Trying Our Hand At Ardex Concrete Counters

So we did it. We concrete’d our kitchen’s laminate counters. Sherry shared this quick peek at our first coat in Friday’s post, and we’re back with the final results, the details of how we got there, and an in-action video to hopefully help explain the process.

We’re really happy with how they turned out. Pictures don’t do it justice, but the whole room feels a lot more updated and less laminate-y. It’s giving off kind of a stark/cold vibe in these photos, but after we add some colorful window treatments, stuff on the shelves/counters, and remedy that bad faux brick flooring (and that almond stove) we think it’ll feel like a whole new room. I’m not going to sugar coat it, though. It was a lot of work. And a lot of dust.

Here’s a reminder of what the counters looked like before. We had creamy-yellow laminate (with the occasional burn mark or scratch). In addition to the main kitchen area, we also gave the concrete treatment to the nearby nook by the eat-in part of the kitchen. We haven’t sealed the counters yet (we haven’t been able to track down either of the two products that our research points to using), so the color will probably get a bit deeper after that step.

We did this using Ardex Feather Finish, which we’ve been really interested in trying since seeing a few other attempts like these from Kara Paslay, Little Green Notebook, Sarah’s Big Idea, and A Beautiful Mess. Somewhere between all of their pretty pictures and the low price tag for Ardex ($19 per bag) I had assumed this would be a quick and easy task. Oh silly me…

Maybe it was because we’re first timers, or maybe it was because our work area was especially large (we were dealing with 45 square feet of counters thanks to the U-shaped area in the cooking zone and the nook area by the table), but it turned out to be a tiring and messy job that spanned across five days. It wasn’t very complicated or difficult, just more labor and time intensive than we realized we were getting ourselves into. So let’s dive into the process. Forgive our photos for not being chronological. We took a bunch throughout our four rounds of applying/sanding the Ardex and I’m just using the ones that are most helpful. Let’s begin with supplies!

  1. Ardex Feather Finish, obviously. It’s not easy to come by, but you can hunt for a local distributor on their site or just follow this affiliate link to get it on Amazon. Richmonders, we found ours at Fishman Flooring Solutions. We ended up using 2.5 bags, though I think we applied it a bit thicker than necessary.
  2. Mixing buckets: We used one of these small red buckets for mixing our Ardex (it mixes with water). We made pretty small batches, so this was a great size.
  3. Measuring buckets: We used these (one for water, one for Ardex powder) to make sure we were mixing the right ratio in our red bucket.
  4. Sandpaper: A variety of grits – both high and low, as well as a sanding block for easy gripping. We used mostly 60, 120, and 220 grit.
  5. Spreading tools: We used the flat trowel (on right) for mixing in the bucket, then used the other three for spreading. The big 10″ drywall knife was good for big flat areas, the 4″ putty knife was great for backsplash and edges, while the small guy helped us get into tight spots, like around the sink.
  6. Stuff for keeping walls clean: We kept a sponge and paper towels on hand to clean up any drips or splatters on the wall. We also taped off some areas too (more on that later).
  7. Protective gear: During the sanding process the glasses and dust mask helped keep stuff out of our faces (Sherry preferred our heavy duty respirator) while the gloves were great for keeping our fingers from getting crazy raw.

Speaking of sanding… the first step was to rough up the existing counters with some high grit sandpaper. This was before we realized our fingers would be taking a beating from all of the sandpaper gripping. We wised up and added gloves and used nice big sanding blocks wrapped in high grit paper about ten minutes into it. It went much easier after that.

The Ardex bag suggests a mixture of 2-parts powder to 1-part water, but we found that balance to be a little bit on the thick side – making it hard to spread and what we believe led to our first layer being, well, on the thick side too. So we erred on the side of a bit more water from that point on.

Like grout or thinset, the goal seems to be a toothpaste-like consistency. Thick enough that it doesn’t run or drip off your blade, but thin enough to spread easily. If you’re mixing larger batches it suggests a paddle mixer, but we did just fine by hand (Sherry took a turn mixing things too and didn’t have any issues doing it by hand). Since it starts to harden within about 15-20 minutes, we never wanted to mix up too much at once anyway.

