Everything you need to know to decide on your next countertop.
The ideal countertop would improve the look of your kitchen, stand up to sizzling cookware and sharp knives, and repair easily--all without busting your budget. That's not an easy order to fill, but with so many counter materials available, you should be able to find one that fits your needs.
We spoke with manufacturers, fabricators and homeowners to sort out the options. Not surprisingly, plastic laminate remains the most popular choice. But there are more alternatives than ever: ceramic tile, wood, fiber cement and, for considerably more money, solid surfacing and natural stone.
Prices range from $10 to $100 per square foot installed, but the fabricators we spoke with pointed out that every job is unique, and prices will vary considerably by region. You'll pay more for granite in Connecticut than you will in Alabama, for instance. Sink cutouts, overall layout, edge and backsplash design and other considerations all affect the price, sometimes dramatically.
Manufacturers bristle at the suggestion that plastic laminate is "cheap." But relatively inexpensive it is, and it's offered in a tremendous variety of colors and textures. There are two types of laminates used for counters.
High-pressure laminate. This material, about 1/16 in. thick, is glued to a substrate of particleboard with contact adhesive (on site or typically in a fabricator's shop).
High-pressure laminate is an excellent value. Prices start at about $15 to $20 per square foot installed, and the material is easy to keep clean, resists stains and, with care, is extremely durable (no hot pans, and no cutting on the surface, please). It does have a few weak points: Laminate is difficult or impossible to repair if chipped or burned, and it probably shouldn't be combined with an undermount sink that's used frequently.
Fabricators say there isn't much difference among brands of laminate. You can install a finished counter bought from a fabricator, but unless you've had some experience, stay away from attaching the laminate to the substrate yourself. Working with contact cement can be tricky and unforgiving.
As for edge treatments, the least expensive is the "self-edge." It's a strip of laminate glued to the outside edge of the counter, leaving a telltale black line where the two pieces are joined. But there are now many more choices in edging--wood, beveled and rounded edges, as well as edges that incorporate solid surfacing. These edges give laminate counters a much more polished appearance, but add $10 and up per running foot to the final cost of the installation.
Post-formed laminate. A less expensive laminate choice--at $10 or less per square foot--is post-formed laminate counter, which comes with an integral backsplash and a rolled front edge. These ready-made counters come in fewer colors (home centers may carry as few as half a dozen), and because the laminate is thinner, these countertops are more susceptible to damage. Post-formed counters also do not lend themselves to designs with curves, bump-outs or other irregularities.
Ceramic tile counters seem to be a regional favorite, more popular in the West than in the East. There are even differences in installation techniques. In the West, tile is often set in a mortar bed--definitely a job for a professional. In the East, installers more often set tile in a latex-modified thinset mortar over cement backerboard. Tile can be used with any type of sink, and because tile is so versatile, counters can be made in virtually any shape.
Ceramic tile is highly resistant to stains and heat, and a damaged tile can be chiseled out and replaced without tearing out the entire counter. (Buy extra tile at the time of installation because manufacturers change tile colors often, and even seemingly common tile can be hard to find later.) Tough on dropped glasses, tile countertops have another big weakness--the grout line. Grout needs regular maintenance, and it can stain. If you choose tile, specify epoxy grout, which is tougher and more stain-resistant.
Basic ceramic tile (4 1/4 or 6 in. sq.) including installation runs about $25 to $30 per square foot, but expect higher prices with complicated layouts, custom touches and nonbasic tile. With a fairly modest investment in tools, laying a tile countertop over cement backerboard is manageable for most homeowners.
Butcher-block counters have a warmth and resilience no other material can match, and you'll never be without a cutting board. Available in lengths up to 12 ft., counters typically are 1 1/2 in. thick and in widths of up to 48 in. The cost for premium hard-rock maple butcher block is about $30 to $40 per square foot installed. Although long-wearing, wood countertops require regular attention and reapplication of oil. John Boos & Co., an Illinois-based manufacturer, suggests counters be oiled every four to eight weeks. On the positive side, problem areas can be scraped, sanded and refinished to get a nearly new appearance. There also is some evidence that wood countertops have some natural resistance to bacteria growth.
Old-fashioned butcher blocks were traditionally made from end-grain maple. Although Boos still sells end-grain blocks for use as island tops (up to 60x38 in.), butcher-block counters these days usually consist of boards whose faces are glued together so the edge grain becomes the work surface. Maple is still the most common material, but counters also come in red oak and, through custom shops, in virtually any wood species you like.
Stone at roughly the cost of laminate? Well, almost. Fiber-cement countertop material, sold as Fireslate2, SlateScape and other names, has a slablike quality that recalls slate. The material, imported from Germany, is fabricated into finished countertops by several retailers around the country. Sheets are 98 in. long and up to
55 in. wide, and come in four colors--red, green and two shades of gray. Various edge options are available. Depending on where you live, 1 1/4-in.-thick material will cost $30 to $40 per square foot (some fabricators will charge more); it's $20 to $30 per square foot for 3/4-in.-thick material.
Fabricators work from drawings or templates, machining the material into just about any shape you want and adding details such as cutting-board recesses or integral drain boards. Fiber cement has high compressive strength and is strong enough to serve as a support-free overhang. It is heat-resistant, and scratches and other surface defects can be sanded and buffed out. Installing one of these countertops is as easy as setting it in a bead of silicone caulk and sealing field seams with tinted epoxy.
