Countertops are the workhorse of both the kitchen and bathroom. They are used for a myriad of tasks including preparing food, paying bills and doing homework, serving buffet food, holding small appliances, facilitating daily hygiene routines and more. They are subjected to a wide variety of abuses including hot pots, acidic foods, alcohol-based personal care products, metal rivets on small appliances, ladies’ purses, etc.
Countertops typically comprise 10-20 percent of an average full kitchen remodel budget while bathroom countertops (not including tub or shower surrounds) will comprise approximately 8-15 percent of the average full bathroom remodel budget.
Costs aside, everyone has different needs and desires when it comes to countertop performance. Therefore, before investigating specific countertop materials, consider the following factors in choosing the right category of countertop for you and your project.
Stain resistance: How effective is the countertop material at resisting stains? Think of a water-resistant watch vs. waterproof watch. Most countertop materials will resist stains, provided you wipe them up in a timely manner, but this will depend greatly on the porosity of the material and the type of sealant, if any, applied to the material.
Ask yourself — are you a neat and tidy person who cleans as you go or are you more spontaneous and don’t mind a mess? If you fall into the latter category, you will want to choose the most stain-resistant material available.
Scratch resistance: How effective is the countertop material at resisting scratches? This will depend on how “soft” the material is and how easily it can be repaired.
Do you allow people to sit on your counters in jeans with rivets on the pockets? Do you typically place handbags with metal “feet” on your countertops? Are you in the habit of placing rubber bumpers or felt tabs on small appliances and objets d’art that you place on your counters? Do you enjoy home maintenance and repair projects? If you answered yes to the first two questions and no to the second two questions, then look for countertop materials that are hard and durable.
Heat resistance: Can you put hot pots off the stove or hot curling irons directly on the countertop? With the exception of glazed ceramic tile, porcelain tile or metal, the simple answer is no. A trivet, hot pad or towel should be placed under hot items before they are set down on most counters.
As a point of clarification, typically it is not the countertop material that is damaged by the heat but rather the sealants, such as those applied to quarried stone counters (granite, marble, limestone, etc.) or concrete counters. Once the seal is compromised, the countertop may become susceptible to staining. Removing stains from quarried stone countertops is an arduous process, comprised of applying a poultice, and is best handled by a professional.
Maintenance and repair: Be honest with yourself. Make sure you choose a countertop that possesses maintenance and repair requirements that fit your lifestyle and your skill set. This will ensure that your countertop investment looks beautiful for years to come.
It is important to select a countertop material and color that will render a timeless look (think back to the orange and apple-green-martini countertops that were wildly popular a few years ago and discontinued shortly thereafter) as well as one that you will happily face day in and day out for years to come with pleasure.
Also, consider whether the material is a good match for the architectural style of the home or room. When we think of contemporary-styled kitchens and baths, sintered stone, engineered stone, solid surface, concrete or metal countertops spring to mind. When we think of traditionally styled kitchens and baths, we tend to think of quarried stone or butcher block.
Country style lends itself to tile. The design police will not haul you away for installing a quarried stone countertop in your contemporary kitchen; however, architectural style is just one more criteria to factor into your decision process.
With the basics of these selection criteria down, consider the various countertop material options. Price ranges quoted are indicative of installed costs (without backsplashes or removal and disposal of existing cabinets) in the Pacific Northwest; nationally, prices will vary.
Laminate — Generically referred to as Formica (Formica is just one of many brands of laminate), it is comprised of multiple layers of paper plus a color and pattern sheet with a clear melamine overlay. The layers are bonded together with phenolic resin and compressed under great pressure, which is where the material gets its secondary name, high-pressure laminate. Laminate sheets are adhered to a base or substrate such as plywood.
An exciting innovation in laminates is textured surfaces and styled edge details that mask the formerly telltale appearance of the unattractive brown line associated only with laminates.
Wood — Often referred to as butcher block, wood countertops can be made of a variety of wood species, with maple being the most common. Butcher block comes in two styles: standard and end-cut. Unfinished wood counters are common for food preparation while finished wood counters are more for show. Butcher block is not a good choice around sinks or cooking surfaces.
Ceramic tile — Highly durable, ceramic-tile countertops can be designed with a wide variety of colors, shapes and styles. They are only highly durable if the grout is “color seal,” which significantly reduces staining and maintenance requirements. Depending on the type of tile installed, a tile countertop can render an uneven surface, making setting a wine glass down an exercise in keen observation.
Composite paper — Paper composites are comprised of paper (often recycled); bamboo fiber; recycled wood fiber; salvaged wood fiber and renewable, wood-sourced cellulose fiber from managed forests that is then compressed and typically held together with a petroleum-free, phenolic-resin binder. They are very smooth to the touch and have a leathery look.
Solid surface — Generically referred to as Corian (there are several other manufacturers of solid surface product), solid-surface countertops are petroleum-based acrylic or composites of acrylic and polyester resin. It is manufactured in thicknesses of 1/4-inch panels for shower surrounds and 1/2-inch slabs for kitchen and bathroom countertops.
