Kitchen Countertops: Choosing the Material That's Right For You

With the myriad of choices available today, choosing your countertops can be overwhelming! Your choice of material is very important to the overall look of your kitchen. Counters add color and texture and make a strong fashion statement. Along with the cabinets and hardware, they will help you achieve the look you want--whether traditional, transitional or contemporary.

Certain countertop materials lend themselves to achieving certain looks, but there is a lot of room for creativity. The choice of material will depend a lot on your lifestyle--the ambiance you are trying to achieve, how you use the kitchen, how you cook, how many people are in the home, how frequently you entertain and whether you have children and/or pets. Considerations include affordability, durability, visual appeal, texture and color, ease of care, longevity and environmental impact.

Natural Quarried Stone:

Natural stones are beautiful and are the most popular choice for countertops today, especially granite. To me, nothing can duplicate the beauty and colors of stone. Nature formed them over millennia and no two are exactly alike. Natural stones are quarried all over the world, and are available in hundreds of colors and patterns. Stone is hard, but is still porous, and therefore must be sealed periodically with a stone sealer to prevent staining. This is an easy process that you can do yourself. The stone will be sealed when it is installed. Ask your fabricator when it should be resealed. Depending on the sealer used and the heaviness of use, this could be from one to several years. Water should bead up on the surface--if it begins to soak into the stone, it definitely needs resealing. I would always err on the side of caution, however, and wipe up spills quickly--especially acids and oils--to prevent staining.

Granite ranks as the most desirable material for kitchen countertops today. Few materials can match its beauty and durability. Granite is the hardest stone we commonly use for counters, and is primarily composed of quartz, feldspar and other minerals. It ranks between 6 and 7 on the Mohs (measure of hardness, invented by Friedrich Mohs) scale, with diamond being the hardest at 10.

There are a few choices of surface finish for granite countertops (not all finishes are recommended for all granites--check with your countertop fabricator). The most common is the polished finish which is highly reflective. It is beautiful and lends a glamorous air to the kitchen, but tends to show fingerprints and dust particles more readily (especially on dark colors).

The honed finish is popular also. The slab goes through special equipment to remove the polish and is left with a matte texture. It has a soft feel, is non-reflective, and seems a bit less formal. Be aware that honing makes colors look lighter. For instance, honed Absolute Black granite loses its intense black and looks more like slate; however,, the color can be deepened with a color enhancing sealer. Honed finishes on dark colors also tend to show fingerprints and have to be wiped more frequently to keep them looking good.

The brushed finish is similar to honed, but leaves the stone with a textured finish that you can feel. It works especially well with highly figured granites. Flaming is another finishing technique that gives a rough surface through application of intense heat.

Finish techniques that remove the high polish are thought to make the stone more vulnerable to staining, so be extra diligent in wiping up spills. Also, even though granite is very hard and resists scratches, I would not cut directly on it--not for fear of scratches, but for fear of ruining my knives!

Lavastone is a fairly new product on the market. It is quarried volcanic lava rock that is cut into slabs and then glazed at high temperatures with enamel in a multitude of colors. The glazing process leaves it with a fine crackled finish different from any other product. It is impervious to high temperatures, acids, and corrosives. Sounds perfect! What's the catch? The cost--over $200 sq. ft. If you've got the budget, check out www.pyrolave.fr.

Limestone is a sedimentary rock formed of calcite. It has a smooth texture in which can often be seen bits of fossils and shells. Limestone makes an elegant choice for countertops, but as some are harder than others, choose a harder type for kitchen use. Limestone countertops will require sealing to help protect against staining and etching. Follow the same care as for marble countertops. Natural colors such as white, cream, gold, brown, gray and black dominate.

Marble is a metamorphic stone formed from limestone and is composed primarily of calcite, and is softer than granite at between 3 and 5 on the Mohs scale. Marble is beautiful, but if you are going to use for it for kitchen countertops it requires more careful attention than granite. It is more prone to staining and scratching due to its relative softness, and therefore is best used in limited areas. Traditionally, due to its coolness, it has been used as an excellent surface for a countertop or table top for rolling out dough. Wipe up spills immediately, especially acids such as wine, vinegars, citrus and tomato juices as they can permanently etch into the stone. Use cutting boards to prevent scratching the surface. Stains can sometimes be drawn out with a special poultice.

White Carrara marble is used on the countertops below.