Spreading it on the flat surfaces was kinda fun, in a weird way. It was like icing a giant cake and using a big 10″ blade made it pretty fast to get the big areas covered. The backsplash was another story, but we’ll get to that in a second.

Here’s a quick video Sherry took of me applying the third coat, since we thought it’d helpful for you to see the stuff in action. I’m not claiming my technique to be great or anything, but we did find we got a bit better each round (Sherry also thought we got better at sanding/smoothing each layer as we went). Which is good news because your first couple of layers will get covered up anyways – so they’re kind of like low-risk practice rounds.

When it came to doing the sides, we switched to a smaller putty knife. We usually did these after we had applied most of our mixture to the top, that way what was left in the bucket had set a bit more and was less likely to slide off the vertical surface.

At first we found the edges to be challenging since it was easy for stuff to build up there. What we realized a couple of rounds in was that after about 20 minutes the Ardex had hardened to an almost clay-like consistency, and Sherry or I could come back and smooth the edges with a damp finger. My favorite part was sneaking up behind Sherry all Ghost-style to smooth them from behind her back. Who says there’s no romance in DIY?

Here’s our first round after it dried. You can see Sherry taped off the wall to protect it when I lamented how much was getting on them as I went. In hindsight we’re still unsure whether that ended up being a smart decision. It certainly made us less paranoid about being messy as we went, but removal was a bit of a pain and not perfect since we were essentially concrete-ing the tape to the wall in a few spots.

We decided to ditch the tape after our second round of counter smoothing, so we slowly worked our way around the room peeling it off (we feared that too much concrete build-up would trap the tape in place forever). One thing that we found during this process was that pulling it down from the top (rather than ripping it to the side like we do after painting) did a better job of getting a clean edge and not just tearing the tape. But we did have to chisel it free in a few areas… so I’m not sure if it was a time saver in the end.

Things looked pretty rough after our first round (well, after every round actually). But that’s where the fun mess begins: the sanding step. Here’s where you smooth out any rough spots or ridges so that the next layer can go on evenly and ultimately get you to a flat, smooth finish.

After letting the surface dry overnight, first Sherry would go across the top with a putty knife and scrape off any obvious ridges that were left by the drywall knife during the Ardex application. Even though it had hardened, it wasn’t tough to do. Blobs and ridges just popped right off as she scraped back and forth over them.

The most satisfying thing was cleaning off the bottom edge. Sherry realized we could just run our smaller putty knife along those and sheer off any irregularities, which left us with an awesomely crisp line on the bottom. Best part of this project by far. Could’ve done it all day.

That step was quickly followed by our least favorite part: sanding, sanding, and more sanding. We chose to do it all by hand, since we feared that our power sander would just sand everything down to the laminate again (or leave rough ridges or marks as it traveled around the counter). Plus, with all of the tight spots like the backsplash and around the sink, we figured it would be easier to maneuver by hand.

We used a sanding block (for easy grip) wrapped in fresh sandpaper each time. For sanding every layer except for the last one we used a really rough 60-grit paper to make smoothing ridges and rough spots easy, but after the last coat of Ardex (we did four coats) was all smoothed on and dry, we switched to 220-grit paper to make sure we didn’t leave big/rough scratches in that top coat of concrete.

Sherry also realized that it was helpful for us to pause while sanding each section to vacuum off the excess dust as we went (thanks shop vac!). This was especially helpful because sometimes the dust would disguise an area that needed a bit more sanding. Plus, it just helped for sanity reasons, since we felt like we were keeping the mess more contained that way.

Speaking of which, the mess was the biggest surprise to us. Despite reading other people’s experiences with it (and obviously, we knew sanding was involved), I don’t think either of us had mentally prepared for the fact that there’d be a fine gray build-up of powder EVERYWHERE. And since the kitchen is such a central and highly traffic area of our house, keeping it clean ended up being a big time suck (after each round we would sweep, then vacuum, and then mop the floors to be sure nobody tracked anything throughout the house when they passed through over the five days that we worked on it).

