WHETHER BUILDING a new home or updating a kitchen, people are often perplexed by countertop choices—and no wonder. In recent years we have seen a vast expansion in the availability of materials, colours and finishes on the market. Although the selection is near limitless it doesn’t make picking a countertop for your kitchen any easier. All materials are not created equally; just because one may have the colour, texture and beauty you crave doesn’t necessarily mean it will have the price tag or be durable enough to match your lifestyle.
Natural stone has uncompromised beauty that is impossible to duplicate. With its unique veining and marking, it adds personality and sophistication to any space and can become the focal point of the kitchen. There are several types of stone used in countertops; granite and marble are both popular.
Marble, with its gracious veining, is elegant and refined, but its higher concentrations of calcium make it a soft, porous stone. It can stain easily if it comes into contact with anything acidic like lemon juice or wine.
Granite, on the other hand, is very strong and durable. It is heat, scratch and stain resistant. It can chip or crack, but can often be repaired in a way that blends in with the natural markings of the stone. Although sealing is required to maintain its stain resistance and antibacterial properties, it is a quick and easy procedure. For dark granite it can last for up to several years; yearly sealing is recommended for light colours. The most limiting factor for natural stone is often the hefty price tag. Higher end, imported stone is the most expensive option on the market.
Quartz countertop is a common name given to the engineered or man-made material that is composed of about 93 per cent quartz stone—a very hard mineral. Resins, colours and binders are added to the quartz crystals, resulting in a product that looks and feels like solid stone. With this material you will not have the uniqueness of deep sporadic veining and markings as you would in a natural stone; some people prefer the consistency of its markings and pattern.
Another favourable attribute of the quartz countertop is its durability. It is exceptionally strong and hard, and will not readily crack or chip. It is completely non-porous and as such can even be used in laboratory settings where hygienic properties are of the utmost importance. There are many colours and patterns to choose from and no sealing is required—ever. Quartz will last for many years and is near the top of the chart for cost.
Solid surface countertops are typically fabricated from a synthetic substance such as acrylic and polyester. As a standard, these are available in many colours and finishes. Add to that the ability to customize colours, and the possibilities are endless. This material is non-porous and bacteria resistant. That, coupled with the ability to seamlessly integrate a sink and other features, facilitates clean up time.
While these counters are fairly hard and durable, they are not heat resistant, so care must be used with hot pots and utensils. The cost associated with solid surface countertops varies depending on the grade selected and the configuration of your space. As a man-made surface, some find it artificial aesthetically.
With the trend in modern and industrial inspired kitchens, metal countertops are gaining interest. Previously only seen in restaurant, laboratory or health care environments, stainless steel is durable and sanitary— hence the use in public food prep areas—and comes in several finishes: polished, satin, matte and hammered. There are, however, some drawbacks. As a high end product, pricing can be at the upper end of the spectrum for a good quality metal. It can be cool to the touch and visually cold as well. Stainless steel can be noisy in a busy kitchen and fingerprints show up readily on the shiny finishes.
Wood is a warm and inviting option. Traditionally loved by bakers and chefs alike, butcher block ages gracefully; years of repeated use add to its character. It can be sanded and resealed making it a long term option. Nevertheless, care must be taken with water as prolonged exposure can cause damage. Careful consideration should be taken into account if installing around a sink. It is, on the other hand, very popular for islands and prep areas. Although some studies show that wood may actually have antibacterial properties, special care must be taken after preparing meats and certain other foods. Periodic sealing and oiling is essential to protect the wood from everyday use. It can be a mid-range to high budget alternative but with a little care it will last for years.
One of the more recent countertop contenders is concrete. Exceptionally strong and durable, concrete is exceedingly versatile and perfect for heavily used areas. It is fully customizable for colours, inlays and configuration. Integrated sinks are possible and you can have items such as glass or even fossils incorporated into the design. Do your research on installers and hire one with proven results. The concrete formula and curing period are both very important to create a surface that will resist cracking and endure the test of time.
Concrete has had a reputation for becoming easily stained, but with updated techniques, it is, in fact, highly stain resistant. Daily clean up is easy; however a weekly polish is recommended. Although concrete is heat resistant, the wax polish may not endure heat as well when used.
Concrete requires labour intensive fabrication and therefore is a considerable investment. It starts around the same price as natural stone but can go up in cost from there, depending upon the features added.
Laminate countertop is a popular preference, in part, because of the vast variety of colours and finishes available, but also because it is the most economical choice. It consists of a substrate made from wood fibres or pressed paper bonded together to form a base. A plastic image is adhered to the substrate and then laminated for further durability. Recent advances in digital technology have allowed for a much more realistic imitation of natural materials. It is stain resistant.
Although clean up is easy with a soapy cloth, care must be taken around seams as water can sink into the middle layer causing swelling and water damage. Laminate scratches more than most other surfaces and is not heat resistant. Undermount sinks are not typically an option. However, recently, “lipless” sinks available for installation just under the top plastic layer have appeared on the market. Chipping or marks are nearly impossible to repair, so cutting boards must always be used. As with solid surface countertops some people are averse to the simulated look of laminate. No matter how far technology has advanced, it is impossible to replicate the look and feel of natural materials. There are many options to consider; choose the right material for your lifestyle, tastes and budget.