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Major DIY’s in the Kitchen: PART 2 – New Backsplash

Other posts in this series: Part 1, Part 3, and Part 4


OK, part two!  once the counter tops were done, we moved onto tiling the back splash.  This youtube video taught me a lot of what I need to know about tiling, and I highly recommend watching it before tackling a project like this.

Here’s what our ugly old tile looked like.  Its more of that pinky beige color and has fake marble printed onto ceramic.  I hate that every tile is the same fake marble pattern and that it repeats over and over and makes it extra obvious that its fake.  If you cant afford real marble (which we can’t) use something else and make it look intentional.  Don’t get an obvious fake that calls attention to itself.  Major pet peeve of mine.


When deciding on new tiles, I would have loved to do something like this photo below:

photo source:

photo source:

I love the unconventional “falling blocks” shape, but had no idea where to source something like this.  I did a bunch of internet searches, but came up empty.  Also, after some thought I decided it might make things too complicated for a noobie like me.  A standard rectangular shape would probably be much better this time, but I will be keeping my eyes open for these diamond shaped tiles for future projects.

Anyway, The new tile I chose is a pale warm grey subway tile that I bought from Their prices were very fair and they had lots of shades of grey (and other colors) to choose from.  I wasn’t sure what I wanted at first so I ordered a few samples.


Ultimately I decided the “tender grey” by Apricot Tile (the large tile on the left) would compliment the color of the concrete the most.  I ended up spending around $100 for about 30 square feet of subway tile, and several bullnose tile for the border.  Always buy a little more than you really need, tiles will break and you’ll definitely need the extra. I also spent a little more on the grout, spacers, thin set, etc. too.

Like I mentioned in my last post, we did all of our tile removal BEFORE we even got started on the counter tops. Tile removal is a pretty violent process, so I didn’t want to risk damaging all of the work we would have done with the concrete by doing it afterwards. Also, I wanted to be able to spread the concrete evenly and smoothly to the edge of the wall, and the old tile would have gotten in the way. Removing the tile FIRST will allow for more professional looking results.

Tile removal (or “tile demolition” as Joe and I like to call it when we want to sound hard core) is really simple and easy, but it does require a bit of physical effort and can be quite tiring.  Luckily Joe has had a bit of free time before he starts a new job so he did most of this for me.  Thank goodness for men and their brute strength.

Anyway, just wedge a putty knife between the old tile and the wall… tap the back of the knife a few times with a hammer… and then it should just pop off.  Some tiles may be more stubborn than others.  You can just keep hacking at it, or use the putty knife as a lever to pry it off.  CAUTION – definitely wear shoes and safety goggles while doing this whole project.  There will be sharp flying shards of tile that will definitely cut feet and poke eyes.


Let me just say, this apartment is just full of surprises.  Back when we renovated the bathroom, we found that the previous owners had just tiled on top of the old tile on both the walls and the floor.  They took short cuts left and right.  Well the kitchen was no different.  As we removed tile, we realized that the previous owners installed all of the cabinets and countertops right on top of the backsplash which I can only imagine are the old tiles from before they renovated or whatever. This made things a little tricky.




We ended up having to use a screw driver to chisel away at the tile that was trapped underneath, just to get a flush edge with the counters and cabinets.  It also left gaping holes in spots that I had to spackle over.  Super duper annoying.  But these kinds of surprises are pretty standard with renovation projects.


As I mentioned in my last post, we only removed the tiles from the side walls.  I decided to take a little shortcut of my own and just tile over the tile on the back wall.  I wouldn’t lose any counter space because of the trim on the back of the countertops, and you are not able to perceive any additional thickness with your naked eye.  This made it a lot easier and more manageable for us noobie tilers. We removed the side walls because you’d be able to see the additional thickness on the bordering bullnose tiles.


Once all of the tiles were removed, I had to patch up some of the holes were left behind.  You want a level surface when you apply the new tile. So I bought a nice bucket of spackle and went to work.  It doesn’t have to be perfect where the tiles will be, just enough for a level gluing surface.