After our first coat, we noticed the laminate was peeking through in a few spots after our initial sanding step – mostly on edges where it’s really easy to scrape everything off if you’re not careful. But that’s one reason you do multiple coats, so we weren’t too panicked.

Here you can see a second coat beginning to get applied over the first. Note the difference in color between the wet Ardex vs. the lighter stuff (that’s how it dries). We actually think once we seal it, it’ll get closer to the wet color though, so that should be interesting to see.

Here’s a shot of our final counters (well, pre-sealing). You can see it’s still not perfect, which everyone notes is one of the charms of this Ardex technique. You definitely get that sort of imperfect, industrial look. But it definitely feels more solid & stone-like, as opposed to plastic-y like laminate.

I’ll admit that I had to come around to the idea of appreciating the flaws of the finish. Sherry was immediately charmed by it, but the perfectionist in me resented the fact that this type of project doesn’t yield perfectly uniform results. I think once we seal it I’ll appreciate it even more (that will darken it a little and remove the chalky finish in favor of a more polished look) so I’m really looking forward to that.

By far the hardest area to get smooth was the backsplash, just because it was a small area that was difficult to reach and seemingly made up entirely of edges and corners. So both applying the Ardex and sanding it was challenging and required a bit of body contorting on my part (lucky Sherry was too pregnant to reach it in most areas thanks to her belly being in the way, which had me slightly envious by the end of this process).

Another tough spot was around the sink. If this were our “forever” counter, I would’ve gone through the trouble of removing the sink, but we’ve got some old copper pipes that are pretty much corroded together down there (which would mean bringing in a plumber to switch this out). So we opted to save that for Phase 2 of our kitchen update and just taped / sanded around it. The results were actually better than I expected.

Challenges and flaws aside, we’re happy with the overall improvement to the space. It feels good to rid the kitchen of another old yellowed surface and make the room feel a bit more 2014. Just cover the floor with your hand and squint – ok?

And although the time that we spent on this update was longer than we envisioned (probably around 15 hours spread across five days, including prep and clean-up) the cost was still pretty fantastic. The three bags of Ardex (again, we only needed 2.5 to do four coats) cost $57 in total – and we probably spent another $20 in buckets and sandpaper. So for 45 square feet of countertops, we paid just $1.71 per square foot to update it – which is pretty hard to beat.

That doesn’t include the sealer though, which is next on our list. We’ve read a ton of sealer reviews since it seems that the wrong sealer can cause more scratches, stains, and even issues like bubbling down the line – so we want to get it right. The two most highly recommended products seem to be Ardex Clear Concrete Guard High Performance Sealer and GST International Satin Seal Water Based Acrylic Sealer. Does anyone out there have a preference between the two? We can’t find either of them locally so we’re going to have to order one of them online and wait for it to come, but we’ll definitely share what we end up going with, how it goes on, and what it does to change this finish – as well as updating you guys on how these counters end up wearing for us over time.

Have any of you tried Ardex? What’s your take? As tired as we are from all of that sanding, we’re kinda excited to take it for a spin again… just on something much, much smaller.

UPDATE: You can check out what we used to seal them here, and read an update on how they’re holding up here.

Comments

  1. Kimberly says

    Looks great! I love the gray, white, and blue together, and I love seeing y’all test drive something new. Good luck with the sealant step.

    • Stacie C says

      I am in the midst of doing ardex on my kitchen counters as well. I wanted the black counter look but as i was searching the web for the pigments to mix with the concrete, i noticed the shipping charges were, in most cases, more than the cost of the product itself. I ended up adding regular ol’ black wall paint. The color ended up just as I had imagined. As far as the sealer, I used Siacryl 14 (i think i spelled that right). It is so easy to put on and thus far, I have had no complaints. I have only used it on one of my smaller countertops. It gives it a nice shine/sheen.