Traditional Kitchen by San Francisco Interior Designers & Decorators Fiorella Design

Onyx. True onyx is a form of quartz and ranks 7 on the Mohs scale. However, there are other materials sold under the general name of "onyx" or "onyx marble" which are banded forms of calcite and rank with marble on the hardness scale. So inquire of the makeup of the material you are considering. Onyxes have translucent bands of color and are unique in their ability transmit light. With the same care caveats and requirements as marble and because it is expensive, it is best used as a decorative element, not in areas of heavy use. Design with onyx to take advantage of its translucency, perhaps for an underlit raised bar top, table top, or special backlit wall feature.

Quartzite is gaining in popularity for kitchen countertops due to the heavy use of granite--people are looking for something a little different.  Quartzite is a quarried metamorphic rock that was originally sandstone and contains a lot of quartz, which gives its strength, and other minerals which account for color variations.  It is extremely hard--in fact harder than granite--and measures 7 on the Mohs scale of hardness vs. the 6 to 6.5 for granite.  Due to its hardness, it is very heat and scratch resistant.  Some quartzite has a marble-like appearance so it is a good alternative to the more maintenance intensive marble. 

Slate is another metamorphic stone that developed from clay and shale. It is gaining in popularity as a countertop choice due to some excellent qualities that make it a natural in the kitchen. It is dense, so it has a low absorption rate and does not require sealing (but black and grey slates are a little more porous than other colors)--after all, it has been used for roof tiles for centuries. It's density also makes it very heat resistant. However, it is a soft stone, so it can scratch, but scratches will disappear with a damp sponge, and deeper scratches can be buffed out with steel wool. Due to its softness, the use of cutting boards is recommended. Because slate is easily separated into layers and has an irregular surface in its natural state, honing is the preferred finish for countertops for smoothness. Also, be sure to round edges to make them less susceptible to chipping. A light application of mineral oil periodically will keep slate countertops looking great.

Soapstone is quite soft, made from a rock called steatite and composed primarily of talc. However, it is very dense and non-porous (even more so than granite) and for this reason has been used for laboratories and other areas where staining from chemicals could be a problem (think of your college science lab!). So, one would think that it would be a great material for home kitchen countertops. And, indeed, it has been used traditionally for this purpose for a long time especially in areas where it occurs naturally, like New England. It also makes a great material for sinks due to its impermeability. It is heat proof and does not require sealing. It is more maintenance intensive than granite because mineral oil must be applied frequently to keep it dark and looking its best. The mineral oil will come off with repeated washings because it does not penetrate the dense stone. Scratches will occur due to the softness of the stone, but they develop a patina over time or can be hidden by an application of mineral oil and sanded out if necessary. Soapstone is wonderful if you are trying to achieve a casual, country look or are restoring a period house and don't mind the limited color choices--shades of gray.

Rustic Kitchen Countertops by Norcross Tile, Stone & Countertops Stone Center

Travertine is a variety of limestone usually displaying compacted bands of color. It is classified as a sedimentary calcite rock that was formed near hot mineral springs or stream beds. The characteristic holes were formed by water flowing through the rock, and these holes are usually filled with resins to make a more usable, durable material. Care for as you would limestone or marble. Typical colors are creams, golds, reds, grays and browns.

Quartz Countertops (Engineered Stone):

Engineered stone, or quartz, as it is commonly called, is a popular man-made alternative to granite countertops. It is made from real crushed quartz, combined with resins, and formed under high pressure. It is highly durable, very hard, heat and scratch resistant, and easy to maintain. One of its biggest pluses is that is does not require periodic sealing as some stones do. But try as they might, scientists cannot duplicate the irregularity of natural stone, and therefore, they don't try and quartz materials have a uniform look and regularity that works especially well with modern contemporary kitchens or bathrooms. For people who do not like the patterning and graining of granite, quartz is a great choice with its more solid, calmer look. Popular brands are Avanza, CaesarStone, Cambria, Silestone and Zodiaq.

Wood:

Wood countertops are a luxurious choice for the kitchen. There are many more options available than the typical maple butcher block that may come to mind! And wood countertops are very durable, are water sealed, hygenic, and even heat-resistant (but I'd still use a trivet or pad for a hot pot). They are easily cleaned with soap and water and can be sanded when scratched. Even if you don't install wood countertops in the entire kitchen, consider them for a built-in cutting board, raised bar top, table top, or special accent. There are many species of wood to consider. From hardest to softest (on the Janka wood hardness scale) are Brazilian cherry, hickory, African padauk, wenge, zebrawood, sapele, sugar maple, white oak, red oak, heart pine, black walnut and American cherry. There are many style options to choose from as well such as thickness, construction type, and edge style.