It is very malleable and can be molded into a variety of shapes and inlayed with contrasting color bands or shapes. Depending on the underlying cabinets, a subtop may be required for proper installation.
Sintered stone — Comprised of natural minerals and added pigments that are compressed at a high temperature under great force, rendering a large, extremely durable yet thin sheet of material suitable for floors, walls, siding and countertops. It comes in 1/8-inch, 1/4-inch and 1/2-inch thickness (for countertops) and may or may not require a subtop.
The most unique feature of this product category is the ability to successfully install it out of doors, such as in outdoor kitchens. It is also easy to book match slabs with reduced waste compared to quarried or engineered stone.
Engineered stone — Also referred to as quartz, it comprised of 93 percent crushed quartz rock and 7 percent polyester resin that are pressed into 2-centimeter (3/4-inch) and 3-centimeter (1-1/4-inch) slabs using a vibrocompression vacuum process. This material is highly durable and has very low maintenance requirements. In recent years, the color and pattern options for this category have exploded with many realistic quarried looks.
Quarried stone (granite, marble, limestone, quartzite, etc.) — No two slabs are identical, which makes quarried stone counters unique. Although sequencing is common in quarried slabs, you may not have access to the quantity of sequenced slabs that you need for your project, which means color and veining can exhibit vast differences.
Provided your installation fabricator has applied a high-quality penetrating sealer, polished quarried stone should be a low-maintenance surface.
Metal — Copper, stainless steel or zinc, metal countertops are the epitome of low maintenance. Sheets are molded and typically secured to a plywood subtop. Metals are relatively soft so they scratch very easily but repairs can be buffed out with the right tools. They are extremely hygienic due to their nonporous nature; they will not grow bacteria and are extremely easy to clean.
Glass — Countertops can be made of custom solid slabs of clear or colored glass. Beautiful and unique, they are nonporous and can provide several unique design features for back lighting, creating a beautiful glow. One characteristic that many people are surprised by is that they can be unexpectedly noisy and contribute to sound reverberation in a room.
Glass terrazzo — Terrazzo countertops are typically made from recycled glass mixed with either a cement or resin binder. Other materials commonly added to the mix include shells, pottery, discarded china bowls and toilets, stemware, windshields and other glass materials. Beautiful and relatively unique, these countertops are often specified in projects that are LEED certified.
Concrete — Concrete countertop fabrication is either cast in place (fabrication is done directly on the cabinetry on the job site) or custom precast where fabrication is completed in a fabrication shop then installed on the job site. Concrete countertops are highly customizable, making each one unique. Colors are muted but somewhat limitless, while edge options are customizable. Integrated sinks, drain boards and backsplashes are some of the hallmarks of concrete countertops.
- Edge options — some countertops can have an almost limitless number of edge details such as solid surface while sintered stone really has just two options. Many fabricators have four or so standard edges, which are included in the fabrication price, and then additional (fancier) edges for an extra cost. If you have wheelchair users in the home, it is always a good idea to make sure the lower edge of the countertop is polished.
- Expect to pay for the section of countertop that has been cut out for your cooktop, sink, etc. If you have specified an undermount sink, there will be an additional charge for the labor required to polish the exposed edge. If you have a radius (curved edge) on your countertop, there will be an upcharge for the added fabrication labor.
Understand that different materials have different tolerances for unsupported bar top overhangs. For example, a 2-centimeter quarried stone countertop can only cantilever 6-inch unsupported while 3-centimeter countertops can cantilever 10 inches or more unsupported; 3-centimeter engineered stone can overhang 12-15 inches, assuming there are no cutouts nearby. As a point of reference, to sit comfortably on a 24-inch stool at a 36-inch bar top, you should have 15-18 inches of knee space or overhang.
- Ask your designer or fabricator where the seams are likely to be placed if you have an L- or U-shaped configuration. Additionally, if you have an intricately veined granite, consider how you want the countertop laid out, bearing in mind that your fabricator will offer you the best material utilization possible and that if your desire is to exhibit a specific section of the slab, you may need to purchase an additional slab.
Determine whether you want a backsplash of the same material as your countertops. If so, how high would you like it: 4 inches, 6 inches or more? If made from the same material, do you want it the full thickness of the slab or does the fabricator offer a gauged-down version?
- Determine whether your countertop bid includes removal and disposal of your existing countertop. Some fabricators provide this service and some don’t.
- Quality stone countertop fabricators will install 1/4-inch steel rods under the front edge of a sink or cooktop.
- Ask the fabricator or installer if caulking the backsplash is included in the installation price.
- Be prepared to sign a waiver if you want a honed finish.
Remember that all cabinets must be in place and level and that all plumbing fixtures and appliances must be on site at the time of templating your countertops.
- Request a list of care and maintenance requirements for your new countertop.
- Remember to register your countertop with the applicable manufacturer in order to validate your warranty.
There are many, many variables to consider when selecting countertops. To streamline the selection process and ensure you get a quality product, consider working with an experienced designer and a licensed and bonded countertop fabricator and installer.