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Countertop Choices for the Young and Naive

It’s been forEVs since I talked about my office redo. It was last year, back in 2011 when we were all so young and naive. As a reminder, we’re trying to take this room:

And add a wall of built-in cabinetry (and eventually a custom desk) so it looks closer to this:

Using nothing but wood, and the brains and brawn of this guy, who seriously didn’t know what he was in for when he married me.

Speaking of young and naive…

Last time I showed it to you, Andy had built the boxes that will make up the cabinets on that wall:

That is the inside of someone else’s garage.

Since then, he also built the face frames that will go on the front of the cabinet boxes. I think they’re beautiful, and Andy is not-so-secretly proud of his handiwork. Rightfully so.

He attached them to the cabinet boxes and took them outside to prime them:

Then he brought them back inside and put them in place. Sorry for the craptastic lighting here.

We were at the point where we really needed to make a decision on what to use for our countertop surfaces. We’ll eventually be adding a custom desk to the center of the room, and wanted both counters to match, so we’re looking at between 30 and 40 square feet of surface to cover total. Because we’re on the teensiest of budgets, the cost of different options adds up pretty quickly.

Here are the options we considered:

1. DIY concrete

Via Imperfectly Polished

Pros: Interesting look, nice solid surface for writing.
Cons: A lot of work, and even if it comes to $10 per square foot, that’s still $300 or $400.

2. White corian

Via Sterling Surfaces

Pros: Love the fresh white look, high desk-writability factor (which is a real thing).
Cons: Over budget. Story of my life.

3. DIY stained planks

This is what YHL did in their office:

Via Young House Love

Pros: Within budget! Woohoo! We even considered using some of the leftover hardwoods from when we installed our floors. This option looked pretty promising until I looked back at my inspiration photos and remembered they’re all fresh and white, without the dark counters:
bright white office with wallpaper

Source unknown

Office with built-in bookshelves
Via Cococozy

Cons: With a big desk in the middle of the room, I was worried that the end result would just look like a lot of dark wood… everywhere you look. Plus, our floorboards are slightly beveled on the edges, so if we recycled them for the countertop surface, it wouldn’t be a perfectly smooth surface like you’d want for a desk.

Which led us to the final option…

4. Painted white solid plywood surface.

In this case, we’d just use the same wood we’re using to build the bookshelves, painted white like the rest of it.

Pros: Cheapest, easiest option by far.
Cons: If we use latex paint, it can have a sticky effect even after it dries, which won’t work well for a desktop surface. It also may not last well long-term. We really liked this option though and wanted it to work, so we started looking into non-latex-paint finishes we could use to give it a lacquered feel.

We considered oil-based paint, then ruled it out because it can yellow over time. We also considered lacquer, but didn’t do it. We don’t have a good reason for that yet, so we may still go back to it. But for now, we’re thinking latex-based paint covered in a polyurethane finish. We hope that’ll make it hard, non-sticky and ultimately fabulous.

So there’s the elaborate decision-making process for something that most people won’t notice. What do you think? What would you have chosen?

Let's connect


  1. Go for it. I painted my desk with one coat spray can primer and 3 coats latex paint. I used Ben Moore in Satin finish. I haven’t put on a top coat of poly yet (lazy), but the desk is holding up beautifully so far.

  2. I am just in the process of creating the same countertops for a dressing room counter that I’m working on. (haven’t posted about it yet) But the plywood option was the most cost effective to give you the look that you want. I primed and painted in a semi-gloss and don’t seem to have a problem with “sticky”. As far as long term durability…I guess a new coat of paint can fix that!

  3. A poly coat will also yellow over time. If you have access to a Benjamin Moore dealer take a look at their Stays Clear product. That’s what it’s called in Canada, sometimes the identical products have different names in the states. It comes in a few sheens.

  4. oh i can’t wait to see it all done!!!! and i agree with what barb said about poly.
    and will your husband come here next? we need short built ins next to our fireplace, and my husband can’t do the job. boo!

  5. I have some built in cabinets similar to what you’re working on, and have a painted plywood top. I used Ben Moore’s Waterborne Satin Impervo Paint, the same thing I used on my kitchen cabinets. It’s worked out great for me. Once it is dry has a really hard finish and I didn’t put anything else on top of it. Good luck though! These decisions are never easy!

  6. What if you paint it white, then put a piece of clear plexiglass on top? I have painted some furniture, then added clear poly on top, but it was never completely “stick free”. You could hide the ragged front edge of the plexi with trim, also painted white. You can also drop stuff (fabric, calendar, photos, pretty paper or fabric, etc.) in under the plexiglass to change out the look easily. And if it gets badly scratched or something, replacing the plexiglass would be easy and cheap?

    • This might work perfectly for the desk portion! We’ll have to price it out, but that’s something we could easily replace if it ever got scuffed up. Thanks for the tip!

  7. I think it would all look amazing, but I’d probably go with the stained planks. Mostly because we’re looking at butcher block countertops and I have wood on the brain. The painted plywood will look good too. Plus crazy cheap! Love it.

  8. Painted plywood saves the day so many times, doesn’t it? I don’t know what I would do if that fabulous wood impostor didn’t exist in the world. We used latex paint on our desk and I don’t know if it’s just the type of paint (plain old Behr) but it’s not sticky at all. Andy’s work so far looks fabulous!

  9. How about using oil-based paint? Jenny has great pointers on her blog:

  10. If you want a “definitely and for sure never to going to chip or crack” solution, take the plywood to a car garage and have them spray it with the spray they use on cars. I’ve done this with furniture for clients in the past and it’s an amazing and perfect finish.

  11. We painted an old coffee table years ago and finished it with a coat of poly. EVERYTHING stuck to it. Sorry I cannot tell you what brand we used, because it was so long ago.
    My brother in law Craig does auto work and has all the equipment for painting cars. He is in the middle of restoring a car, but may have time to squeeze in some painting. I’ll ask my sister. He has painted a ton of furniture in their house and I need a bookshelf painted too. Only con is that they live in flowery branch…

    • Oh nooo! I’m sad to hear the poly wasn’t the perfect solution. :-/ I like the idea of car paint but Andy’s worried about chemical off-gassing, since they have to wear full-body suits to apply it. Definitely something worth googling!

  12. It is going to looking amazing! Have you priced having a piece of glass cut to the spec of the table top? Let me see if I can find the blog that I saw it on that looked amazing. You can use whatever paint under and then the glass can be the smooth writing surface.

  13. You have some great pics for inspiration. I am sure you will make it work, whatever you do. I am always impressed with the skill set of those who put together furniture, cabinetry and so on, themselves.

  14. Looking forward to see the finished result. Like Lisa, I am very impressed by people like you guys who can build their own furniture and cabinetry. You guys never ceased to amazed me with your talents and fabulous projects!


  15. I love these bookshelves and want to do something similar in my living room. Just wondering about the plywood countertop. Is it one long piece of plywood? Or did you attach shorter pieces end-to-end? If so, how did you attach them to each other and make it look so smooth? Thanks!!

    • It’s two pieces, with a small seam that meets at one of the vertical shelf points. We sanded it and caulked it and it’s really hard to see. Hope that helps!


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