Metals:

Metals are a beautiful look for countertops. Stainless steel is hygienic and easy to clean and is often used in laboratories. It does impart a rather industrious and no nonsense sort of look, which makes it a good choice for a contemporary statement. One caveat: stainless steel and copper will scratch--guaranteed (the surface can be buffed periodically). They also are notorious for showing fingerprints. Laminated metals have a thin sheet of metal with a laminated coating and are durable and come in a wide variety of patterns and textures.

Tile:

Tiled countertops are a popular choice for kitchens, but due to the grout which breaks up the surface and must be resealed periodically, it would not be my first choice. However, tile is heat resistant and comes in many different materials and colors. Tiles of ceramic, concrete, porcelain, or natural stone may be used.

Concrete:

Concrete countertops are custom-made rather than cut from slabs as natural stones are. Measurements are taken, molds are built, and the concrete is poured and allowed to set and cure before it is polished, sealed and installed. The concrete can be smooth or textured, stained in a choice of colors, and even embedded with bits of glass, shell or other materials. Since concrete countertops are hand-crafted, they can be made in a variety of shapes; but they take longer to make, and usually cost more as well. Maintenance requires that spills be mopped up immediately, and the tops should be washed with mild detergent and water, avoiding any harsh chemicals or abrasives. Waxing the tops is recommended monthly, as well as yearly reapplication of a penetrating sealer.

Solid Surface:

"Solid surface" refers to a thick man-made material of acrylic or polyester with the color or pattern running through the entire thickness. They come in a wide assortment of colors and patterns and they are hygenic, non-porous and offer inconspicuous seaming. Integrated sink bowls are available and the fusing of seams means that patterns can be designed into them using different colors. The negatives are they can get scratched (though most scratches can be buffed out), and they can be damaged by intense heat. Well-known brands include Avonite, DuPont Corian®, Formica, LG HI-MACS, Staron, and WilsonArt.

Plastic Laminate:

Most of us grew up with plastic laminate countertops--most of us probably still have them. The least expensive option, plastic laminate countertops have improved with more attractive patterns, colors and edge options. Plastic laminate is simply a decorative sheet of paper sandwiched between a paper backing and clear protective top layer. They are durable, easy to maintain and long lasting. They are actually a very good option for building or remodeling on a budget. Brands include Formica, Nevamar, and WilsonArt.

Green Alternatives:

Bamboo. Bamboo countertops are great choice if you want to go green because bamboo is a fast-growing, easy-renewable plant (actually a grass), very hard (harder than maple), and affordable. Bamboo is different, and it makes a statement. There are a few negatives: bamboo is not heat-resistant, so you must use protection under hot pots; and because it is porous, one must follow a careful maintenance program to prevent staining and bacterial growth.

Glass and Recycled Glass. Think of all glass bottles, containers, old windows, mirrors, tile and other glass and ceramic items thrown away in landfills each year. Glass is a fully recyclable material, and combined with concrete or resins can be turned into attractive countertops for the kitchen or bath! That's what several innovative companies are doing. Recycled glass countertops are becoming more popular as people see what can be done with them. A couple of good manufacturers are IceStone and Vetrazzo.

Solid glass countertops are beautiful and can really provide that "Wow!" factor. They can be made in many colors, and because of the transparency, can be lit from below for interesting effects. However, they are expensive, so perhaps they are best used for accents like bar tops. one source to check out, www.thinkglass.com.

Paper. Paper may seem like a strange material for countertops, but tightly compressed and combined with other materials, it makes a surprisingly hard and durable surface that can be worked like any solid surface material. It is finished with a food-safe protective finish of waxes and mineral oil that should be reapplied periodically. Scratches can occur, but can usually be buffed out; and do use protection under hot pots. Sources include EcoTop, PaperStone and Richlite.

Reclaimed Wood. Wood that is salvaged from old buildings and factories can be refinished and have a new life as beautiful countertops. Often the planks are much wider than can be obtained today, and they have interesting character. Look for recycled cherry, chestnut, cypress, maple, oak, walnut and more.

Recycled Materials. Many manufacturers have come out with lines of products that are made partly or entirely from recycled consumer waste. These include Alkemi (aluminum), Avonite Recycled Collection, LG Eden, DuPont Corian's Terra Collection and ReVelle.


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