But you should also spackle around where the painted wall formerly met the old tile.  Once you are done with the project, you’ll have to re-paint the walls, and you don’t want it to be a bumpy mess. So in those edge areas, definitely sand down the spackle when it dries.  This will restore the smoothness of the walls for painting.


After all of this, I did the countertop resurfacing project.

When you get back to tiling, everything is going to be a dusty mess. Clean off all dust with a damp rag before applying tile. You want a nice clean surface for the Thin-set to bond with. I used this pre-mixed Thin-set mortar, but if you mix it yourself, you want about the consistency of peanut butter.


You have two choices.  You can use a notched trowel to apply the thin-set directly to the wall, or you can “back butter” directly onto the back of your tiles (also using a notched trowel).  I found back buttering to be a better option for me.  This way I could draw a level line guide directly onto the wall.  Also, Joe and I created a bit of an assembly line where he’d back butter, hand me the tile, and I’d position/apply/etc.  This ended up being very efficient for us.  BTW, this is one of the few projects that actually involve both Joe and Cheryl.  Haha.

I liked starting out with the bullnose tiles on the border, then filling in with the subway tile.  When you start with the subway tile, apply the bottom row first, making sure that it is level.  You’ll see my red sharpy level line in the photo below.  Once you have that row down, you don’t have to think as much for the rest of the rows as they will just stack on top and will naturally be level too.  Note: I used eighth inch spacers for everything.



If there was a corner involved in the bullnose tile, I’d save the top bullnose piece until I was done with all the subway tile to get a more precise measurement.


I’d say the most challenging thing was cutting the tiles to the correct size.  I decided not to buy a wet saw since its pricey and I’d have nowhere to store it.  So I used a tile scribe instead, which is basically like an exacto knife with a tungsten tip that you can use to score and snap your tiles.  It wasn’t until after the whole project was done that I realized I could have RENTED a wet saw from home depot.  That would have saved me so much time and trouble.

Well, what’s done is done.  This is how you use the tile scribe. Measure and mark where you want to cut the tile.


Then use a ruler and the tile scribe to score a line on the surface of the tile.



Then simply place on top of a pencil and snap it in half!


It only gets tricky if you need to do a 45 degree angle or a corner cut.  These cuts were very very challenging and I ruined many tiles trying to do it.


What I found to work best was scoring the tile first, but NOT SNAPPING.  It never snapped right and in this situation and tile nippers worked much better.  And if you are doing a particularly narrow section, you’ll want to take teeny tiny nibbles so that you don’t accidentally crack the whole thing in half.  For this reason alone, a wet saw would have been way better.  Again, be careful, the shards will be very sharp and I did slice my fingers open a couple times.  Definitely wear shoes, gloves, and goggles.


Another important thing to keep in mind is the electrical socket.  Make sure to turn off power to any sockets you’ll be working around. Also, if you are tiling on top of tile, you’ll want to use electrical spacers to extend the socket so that it is flush with the new tile.




Once you have all of the tile applied, give it at least 24 hours to dry.  When all is dry, it’s time for grout!

I went with a standard white non-sanded grout (sanded is more for floors).  Follow the instructions on your packaging, but when I mixed mine, I tried to get the consistency of – you guessed it – peanut butter.  And just like I did with the concrete, I mixed it, let it sit for 10 minutes, then mixed it again.



I used a rubber grout float to squeegee the grout into the crevices between all of the tiles.  Make sure to note the time when you start.


Once its all done it will look like this.


Wait 20 minutes from when you STARTED grouting, then come back with a damp sponge and wipe all the excess grout from the surface.

You’ll notice a slight foggy haze on the surface of the tiles at this point.  Wait another three hours and buff it off with a cheese cloth to restore the shine of the tile.


Give your grout another three days to totally dry and then apply grout sealer.

And the final touch is caulk.  You can see from the photo above that it’s still a little ugly where the tile meets the countertops.  Apply a line of caulk along all edges where the tile meets another surface (like counters, cabinets, walls, etc). To get a perfect clean caulking job, dip your finger into soapy water and run your finger along the caulk line. For caulk, I used this nifty product from Dap called “Easy Caulk.”  You don’t need a caulking gun to use this and it squirts out of the nozzle just like a whipped cream can.  They used to sell it at Home Depot, but now I only seem to be able to find it on Amazon.


