In early June, I received a call from a woman who had added a new kitchen on her home in 1994. At that time, she had children living at home and was caring for an elderly parent. She recalled feeling rushed when making the decisions about the kitchen. She decided on solid surface countertops and, without full consideration of the alternatives, selected a top-mounted cast iron sink and caulked, butt joint backsplashes.
Shortly after the job was finished, she saw a kitchen in another home with solid surface countertops. However, this kitchen had coved splashes and an integral solid surface sink. She saw how easy to clean those countertops were. She immediately developed a chronic case of buyer’s remorse.
She called the original fabricator, who told her that nothing could be done now that the countertops were installed – short of tearing out the old countertops and installing new ones. So, she lived with her dissatisfaction.
Years passed, and the elderly parent passed away. The children grew up and mostly moved away. Several times over those years, she talked with kitchen professionals. Each time, when she mentioned her wish to have coved splashes and an integral sink, she was told that it simply wasn’t practical without tearing our her perfectly good countertops and starting over.
Recently, however, she attended a home and garden show, where she told a local fabricator her story. The fabricator referred her to me. Shortly after she called, I visited her home and discussed the project with her. I informed her that what she wanted was possible, but that it was difficult. I was also honest in describing the challenges.
TACKLING THE JOB
I’ve fabricated and installed quite a few countertops with coved splashes over the years, and have used a variety of techniques. I’ve mentioned in this column a fabricator named Ramiro Martinez of Formline Solid Surfacing in Sacramento, CA, who has been an advocate for coving splashes on already-installed countertops. He was kind enough to offer me some tips. All my previous hands-on experience with coving splashes had been on the workbench prior to installation. I was excited about trying something new, but also a bit worried about the challenge. After all, this was really two separate projects – replacing the cast iron sink with an integral undermounted solid surface sink, and coving the backsplashes.
After I inspected the job, I sent the homeowners a proposal. Then began the most protracted series of negotiations I’ve encountered in years, as they asked for additional details, and checked my references, license and insurance. Finally, after I answered their concerns, they accepted my proposal.
I set aside three consecutive days to do the work. My son James agreed to assist me.
I was afraid that it might be difficult to remove the double-bowl cast iron sink if the original installer had bonded it down with some tenacious vinyl caulk. But, the sink had been caulked with silicone, which gave way easily when we sprayed the perimeter of the sink with denatured alcohol and lifted the sink gently from below with a hydraulic jack. However, when we cleaned the countertop surface beneath the sink, we discovered that the original installers had cut the sink hole too large.
To correct matters, they had seamed on four strips of solid surface material around the perimeter, plus four tiny triangles at the corners. For extra support, the installers had cut eight strips of plywood, which were screwed and glued in two layers to all four cabinet sides, touching the underside of the countertop. All of this patchwork was concealed by the sink installation, but the seams were very visible now. It was not only unsightly, but the plywood supports prevented us from undermounting the new sink. It was necessary to tear out all of this old patchwork, and rebuild the countertop in that entire area.
Extensive hand work was necessary at the back, since the bad seam there was too close to the backsplash to be trimmed by a router. Fortunately, some surplus solid surface material we had brought along was a perfect color match to the existing countertop, and our modifications were, for all practical purposes, invisible.
By mid-afternoon of our first day, we had converted a sink cutout that was too large to one that was significantly smaller than needed. We then chose to set aside the sink work for awhile, and to cove the splash behind the sink area. The much wider surface behind the smaller sink cutout gave good stable support to the coving router as we worked in that area.
COVING THE SPLASH
Solid surface coving routers have been on the market for roughly 20 years, but newer models are significantly improved. Notable changes include optional dust collection, as well as precise fence adjustments, improved router bit design, and optional friction-free operation using flotation on a bed of compressed air.
To cove an existing splash on an installed countertop, special clamps using small suction cups are required. All the necessary equipment is
Even with all the proper equipment, the process is physically challenging. When coving a top on the workbench, the router operator can pick a work position behind and above the splash, for better control with the router operated relatively close to the body.
It’s very important to remove every trace of accessible caulk from the area of the cove. We used utility knife blades, dental picks, putty knives and thin steel rulers to cut, scrape, tease and gouge the old caulk away. We flooded the area with denatured alcohol and sopped up the dirt and grease. Then, we scuff-sanded both the horizontal and the vertical surfaces.
The coving is accomplished by bonding half-inch-square strips to the interface of splash to countertop. It’s important that the leading edge be routed straight and true before the strip is cut off the edge of the sheet. This allows two clean, precise perpendicular surfaces to be bonded with minimal gaps.
Use generous, consistent beads of adhesive and secure the strips with clamps spaced every four inches; be sure that you see two consistent lines of adhesive squeeze-out.
Take the time to adjust the coving router so that the bit cuts deep enough – but not too deep. The adjustments are complex at first, but become second nature after a few hours of work. If only every surface was perfectly flat and all angles were exactly 90 degrees, few problems would be encountered.
The router can be adjusted to compensate for a splash that is slightly out of square, for example, but will then be a bit out of adjustment where the splash angle changes.
We encountered some problems where the deck seams had been a bit over-sanded at the wall. Caulks can fill lots of minor irregularities, but we noticed a tendency for adhesive voids and bubbles at the locations of these deck seams.
Finish sanding took more time than we expected, especially at vertical inside corners. By the afternoon of the third day, we could see the light at the end of the tunnel, but still had lots of work to complete. It took much of a fourth day to tweak everything to our satisfaction, but the result looked really great, and I left with a final payment in my wallet.
Later, we received an e-mail from the customer, thanking us for the beautiful job we had done. The e-mail concluded: “Now the counters look the way we always wanted. Thank you again for your professionalism, reliability and excellent work.” That e-mail was our additional reward.