Three key factors: Price, maintenance and appearance
When a sample of a kitchen
countertop made from
60 percent paper recently
crossed my desk, I realized
tops could be, and are, made out of
anything and everything. Wood, plastic,
granite, metal, concrete, tile, acrylic—they're all used.
Seventy-five years ago, stone and wood were the primary
countertop choices; 25 years ago, laminate was clearly king of
the hill. But today's kitchens and countertops are used for
more than just cooking. The kitchen is a living room, study,
dining room, entertainment area, craft center and showplace
all rolled into one. The many functions of this room today call
for a countertop surface that suits our lifestyles and activities.
When people need a top that's durable, simple to install,
easy to maintain and affordable, most still head for the laminate
display. But there's a bewildering range of other choices
out there today. They all have their strengths and weaknesses.
They're all pretty durable; no real stinkers in the bunch. They
all require some maintenance or care. A wine glass dropped
from two feet will shatter on any of them. So selecting a countertop
really boils down to how you answer these three questions:
- How much can you spend?
- How much maintenance are you willing to do?
- What material do you most like to touch, see, show off
and work on?
You can spend $2 to $250 per sq. ft. for countertops.
Surprisingly, there are few choices that fall between the basic
$10 per sq. ft. laminates and the $80 stone and solid-surface
tops. Wood and tile tops fall in the middle, but of all the tops
we looked at, these had the most critics. The scarcity of midpriced
options can be a blessing in disguise; if you have a limited
budget, look at the many design possibilities of laminate.
Kitchen specialists follow a few rules of thumb based on
The longer you plan to stay in a house, the more durable
and upscale the countertop you should select. The “cost per
year” becomes a bargain as the years pass.
Tops and installation usually compose ten to 15 percent
of a kitchen remodel budget. Tops that fall outside this range
may not look like they fit.
Put your money where your heart is—especially when
you're on a budget. If you love high-tech appliances or custom
wood cabinetry, spend your money there.
Maintenance and use factors
Maintenance on most countertops is minimal—but fail
to do it and permanent, or at least difficult-to-reverse,
damage can occur. There is preventive maintenance
(mopping up spills, using hot pads, working on cutting
boards) and long-term maintenance (which usually
involves applying some form of sealer or finish). Ask
yourself, how careful (really) are you and your family?
What do you expect your top to look like in five years?
Does it make more sense to stick with laminate until the
kids are out of grade school?
Aesthetic and tactile factors
If budget and maintenance aren't decisive factors in
your mind, how the top looks and feels are the true deal
makers. Both you and your countertop have a personality;
select one that you can get along with. Texture, aesthetics,
glossiness, “warmth,” how natural the material
looks and feels, and how it fits in with the design of your
kitchen and home are all part of the final equation.
One of the beauties of today's trend toward multiple
countertop surfaces is, when torn between two tops, you
can install them both!
Wear and Maintenance
A chart comparing laminate, granite, solid surface, wood and tile countertops is available in Additional Information below.
Plastic laminates: Pros and cons
Plastic-laminate tops may not grab many
headlines, but they still account for 75
percent of the market. They're inexpensive,
durable, come in lots of colors and can be
installed by do-it-yourselfers.
Plastic laminates are multiple layers of resin-soaked
kraft paper, topped by a patterned
sheet of melamine that's subjected to heat and
pressure. The resultant 1/16-in. laminate sheet
can be made into countertops in two ways.
It can be post formed at a fabrication plant
to create tops with the rounded “unibody”
backsplash and nosing. Post-formed tops can
be purchased off-the-shelf at home centers in
limited colors or special ordered. This style top
is the least expensive, easiest to clean and
quickest to install.
They can also be custom fabricated into an
extraordinary range of styles. Laminate sheets
are glued to particle board, then edged with
laminate, wood, even solid-surface strips.
They resist grease and stains and clean with
soap and water. They'll take a good hit, and
changing your color scheme won't cost an arm
and a leg.