I had a harder time with caulking along the rougher parts of the countertop.  But it turned out OK for the most part.



Finally, finish things off by touching up the paint on the wall.  Luckily I had tons of paint left over from when we first moved in.


My next post will be about the new shelving I added to the kitchen =)

Major DIY’s in the Kitchen: PART 1 – Countertop Resurfacing

Other posts in this series: Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4

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Over two and a half years ago, Joe and I moved into our apartment and made due with our less than perfect kitchen. We painted the cabinets so that I’d be able to hold out until we saved enough money to do a full renovation. Unfortunately, things don’t always go according to plan.  Saving is a bit slower than expected and we decided that it might be more productive to save up for our next place (we are hoping this apartment is just our starter home) where we can really invest in what we really want.   So the possibility for a better “future” is motivating me to hold out with a less than perfect “right now.”  And having less is always the greatest inspiration for creative productivity.  Like I always say, why settle for less when you can make whatever you want.

So onto more kitchen DIY’s!  This is the first of a four part series of posts outlining more ways that I’m improving our kitchen.  I’ll finish it all off with the grand reveal and lots of before and after shots.  The first stop on our journey is how I resurfaced our laminate countertops.

This whole project was inspired by a blog post that I read on Little Green Notebook.  Concrete countertops! Brilliant!  Concrete is very stylish right now, and It definitely seems like the next best thing to stone… AND I was able to do it all for only around $30!  This felt like a no-brainer to me.

Jenny from LGN gives great step by step instructions, and so does this other blog post that she links to.  They tell you most of what you need to know, so I’ll be focusing on my own experiences and anything I did differently that might add to what they have already said.  We all used a product called “Ardex Feather Finish.”  It works like a dream and is designed to stick to almost any surface.  Apparently they intend this product for use on floors and all of these blogs caution that countertops are not one of the recommended uses.  But enough people seem to be having positive results with counters that I feel good about it. And anything durable enough for a floor must be OK as a work surface.

First Let’s take a look at what my countertops used to look like (below). They were a pinky-beige speckled formica that looked extremely out of date to me.  The worst thing was that the section right next to the stove had yellowed over time – gross.  I love cooking and prepare dinner almost every night so this was really starting to wear on me.  Below you can see me prepping them for resurfacing by sanding and cleaning all surfaces.  A strong degreasing cleaning agent is highly recommended for anything in the kitchen where there might have been oil splatter over the years.


To prepare the cement, just add water.  Jenny suggests adding enough water that the cement has the thickness of gravy.  Then you let it sit for 10 minutes and mix again.  At this point the consistency should feel a little more like peanut butter.  BTW, peanut butter seems to be the key word for all of the kitchen projects I did.  You’ll see in my next post how almost everything to be spread, spreads like peanut butter. IMPORTANT NOTE: please wear a mask for this whole project. There will be a lot of dust, and I’m pretty sure cement dust is really bad for the lungs.


Spread a nice thin layer directly onto your countertops (just like peanut butter!).  I used a 6 inch joint knife, but a concrete trowel would be great too.  I recommend working in small sections.  Its better to mix a little cement, do one continuous section of countertop, then mix more for the next continuous section.  It takes about 5 hours for the cement to totally set up, but it hardens quickly and you’ll find it harder and harder to spread if you try to do everything all in one batch.  It becomes almost clay-like rather quickly. We had two sections of countertop, so I did all my layers in two batches.  Again, they should be CONTINUOUS sections.  Don’t just do half a countertop.  You’ll want to do 4 thin layers, sanding between each layer (I used a coarse grit sanding sponge).


I also found it very difficult to use the knife/trowel to apply the concrete to narrow or curved surfaces.  In such areas, it was easiest to just use my fingers.  I’d slather it on as if I was finger painting.  It was much easier that way.  But it did ruin my fingerprints for a good two weeks and could no longer use the fingerprint sensor on my iphone 5S (this stuff really does stick to everything)!  Rubber gloves may be wise.