    • says

      I’ve done quite a few of those, usually on outdoor kitchens and it always comes out great… even better if you guys have it Epoxy Coated !! Nowadays, there are several epoxy coatings meant to be used for FLOORING, yes Epoxy Floor Coatings – and these do a truly awesome job for concrete work tops. These Resinous Floors are available in many different styles and colors.. from simply “clear coating” to aggressive & tough finishes like Quartz, Mica or Terrazzo, or yet, “marble like” finishing using “Metallic Effects Resins”… You guys will find all about it including many pictures on my web site @ GarageAndStorageGear.com

    • Suzanne says

      Staci, I wanted the black pigment as well. I went to the home depot store in our area and they had it in the concrete section. $6 for a 1lb box

  2. Shannon says

    Looks amazing! I can’t believe the transformation from the kitchen when you bought the house to now…and you haven’t evenspent a lot on it (just some serious sweat equity!). Very inspiring!

  3. says

    This is a great Phase 1 update! Even though it took longer than you thought (and was messy!), the end result looks really nice. Did you find the concrete layers measurably raised the height of the counters at all? Has there been any chipping or flaking since you finished? Although I’m sure sealing it would help with that.

    We toyed with the idea of updating our white laminate countertops like this until we can afford natural stone, but in the end I think we’ll just live with the laminate for the next year or two (and envy yours at a virtual distance ;).

    • says

      The surprising thing about this technique is that it’s such a thin thin coat each time. I’d say after 4 coats we built it up about 1/2 a centimeter! No chipping or flaking has happened yet, but I can’t wait to seal everything since I think that should help protect it too!

      xo
      s

  4. kati says

    I hope you like it after all that hard work! I think I like it. :-) I’d be nervous on the sealer – what if you concrete’d a piece of scrap wood or laminate something and then sealed that? Then you could have a safe test area.

    Also, I can’t even keep my normal apartment kitchen space clean – which has roughly a quarter amount of counter space as you’ve got. So good job!

    • says

      We did think about doing a little test sealing somewhere (we still have half a bag to mix up) but there have been such good reviews for those two sealers we think they’re the way to go, so we might just order one and dive in. A lot of family is coming over next week so I’d love to have them sealed by then.

      xo
      s

  5. says

    This is AWESOME! My husband really liked the look of granite countertops, but we found that they were a lot more expensive than what we initially thought. I wonder if we could use this to build an outdoor BBQ prep area/bar. I would think this would have to be lighter than solid concrete slabs and I’m always worried about the weight of concrete causing problems. Thanks for this idea!

    http://jax-and-jewels.blogspot.com

  6. says

    How neat! How does it feel? Like is it rough or cold? I would think it would be those and it would bother me. I had slate tile like counter as a child and hated how cold it always was.

    • says

      Hmm, it’s not as cold or rough as our slate floors in the foyer… it sort of feels like I’m touching our wood cutting board if I close my eyes. Sort of has that porous feeling like wood – but I think once it’s sealed it’ll be smoother and more polished feeling. Will keep you posted!

      xo
      s

  7. Michele from IL says

    Looks great so far! Did you have the Righteous Brothers playing in the background? ;)

  8. Susan says

    Thanks for posting this, we are planning a kitchen remodel and we have laminate too, and are thinking of doing this. Does anyone know if you can add any kind of color to make the end result darker? Does the Ardex take stain like other concretes do? We want something more blackish…

    • says

      Yes, I believe Kara (the first person we linked to in the mentions of other places we’ve seen this technique) has used stain to darken it. I’ve seen it done in black with polished sealer and it’s almost like black granite (I believe the link to Sarah’s Big Idea shows that too).

      xo
      s

    • Courtney says

      You can use any color stain you want on it, keep in mind tho that the sealer actually can darken it quite a bit too!

    • Laurie says

      If you want to stay in the gray family I would not worry about stain – the sealer darkened mine pretty considerably – the bathroom counter I stained before sealing ended up being almost exactly the same color as the bathroom counter I didn’t stain before sealing. (I did both bathrooms in one of our rentals.) That said, on the advise of a contractor who had done real concrete counter in outside kitchens,I used a sealer intended for outside since I was concerned about the amount of water that ends up on counters in a kids bathroom (Superseal 30). The downside is that it is a gloss finish. The upside is that 9 months in they still look pristine.

