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New materials and improved classics for countertops

by Darcy Rhyno

Countertops are the crowning touch to a new or renovated kitchen. Traditional hardwood countertops, now made in butcher block style, nicely complement rustic and country design. Natural wood grain is attractive and eco-friendly. On the other hand, wood can stain, scratch and scorch more easily than new, hardier surfaces. 

Lolita Roy warns, “When you’re putting butcher block in your kitchen, you have to be careful around the sink and stove because of water and heat.” Roy is a sales representative with Countertop Creations in Moncton. While butcher block (along with granite) is the second most popular countertop material among her customers, wood has its limits.

The choice of materials for countertop construction has grown so much, homeowners can create any feel they want in a kitchen, far beyond rustic or country. Today, says Roy, homeowners are after a more contemporary look and one that adds value to a home. “I’m not sure if it’s because of all the decorating shows,” she says, “but people are spending more money on their kitchens.”

Lava stone is one of the newest materials available for countertops—and also one of the most expensive on the market.

image source: Bigstock/JRstock2013

The most popular material in Roy’s store is quartz. “Some quartz looks like marble,” she says, which explains why it’s more expensive than many other materials. “An entry level granite is in the $80 per square foot range, and entry level quartz $100.”

On the plus side, quartz doesn’t need sealing. In spite of its name, quartz countertops are engineered from quartz crystals, binders and pigments. Because of the way they’re made, quartz countertops are non-porous and durable. They’re available in a wide range of colours to match any decor.

Quartz and granite are on the higher end of new countertop materials. Quarried from deposits around the world, granite slabs are polished and cut to bring out the hues of feldspar and mica. “Exotic granites tend to be more expensive,” says Roy. “We get most of our granite from Brazil and some from Italy. There are some Canadian granites out of Ontario.”

But granite has a couple of surprising downsides. First, granite countertops can chip, particularly at the corners and edges. Second, they require careful treatment. Because granite is porous, it needs to be sealed upon installation and resealed regularly. Otherwise, it can stain and even hold bacteria. “Some of the darker granites are harder, so once you’ve put the sealer on, you won’t have to reapply it for a while,” says Roy. “Lighter, more exotic granites tend to be more porous, so they do require more sealing. People who clean a lot tend to wear the sealer out.”

Roy says that, although Countertop Creations doesn’t sell concrete countertops, this material is making a comeback. New innovations mean that concrete is now lighter and more varied than it once was. It’s extremely durable and, because it can be poured on site, concrete countertops can be made to fit oddly shaped areas. Some people personalize their concrete countertop by embedding small stones, bits of glass and even shells. On the downside, they share with granite the need for sealing, as well as a high price bracket.

Corian Solid Surface is more affordable and practical than most materials, says Roy. That’s one of the brand names for an acrylic material manufactured for countertops. She says that, while most of their Corian customers are commercial, they do take on residential projects. “It’s a man-made product, but it looks like quartz with the patterns they have,” says Roy. “They come in large sheets with different colours to choose from, and we cut it to size. “                                            

At about $200 per square foot, porcelain is the most expensive material Roy knows, perhaps matched only by lava, one of the newest choices in countertops. High temperature enamel surfacing gives lava its smooth, non-porous finish. As the glazing cools, it fractures, giving the surface a unique look.  

All the rage in the 1950s, stainless steel is making a comeback. Although difficult to find, it’s ideal for serious cooks, has the look of a professional kitchen and matches new appliance styles.

Some eco-friendly options have the added attraction of being on the affordable side. Recycled glass, bamboo, reclaimed wood, recycled plastic and even compressed recycled paper are all on the market today, though most are as difficult to find in Atlantic Canada as lava and stainless steel. 

Then there’s good old reliable laminate, the most affordable countertop material. At Countertop Creations, it starts at just $7 per square foot. Although laminate has been around for a while, it’s hanging in there because of affordability and recent improvements. “Laminate has come a long way,” says Roy. “They’ve matched colours that look like granite and quartz. They have a thicker edge that looks like stone as well.” Laminate countertops are now tougher than ever, made by bonding layers of coloured plastic to the top of a hard particle board core. On the downside, scratches, burns and simple wear are nearly impossible to repair.

“My favourite is granite,” says Lolita Roy. “Not one slab is the same as another. It’s a piece of art.”

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