Choosing Countertops

When considering your options for kitchen countertops, gone are the days when everyone headed toward laminate. While laminate styles still account for a large portion of the market, today there are more options than ever. Some are better suited for certain uses than others, however, so it pays to do a little homework before you start shopping. In case you can't decide, many homeowners have opted to install more than one type of surface. You can always feel free to mix it up a bit!

Laminate

Tried and true, laminate is inexpensive, durable, and comes in a wide variety of color options. It consists of multiple layers of resin-soaked kraft paper, topped by a patterned sheet of melamine. Laminate sheets are generally glued to particle board and edged with laminate, wood, or solid surface strips.

Pros

Laminate surfaces resist grease and other stains, and they clean easily with soap and water. They are impact resistant, and it's fairly easy to change them later without costing an arm and a leg.

Cons

Laminates are not impervious to damage, and hot pans and sharp knives can leave marks, as can abrasive cleaners. If water gets in the seams, the board underneath can swell and cause a bulge.

Good to know

Patterned or matte surfaces can hide wear and tear more easily than dark colors or glossy finishes. As printing technology improves, finishes continue to become more realistic, and you can find many laminate options that look amazingly like wood grain or stone.

Solid Surface

Solid-surface tops mimic stone and are typically made of acrylic, polyester, or a blend of the two, along with fillers. They measure one-half inch thick, but edges are built up with two or three layers of material to make it appear more substantial. If you're eco-conscious, you can find many options made with 15 percent recycled content.

Pros

Solid surface countertops are non-porous, so they don't allow food particles to find their way in. They're difficult to stain, and they can be formed into practically any size and shape. Their uniform composition allows light scratches to be buffed out, deep scratches and burns to be sanded out, and severely damaged areas to be cut out, replaced, and blended to be nearly invisible. Sinks can be undermounted and backsplashes can be integrated into the top, making them seamless.

Cons

Although solid surfaces have been dubbed a "near-perfect product," they do have some drawbacks. Sharp knives and hot pans can damage the surface, and they are more expensive and have less color options than laminate.

Good to know

Solid colors and high gloss finishes can be especially revealing to knife damage. Try to avoid using appliances with heat elements (crockpots, griddles, hot plates, etc.) near the seams, as the expansion and contraction due to temperature change may eventually cause cracks.

Granite

Cut in solid stone slabs, granite has become more affordable to cut and to ship in recent years, making it more accessible for use.

Pros

Granite's natural stain resistance can be enhanced with a sealer to make it even tougher. Each piece is completely unique and can feature a wide range of colors and patterns. Edges can be formed into several styles, including bevel, radius, half-radius, ogee and square. Hot pans won't harm granite, and it's well suited for undermounted sinks.

Cons

Although granite is naturally tough, it isn't invincible. Hot grease, for example, can stain the surface if it isn't cleaned up right away. Repeated cutting in the same area can dull the sheen, and because each piece is unique, seams may be evident, especially with very distinct patterns.

Good to know

Granite countertops should be resealed every year for maximum protection. Dark and solid colors show nicks and spills more prominently, as will a gloss finish. Most slabs come in sections that measure 9 feet by 5 feet, and there is often a waste charge for any portion not used. Also, the look of the actual slab may differ quite a bit from a small sample, so try to pick out the actual slab from the granite "boneyard" if you can.

Engineered Stone

This countertop consists of crushed stone-usually quartz, but sometimes granite, marble, or others-mixed into polyester resins. The result is a surface that is harder than granite, offers greater consistency, and never needs to be resealed.

Pros

Engineered stone doesn't need to be sealed, waxed, or polished. It can be cleaned with a soft cloth and water, and mild household cleansers won't hurt it. Engineered stone is non-porous and almost impossible to stain, with excellent scratch resistance and more resilience than granite. Their natural look can be tinted to create color matches.

Cons

Engineered stone can be pricey, though not as much as natural stone options. Although it stands up to extreme temperatures better than solid surface products, engineered stonene can crack or change color when subjected to extreme temperatures.

Good to know

The cool nature of engineered stone (like natural stone) lends itself well to rolling and kneading associated with baking. Certain composites, particularly those made of marble or limestone, are better suited for bathroom use.

Wood (butcher block)

Wood offers a warm alternative to the cool look of stone, but it's best used in lower traffic areas, such as islands that double as eating spaces. Wood countertops are formed from strips of wood glued together to form a slab, and thickness ranges from 3/4 to 6 inches. Most are made using maple, though other types of wood are available, including eco- friendly reclaimed wood.

Pros

Wood countertops offer a warm look that can help make a space look more cozy. They are uniform through and through, so damage can be usually be repaired by sanding and recoating. Wood countertops generally require only a soft cloth and warm water for cleaning, though mild household cleansers can also be used.

Cons

WAs expected with wood, moisture is its number one enemy, and seams are particularly vulnerable. They usually require regular applications of mineral oil or beeswax, or they should be sealed with a varnish that is safe around food.

Good to know

A wood top will expand and contract, so it is best to avoid installing it near sinks, dishwashers, and other high moisture areas.

Tile

Tile comes in a variety of materials and colors, and its piecemeal nature allows for tremendous design flexibility.

Pros

Tile can be fairly inexpensive, and because it has been fired and glazed, it is nearly impervious to heat and water.

Cons

Tile is exceptionally hard, and because it comes in pieces, you may end up with some surface unevenness. Grout lines must be properly sealed-often-to minimize vulnerability to staining.

Good to know

Tile for countertops should carry a class 3 hardness rating, and ceramic and porcelain are usually the best material choices for kitchens. Flat tile works better than that with a slight pillow effect to minimize surface unevenness. Using larger tiles leaves less room for grout and offers more uniform surface area. Make sure that your tile is laid on a substrate that is solid and watertight.

Other options

Almost anything can be made into a countertop, but not everything is suited for kitchen use. Be careful to weigh the pros and cons-and the cost-when considering a nontraditional countertop option. Some examples of these options include:

  • Marble

    The natural graining and variety of colors available in marble make it particularly beautiful, but its porosity and fragility make it more suitable for bathroom use than in kitchens. Nonetheless, many people have it successfully installed in their kitchens. Just take care to avoid damage from knives, acidic foods, and impact..

  • Soapstone

    Although relatively soft, soapstone has proven its durability in laboratory settings for years. An application of mineral oil can disguise most minor scratches, and heavier damage can often be sanded out. The natural veining and rugged look of soapstone make it seem as if it has been there forever.