countertop basics- features and benefits of countertop materials
Oscar and Felix went shopping for countertops
Our couple is shopping for a new countertop. They have a cream laminate countertop circa mid ’70’s that has to go. No matter how much the neat person is careful and cleans, the other is, let’s face it, a slob- there’s always pizza and spilled beer, dirty dishes and mess. Stuff even gets cut directly on the surface so it’s all scratched up. And burn marks! One cleans it all up and within minutes it looks like a frat house again.
Countertops are the workhorses of the kitchen
They’re exposed to scratching and scraping, oils, chemicals, liquids, hot and cold things, dropped things, and who knows what else (I’m talking to you, raw chicken and fish). Countertops are constantly used and abused. So what characteristics should you look for in a countertop? It depends on your priorities, but there’re four important factors-
- durability- how it stands up to impact, heat, scratching, and staining
- porousness- how porous is it? This is the staining aspect. Natural stone, marble and granite, and concrete all need to be sealed regularly. Wood and soapstone require regular treatment, too. I’m lazy so this is a big factor for me.
- price-there is a wide range of pricing for countertops from under $30 a square foot for laminate to over$300 for gemstone.
- looks- this is all up to you, but it will impact the price.
Well, so these are the things that drive your decision. This is all about your priorities- if you have a working kitchen used by many people durability and maintenance will be your priorities. As I’ve said before, I live with cooks not cleaners so I need no-worry countertops. If you’re take out types or want a showpiece then your needs are different.
What are your options?
Quartz is a man-made mixture of quartz -usually between 93-96%- and a bonding agent. Because it’s made to formula and not by nature its uniform so a piece you get this year will match one made in ten years. Some companies are working on making the veined patterns unique to each slab, but the majority are very similar. Quartz is non-porous so it doesn’t need sealing, oiling or waxing. This also means that it doesn’t have pockets for bacteria to grow unlike stone and concrete have. As with any surface pay attention to seams when cleaning. It is soap and water clean up -easy-peasy- just no ammonia products! Quartz is very hard to stain and cutting on it will ruin your knives (a high crime in my house). Though it’s heat resistant you should always use a trivit on any countertop when putting something on it. Quartz can chip if you drop something on the edge. It can be repaired by a professional.
Quartz looks “flatter” than natural stone. It isn’t as glossy and doesn’t have the visual depth of a stone, but it makes up for it in easy maintenance. It can come in solid colors like whites, greys, even lime green, veined like marble, spotty colors or matte textured like concrete.
Pricewise quartz tends to run higher than many most other surfaces. Its ranked #1 by Consumer Reports review on countertops and the most requested countertop material in NKBA’s “2018 Design Trends Study”.
Granite and Other Stones for Countertops
Granite can either be “consistent” or “variegated”. It means just that. I always recommend picking out your slab especially with variegated granite. Each slab is different and can vary wildly, and I mean wildly, from slab to slab. You may hate that blob of yellow and if you decided not to pick out your slab either tough luck or you’re spending time and money to get another piece. Granite is a very hard rock and difficult to scratch, but it’s porous and requires sealing. Some installers preseal or even put a lifetime coating on their slabs. Ask your installer about maintenance. Remember that sealing is to protect from staining and also to make it more difficult for bacteria to set up a home in your countertop.
Soapstone and marble are both softer stone than granite. They can patina. That’s a nice way of saying getting stained, scratched, and beat up. You probably remember soapstone from science class. The builders were more worried about burning down the school than staining the lab surface. It can be exposed to all sorts of chemicals and abuse and stand up to it, but it’s not going to look the same as day one. Soapstone is often oiled to bring out it’s colors. I have a friend whose had it for years and just cleans it down and she loves it!
Marble has been used for centuries in kitchens and bathrooms. It’s preferred by bakers as it stays cool making it great for rolling out pastry dough. If you bake you may want to consider an area of marble for that purpose. Marble is beautiful and everyone wants it, but few want the hassle of care.
Both soapstone and marble can be refinished if you don’t want the patina. It’s a job best left to professionals.
Quartzite is not the quartz we covered above. It is a natural stone somewhere between marble’s glittery specks and veins and granite’s durability. It is a beautiful stone and is increasing in popularity.
Sealing a countertop is like using sunscreen.
It blocks out stains and bacteria the way sunscreen blocks uva and uvb rays.
It protects the surface and keeps it looking younger.
Like sunscreen apply to a clean surface, let it soak in, and wipe off excess.
Solid Surface Countertops
Corian is to solid surface as Kleenex is to tissue= often used interchangeably. Solid surface countertops are acrylic and can be molded into any shape making it possible to have an integral sink giving a seamless transition from sink to countertop. They don’t require sealing, but can scratch, stain, or burn. These can be buffed out. Take care as buffing can a leave a different finish in that area. Some owners will have the surfaced buffed after several years of use. The material is usually mounted on a plywood substrate with a built up edge to give it a thicker look. It has a silky matte finish. My cousins’ used Corian in their large kitchen and love it. They are also very, very tidy people. Needless to say it wouldn’t work in my house.
Laminate’s come a long way from the boomerang patterns of the 60’s. (That pattern’s still available by the way!). It is inexpensive, easy to install, and has many color options including linen, bamboo, natural stones and woods, and stainless steel and other metals. It is made by binding printed papers and resins with high heat and glue to a wooden substrate. Plywood is the best substrate if you’re having a custom top made. Most of the pre-made countertops you get at big box stores are on particle board and are what’s called “postform”. Postform countertops have an attached low backsplash, a front decorative edge. and raw end edges.
