took that picture so that you can barely see the edge!

Second lesson:  A reciprocating saw may look like the right-sized blade, but it was totally inferior to the jigsaw.  Next Christmas, when you are buying a drill, do not be tempted by the free reciprocating saw.  I cannot imagine what we will use this thing for…

This is what Tilley thought of all of this from inside the house:

tilley napping

Turns out she had the right idea.

Anyway, I figured once I had the plywood template I would be back in the Paslay tutorial – I now had a countertop that I could coat with ARDEX Feather Finish.  I couldn’t find a place that sold this in our area (although ARDEX themselves did email me back the name of a distributor later), so I bought a bag of it on Amazon.  I also wanted a lighter countertop since I’m dreaming of a dark bathroom wall (I just didn’t learn, did I?) to go with the yet-to-be-revealed theme (hint: check out the one piece of decor in the bathroom).  To accomplish this, I bought TiO2 pigment from here.  Using a drill attachment and a bucket (gifted to Tilley full of dog toys), I mixed up my first batch of concrete:

ardex

I used roughly 5:1 parts Feather Finish to pigment.  This powder was super fine and flies all over so I definitely recommend a mask throughout this whole project.  So far so good.  I then spread it all over the plywood with a nice, flat trowel.  It is possible that the pigment messed up this project, but I used dramatically less in the last coat and still had chipping problems.

Third lesson: When Kara says to let it flash set, she means it.  Coat number three I mixed up and waited 5 minutes but then added water.  Oh man, that hardened in like 5 minutes.  In the bucket even.  Disaster.

Fourth: You really have to commit to the pigment first and mix it completely with the water.  Adding ‘just a little more’ after the Feather Finish itself resulted in clumps of white, sort of like if you add corn starch to hot liquid without mixing it into cold water first.

Fifth lesson: I used far more water, at least 2x, than the ARDEX bag recommended.  Either this was very bad or very good.  I was trying to get something nice and spreadable (“thin pancake batter”) per Kara’s instructions.  My mix looked roughly like theirs, just lighter.

Sixth lesson: Not all trowelers are created equal.  My heavily-dyed concrete didn’t have the same sweeping trowel marks, but I was also trying (probably way too hard) to get it even.  I think I over-troweled the cement.

Ok, so here’s what I found the next day:

coated

Now it was time to sand.  THIS WAS HORRIBLY MESSY.  If your surface can be moved, DO THIS OUTSIDE!  And look like this:

memask

You can apparently also go rob a bank if you want to just finance a good counter.  This was way messier and nastier than any wood I have sanded.  I used pathetic little electric sander to speed things up, and it did smooth stuff out, but EW.  The dust was also basically feather finish+pigment dust, so when I would wipe it up with a wet sponge it turned back into gray liquid that would require additional cleanup.  Beware.

Seventh lesson: I had a hard time deciding when I had sanded enough.  I found that I sanded through the edges of the concrete before I was satisfied with the overall flatness.

I repeated this twice and still wasn’t satisfied.  I figured it was my fault for over-sanding so I said, ok just one more coat.  Then I accidentally dropped the putty knife on the countertop.  And it dented.  And I said “WHA?  Concrete shouldn’t dent!”  It’s concrete.  Maybe chip, or stain but dent?  I mean, we park cars on it.

Eighth lesson: Not all concrete is created equal.  This is probably why people who have lots of degrees but actually do practical things do a lot of research on it.

So for the last coat, I heavily reduced the amount of white pigment in case that was softening the concrete.  I also failed to let it flash set, which meant I got a nice, thick ugly rough coat.  Which I tried to sand anyway.  Here’s what we had:

end disaster

Note the giant gash in the upper left.  That was bad spreading on my part.  The hole at about 2 o’clock maybe 4″ off of the circle though?  That’s a dent!  I could even dent it with my fingernail.

So, my concrete countertop wasn’t sleek.  It was ugly.  That last uneven coat didn’t help it.  But most importantly, it wasn’t durable, which isn’t acceptable for something to install in my house.  And this particular dented concrete project didn’t have character, unless you’re looking for something that inspires old garage floor.  And finally, I have to admit that regardless of poor execution, this countertop was going to look silly in our rather cottage-styled, definitely-not-industrial, home.

Ninth lesson: if you’ve lost the game, just lose the game and leave it behind.  You can still go on to win the set and the match.  For ~$50 in supplies, I have to admit I have created a monster that I don’t want in the house.  Rather than wasting more time and money on this one, I will put it behind me and try again. I have some new supplies and a new plan, and I firmly believe that we shall still have a bathroom countertop before long.  And, I think I will still beat the price point of the crummiest countertops at Home Depot.

I know it must be possible to make this well, since Kara and Tim can do it.  But, if you try, don’t do it my way.  And please, do let me know if you have better luck with Feather Finish durability.  It was a nice product to work with, considering I hadn’t ever used concrete before.  I am curious if the pigment made the concrete softer, although the directcolors.com sales rep didn’t think the pigment would have any issues with the feather finish.  In the meantime, I will still be reading the Paslay’s website to learn more about decorating!

Catch up on the bathroom saga:

Tiling: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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2 thoughts on “Concrete bathroom countertop FAIL

  1. Hopefully… a helpful tip from a contractor. The concrete is softer than it would normally be because you added more water than the manufacturer states in the mixing instructions. Using it according to the manufacturers instructions will make it harder to spread, but also makes it more durable.

    • Ah, good tip! Thanks for taking the time to write in! I was wondering about that, but thought there was no way I could get my concrete to be like the tutorial’s ardex without adding the extra water. If I try something like this again, I will use less water and work harder to spread it, regardless of how other folks describe their experiences. I struggle because concrete is so sensitive to the amount of water added, yet the bags I buy at home depot (for thinset, feather finish etc) make it so difficult to figure out how to precisely mix small batches without obscure measurement devices or general knowledge!

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