    • says

      Oh yeah, concrete definitely isn’t warm and fuzzy, but I think once it’s sealed and I can add some pretty stuff to the counters, shelves, and some warm window treatments it’ll balance out. The warm woven chandelier over our rustic eat-in kitchen table is a nice balance to the counters too. Will have to share more panned out pics when that table isn’t full of kitchen counter junk!

      xo
      s

  9. says

    Looks great! I wonder if you can add a die to the mixture to get a colored look?

    I was just doing some plaster work on our basement walls and had to learn how to trowel cement-like plaster. It is very similar to what you were doing, only vertically. I found that using a pool trowel that has rounded corners works really well at hiding the trowel marks to make a smooth surface.

    I will be interested to see how long they will last. We may consider this for our kitchen as well.

    • says

      Yup, while mixing it you can add stain I believe. And Ardex just came out with a “white” color too, but we hear this color is slightly easier to work with for novices.

      xo
      s

  10. says

    That looks fantastic! We have the old white Formica countertops with white gold flecks all over. We’ve been looking into the countertop painting kits. I think Rustoleum makes it.

    • Cortney says

      Rustoleum does make a countertop paint! When we moved into a foreclosed home the counters were in great need of an update. However, funds were short so we ended up buying the countertop paint in Taupe until we had money to replace them. It smells absolutely horrible and will knock you down but keeping the doors and windows open will help. We have had our counters painted for over a year now and they still look great! Can’t beat it for 22 bucks!

  11. Mina says

    I’ve been waiting for you guys to do this! I’ve got plain white laminate in my kitchen with the same flat edge. I’ve wanted to update them for a while, but I didn’t want to do something too expensive (in our neighborhood, stone would be an overkill). I’ve just been worried about getting started on it and just completely messing it up and having to get completely new countertops! Hopefully, with your information I can get it done right! I don’t have the backsplash (they just glued a sheet of white laminate to the wall) and I want to tile that. Thanks so much for doing this and giving us the kick in the kiester to get started!

    • says

      Good question! The backsplash was behind the counters if that makes sense. So instead of putting in the counters and then the backplash (which would make it easy to pop off, which we’ve done in the past), they put in the backsplash and then butted up the counters to it. So if we removed the backsplash we’d have a 1.5″ gap all around the counters, so we didn’t want to mess with that.

      xo
      s

    • Meredith says

      I wondered the same thing! I’m reminding every person I know, when considering adding a tile splash to remove the 4″ backsplash (if it’s the granite or stone or quartz type that is just added after, not if the laminate molded one piece kind) because tiling all the way to the counter is truly custom, with the flat deck counter install. It makes me weep inside every time I see someone do a tile backsplash on top of the 4″ splash! Gah!!! Take it off! It’s only there for code. They have to out something waterproof 4″ up. But if you are going to tile, it can come off.

      I bet here you are dealing with phase 1, 2, etc and if you ever do new counters you will do a tile installation all the way down to counter height….right???

  12. Kara says

    For WEEKS I’ve been looking for a solution to a buffet/office station that I’m building in my dining room. I was originally going to use Ikea butcher block, but I have a 9′ span and their longest piece is 8′ – I wasn’t all that thrilled with the idea of a seam down the middle. Any kind of stone is prohibitively expensive for this small project, and I just wasn’t thrilled with the idea of tile. But this? Whoa! This looks like the solution to my problem!

    Do you know if the concrete can be stained or tinted (either before or after application)?

    Thanks, y’all! :)

    • says

      Yes, you can stain it/tint it and Ardex also sells a white variety (although that’s new and we hear it’s slightly harder to work with, but the stain-adding step seems really doable with this regular mix we used).

      xo
      s

    • says

      Hey Kara – If you have a “Southeastern Salvage” near you, they have 10′ long butcher block pieces. We just did our income property with butcher block from there and it looks AMAZING!

    • says

      Lumber Liquidators sells butcher block in 12 foot sections. We used one (cut down ourselves) to build an entertainment center nearly 10 ft. long. But I would love to cover up my black laminate countertops in this concrete!