Countertops 101: A Kitchen’s Perfect Pairing

Countertops make a huge difference in the look, function, and wear of a kitchen. They can also be a great change artist to spruce up an existing home for resale. Find out how you can guide home owners to make smart kitchen choices.

September 20, 2013

When it comes to finding the right kitchen countertops, home owners need to study up — and you can help. Have your clients ask themselves these questions:

  • Do you want to rest hot pots and pans on your surfaces?
  • Are you in danger of spilling acidic salad dressing or red wine?
  • Will kids run toys across them?

There are also the more traditional considerations to weigh in: color, pattern, thickness, durability, source material quality, and budget.

Help your clients do their renovation homework up front. The following is a roundup of popular countertop options, complete with pros and cons, pricing, and more.

GRANITE. Still popular for its cachet, natural colors, patterns, movement, and reputation for durability, Granite also offers another perk: It has come down in price due to improvements in extracting and processing and the availability of more imports.

“In the Michigan area where I’m located, there’s almost a stone store on every corner,” says Bryan Adkins, a contractor with A&G Contractors and consultant for Countertop Guides, a Web-based source. “You can get a very common Uba Tuba for as little as $35 a square foot (finished but not installed), though less ubiquitous examples sell for $135 a square foot,” he says.

A word of caution: Granites vary greatly and it’s tough to find slab-to-slab consistency. “The best sources sell stone that is harvested deeper and has more vibrant, richer color; inferior sources sell shallow, younger stone and colors may look painted on,” Adkins says.

Since granite is a natural stone, its porosity and absorbency also vary, so test samples, says Ryan Burden, owner of Countertop Specialty, an online consumer resource and stone product supplier. Home owners should buy granite from a supplier with a slab warehouse, since it’s best to see a slab rather than a small sample, and ensure that similar slabs exist if a problem occurs.

Natural stone is cut at a factory into slabs of 2 to 3 centimeters, which stone warehouses then purchase to sell to fabricators and designers who install them for clients’ countertops. But confusion abounds about fabrication. “The way you get a thicker edge profile is to laminate the edge to make it look thicker,” Burden says.

Next comes the finish: Polished for a shiny look, honed for softer appeal (fingerprints show more on darker, solid colors), or antiqued or leathered for a more novel look. Some granites come with a sealer applied, which can be reapplied every few years, but some are naturally dense—virtually stain-proof—and don’t need to be sealed. In addition, granite can almost always be repaired, Burden says.

LIMESTONE AND SOAPSTONE. Limestone is softer than granite, and most experts don’t recommend it. A similar looking material is soapstone, which comes in dark charcoals and blacks and grows richer-looking over time, says Adkins. Soapstone’s downside is that it can scratch easily and require attention. “Imagine how soft a bar of soap is,” says Louise Pascal principal with her husband Ken of True North Cabinets LLC in New Canaan, Ct. Its price is similar to higher-end granites at $80 to $200 per square foot finished.

CONCRETE. Once considered the “it” material among countertop choices, concrete is still popular for edgy kitchens, especially when pigments and curving shapes are desired. But Chicago designer Tom Kaufman has found it doesn’t hold up well because of its porosity, vulnerability towards dings, and need for a competent fabricator. Necessary skills can translate to $65 to $135 per square foot with color or 20 percent less without.

MARBLE. A long-time favorite because of its crisp white palettes, veining, and old-world connotation—think Parisian cafes—marble continues to attract attention despite its potential to stain and etch from contact with acidic foods, drinks, and harsh cleaning products. Even more troublesome, says Adkins, is putting materials like china atop it—they can have a rough bottom and scratch the marble surface. But some people love the patina that develops. “It’s definitely more difficult to maintain. Honing will make marks less evident,” says Pascal. Prices vary from $35 per square foot for common, nice grades like Carrara to $75 for Calcutta and $100-plus for statuary.

CORIAN. A manmade material once highly touted because of its promise of durability, some experts say it scratches and nicks easily. But it can be repaired, and seams can be concealed, and it offers an affordable price at $35 to $65 per square foot.

QUARTZ. A hard-working, highly durable, and low-maintenance manmade or engineered counterpart to “real” stone, quartz comes in a huge assortment of colors and patterns. Easy to cut, install, and detail, Kaufman likes them for contemporary settings and used the material in his own kitchen.

One of quartz’s biggest pros is that it has consistent patterns and colors, which make seams less visible, Burden says. At the same time, it’s not 100 percent bulletproof. “It’s as durable as granite, but care is still needed,” he says. Prices have dropped to $50 to $125 per square foot, making it generally competitive with granite, though, as with other materials, installation influences price.

QUARTZITE. Quartzite is the real McCoy with a crystallized rock surface. It’s more durable and denser, and less porous than marble, says Pascal. It comes in a range of colors, some softer looking than the 1970s vibrant green and blue granites, says Kaufman. Prices are comparable to granite—$40 to $95 per square foot. Two downsides: Some slabs are half the size of granite, and some are more prone to etching, says Burden.

SLATE. Rarely suggested because of its high cost—$150 to $170 per square foot, but less expensive examples can be imported from China. Slate is soft and can scratch.

STAINLESS STEEL. For those who favor an industrial, even restaurant vibe, and a surface that hot pots and pans won’t easily damage, stainless steel is a great choice. But like home owners who favor marble, buyers of stainless should prepare for scratches—as well as fingerprints. As with marble, some are willing to take the risk. Adkins prefers stainless as an accent, perhaps paired on an island with reclaimed wood to break up the surface. It runs $70 to $150 per square foot finished and requires a seasoned installer.

GLASS. Hard, luminous, and able to be tinted to glorious hues, glass is a “green” countertop material made from recycled glass pieces (with other materials sometimes added), says Kaufman. Glass ranges from $60 to $100 a square foot. Adkins prefers a thicker fabrication of one-quarter to three-quarters of an inch.

RECLAIMED WOOD, BUTCHER BLOCK, BAMBOO. Wood warms a kitchen visually because of its graining. Scratches can be sanded away, it’s highly durable, and it can be sealed and oiled to make it look new. Kaufman says it works extremely well for a butcher block, perhaps on an island. It should be used thick—at least 2 inches, says Burden. The cost remains affordable at $35 to $40 a square foot. Reclaimed wood is more expensive—as much as $75 to $225 a square foot because of the difficulty of securing it, but it’s gorgeous and durable. Popular species include walnut, cherry, and maple. Bamboo can be porous and unable to take high heat.

LAMINATE. Still the most affordable choice, averaging $22 to $45 per square foot, and available in numerous colors and patterns, laminate is made better today and often available for a fast transformation for resale. Warning: Some buyers expect fancier choices. Laminate can be scorched and seem ho-hum as compared to stone materials.

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).


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