DIY Home

The Popular DIY Trend I Tried in My Kitchen—& What I Learned

The good, the bad, and the just okay of microcement.

September 11, 2021
Photo by Coral Lee

Back in November of 2020, after a few months of thinking and rethinking what we needed from our city, community, and home (and calculating how much we had paid out in rent over the past few years), my partner and I started looking for places that offered a cheaper cost of living.

We found a ranch home in Yucca Valley, built in 1971, with a monthly payment that was less than half of what we were paying in Brooklyn. The caveat: popcorn ceilings, a floor-to-ceiling stone facade fireplace, three defunct jacuzzi tubs, and a lot of shag carpet. Over the last few months, we’ve been slowly tinkering, making this house feel like home (the adventures for which you can follow @cool.rancho)—and the first project I took on was the kitchen cabinets.

Upon moving in, the kitchen had wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling cabinetry with little heart cut-outs. Our ceilings are quite high and the windows transom, but because of the large…mass of wood cabinetry, the space didn’t feel open, or bright.

I could fit our entire Brooklyn apartment kitchen into one cabinet. Photo by Coral Lee

I knew I wanted to remove all the upper cabinets to help with the cavernousness (as in, cave-like, not vast), and that I wanted to brighten up the space with not only a dominantly white-grey color, but with shapes and lines that were as seamless as possible. Enter: the trendy, super-sexy microcement trend.

I had spotted images of microcemented Spanish finca kitchens on Pinterest, admiring them for not only their minimalist, clean, airy feel, but how visible and perpetually neat everyone else’s kitchenwares seem to look in them. We don’t have many kitchenwares (again, Brooklyn apartment kitchen), and the items we do own are entirely functional and not not fashionable. But because we don’t have a ton of things, nor do we really need to hide said things, I started thinking we could be open-shelf people, too.

Perhaps the least chic reason for biting the bullet was the realization that building our own plywood open cabinets and purchasing the microcement materials would be infinitely cheaper than purchasing IKEA cabinetry and fitting them with nicer doors.

Easier said than done. The only microcement producer I could find that would sell to a DIYer, was Smartcret (the DIY line of TopCiment), a company based in Spain. They had just released this line specially designed for DIYers: it did not require the use of a metal lathe and could be applied to plywood. I picked a color from a sea of greiges, and while I waited for the materials to arrive, Googled “what is plywood?” and YouTube’d “how to build a wood box.”

A lot of YouTube later… Photo by Coral Lee

A few weeks later, a few hundred pounds of plastic tubs arrived at my doorstep. Smartcret is considered a friendlier product to use for DIYers because it does not require the use of a metal lathe for structure, and the materials come pre-mixed. Applying the stuff does take a while: there’s primer (a clear, thin liquid that rolls on), then microcement layers one and two (both applied with a trowel, sanded between each layer, to cover your existing cabinets), two layers of the pigmented smoothener (hugely technical term, essentially what brings the greige, seamless look, again sanded between each layer), and finally varnish to seal and protect against wear (sanded, or really buffed, between each layer). OK, here is all of that once more, with feeling:

How to Apply Smartcret (aka Microcement)

  1. Clean the surface.
  2. Apply a coat of primer, using a roller. Let dry for 30 minutes.
  3. Mix the microcement well. Think: nut butter.
  4. Apply the first coat of microcement; leave to dry for 6 hours.
  5. Sand with 40-grit sandpaper until smooth.
  6. Repeat steps 4 & 5.
  7. Mix the smart liso well.
  8. Apply the first coat of liso; leave to dry for 6 hours.
  9. Sand with 220-grit sandpaper until smooth.
  10. Repeat steps 8 & 9, and leave to dry for 24 hours.
  11. Apply, using a roller, the first coat of varnish.
  12. Let dry for 2-3 hours.
  13. Sand with 400 grit sandpaper.
  14. Repeat steps 11-13 for a total of 3 coats (sanding only after the first and second coat).
Photo by Coral Lee
Photo by Coral Lee

So, as you can see, it wasn’t a quick, instant gratification project, but neither was it one that required a great deal of special skill. Just a lot of patience, as applying each layer can be tedious. It’s been about eight months now, and they seem to be holding up OK, though a few water and oil stains have seeped through the varnish here and there. Then, there was a night back in April where a fizzy bottle of red wine exploded on me, and not only was it something permanently burned into our brains, but there are immovable spots of wine on the cabinets that have permeated the varnish as well.