Another tricky spot was getting a clean edge around fixtures such as the sink.  I found that the easiest thing was not to worry about getting in on the sink.  I just came back with a rag wrapped around a putty knife and wiped it off for a nice clean edge (before it all dries of course).


I was also not very careful about keeping it clean against the walls.  I was planning to re-tile the whole back splash, so I knew I’d just be covering up these messy spots.  If you are wondering, we decided to keep things simple and just tile right on top of the old tile against the back wall.  But we removed all the tile on the side wall where you’d be able to see the thickness of the back splash.  You should do any tile removal BEFORE starting on the concrete countertops. If you are not re-tiling, then clean the edges the same way I did with the sink.


Your first layer will look a bit like this with the countertops still showing through in spots.  It may show even more after you sand it down a bit, but that’s totally OK.  Each additional layer will go on much more easily and fully.



Here are a few notes on layering that the the other blogs didn’t mention.  I timed it and each layer takes about 5 hours to dry fully (depending on the temperature in the room and how thickly you lay it down.)  So plan out your days accordingly. This whole thing will take at least two days to finish just because of drying time.  Also, The layers seem to be what actually create the stony look of the concrete.  My first layer went on looking like a very flat grey, but each additional layer seem to create more lights and darks for that stone-like look.  The lights and darks seem to be determined by the direction of my trowel marks, the thickness of my layers, and the wetness of the concrete when applied.  For this reason, I recommend varying the direction of your trowel marks on each layer to keep it more natural looking.

Here’s what the concrete looked like after all four layers had dried.  Check out that beautiful texture! (note the tiles removed from the right side wall, but not the back wall)


Now, give the whole thing a really good sanding to your desired texture.  You can go super smooth, or leave some trowel texture for a more organic look.  I chose to go somewhere in the middle.  mostly smooth with a little texture remaining.  I really wanted a polished concrete look.

At this point the concrete will still be porous and it will be prone to staining and damage, so you’ll want to seal it somehow.  Jenny from LGN used a lighter sealer that still allows some moisture to get through in favor of keeping the lighter color of the unfinished concrete.  I chose to use a stronger, more permanent, water-tight, satin finish sealer since a kitchen counter would encounter a bit more abuse.  Plus it would give me more of that polished concrete look that I want.  You can use an acrylic concrete sealer to do this, but it was only sold in gallon sizes at my local hardware store and that was WAY more than I could ever use. So I decided to use a quart sized satin finish polyurethane sealer instead.

Before applying sealer, make sure to clean off any dust left behind by sanding.  I used a dry paint brush to sweep everything off and then finished off by wiping it down with a rag.  Make sure it is all totally dry before applying the sealer.


I applied it in two coats and sanded after the first coat dried for an extra smooth finish.  Notice the color difference between the painted and unpainted sections.  Once everything dries, the color will look somewhere between those two colors. Also, if you are using satin finish sealer, it will dry looking much less shiny than when it’s wet. I love how the sealer really brings out that stony coloring!


And here are the finished countertops!  What an improvement!  If you ask me, it looks way more expensive than other resurfacing techniques even though it was dirt cheap! I love the stylish industrial look. Stay tuned for the full before and after reveal where you’ll get to see them in the context of the whole kitchen.



Custom Skinny Ties in Action!

Following up on my DIY custom tie post as promised, here are photos from Jon and Tracy’s wedding by their photographer, Albert Cheung. I’m so pleased with how they turned out! Thank you to Jon, Tracy, and Albert for giving me permission to use these wonderful photos =)


Photo courtesy of Albert Cheung Photography


Photo courtesy of Albert Cheung Photography


Photo courtesy of Albert Cheung Photography

Photo courtesy of Albert Cheung Photography

Photo courtesy of Albert Cheung Photography


I love how well the groomsmen ties coordinate with the bridesmaid dresses! (Photo courtesy of Albert Cheung Photography


Photo courtesy of Albert Cheung Photography