Kitchen Countertops, the Stylish Workhorse

by Charlotte Barnard

These surfaces, from granite to quartz, deliver on both looks and performance, making them sought-after surface choices for today’s home chef

kitchen countertopsCaesarstone in Statuario Maximus in Meredith and Jason’s kitchen

After cabinets, kitchen countertops have the most style impact in the kitchen. There are plenty of options to choose from—stone, quartz, solid surfacing, wood, to identify the most popular—so you’ll want to take a few factors into consideration before pulling out your wallet.

*Where will it go? Will it be attractive if it’s visible from adjoining living areas as well as the cook space?

*How will you use it and how often? Can it stand up to common spills and daily impact with cooking tools?

*What other features will it connect to? Will it look good and stand up to adjoining elements, like a sink or a stovetop?

*How often do you clean? Besides the after-meal swipe with a sponge, are you up for taking the time for regular maintenance?

Happily, whatever your answers are to the questions above, there is a countertop for you. Today’s eclectic kitchen styles also welcome a mix of materials, so don’t worry about everything matching. You can have one material for the island and another for the countertop, or treat yourself to a small slab of marble for a bar space, for instance. The bottom line: The kitchen countertop should be a surface that you love to look at and can enjoy working on for years to come. For best results, always hire a professional certified to fabricate and install the particular material you choose. Not all kitchen countertops are made (or installed) the same. Here’s a rundown of the top choices:

kitchen countertops
Honed black granite in Kelly and Gregg’s kitchen

Granite landed on the kitchen scene a little over two decades ago and remains popular. It’s a close second behind the number one choice, engineered stone, according to a survey from the National Kitchen and Bath Association. Why does granite endure? It combines unique beauty with durability and low maintenance. The natural grain means no two slabs will be identical. While very hard and impervious to heat, granite is porous, so it needs to be sealed at least annually—easy enough with hand application by sponge.

• Resists high heat
• Comes in a range of colors and grains
• Every slab is unique
• Maintains its value if well cared for, including sealing annually

• Expensive, from $60 to $100 per foot, but popular colors come in lower
• Shows wear from knives and spills like vinegar, citrus juice, and oils, so use a cutting board on top
• Requires regular maintenance, which a DIY project with a sealant and a sponge can accomplish
• Will crack if improperly installed or a heavy object makes impact

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kitchen countertopsCarrara marble in Lia and Chris’ kitchen

Sought for its classic beauty and variety, marble still draws its fans among homeowners who want stone in the kitchen. However, it is more porous than granite, and this factor, combined with a high price tag—more than $100 per square foot, not including fabrication—limits its application to a few areas of the kitchen, like entertaining or baking areas. Remember that this particular material enjoyed pride-of-place in grand homes in the last two centuries, so if you are up for classic elegance that yields a timeworn patina, this could be the stone for you.

• Withstands high heat
• Adds a high-quality, luxury look suitable for traditional or contemporary kitchens
• Stays cool, so good for rolling out dough
• Pairs beautifully with many other surfaces, especially wood and metal

• The most expensive of stones
• Limited in color choices—whites, grays, blacks
• Stains, scratches, cracks, and chips more easily than other stones
• Requires monthly sealing and may still discolor

kitchen countertops
Blue/green soapstone in Katharine and John’s kitchen

Soapstone’s resistance to heat and water, along with a muted color palette marked by subtle veining, makes it an appealing alternative to granite and marble. It also comes with a slightly lower price tag, in the $70 to $100 per-square-foot range. Soapstone does require care, like all stones.

• Resists heat and water
• Color tends to be uniform throughout the slab
• Suitable for sinks, too, if you want a blended look
• Comes in at the lower price spectrum of natural stone

• Scratches easily and will show stains, which can be sanded out
• May crack or chip if you aren’t careful when working on it
• Requires regular sealing and will show stains if not wiped up immediately
• Develops a patina over time, which you may or may not like

kitchen countertopsSam and Sean’s renovation mixed two kitchen countertops, including Caesarstone in Frosty Carrina

Engineered stone
Probably the toughest surface on the market, this material is typically 90 percent quartz mixed with pigments and polyester resin, then manufactured under pressure into highly dense slabs. Manufacturers such as Caesarstone offer a vast array of looks, including many faux granites as well as the whitest whites, blackest blacks, and some brilliant colors like red and blue. Claims that it won’t stain or fade or succumb to high heat make engineered stone the most popular choice for kitchen countertops, edging out granite, despite the fact that the cost starts around $100 per square foot, the same or higher than natural stone.