On the downside, laminate tops can be damaged
by hot pans and sharp knives, abrasive
cleaners can dull the finish, and if water penetrates
seams, the substrate can expand and the
laminate bulge. Surface damage is difficult to
repair. All of these problems can be avoided
through proper installation and use.
Things to know before you buy
- Darker solid colors and glossy finishes
show scratches and cut marks more readily
than patterned or matte surfaces.
- Tops where the laminate overlaps the edging,
rather than butts to it are harder to damage.
- New technology in printing has improved
the clarity and depth. Many wood grains and
stone patterns are amazingly crisp and realistic.
Photo 1: Counter-Seal undermount sink system
Photo 2: Gem Loc solid surface edging
Jazzing Up Basic Laminate Tops
Three products on the market can help extend the
versatility of laminate. Most are installed by your fabricator
when your top is made.
Counter-Seal (Photo 1) is a relatively new product
that allows you to undermount a sink in a laminate
top. Using templates and special tools, certified fabricators
cut the sink opening, then line this opening
with a closely engineered ring of solid-surface material.
The tight fit of the ring
and special adhesives protect
the particleboard core from
water and moisture. Prices
start at about $250. The company
also makes a product
for do-it-yourselfers wishing
to undermount a sink in a tile
Gem Loc (Photo 2) is a
integrated into a laminate
top during fabrication.
It comes in a
wide range of colors and styles.
Kuehn Bevel Edge is a specially milled laminate
edging that eliminates the dark edge lines often found
on laminates. Kuehn also makes other types of edgings.
with our budget. We
chose great appliances
instead of a
wrong with laminate,
but the high-end
are showing all
stone. As the 1950s
style swings back,
laminate will be in
Solid surface: pros and cons
the first solid-surface
countertop, Corian, to the
world 35 years ago and the
category continues to thrive.
There are currently more than a
dozen manufacturers offering countertop
materials in hundreds of colors
Most, if not all, solid-surface tops are handled
by trained pros who have been certified
to fabricate and install that specific product.
Solid-surface tops are normally 1/2 in.
thick and made of acrylic, polyester (or
blends of the two) along with fillers. Edges
are built up with two or three layers of material
for a thicker appearance. One exception,
Wilsonart's Solid Surface Veneer (SSV), consists
of a 1/8-in. layer of solid-surface material,
bonded to a particle-board core. Some
initial problems with the product were
resolved by bonding a moisture-resistant
layer to the bottom of the particle-board
Some have labeled solid-surface tops the
“near-perfect” product. They're non-porous,
making them ideal for food preparation.
They're difficult to stain. They can be formed
into nearly any size and shape. Because
they're of uniform material through and
through, light scratches can be buffed out,
deep scratches and burns can be sanded out,
and severely damaged areas can literally be
cut out, replaced, then blended to be darn
near invisible. Sinks can be undermounted
and backsplashes can be integrated into the
top, making them seamless.
Most potential problems with solid-surface
tops can be avoided by proper installation—
and companies are increasingly selective in
whom they'll certify to do their fabricating.
There are some negatives, however. It's
expensive. Cutting on them will leave
scratches, and those that are solid color or
have a high-gloss finish can be especially
revealing. Some object to their homogenous
look and cold feel.
Things to know before you
- The key to a trouble-free solid-surface
top is an installer who knows his or her stuff.
Seams should be offset 1-1/2 to 3 in. from
inside corners, inside corners should be
radiused and joints should be reinforced.
- Know where your seams are and take
precautions not to use crock pots, griddles
and hot plates in that area. The expansion
and contraction can cause cracks during the
- You can have a pro resand and repolish
the top every five to seven years for a hard-to-
“Lots of people like
because they're predictable;
the same five years
from now as they do
were originally touted
as being indestructible
invisible seams; now
they're touted as
being renewable with
Granite: pros and cons
been around for
millions of years, it's still
considered the new kid on
the block. Ten years ago
granite fell into the “exotic” or
“extravagant” categories. Today it's
become more accessible and affordable.
