Updated November 07, 2017
The last decade has seen a surge of countertop options available to the homeowner. The accessibility of so many wonderful products is both exciting … and overwhelming. As kitchens become the focal point of the home, many homeowners find this room taking a large portion of the budget, and countertops eat up a big slab (no pun intended) of that. Here is a little countertop 101 to introduce you some of the materials available and a touch on their qualities and downfalls. I recommend doing a little mixing and matching by function in your kitchen, as many products are awesome for some applications, but not so well suited for others. Try to look past the fads and find a countertop that will be timeless to you and works best for your needs.
Interesting patterns, polished crystal bling and colors dreamed up by nature, it is easy to see why granite has become so popular. The uniqueness of each slab gives a luxurious look to any kitchen. It is largely heat and scratch resistant, though it is recommended that you still use hot pads and cutting boards, as it is possible to damage, especially if not properly sealed. It is also rather stain resistant, but look out for acidic foods that can etch the surface or dark liquids like red wine or beets that could cause staining. Granite is a natural material which has its merits, however, it takes thousands (and some debate millions) of years for granite to form, so it should be used thoughtfully and hopefully its durability will also help it last as a finished surface just as long, I cringe at the thought of all of this granite being thrown in the landfill when the trend dies out. Look for the different finish options available, if you do not like the high gloss look, ask about a leathered or honed finish for a more modern and matte look.
Great for an industrial or even primitive farmhouse look, concrete counters have become quite popular especially, with the DIY crowd. Best of all it has a low impact on the environment, and certain mixes even use waste materials giving it extra green points. The ability to stain or dye the material allows for endless color options. It is also possible to stamp them or even embed fossils, stones, glass or virtually any trinket that you could dream up to make a totally unique look. Other positives to these custom counters: depending on how they are cast they can be seamless, they (though perhaps not the sealant) are heat resistant, and again depending on the sealant used can be pretty scratch and stain resistant. On the downside, there is possibility of cracking and also staining, especially if you do not keep them regularly sealed, which if you don’t like maintenance could also be a negative. Be sure to research the different sealants to decide what look and upkeep is best for you.
A nice solid butcher block adds warmth as well as function to any kitchen. There are also many options for large slab sized wood countertops on the market these days that are beautiful, natural and can be comparatively affordable. It is not recommended to use wood in wet applications like near your sink; however, they can be great for an island countertop, bar or near a range. They of course can be cut upon, but it will depend on the type of wood how it will show scratches. It is important to keep your wood counters sealed with a food grade sealer such butchers wax and a simple cleaner of vinegar and water can protect your counter from bacteria. Like all wood surfaces, these counters can burn so be sure to use a hot pad or trivet with hot pans.
Marble is a classic stone surface for kitchens. It’s natural cool quality makes it great for pastry surfaces, keep your butter from melting as you roll out your pie crust or croissant dough. It’s a classic beauty with a long history of elegance. Marble’s muted tones also work well with nearly any palette or concept making it widely popular in kitchen design lately. However, it is a much more porous stone than granite, staining and scratching very easily. It is important to treat it with care and keep it well sealed. Personally, I like to suggest marble as an accent countertop like on an island or side counter, allowing it to be used towards it’s best function and admired for its beauty but keeping the hard working areas of your kitchen more functional.
If you love the look of solid slabs but worry about the upkeep- quartz countertops are for you. Made of mostly ground quartz, they are the hardest surface you can use in your kitchen. They are heat and stain resistant, do not need to be sealed, and are very resistant to scratching and knicks. If you are looking for an enviromentally friendly option, look for companies that use waste stone material from quarries or recycled glass. They do not have the patterning that only mother nature can create, but they come in endless color options and they are coming up with more and more styles that break away from strictly homogenous patterns.
Before stone slab counters became affordable for the masses, tile was one of the few hard surface options available. The era of 4x4 ceramic tile countertops has finally came to an end as we grew weary of cleaning endless grout lines and dreamed of a smoother surface for rolling out dough. However, tile can make for a budget friendly hard surface that makes your counters a bit heartier than a laminate but without the price of a solid slab. Today there are many large format tiles on the market that allow for the smallest of grout lines, making a rather seamless surface that is often heat proof, may not scratch and comes in endless options of colors and textures. Many granites and marbles even come in 24” tile making stone an option if you do not have the budget for solid slabs but want the same look and benefits.
These counters have come a long way over the years. Though those retro patterns and colors are endearing, on top of the many colors and patterns, they now have more abstract patterns and finishes that can mimic stone. The real benefit of laminate is the cost, making them largely less expensive than other options, especially if buying prefabricated counters or installing yourself. They also have a less intensive upkeep as they do not need to be sealed and they are virtually stainless. However, they will scratch if cut on and are not heatproof.
A great earth friendly product, solid slabs made out of waste paper can be beautiful, functional and tell an interesting story. They offer many color options, though the patterning is generally limited to solids. They are finished to be a fairly hard surface standing up against small scratches and nicks and they have many similarities to wood and can be refinished if need be.
The industry choice for restaurants and food professionals everywhere, they stand up to nearly any thing: water, heat, scratches, staining.. With the ability to recycle and reuse steel, they are also a sustainable option, especially in our world of constant remodels. Of course their cold, steely appearance does not fit every kitchen concept, but they work marvelously well in modern design and can be mixed with other surfaces to create a supremely functional and professional foodie kitchen.