COUNTERTOPS: THE WORKHORSE OF THE KITCHEN

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Countertops may serve as the aesthetic centerpiece or functional workhorse of the kitchen. With the dizzying array of countertops to choose from, deciding if form or function is your first priority can help narrow your options. If a great place to cook is your priority, you may start by considering qualities such as scratch resistance and maintenance requirements. If your kitchen acts as a visual focal point for your home, you may want to start by considering colors and textures.

The selection process often starts with an exploration of countertop materials. A few common countertop choices are natural stones, metals, and engineered materials.

Natural Stones

Natural stone is a time-honored countertop material. Every countertop is a unique slice of the earth. If you are lucky enough to live in an area that has native stone available, it can be a natural harmonization of the home and its environment. Natural stone has a wide price range. Often it is a little less expensive than engineered stone but it requires a little more maintenance. Few materials hold their value over time as well as natural stone countertops.

Granite – Granite is a classic choice that offers a wide variety of colors and patterns. No two countertops are alike. Prices also range widely. Low-cost granite is generally less distinctive. The most distinctive granites—with vivid colors and dramatic swirls—can get pricey. Granite is a fairly durable material, although it requires annual sealing to protect against staining and scratching.

Marble - Marble is softer than granite and scratches more easily. It also is more porous and therefore easier to stain. Marble can be less expensive than granite but, like all natural stones, it has a wide price range. Marble is preferred by bakers and candy makers because of its ability to keep dough from sticking. In most cases, our recommendation is to only use marble in an isolated countertop section. That said, a well-placed section of marble countertop can add a touch of elegance and functionality for the cook in your home.

Soapstone – Soapstone is a beautiful and interesting metamorphic stone. Soapstone is nonporous and therefore not prone to staining but it is soft so it scratches and dents very easily. These can be appreciated as part of a countertop’s natural look or be buffed out. Soapstone offers a narrow range of colors but staining or oiling bring out its beauty and luster. Soapstone requires more maintenance than other natural stones and tends to be a little pricier.

Quartzite – Quartzite is a natural stone with durability similar to granite. It is hard but requires annual sealing to preserve the surface. Quartzite is a good option if you’re looking for a natural stone countertop that is lighter in color. Quartzite mimics the elegant appearance of marble but, because it is harder and less porous, it requires less maintenance. Like granite, the price of quartzite is variable but tends to be 10% to 50% more expensive than granite.

Metals

Metal countertops have become more popular recently, propelled by a broader trend toward industrial interior designs. But metal countertops have plenty of function to go along with their sleek, modern look. Metal—especially stainless steel—countertops are ubiquitous in restaurants and commercial kitchens due to their durability and value over time. They also are favored by the professionals because they are nonporous and easy to clean. Metal countertops do sell at the upper end of the pricing scale. They also scratch easily, so if you are after a high-polish gleam on your stainless steel, copper or bronze countertops you will want to keep cutting boards handy. Or you may just enjoy the character that is reflected in the scratches of a working metal countertop.

Stainless Steel – Stainless steel is by far the most popular metal for countertops. It has an industrial look that is valued for its simplicity and sleekness. Its reflective surface can reduce the amount of light needed in a kitchen and it can make a small kitchen appear larger. It does not tarnish like copper or bronze so will retain its color long term whether you buff it frequently or not.

Copper – Copper countertops are less common than stainless steel yet they provide all of the functional benefits and a unique look. Polished copper is bright and shiny with a salmon glow. To maintain that appearance, you have to buff it frequently. It is more common to embrace the patina that develops as copper is exposed to a kitchen’s humid air. This very natural look is exceptionally interesting, as each countertop will produce its own patina patterns in colors ranging from turquoise to deep green.

Bronze – Like copper, bronze will develop a patina if not buffed regularly. Bronze is harder than copper and is more golden in hue when polished. The patina does not develop into copper’s deep greens yet it still creates a very distinctive countertop you won’t see replicated in your friends’ homes.

Engineered Materials

The marvel of human-made geology, engineered stone is a mixture of resin and fiber or aggregate. It tends to be pricier than natural stone but requires less maintenance and is often more durable. Engineered materials have a wide range of looks from natural to space age. They are quickly becoming the countertop of choice.