Shipping is easier (more than 90 percent
comes from overseas), and new technology
and thinner blades allow it to be cut with less
waste and cost. In the 2001 National Kitchen
and Bath Designs Trend Survey, 37 percent of
the tops installed by its members were granite.
In its natural state it resists most stains and
when sealed becomes tougher yet. Many edge
styles can be crafted: most commonly bevel,
radius, half-radius, ogee and square. A natural
material, it comes in a wide range of colors,
patterns and depths. Each top is absolutely
unique. Sinks can be undermounted (in the
case of one fabricator, 95 percent of the time.)
And it can handle hot pans.
On the downside, neglected granite can be
stained by hot grease. It's hard and cold. It
can be scratched by extreme abuse. Cutting
on it will more likely dull your knives than
damage your top, but repeated cutting in one
area can eventually affect the sheen. Seams are
more evident with granites that have a strong
pattern or grain. And since working with
granite requires special tools, it's not a
do-it-yourself material and on-site
repairs are difficult to make.
Things to know
before you buy
- Most slabs come in 9-x 5-ft. sections.
The fabricator will often factor in a
“waste charge” for the portion of the slab
not used. Keep this in mind. For instance,
don't spec out a 10-ft.-long island, when a
nine-ft. one will work.
- If possible, visit the granite “boneyard”
and select the actual slab your top
will be made from. The look of a large
slab can differ greatly from a small sample.
- Dark and solid-colored granites
show dings and spills more readily.
- Granite with a gloss finish will have
more depth and liveliness than one with a
matte finish, but it will also
much more readily.
“Some people love
a slab of granite
because of a wild
color or grain pattern.
Others hate it
for the same reason.”
feel tension that
wasn't there before
granite. You do
sort of tend to work
Engineered stone: Pros and cons
Blend the functional benefits
of solid-surface material with
the aesthetic attributes of natural stone
and you get a new class of countertop materials
called engineered stone. They're composed
of more than 93 percent crushed natural
stone, bound together by acrylic or polyester
resins. While new to the U.S. market,
these tops have been used successfully in
Europe for more than a decade.
Like solid-surface materials, they're nonporous
and nearly impossible to stain. Most
never need sealing. They have excellent
scratch resistance and have more “give” than
granite. Because they're composed of stone
they can have a natural look. But because
they also have resins and fillers they can also
be tinted to create colors not found in nature.
They're expensive, with most falling
between solid-surface and natural-stone
prices. And while manufacturers say they
can stand up to hot pans better than solid surface
materials, they can crack, even
change color, if subjected to extreme temperatures.
And they share some of granite's
cold to the touch
and unforgiving with a
Things to know before you buy
- Manufacturers of the quartz-based products
claim zero sealing is required—ever.
- The composites made of marble
(CompacMarble) and limestone (Terrestone)
are best suited for bathrooms.
- If you're in a hurry, Cambria strives to
manufacture and deliver your top in 14 days.
“If you're looking
on a kitchen
is as close as
you'll ever get. ”
“A small sample
piece of the stuff
might look like
but an entire
Stainless steel: pros and cons
If all the great restaurants of the world use
stainless-steel tops, why don't you see
more in homes? Well, they're expensive and
it's difficult to find fabricators. Critics also
point out that they show fingerprints and
water spots easily (especially when new), and
that they'll readily show nicks, dents and
On the thumbs-up side, they're completely
anti-microbial, provide a good heat-proof
surface and are easy to clean.
One manufacturer, John Boos, offers mail order
stainless-steel tops in limited sizes.
Things to know before you buy
- There are different grades and thicknesses
of stainless steel. Make sure you know what
you're paying for.
- Make certain the stainless steel is
wrapped completely around the edges of the
substrate to protect it.
“It's so sanitary,
I sometimes feel like
I'm preparing food
on an operating
table when I'm
working on the
stainless steel area
of my top.”
