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Countertops can add the pizzazz that makes a kitchen the showroom of a home.

December 01, 2001

Granite countertops are durable but require resealing once a year. Photo: Design Source

Countertops can add the pizzazz that makes a kitchen the showroom of a home. The broad range of countertop materials includes laminates, solid surfaces, stone, ceramic tile, concrete, stainless steel and wood. Solid surfaces are the material of choice today, but concrete tops are coming on strong in some markets.

Stone creates a fabulous impression, but make sure the homeowner is willing to maintain it to keep it beautiful. Laminates can fit any décor because of all the options available. Each material has strong selling points depending on the design, look and feel intended and the type of cooking a homeowner likes to do.

Laminates

Price and diversity of colors and patterns have made laminate tops the standard for decades.

Laminate is a synthetic material constructed of multiple sheets of kraft paper, a decorative layer and a melamine plastic coating. This material is stain-resistant, can tolerate heavy use and is relatively kid-proof. It is available from a variety of manufacturers and in an array of colors.

Patterns include styles that mimic wood, metal, stone and most other countertop materials.

Costs vary by style, type of edging and complexity of the installation. Costs rise with custom edging and detailing, but this is still one of the most economical surfaces.

Pros

Low cost

Easy to clean

Impact-resistant

Wide variety of colors and patterns

Cons

Difficult to repair scratches and chips

May delaminate from hot pots and water seeping into seams

Dark lines at edges can be distracting

Can’t be cleaned with abrasive cleaners

Solid surfaces

Above: The range of colors and ease of maintenance of solid-surface materials make them a good choice in the bathroom. Photo: Silestone by Cosentino. Below: Solid-surface materials permit edge treatments that add texture and elegance. Photo: Formica.

Introduced by DuPont in the 1960s, solid-surface material is now made by several companies. The sheen of these products varies because each manufacturer uses a different formula. Each surface is typically made from synthetic sheets formed by mixing mineral compounds with polyester, acrylic or fiberglass resins.

Pros

Chips, dents and scratches easy to repair

Comes in variety of colors and finishes

Easy to work with and to seam together

Can be formed into decorative shapes and can have integral sink

Spots can be scrubbed out

Cons

Can crack after hot item has been on it

Higher cost than laminates

Stone

The material with the widest price variation is stone. Locally quarried limestone might be affordable, but exotic marble from Europe can cost $300 a foot or more. If you want a rich marble on a laminate budget, stone tiles are a reasonably priced alternative, but the completed job will have grout lines. Engineered quartz is another cost-saving yet attractive option.

The most common natural stones used to make kitchen counters are granite, marble, limestone, Jerusalem stone, natural quartz and engineered quartz. Here’s how they compare:

Granite is the most durable. Because stone is porous, each stone requires special sealants. Granite is the least absorbent stone and requires resealing only about once a year. You can cut, roll dough and place hot pots directly on it. Marble is a traditional favorite. The diversity and rich patterns in the stone can be spectacular. It lacks the durability of granite, can crack, and sealants need to be applied more regularly to prevent stains.

Limestone also stains easily. It is a porous stone that needs constant attention to keep the surface attractive.

Jerusalem stone looks like limestone but is not quite as porous.

Natural quartz has the grayish-blue look of slate but doesn’t stain or scratch as easily.

Engineered quartz, which is a mix of stone and resin binders, doesn’t require sealants. It has the look of natural stone yet has a consistent color and can be applied in tile form.

Tile

Tile is a favorite with those who want texture and color in the kitchen. Decorative tiles are often used for trim or backsplashes. They can feature raised, recessed or painted designs. There are three main types of tile: ceramic, porcelain and quarry.

Ceramic tiles are made from pressed clays with a matte finish or a glaze of metallic oxides and ceramic stains. Porcelain mosaic tiles are baked at a higher temperature, which makes them thicker. Their color goes all the way through the tile rather than just covering the surface. Quarry tile is an unglazed mix of shale and clays that also has color throughout. Unglazed tile is not as resistant to heat and water.

An epoxy grout is recommended to help tile resist stains. Otherwise grout needs to be sealed. There are many grout colors to choose from to match or accent the tile.

Pros

Can put hot pots on it

Resists moisture

Can be mixed and matched for unique designs

Cons

Surface might not be smooth

Grout can stain

Concrete

Concrete countertops can be precast to fit a mold or cast on site. A lacquer sealer helps prevent stains and water damage. The countertop can be covered with a raised glass top.

Pros

Can be worked into different shapes, such as integral sinks and decorative edge treatments

Resists heat

Comes in variety of colors and textures

Cons

Can stain easily

Prone to crumbling and cracking

Cutting on it leaves marks

Quick temperature changes can cause curling or warping to newly installed slabs

Wood

The most common wood countertops are butcher block - laminated strips of hardwood maple. Other woods such as cherry or walnut can be used but generally are chosen more for their decorative effect. Oak should not be used for counters because standing water stains it.

Pros

Won’t dull knife blades

Inlay patterns can be spectacular

Cons

Requires sealants

Shows knife marks

Prone to water damage, so shouldn’t be placed near sink without several coats of sealant

Stainless steel

A popular look now is sleek stainless steel, which is easy to wipe clean and resists scorching from hot pans. Photo: Elkay Manufacturing.

Stainless steel has a contemporary appearance and durable surface. Prices vary depending on the gauge of the metal and the finish. Stainless steel is typically attached to plywood to provide strength and deaden sound.

Pros

Can handle hot pots

Won’t stain

Easy to wipe clean

Smooth and cool to the touch

Flexible enough to make an integral sink

Cons

Shows scratches and dulls knives

Shows fingerprints

Can dent and be noisy if not attached to a strong base

Difficult and costly fabrication

Counters at a Glance

Material
Scratch-resistant
Heat-resistant
Stain-resistant
Advantages
Disadvantages
Laminate
No
No
Yes
Variety of colors and patterns; low cost
Chips and scatches hard to repair
Solid Surface
No
No
Yes
Durable; can be sanded to remove scratches
Heat can deform the surface
Stone
Yes
Yes
No
Durable; natural look
Must be kept sealed
Tile
No
Yes
Grout is not stain-proof
Wide variety of tile
Grout stains and uneven surface
Concrete
No
Yes
No
Great for contoured kitchens
Heavy and expensive
Wood
No
No
No
Good cutting surface
Requires regular resealing and occasional sanding
Stainless steel
No
Yes
Yes
Easy to clean; matches sinks and appliances
Can look too commercial; shows scratcehs and fingeprints

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