The drawbacks to laminate are that it can burn, scratch, and peel, especially near heat like the oven and dishwasher. (You can glue it and clamp it in place til the glue dries. Don’t put off repairing it as it can snag on things and is very tempting for kids of all ages to pick at.). And if the particle board substrate gets wet it can swell, mold and rot. Yuck! Make sure to seal the ends of the top and use a high quality sealant when installing faucets and sinks. Speaking of which, a drop in or self rimming sinks most often used with laminate countertops, though an acrylic sink can be undermounted by removing the substrate and adhearing it to the laminate itself. I’ve never seen it done and my installer doesn’t recommend it.
Ultra Compact, Porcelain or Sintered Countertops
Dekton and Neolith are two lines of sintered or ultra compact countertop. They are made with minerals and heating them to extreme temperatures -2000+ degrees Fahrenheit- and compacting them with 5900+ pounds of pressure per square inch. This makes an incredibly tough surface that would stand up to battery acid or lighting a fire on it. Don’t. It can stand extremes in temperature and is uva/uvb resistant perfect for outdoor use. There are some great industrial finishes that mimic concrete or distressed metal along with woods and stone patterns.
The problems I’ve seen with it are-
- the pattern sits on the top and doesn’t run through the slab leaving the edges and underside a solid color.
- With Dekton, at least, it is 2cm thick. If you want a thicker look the edges have to be built up which increases the cost. Both these issues can be seen in the above photo.
- It failed Consumer Reports drop a pot on it test. It seems to be more prone to chipping, breaking, or even shattering than most other surfaces. My fabricator had an outside kitchen done with it and when the grill guy went to install the grill he shoved it in place too hard and broke off a big chunk of an expensive countertop. It had to be prefabricated and wasn’t covered by the warranty. Oops.
Wood’s been used for centuries for work surfaces. Countertops are made from hard woods such as maple or birch, but bamboo is the hardest and most renewable. Woods have a natural antibacterial property making them great for countertops and cutting boards. They do require maintenance. Treating with oil or wax specific for surfaces that come in contact with food. No poly, though- it fails and is a b….h to redo. An occasional sanding will help remove dings and light stains. When used around the sink as in the photo above it will require more care as water can blacken the wood. It’s easy to install. I’ve seen salvaged boards used to create an interesting surface for an island. Thank you, Joanna Gaines!
Recycled Material Countertop
Countertops can be made from all sorts of recycled materials. Glass, paper, wood and concrete are some of the most popular. Hold on there, Sparky! Paper? Visions of soggy newspaper dancing in your head? Unlike the laminates we went over earlier this is a solid material made from paper or plant based fibers, non petroleum based resins and natural pigments. It’s mixed up, compressed and baked at high temperature to create slabs that are nonporous, dense and quite durable, and are much lighter than quartz or stone. They were originally developed for laboratories and have been used in skateboard parks, so you can see they stand up to wear. They’re only heat resistant to about 350 degrees so use a trivit. I recommend always using a trivia or hot pad no matter what you surface is made of.
Ok, I went on about paper to show how new technology impacts everything. Plus it’s cool.
Concrete is gaining popularity for it’s versatility and industrial look. It’s very heavy and is usually poured on site. Concrete can be stained in a variety of colors and can be stamped with patterns or inlayed with objects from computer chips to marbles. It is porous so you have ti seal it. Regularly. Thoroughly. Definitely. Consider getting a quartz or sintered countertop instead if you’re looking for the concrete feel without the work.
Stainless steel is used in commercial kitchens with good reason- it is very tough. It will take the daily abuse of hours of banging around and have very hot things put on it. It also is very easy to sanitize. Being nonporous it can be steamed, bleached and stand up to heavy duty cleaners. It can scratch- we’re back to that patina thing- and show fingerprints like as much as stainless steel appliances do. Different finishes can hide marks better than a shiny finish. They can be made with the sink formed right into the countertop and can even have drain channels beside the sink for drying dishes. (See the photo with the wood top above.)
Copper is also used as a countertop. Its warm and beautiful and expensive! Copper ain’t cheap. That’s why you see Reno shows where the flipper gets into the house to find someones ripped open walls to steal the pipes. Get pure copper as recycled doesn’t last as well. Make sure to specify copper welded corners and joints. Copper can interact with other metals causing them both to weaken and discolor.
With any metal the gauge is important. That’s the thickness of the metal sheet. The numbers run so the higher the number the thinner the material. Go for at least 16 gauge. This is true with stainless steel sinks too. A 22 gauge sink will dent easily if a pot is dropped in it and it will be louder when you knock things around in it.
So What do I Lean to?
My personal priorities are ease of maintenance, durability, looks, going green, and cost. Which for me means quartz, stainless steel and paper, though not necessarily in that order.
What do I have now? 1970’s lava patterned laminate that I tiled over with 12″ x 12″ black granite tiles, face down to give a honed finish with very , very thin black grout lines. You’ll notice I didn’t list tile as a countertop surface. They’ll do in my kitchen for now, but I would never, ever, ever recommend tile except as a 2-3 yr temporary fix. Let me just say -grout lines . Double yuck! And I used big tiles and tiny grout lines. Still yuck!