For a countertop material to qualify as DIY-friendly, it must meet three criteria. First, it must be readily available to consumers, not just to pros. Second, it must be easy and inexpensive to transport or ship to your location. And third, it must be relatively easy to work with using standard tools. These requirements quickly rule out all natural stone and quartz materials, which don't meet any of the three criteria. Metal, like stainless steel, zinc and copper, are too hard to work with and usually are hard to come by. Wood, such as butcher block, is iffy: It's not hard to work, but it's not normally sold in counter-long slabs, although it can an option for small counter sections.
That leaves DIYers with two excellent options and two so-so options, in terms of overall performance in the kitchen. The best DIY countertop materials are plastic laminate (Formica, Wilsonart, etc.) and solid-surface (Corian and its many imitators). Both of these materials are durable, easy to clean and exceptionally low-maintenance. The two so-so options are tile and concrete. These qualify as DIY-friendly, but they're not among the best countertop materials, for different reasons. On the upside, tile and concrete offer the most options for a custom look or design.
Best Overall DIY Kitchen Countertop
Plastic laminate wins top honors in the DIY category because it's the cheapest and the easiest material to work with, and it comes in a huge range of colors and styles. It also makes one darned good kitchen countertop that never, ever needs maintenance. The only downside is that it can be damaged by knives and hot pans, and it can't be repaired.
As a consumer, you can buy exactly the same laminates that the pros use (you want countertop grade), and you can pick it up at a local home center or laminate distributor or have it shipped to your house. It comes in lightweight sheets up to 60 inches wide and 12 feet long (the sheets can be rolled up). The other main materials you need are particleboard, contact adhesive, wood glue and screws. For tools, you need a standard or laminate router with a laminate (flush-trimming) bit, plus basic shop tools.
Laminate counters are little more than a laminate skin that is glued to a particleboard substrate (base) with contact adhesive. There's no room for error once the laminate is glued down (and can't be moved), but the final trimming process is made easy and pretty foolproof with the router and special bit. You can fabricate the countertop in your work area, then carry it for installation, or you can build it in place. For a backsplash, you can make laminate-and-particleboard strips, but what looks really nice is to dress up the counters with a custom tile backsplash.
If you're not up for building a custom laminate countertop, you can take the much quicker approach of installing prefabricated sections of post-form countertop. Post-form laminate is a ready-to-install countertop with an integrated backsplash and a seamless front edge. It is sold in sections of various lengths and a limited selection of laminate styles. You can pick up whichever pieces you need at a local home center and cut the sections to fit, as needed. Straight sections come with bare or finished ends, and you can finish off any cut ends with laminate cap pieces. Corner sections have a mitered end (cut at 45 degrees) for making 90-degree turns.
To install post-form laminate, you add strips of lumber or plywood atop the cabinets to support and raise up the countertop. Then, you simply set the post-form sections in place and screw up through the strips to secure them. You turn corners by joining two mitered sections together, using adhesive and special hardware assemblies called take-up bolts (sold with post-form pieces). You can also custom-cut or sand the top edge of the backsplash to make it conform to contours in the wall for a snug fit.
Best-Looking DIY Kitchen Countertop
The most attractive—and best all-around performer—in the DIY group is solid-surface. This has traditionally been considered a pro-only material, but numerous amateurs have found it's surprisingly easy to work with, and now you find more suppliers who will sell to consumers. The only specialty materials you need are the solid-surface sheeting itself and a special color-matched epoxy for gluing and hiding seams. You can find both through online distributors and, in some cases, local suppliers. To save the most money, look for a supplier who sells remnants.
Solid-surface material is sold in sheets of 1/4-inch, 1/2-inch and 3/4-inch thicknesses, 30 or 36.6 inches wide by 12 feet long. It can be cut, routed, sanded, chiseled, filed and buffed with standard woodworking tools, but it dulls blades and tools quickly, so it's best to use carbide blades and cutters whenever possible.
Like laminate, solid-surface countertop material is glued to a substrate (usually plywood or MDF) for rigidity. You can cut strips off of the main sheet of solid-surface to create the backsplash and countertop edges, and you can shape the exposed edge of the finished countertop with a router. For a more advanced installation, you can also install an undermount sink for the coveted "no-rim" sink effect. The color-matched epoxy is dispensed with a special caulking gun and does a great job of hiding the seams, just like on a professional job.
Best Customizable DIY Kitchen Countertop
Because tile comes in so many types, colors and sizes, and it's easy to work with, it's the best option for a one-of-a-kind kitchen counter. You can opt for large-format granite tile for a sleek, minimal look or combine ceramic or porcelain tiles with hand-painted backsplash tile, specialty edge tiles or custom mosaic treatments. Tiles won't be damaged by hot pans or errant knives, and, if you choose the right type, need no sealing or really any care at all.
But that's where the ease of tile counters stop. The difficulties with tile are that the grout joints are prone to stains and are hard to keep clean on a daily basis. Grout joints should be sealed for stain- and moisture-resistance, but their sandpapery surface makes them magnets for dirt and grime, and it's hell on kitchen sponges. These same drawbacks are drastically compounded if you make the mistake of choosing rough, tumbled, natural-cleft, or otherwise textured and/or unglazed tile for the main counter surfaces. For ease of maintenance, stick to large, shiny tiles and small-as-possible grout lines.
Installing a tile countertop is much like installing floor tile. You start with a plywood base (screwed to the cabinets) and add a layer of cementboard secured with thinset adhesive and screws. From there, it's a standard tile job using thinset, and you grout the counter, backsplash and all exposed edges at the same time. Once the grout has cured, you seal it carefully with a food-safe sealer.
Best Alternative DIY Kitchen Countertop
Concrete counters are no longer cutting edge, but they're still pretty "alternative." Concrete could also win as "best monolithic" material, since it's usually all one piece that's poured in a big concrete mold. You can make small counter sections in a workshop setting, but large countertops are too heavy and potentially too fragile for DIYers to lug around, so they're usually fabricated on top of the cabinets, a process called casting in place.
Concrete counters are undeniably cool and can be customized with pigments, stains or even embedded pieces of metal and other materials. The material is compatible with undermount sinks and is impervious to heat and most scratches and impacts. What it's not impervious to is food stains—a big drawback for kitchen counters. Concrete, like natural stone counters and tile grout, must be sealed periodically for stain-resistance, and many people find that it's still not all that stain-resistant.
But if you're game for a different kind of DIY project, a concrete countertop can be a rewarding challenge that's easy on your budget. The basic fabrication process involves building a concrete form, or mold, with plastic-coated particleboard or, if casting in place, a cementboard base and an edging material. The concrete is mixed (using a special countertop mix is easiest) with color and additives, as applicable, then it's simply placed in the mold by hand. Once it is leveled off, the wet concrete is allowed to dry for awhile, then it is floated, followed by more waiting and some troweling before it is left to cure. The finishing touches may include edge-filling, grinding, polishing, sealing and waxing, as desired.