Photo by Coral Lee

Perhaps if you were a bit more meticulous than I am in all aspects—from applying the varnish properly, to cleaning up spills immediately—this would not be a huge deterrent for you. But for me—I’ve come to realize that a) I’m not very neat, b) I have more half-open bags of noodles than handsome ceramics now on display, and c) I would much prefer laughing (and drinking) with my dinner guests than stressing over a spillminor explosion.

What do you think I should do? Keep the cabinets as-is and embrace the spots?

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Dianne
  • bufbo
  • KahluaBear
  • sws
  • Kim Snader
    Kim Snader
Coral Lee is an Associate Editor at Food52. Before this, she cooked food solely for photos. Before that, she cooked food solely for customers. And before that, she shot lasers at frescoes in Herculaneum and taught yoga. When she's not writing about or making food, she's thinking about it. Her Heritage Radio Network show, "Meant to be Eaten," explores cross-cultural exchange as afforded by food. You can follow her on Instagram @meanttobeeaten.


Dianne January 6, 2024
Hi! How were you able to obtain the microcement? It seems they don't ship to the US
bufbo April 24, 2022
My apologies if too late responding. The photographs suggest to me your initial instinct and subsequent strategy and execution were all really great. The kitchen has an unfussy sophistication that I find completely beguiling. As for the wine palimpsest, can you imagine and palette of materials that would be impervious to such events (or any life worth living immune to their occurrence)? The red dots will always be most apparent to your eye, and will be either invisible or forgotten by almost everybody else. Your kitchen looks great, go obsess over some other room or something else.
KahluaBear January 24, 2022
I would have painted the existing cabinets & perhaps removed some doors or had cutouts done & added glass. Another shape like diamond squares could have been attached over the 💟 cutouts. One can also simply replace the doors if the style doesn't suit one's taste or is really dated. Personally was never a grey or greige fan. At this point I would enamel paint over what you have - perhaps in a berry color? to camouflage the wine & any future stains. If budget remains an issue, putting fabric across the openings will help contain dust. There's a reason closed cabinets evolved vs open shelving. I do envy all that space tho.
sws September 16, 2021
Embrace the imperfections for the moment and start thinking about how you might improve on the materials. The design and appearance are really nice but maybe you can spring for more durable cabinets in the future. If you plan on staying in the house for awhile, it might be good to give some aspects (cabinets!) of your project to a designer & cabinet maker. The investment could pay off in durability and less maintenance.
Kim S. September 16, 2021
The overall effect is beautiful. How well does the sanding and sealing minimize the build-up of dust and grime in a working kitchen?
RSF October 31, 2021
I have lived in the desert area near Yucca Valley for 40+ years. The dust in the desert is something that is a constant. Mixed with kitchen grime it can be a problem, unless one really enjoys cleaning. I did not notice a stove in the photos but something else that can add to the grime is whether the stove is gas or electric. Many homes in this area use propane instead of natural gas and it seems to make matters worse. I think it would be a good thing to figure out a way to paint, seal or change things to make less work.
TXExpatInBKK September 16, 2021
The result is really beautiful... is it possible to seal it better and prevent additional stains in the future?
M September 13, 2021
The question isn't whether you should embrace the spots you currently have, but whether you can deal with the ones that will be added to them in the next 8 months and years.

Also worth noting that your guests will likely feel similar stress about spills and accidents when you entertain.