Quartz – Like its namesake, quartz contains metamorphic crystals. Unlike natural quartzite, man-made quartz combines the genius of Mother Nature with the ingenuity of engineers. Quartz has become the most popular choice for American countertops because it is almost maintenance free. Most brands of quartz incorporate approximately 93% natural material and 7% resins to create a surface that resists scratches, dents, heat and stains. Quartz fabrication methods have improved dramatically over the last few years, resulting in a more natural look with dramatic swirls and textures.

Solid Surface - Corian, the original solid surface countertop, was developed in the 1960s by chemical company DuPont in conjunction with NASA. Corian is still a great countertop material with an elegance all its own. Corian’s low proportion of natural stone makes it look more artificial than quartz but it has the advantage of appearing seamless. Though it is more prone to stains and scratches than quartz, it is more resistant than many other materials. Most blemishes are easily buffed out. Because Corian reached its peak popularity in the 90s, it can seem dated but we suspect that it will become accepted as a classic style.

Recycled Glass – A favorite of the environmentally-minded or “green” crowd, recycled glass does not live up to its hype. This countertop material is a mix of recycled glass and resins. The size and color of glass coupled with countless resin colors make for a fun, creative selection process and a very customizable look. But the fun stops there. The installed surface is subject to cracking, chipping and other blemishes and none of those imperfections can be repaired.

PaperStone – Although “PaperStone” is a brand name, it is synonymous with a class of material and the company that commands the lion’s share of the market. This is by far the greenest countertop material. It is made with paper fiber and water-based resin. That means it contains no volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that release solvents into the air. PaperStone only comes in dark colors and will fade a bit with direct sunlight. Its surface is nonporous, making it safe for food preparation. Although it is recommended that you seal PaperStone against scratching, you can easily buff out blemishes.

Other Materials

There are a number of other countertop materials that don’t fit into a specific category and have widely varying qualities related to countertop form and functionality.

Tile – Those into retro style houses may consider tile countertops. Tile offers a wide range of options in size, color, and layout including choices for grout color and texture. Tile also poses a wide range of problems. Over the years, we have torn out a lot of tile countertops while installing very few. Modern grouts have come a long way from the porous products of the 40s and 50s that crumbled, cracked and discolored. Nevertheless, tile countertops are hard to keep clean and develop more maintenance issues than most other options.

Butcher Block – Many cooks love having a section of butcher block countertop to chop away on at will. Butcher block stain easily but lightly sanding and treating with tongue or another food-safe oil periodically will minimize damage. For most homeowners, the stains and cut marks on butcher block countertops become the priceless mementos of past meals. In addition to the character of an exposed working surface, wood adds warmth to a kitchen. If you prefer a very polished look, however, this is probably not a good choice.

Concrete – Concrete can be stunning. It can be formed into almost any shape and can take on many colors and textures. When done well, concrete can be formed into a striking and unique surface. Take the time to find a gifted craftsman. Concrete is very porous, which can cause concerns about food safety. Concrete also develops stains, scratches, cracks and chips. These countertops need to be treated with care and maintained well.

Laminate – Laminate became the countertop of choice in the 1960s and 1970s. Laminate is a relatively green and definitely frugal choice. Even though it is not as popular as it once was, laminate options have continued to improve and expand. There are two basic types of laminate: Post-form laminate tops are the counters that you can buy in a big box. These are not a good option for anything. This laminate is low quality and the sub-surface swells at the hint of moisture and emits toxic gasses. Laminate cut and placed on site is a much better product and can be a good choice. Most of the laminate countertops we install are in laundry rooms and seldom-used bathrooms. Infrequently used areas of a kitchen can also be good candidates for laminate countertops. Laminate saves money and can provide color choices that are not available in other countertop materials. It also consumes fewer natural resources and can be updated with little disruption to home life.

Installing new kitchen countertops is one of the remodeling projects that brings homeowners a lot of satisfaction. A new kitchen with a one-of-a-kind countertop or a new little section to roll out your favorite cookies can multiply your appreciation for what some call “the heart of the home.” Start your countertop material selection process by considering whether you favor form or function, low maintenance or high finish, and affordability or distinctiveness. A little careful planning can ensure you make your heart sing!