• Most impervious of all surfaces; resists heat, stains, scratches, bacteria, fading
• Huge selection of patterns and colors, including faux stones and custom colors
• Can be manufactured into nearly any shape you want
• Requires no sealing or special maintenance

• Faux stone doesn’t appear to look like real stone
• May crack on sudden impact with a heavy object
• Costs as much as real stone
• Solid-colored slabs will show seams

Solid surfacing
Twenty years ago, solid surfacing was the darling in the world of kitchen countertops. It still deserves consideration, as many qualities have been improved over time by brands like Corian. It is heat- and stain-resistant and comes in a range of looks, including faux stone, and lots of fashion colors. Because it has a little give, due to it being made of acrylic or polyester or a blend of the two, objects dropped on solid surfacing are less likely to break. It also can be molded into many shapes, including intricate inlays, edge and backsplash treatments, as well as furniture. Figure on spending around $80 to $100 per square foot, depending on the pattern and color.

• Heat- moisture-, and fade-resistant
• Enormous choice of colors and patterns, including custom
• Seams fuse together so joints don’t show
• Molds into just about any shape including integrated backsplash or sink
• Does not require sealing; clean with mild detergent

• Can’t take high heat; will lose shape
• Vulnerable to scratches, cuts, and prolonged exposure to stains like wine or catsup; requires a cutting board
• Faux stone looks don’t exactly resemble stone
• Not recyclable

kitchen countertops
Rich walnut wood in Amanda’s kitchen

Probably America’s earliest countertop, wood is still desired for its natural beauty and warmth. Wood can take moderate heat, but it will show burns, dings, and knife cuts. Fans consider the patina part of the appeal. Most damage can be sanded out; be sure to reapply food-safe mineral oil after any repair. Avoid installation in areas like the sink with prolonged exposure to moisture, which will cause it to swell. Clean with a damp sponge and a mild detergent. Hardwoods such as maple and oak are most commonly used as kitchen countertops, in a butcher-block pattern, which provides additional strength. Wood is a thriftier choice than many of the surfaces described above, starting at about $35 per square foot and climbing upward.

• Easy to clean and repair
• Good for cutting and chopping; knives won’t dull with contact
• Won’t chip and objects dropped on it are less likely to break
• Provides a rich look for a price lower than many other kitchen surfaces

• Vulnerable to moisture, chemicals, and high heat, which cause permanent damage
• Immediately shows signs of use
• Expands or contracts with extreme swings in moist environment
• Requires food-safe sealant and regular care to preserve surface

kitchen countertops
Dekton laminate in Dan and Mike’s kitchen

While not so rugged as most other surface options today, laminate still has plenty to recommend it, including loads of patterns and colors and a thrifty price tag starting at $10 to $20 per square foot. Made of resin-covered paper backed by plywood or particle board, laminate does come with its share of synthetics. To ensure your indoor air quality, look for laminates certified by Greenguard, like Wilsonart, which indicates they are made from low-emitting materials that use formaldehyde-free paper and low- or non-toxic glues. This fashion-friendly surface can mimic the look of stone, wood, or fabric, or any graphic the manufacturer can think of (remember the “Boomerang”?). It will last for a few decades with proper care, which includes no direct cutting on the surface or exposure to acid or chemicals.

• Requires minimal care and no sealing
• Comes in vast selection of patterns and colors
• Easy to cut and install in tight spaces
• Well-priced, particularly for a product with so many style options

• Scratches and burns easily; sometimes impossible to repair
• Seams show, particularly on solid colors
• Allows only drop-in sinks, due to its construction
• Anything other than the simplest edge treatment will drive up the price

Stainless steel
For the same reason they’re used in commercial kitchens, stainless steel can take a beating, from knives, high heat, most spills, and it’s completely anti-bacterial. You must avoid caustic chemicals, but since it’s water- and stain-proof, that’s not an issue unless you use it for something other than food prep. It comes in a number of finishes, including polished and brushed, which helps hide scratches. Cost begins at the high-middle, about $70 per square foot. Dings and dents will show up and are impossible to remove without displacing the countertop. But if you want a pro-style countertop, those battle scars can be shown with pride.

• Super-resilient material is water-, stain-, fade-proof and resists bacteria
• No need for sealing; cleans with simple detergent and water
• Integrates seamlessly with features like drainboards, sinks, and backsplashes
• Manufactured to exact specifications, so potentially seamless

• Not suitable for cutting; must use board to protect from knives
• Shows the smallest scratches and dents, which are very hard to remove
• Noisy when kitchen tools come in contact
• Fabrication will drive up the price unless you buy a ready-made sink and drainboard unit

Depending on how you use your kitchen, there are a myriad of options for those who chronically order take-out or the avid home chef. Style and function combine for the level of care you choose to take on.

Kitchen countertops make up the bulk of your prep space—but it’s not just what’s on top that matters. Explore a variety of islands and peninsulas in Sweeten homes to make the most of your dual work space and storage.

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, and scope, helping until project completion. Follow the blog for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten.

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