When you have an older home, eventually the question always comes up of what to do with the old countertops. It’s actually two questions. First, there’s the question of how best to replace them without turning your kitchen renovation into a nightmare that costs ruinous amounts of money. Second, there’s the question of what to do with the old countertops afterward. Let’s tackle both questions.
While methods do exist to resurface existing laminate countertops, it’s usually easier and cheaper to replace laminate countertops with new ones. The old countertops may have other uses around the house. And yes, I will deal mostly with laminate countertops here. Usually laminate seems to be the type people want to replace.
Updating countertops on a budget
If you have old, dated countertops and you’re tired of them, chances are they are made of laminate. I rarely hear people complain about other types. The thing about laminate is people often overestimate how much it costs. Some laminate designs are expensive. But if you shop around, you can find affordable, very attractive designs. Modern laminate often resembles stone and other nice materials, while costing about as much as the ugly stuff from the 60s with perfectly symmetrical patterns on them.
When I priced laminate countertops to replace the ones in my home, I found I could get laminate with an attractive stone pattern on it for less than $15 per linear foot. I needed about 8 feet of countertop for one side of my kitchen. That cost around $100. I needed half as much for the other side, since my stove and fridge are over there. That cost $50.
You’ll always end up needing other materials to finish the project, but it can be a very affordable renovation. You can update the countertops one year and replace other things in the kitchen in subsequent years to keep the cost in phases, and keep it from turning into too much for yourself at once. During the housing boom at the turn of the century, I saw way too many people get in over their heads with too many projects and end up with a torn-up kitchen and not have the materials or skills necessary to finish, or the money to pay someone to bail them out. It’s much better to take a phased approach, with affordable materials.
Refinishing or repainting countertops
You can get kits to refinish laminate countertops in a solid color. But by the time you buy the paint and all the paint materials, the amount of money you’ll spend is comparable. You have to use special paints that are OK around food, and that can both adhere to the existing countertop and hold up to the harsh environment of a kitchen. Plus if your old countertops have any chips in them, it becomes a less viable option.
You won’t save a lot on labor either by the time you finish all the prep, followed by the painting, followed by the finishing and cleanup. That may surprise you, but hear me out on this one.
There are also some options for laying tile over laminate countertops, but again, the materials you need to prep the surface for being able to take tile can cost as much as a new countertop, before you’ve spent anything on tile or labor.
I’ve researched most of the possible shortcuts, and I’ve always concluded it’s more economical in the end to just bite the bullet and replace a dated or damaged countertop with something nicer and new. If you’re going to paint something instead of replacing it to try to extend their service life, paint the cabinets.
How hard is it to replace a countertop?
Replacing a countertop looks like it might be difficult. It’s nowhere near as difficult as it looks, at least in the case of laminate. Kitchen base cabinets have corner pieces near the top to accommodate wood screws. Normally, your countertop is literally screwed into three or four of those corners. That’s it. Loosen those screws until the countertop comes free, and then it lifts right off.
Try it out before you go spend $200 on countertops, but unless there’s a sink or dishwasher, there’s probably nothing else holding it in place, except maybe a bit of caulk along the edge of the backsplash. You can just cut the caulk with a utility knife.
Dishwashers aren’t much more complicated. They have clips that attach to the underside of the cabinet with wood screws from the front. Just open the dishwasher door and look at the lip where the door closes. You’ll probably find two or three screws. Loosen those to free the countertop from the dishwasher.
Sinks are a little more tricky. Your sink is attached to the pipes under the counter, of course. But if you shut off the water, detach the valves, loosen the nuts on the p-traps, remove the tube that runs between the dishwasher and garbage disposal, and disconnect the disposal from the pipe, that should free the sink and allow the countertop to lift out.
Even if you’re not quite up for the work, an inexpensive handyman can usually do it. You’re probably talking between 1-3 hours of labor. It takes longer to do it yourself, but even then, this is still something you can finish in a weekend.
How hard is laminate to work with?
Laminate cuts fairly easily with a circular saw and a fine-tooth blade. An 8-foot length is heavy enough you’ll probably want two adults to carry it, but it’s more clumsy than heavy. An adult male won’t have much trouble at all lifting and moving 4-foot lengths around. I don’t know if I would recommend replacing laminate countertops as a first DIY project without help, but it’s an easy-enough renovation, and the effect really improves the look of your kitchen.
What about butcher block countertops?
Butcher block countertops can be very affordable, in some cases not much more expensive than laminate. In some ways, butcher block is harder to take care of, because you have to oil it once every 6-12 months, but it may also be more forgiving if you knock it with something sharp or set something really hot directly on it.
Butcher block has the advantage of being easy to cut and easy to work with, so you can install it yourself as well, just as easily as laminate if not a bit easier.
Butcher block made of exotic woods can be expensive, but the price can vary pretty widely. Shop around before you make a final decision, because you probably can find either type in your price range.
Where to buy countertops on a budget
It’s possible to get a reasonable deal on laminate countertops at a big-box home center, but you may have to settle for a limited selection of designs at the low end of the price scale. Their nicer laminates tend to cost more.
But those are far from your only option. The smaller, regional home centers often will beat the bigger-name home centers on price. Specialty stores may also carry cheaper options that the large home centers don’t want to bother with. Frequently you may be able to find a specialty store that will beat the big-box prices. These types of specialty stores tend to cluster around home centers, in an adjacent strip mall or one across the street. Contractors will go there for deals when they stop at the home center for essentials like drywall.
What to do with your old countertop after you replace it
After you take out your old countertop and replace it, there’s the question of what to do with the old one. You don’t necessarily need to dispose of it. I see houses all the time that have old countertops repurposed in the garage or basement as workbenches. Sometimes people put the old kitchen cabinets in the garage or basement for storage and the old countertops on top for work area. It doesn’t have to look amazing, and the work and storage area makes projects much easier.
If you didn’t replace your cabinets, you can buy a couple of the cheapest cabinets you can find to put under the countertop. Or just use a large bracket to mount the countertop on, leaving the area under the countertop open.
You may not want or need to use all of it, and the cutout area from the sink may not be good for much. But you can cut down the old countertop to a useful length. After cutting my countertops to the length I wanted, I attached the cabinets to my wall studs, then attached the countertop pieces to the cabinets.
Appearance is less crucial in work areas, so if it’s beat up or dated, probably no one will care. You could paint it to dress it up a little, just keep in mind the paint will chip as you use it. But you can always repaint it from time to time, and in a work area you don’t have to worry about food-grade paint.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.