Guide to Kitchen Countertops

Granite is the favorite material for countertops, but granite countertops may not be suitable for every kitchen remodeling project. You should be aware of the alternatives before you make your decision. Keep in mind that islands, backsplashes and special-function areas invite the use of more than one material.

Here are the advantages and disadvantages of all the popular countertop choices.

Granite countertops

Granite, a very hard stone, is the most popular choice for a countertop in a new home or a remodeled kitchen because it is natural, durable, beautiful and can be polished to a reflective shine that brings out the depth of its color. It comes in thousands of colors determined by the rock quarry from which it was cut, including whites, blacks, beiges, blues, greens and corals, and exotic mixes.  Each slab is unique. If most homes in your neighborhood have granite countertops, then prospective buyers (should you ever want to sell your house) will expect granite.

Other benefits: Granite will not be damaged by heat from a hot skillet. If properly cared for, granite will retain its beauty for a lifetime. It will give a major boost to the appeal of even a modest kitchen.

Downsides: Granite is expensive, heavy, and must be professionaly measured, cut, and installed. Supplies from some sources are scarce and will be much more expensive than others. Visit a granite yard, where selection will be larger and prices lower than from kitchen contractors. Once installed, some maintenance is required; granite should be sealed periodically to prevent staining.

Granite is available in several finishes that result from grinding and polishing the face of the stone. A honed finish provides a matte, non-reflective surface. It is sometimes used for countertops but more typically for floors and steps where highly polished stone might be slippery.

A polished finish, the most common finish for granite countertops, is shiny and reflective. The glossy surface is produced by buffing the surface of the stone, and the buffing process highlights the deep, rich colors and the character of the stone. Several custom finishes are also available from some fabricators, such as antiqued, flamed, and river-washed. A satin finish has a slight gloss between honed and polished.

Decorative edges are available at extra cost for granite and other stone countertops and will give your kitchen even more of a custom look.

Marble and soapstone countertops

Marble is beautiful, but it has a higher price tag than granite. Because it is porous, it stains, so it requires much more maintenance – though some new sealers are available that may reduce the maintenance. As a result marble may be found in smaller sections such as an island or a backsplash rather than a whole countertop.

Soapstone, typically dark gray, has a beautiful finish that imparts a soft, smooth, delicate look. It is non-porous and therefore stain-resistant but requires some maintenance and benefits from applications of mineral oil to prevent cracking. Soapstone is durable and has been used in American kitchens for well over 100 years. It is used in sinks and backsplashes as well as countertops, and is available as 12”- and 18”-square tiles.

Limestone, available in exotic-looking white and neutral hues, is a favored surface for pastry preparation and is being used more often as a material for countertops. But it has several drawbacks, primarily that it scratches and mars easily and is etched by acids.

Engineered stone

Made largely from ground quartz, engineered stone is similar in use and price to granite. But it is available in more colors, is more durable, and has a non-porous surface that does not require periodic sealing. Brand names (all registered trademarks) include Zodiaq from DuPont, Viatera, Cambria Quartz, and Silestone. While engineered stone doesn’t have the cachet of natural granite, it is virtually carefree.

Solid surface countertops

Less expensive than granite, solid surface countertops were developed in the early 1980’s as a stronger alternative to laminates. They come in a myriad of colors and patterns. They are custom made from plastic resins to your specifications. They are seamless when installed, non-porous and strong. Brands include Corian, Silestone, Avonite, Shirestone, Gibralter, Earthstone, Staron, and Mystera.

Downside: They can be damaged by hot pans and can be scratched – though light scratches can be buffed out.

Ceramic tile and granite tile countertops

Much less expensive than granite, ceramic tile is a good choice for an attractive, functional countertop on a budget. It is highly durable and, if properly installed, easy to clean. It comes in a wide variety of colors and textures, is not damaged by hot pans, and is stain resistant. Downside: If not installed professionally, the surface may be uneven. Grout lines interfere with rolling and can be difficult to keep clean. Tiles can crack.

Also available are granite tiles, also much less expensive than solid slabs of granite, but with a similar elegant look. Downside: Granite tiles involve the maintenance of slab granite as well as the difficulty of cleaning the grout lines of ceramic tiles. Like ceramic tiles, granite tiles can be installed by a homeowner, but an uneven surface will make it difficult to use and clean. Installing granite tile edging and corners can be a challenge for the do-it-yourselfer.

Laminate countertops

The most affordable material is laminate, which comes in prefab plastic-coated synthetic sheets that are cut to size, installed, then finished on the ends. With recent improvements in scratch-resistance, laminates are viable materials for utilitarian countertops. Laminates are easy to clean and come in a large number of colors and designs. Brands include Formica, Nevermar, and Wilsonart.

Downside:  Laminates can scorch from a hot pan, and sheets have seams between them which can curl. Because the sheets are inexpensive, they can easily be replaced if damaged, but front edge finishing can be expensive.

Butcher block countertops

There is nothing like wood to warm up a kitchen. Hardwoods like oak and maple are available in a range of attractive butcher block finishes. Supplied in slabs up to 60” long and 24” wide, they are self edged and can be abutted to another countertop material, such as ceramic tile or stone. They also make excellent tops for carts and islands. Wood is easy to clean; scratches can be sanded out; and if necessary the entire countertop can be sanded and refinished.

Downside: Water will stain wood, so it needs to be periodically oiled or resealed.

Stainless steel countertops

Heat resistant, durable, easy to clean, and expensive, stainless steel can be fabricated as a countertop for an ultra-modern look. Sometimes used as a sink surround, stainless steel can be combined with other materials, such as butcher block or concrete, for a unique contemporary look.

Downside: Noisy, dentable, and you can’t cut on it.

Concrete countertops

This year’s fad? Concrete countertops have gained in popularity recently. They are available in several finishes, can be tinted, and can be poured in unusual shapes.

Downside: Concrete can be discolored by a damp sponge, damaged by an acid spill, or warped by abrupt temperature changes. Because it is porous, the surface should be sealed several times a year and waxed more frequently.

Before you decide

Visit a showroom or granite yard to see your materials choices up close. It is especially difficult to select a pattern from the Internet because the character of a stone needs to be felt as well as seen.

Check out more specific design choices that will help you decide how your dream kitchen will look, so you will get the most benefit from your kitchen renovation: flooring, cabinets, countertops, backsplashes, walls and window treatments, lighting, and appliances. Use your imagination and read up on color combinations. If you need more help with your design, get the advice of a kitchen designer.

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