Wood: Pros and cons
Wood is the original
countertop; it's uniform
through and damage can
be repaired by sanding and
Most wood tops are created from
1-1/2-in. strips of maple edge-glued to
one another. Oak and other woods are
available, but constitute such a paltry
share of the market that most need to be
special ordered. End-grain maple tops—the true “butcher block” with the cut
ends forming the cutting surface—are
usually four or more inches thick and
For homeowners intending to use
wood as their primary top, a penetrating
oil finish is recommended because cuts
touched up with
a little oil and a swipe
of a rag. For those intending to use the
surface as more of an eating area, tops
with a varnish finish can be ordered.
Moisture is the number-one enemy of
wood tops. Seams and areas around sinks
are particularly vulnerable. And a wood
top can, and will, expand and contract.
“Wood has a high fondle
factor. People can't walk
by (our booth) without
Kitchen and Bath Show
“It has too many weaknesses
to be used everywhere in
a kitchen. But a small
chopping section is
“Real wood with a (crack)
is still prettier than (laminate)
Tile: Pros and cons
Tile has many virtues. It's inexpensive, do-it-yourself
friendly, available in an astounding variety of materials
and colors, and it offers design flexibility. But it has
equally strong drawbacks: It's exceptionally hard, its
piecemeal nature means some surface unevenness and
the grout lines are vulnerable to staining.
Not all tiles are created equal. Granite, porcelain and
glazed tiles are the least porous and are quite durable.
Marble, unglazed clay or limestone tiles are absorbent,
soft and usually not recommended for kitchens.
Grout is another part of the equation. Epoxy grout is
more durable but harder to install and may yellow.
Standard cement grout must be sealed often and well.
The tile base or substrate the tile is laid over must be
solid and watertight. Backerboard over plywood is the
most do-it-yourself friendly base. Many pros will form
and build a “mortar bed” for laying their tile.
Things to know before you buy
- High-gloss and solid-color tiles do show scratches.
- Select flat tile vs. that with a slight pillow effect to it.
- Using larger tiles leaves less room in between for
grout, which will have to be sealed and maintained.
“It's the ultimate
top, but I never
thought about how
difficult it would
be to write on it or
set down a wine
“Well, let me
put it this way:
I've never had
a client with an
existing tile top
ask me to design
a new kitchen
with a tile top.”
Back to Top
Exotic surfaces: Pros and cons
Marble (Photo 1) can be, and is, used for kitchen countertops. But its porosity
and fragility make it best suited for bathrooms, where it's less likely to be
damaged by knives, acidic foods and impact. But marble is undeniably gorgeous;
it has more natural graining than most stones and is available in a wide range of colors.
Soapstone (Photo 2) has proven its durability through use in
chemistry labs over the last 100 years. It has natural
veining and a rugged natural look. One fabricator
stated, “If you want a top that looks 100 years
old the day you put it in, put in soapstone.”
Although the material is relatively soft, an
application of mineral oil will disguise most scratches.
Heavier damage can be sanded out. Sinks can be seamlessly integrated
into the top and it can be worked with carbide tools. Most sections are limited
in length to 6 ft. Most granite fabricators can fabricate soapstone tops.
Concrete countertops are expensive,
easily stained (even with a lacquer finish),
can chip easily, and are as hard
as, well, concrete. So why would anyone
install one? “They're fun!”
explained one fabricator. You can
form them into any shape, embed stuff in them, dye them. And they're
durable and heat resistant. But only those committed to a fair level of
maintenance should consider them.
Richlite (Photo 3) is composed
of more than 60 percent
paper, but it looks
and acts more like
stone or wood. Used
in commercial kitchens and food-processing
plants for decades, the phenolic
wood material (according to the manufacturer)
resists heat, stains and scratches
and “lasts a lifetime.” It can be installed
by do-it-yourselfers and has a warm, soft
look and feel. Costs start at about $25 per
square foot for the material.
A chart comparing the cost of different countertop materials is available in Additional Information below.