Trained Eye

 
 
 

Recovering Arborite Backsplash

Question:

I have a question about covering a backsplash. I am wanting to re-do my kitchen countertop and backsplash. The backsplash will be very difficult to remove, due to the window frame and cupboards installed over it. It is Arborite in good condition. Is it possible just to cover it with new material?

Answer:

Maintaining a good, moisture resistant finish on a kitchen countertop and backsplash is very important to help prevent moisture damage and rot in the cabinets and wall coverings in the kitchen. This may also help to prevent mould and mildew growth underneath the sink and cabinet. Water from dishwashing and regular sink use can cause significant problems if the counter and backsplash are deteriorated. The older plastic laminate finish that you have on your counter is an excellent product, in use for decades, to help moisture-proof these areas. You are correct that you can recover this material and I will provide a few recommendations for essential items to make this possible.

Older plastic laminate finishes, such as Arborite or Formica are thicker than those found in newer post-formed counter tops. This is because these materials were usually sold in sheet form and were cut and installed by a carpenter on site, when kitchen cabinets and counters were also made this way. For this reason, it is extremely durable, especially when properly bonded to plywood counters and backsplashes. Many homeowners, like yourself want to remove or cover the old material, not because it is damaged or worn out, but to update the look of the kitchen. This is possible as long as the old laminate is firmly secured to the plywood counter below. If it is badly chipped or lifting or if the counter is moisture damaged below, then covering is not an option. Inspection of the underside of the counter with a flashlight and screwdriver or sharp probe to ensure integrity of the plywood or particleboard will answer this question.

Once the old surface is ensured to be firm and properly secured, it must be prepared before redoing. Because the laminate finish is resistant to moisture, it will also be resistant to most adhesives. For this reason, the surface must be sanded to remove the top shiny, smooth layer of laminate to ensure good adhesion of the bonding agent used. This can be done by hand or more easily with the use of a power sander with rough grit sandpaper. This course sandpaper will ensure that the surface is sufficiently rough to allow the new adhesive to bond to the hard surface.

Once the old surface is sanded and cleared of all debris, the next step is too chose the new finish material. Currently, there are several choices for finishes, but the two most common are new plastic laminate or ceramic tile. New laminate finishes are available from many different manufacturers, in an almost infinite array of designs and colours. If this is your choice, the supplier should be able to provide you with material in sheet form and the proper adhesives for installation. Contact cement is normally used for installation and is now available in traditional solvent-based form or newer water-based compounds. The solvent-based adhesives should only be used in well-ventilated areas as the fumes can be quite overpowering. The water-based adhesives are normally a little more finicky to work with, but are almost odourless and much safer to use. Laminate can be cut to rough size using a table saw or a carbide-tipped knife and straight edge for application. A rubber mallet and laminate trimmer or router, with the proper bits, are essential tools for installation. If you have never worked with laminate, I would recommend hiring a cabinetmaker or carpenter for this job.

One benefit of ceramic tile, over laminate, is the ability to put hot items directly on the counter without damage. If you decide that a ceramic tile finish is more to your liking, choosing the proper tile and mastic is essential to good adhesion and performance. There are many different types of ceramic tiles, several designed specifically for wall or floor coverings. These may not be appropriate for use on a countertop as the finish may not resist scratching or heat from pots and pans or be too slippery for safe use. Certain adhesives or mastics may not be durable enough for countertop use and may lead to loose tiles over a matter of time. Make sure that the tile supplier is aware of the area of installation before making a final decision on style, colour and size of tiles. Once again, proper installation methods are critical, although basic tile installation may be more within the reach of many homeowners than laminate work. If in doubt, call a reputable tiling contractor or ask your supplier for a minimum of 3 names of professionals in your area.