If your building your own RV you might consider building your own counter tops, it’s not too difficult if you know how. There are a couple of secrets that I was taught a few years ago that I’ll share with you in this article. Of course the easiest way to to add counters to an RV is to buy ready made counters tops and cut them to length but this is usually a more expensive option and may be difficult to customize. In my RV the front edge of my counter top steps back from two foot width to one and half foot width and with pre-made counter tops the front edge is straight and pre finished. In my kitchen area the cabinet that holds the Refrigerator has to be 2 foot deep for the refrigerator to fit into, I made the cabinets beside the refrigerator six inches less. This gives the RV a roomier feel and makes it easier for two people to pass in the kitchen area, I do lose a little counter space although but having the roomier feel was worth it, and the counter in front of the stove and the sink doesn’t really have much use anyway.
To make your own counter top here is a list of items you will need for the job:
- A sheet of 5/8 (16 mm) Particle Board
- A sheet of Formica Laminate
- Contact Adhesive
- A scoring tool or knife
- An electric Laminate Trimmer (small router)
- Flush trim router bit 1/4” shank to fit Laminate Trimmer
- 5/16 x 1 1/2” hardwood trim
- Waterproof wood glue
- Small trim nails or a brad nailer
- Mitre saw
- Wood screws
To start you need to have built your cabinets and fit your doors or drawers because you will want your finished counter top to extend out about 1” past the front of the the finished cabinets. You need to know how you will finish the outside edge of the counter top, I used hardwood but you could use a strip of laminate or use wood trim like I did. Whatever you use you need to determine how thick your front edge trim will be before you cut your particle board because the thickness of the trim adds to the depth of the counter top and affects the amount of over hang.
When you cut your particle board to size, your cuts have to be perfect with no cavities in the cut edge and no broken corners. This is because later on when you trim the edges with the laminate trimmer the Router Bit will follow into any divot’s along the edge and transfer that hole into the Laminate edge. This will be impossible to hide, so if there are any holes in the edge after cutting the particle board they should be filled with wood filler before the laminate is attached.
After cutting the particle board sit it on top of the cabinets to ensure you’re happy with the fit. If you want to add a back-splash cut a strip of particle board 4” wide and stand it on it’s edge at the rear of the counter top and make sure it is perfectly straight. To attach the back-splash, screw through the counter top from underneath and into the lower edge of the back-splash, spacing your screws about 10” (250 mm) apart. Don’t use glue on this joint as you will need to remove the back splash later when you have to use the laminate trimmer. If you will be adding a stove or sink and taps sit them in place now to make sure every item is going to fit before you add the Formica. It’s a lot cheaper to fix your mistakes at this stage rather than later on.
When you’re happy with the shape of your counter top slide the sheet of Formica laminate onto the surface of the particle board until it hits the back splash or rear of the counter top. If you are using a back-splash the laminate should sit perfectly against the back-splash with no gaps. If there are gaps either the back-splash isn’t straight or the machined edge of your laminate isn’t straight, you need to figure out the problem so that the two edges meet neatly. If you aren’t using a back splash sit the laminate so that it over hangs the back edge of the counter by 1/8”
When you cut your laminate to size you need to make it over hang all of the edges of of the particle board by 1/8” to 1/4” except where it meets the back-splash (if your adding a back-splash). In my photo above, the laminate is hard up against the back-splash and over hanging the other particle board edges by about 1/4”. I traced around the edge with a pen then added 1/8” , I then cut the laminate with a sharp box cutter knife using a straight edge. You can run masking tape along the cut line and use a circular saw however I didn’t do this as I was worried that the blade might grab and chip the laminate so I did it the hard way. Laminates come in different thicknesses and the thicker commercial grade sheets can be difficult to cut with a knife, you can buy carbide tipped laminate cutters for less than 20 dollars. Another option is to use an electric oscillating multi tool which does a great job of chip free cuts with laminates.
When purchasing Contact Cement try to buy an automotive type with a high temperature rating because an RV can get very hot in summer with the doors and windows closed. The best advise I can give for gluing laminate to particle board is to apply two coats to the particle board and only one coat to the laminate. This is because the particle board is very porous and most of the first coat just sinks in and you need good coverage to ensure a good grip.
Apply a coat of contact cement to the particle board with a glue spreader, paint brush or roller, then apply a coat to the laminate. When the contact cement on the particle board is touch dry apply a second coat to the particle board only. Now, here is a very important step: Before joining the two surfaces together you’ll need some thin items to lay down on the particle board surface to separate the two glued surfaces while aligning the two, you can use thin dowel, timber, cardboard or laminate off cuts. This allows you to move the laminate into the correct position before the glue takes hold.
Follow the directions on the glue can’s label but basically with contact cement you wait until both surfaces are touch dry then you join them together. When the surfaces are touch dry sit the laminate on the spacers and align to the correct position, when happy with the positioning remove the spacers one at a time starting in the the middle. While working towards the out side of the sheets press the sheets together as you remove each spacer. This allows air to escape to the outer edges and reduces the chances of having air bubbles trapped under the laminate. You can use a hand roller to press the surfaces together or use your hands, just be sure to move from the middle outwards.
After you have glued the laminate to the counter top you can glue a piece to the front face of the back-splash using the same method as the counter top, making sure there aren’t any gaps in the corner where the counter top meets the back-splash and leaving a 1/8” to 1/4” over hang on all other edges. When the face is glued to the back-splash remove the screws securing the back-splash and remove the back-splash from the counter top. These need to be separated when using the laminate trimmer because the trimmer can’t trim right up into the corners.
Set up the counter top on a steady platform or saw horses enabling you to walk around the counter top while trimming the over hanging laminate with the laminate trimmer.
Install the flush trim router bit and adjust the depth adjustment knob on the trimmer to allow the router bit to protrude down below the base enough to allow the bearing to follow the particle board and the end of the cutting blades to line up with the over hanging laminate as seen in the photo above. Tighten the adjuster and your ready to trim, you might need someone to hold the counter steady while working your way around the counter. You will find that travelling one direction works smoother than the other and the waste doesn’t hit you in the face as badly, you’ll have to experiment. As you trim you have to concentrate on holding the base flat on the counter, this allows the cutter to work correctly. Slowly trim all over hanging edges, and when finished do the same with the back-splash.
When you have trimmed the back-splash front face you will probably need to glue a strip of laminate to the top edge then trim it’s edges the same way with the laminate trimmer. Then if you will see the end or ends of the back splash you’ll need to glue a thin strip there as well like I have in the photo below.
Running the laminate trimmer along the edge of the of the back splash is difficult because there isn’t a lot of surface area to balance the trimmer on and it needs to be held square. It suggest holding the back-splash in a vice to keep it from moving while you’re trimming it. The front edge of the counter top could also be finished this way but the counter would only look 5/8” thick and counter tops look better if the front edge is 1” to 2” thick. By nailing 1 1/2” wide wood trim to the front edge it gives the impression that the counter is 1-1/2” thick.
When the back-splash is completed it can be reattached to the counter top. I finished the front and side edges of my counter top with hardwood trim that I bought prefinished with bull-nose on the top and bottom edges. I cut all my angles using a Mitre Saw and fit each piece using water proof wood glue and a few trim nails to hold the trim tight against the laminate while the glue dried.
After the glue dried I applied putty to the nail holes then lightly sanded them and applied 4 coats of Gloss Polyurethane to the trim, sanding in between coats. When the Polyurethane was dry I cut out the holes for the sink and stove and made sure they would fit, I then screwed the counter top down to the cabinets and had a well deserved beer!