The catch? Like other cement-based products, it is porous and will stain if not sealed regularly with mineral oil or pure tung oil. If you're the kind of person who loses sleep over slight stains, or are seeking a maintenance-free countertop, look for something else. High demand has slowed fabrication and delivery in some areas.
Pioneered by DuPont as Corian some 30 years ago, solid surfacing, a cast-acrylic or polyester material, is now made by a six or so manufacturers; it is widely hyped as a wonder material well worth its fairly steep cost (from $45 to $80 per square foot installed). Nonporous and nonstaining, solid-surface counters are manufactured in dozens of colors and patterns, including several new ones that look like glass or quartz.
A standard counter is 1/2 in. thick. Edges are built up with additional pieces and then machined into a variety of profiles. There are at least two big advantages to these counters. One is that the material doesn't have a thin color or decorative layer like laminate--it's the same all the way through, so scorch marks, scratches and other defects can be sanded out. The other plus is that integral sinks can be added for a completely seamless installation (sinks, however, are very expensive).
In addition to standard solid surfacing, Wilsonart also makes a solid-surface veneer, slightly less than 1/8 in. thick, that is glued down to a particleboard substrate much like plastic laminate. Veneer can lower the cost of a solid-surface counter 30 to 50 percent. Another variation is Silestone, a product developed in Spain that is 93 percent quartz aggregate plus a polymer that binds it together. Priced at $40 to $50 per square foot, Silestone will, according to the manufacturer, outperform stone or plastic surfaces. DuPont's recently introduced Zodiaq solid surfacing has a similar composition to that of Silestone.
Installing solid surfacing is a job best left to a pro.
Where manmade composites are uniform and predictable, natural stone is varied in color, texture, hardness, stain resistance, strength and, of course, price. Stone is truly a global business, and fabricators draw on sources from all over the world.
At the top of the pecking order is granite, now used so often it might be suffering from overexposure. Harder than most other materials, granite also comes in many different colors and in both gloss and matte finishes (matte, or honed, is slightly more expensive). Granite is heat- and stain-resistant (not stainproof). Prices vary regionally, but expect to pay $60 to $100 per square foot, depending on the type of stone, detailing and the complexity of the installation. Because granite is not much more expensive than solid surfacing, it is luring some homeowners away with its natural look and heat resistance.
Although granite gets most of the attention, there are other stone surfaces to choose from, including slate, limestone, marble and soapstone. Prices for these slab counters are often somewhat lower than those for granite.
Marble can be elegant in appearance, and is often chosen for pastry and baking work centers, but is has less structural integrity than other stone counters (it is sometimes shipped with a fiberglass-epoxy backer to add strength), and it stains easily. According to Bill Gulliver, of Freshwater Stone + Brickwork Inc. in Orland, Maine, marble is not as heat-resistant as granite and works best in bathrooms, where wear and tear is less than in a kitchen.
Soapstone is soft and heavy, described by Gulliver as "sort of like a pine floor" in how it shows signs of use. Because slabs are smaller, you'll get more seams in a soapstone counter.
Limestone is the most porous of the lot. Soft and generally light-colored with a honed finish, limestone has an earthy, old-world look, and it is generally a little cheaper than other stone choices.
Slate is available in a variety of grays, blacks, soft blues, greens and purples. The Vermont Structural Slate Co. says its slate is even less absorbent than granite, and highly heat-resistant. Slate from other regions may differ. Slab sizes are somewhat more limited than for some other stones, but costs are on the low end of stone--$60 to $70 per square foot installed. Stone countertops are measured, cut and installed by professional stone shops.
Once considered a cutting-edge, idiosyncratic or just plain weird material for countertops, concrete is now almost mainstream. Basically the same material used for sidewalks and bridge abutments, it can be cast into counters that resist heat and wear while offering a tremendous range of colors, textures and styles. One California designer, Fu Tung Cheng, casts strips of metal or even old gears in countertops he fabricates. Buddy Rhodes, a San Francisco-based pioneer in using concrete for furniture countertops, developed a distinctive variegated look that contrasts different shades of mortar. Concrete is a medium that responds to just about any
Although the raw materials are inexpensive, concrete countertops can be just the opposite, rivaling some types of stone in cost. Rhodes, for instance, charges $55 to $75 per square foot for a 1 1/2-in.-thick slab, depending on size, and extra for edge detailing ($12 to $18 per linear foot) and backsplashes ($17 to $25 per square foot). The reason: Concrete countertops are labor-intensive, and it's difficult to do them well. Concrete counters are made on site by casting concrete in forms built on lower cabinets, or poured elsewhere and installed once cured. Either way, it takes practice and a thorough knowledge of the material to get good results. Casting countertops is not the same as pouring a basement floor, so make sure you find a fabricator who has some experience.
Keeping the surface sealed is crucial if you want to avoid stains. Concrete also is heavy, so it can require beefier-than-usual cabinets to support it. Then there's the problem of what to do if you don't like the concrete once installed. It is unlikely you will be able to remove cast-in-place counters without seriously harming your cabinets. Although concrete can be fashioned into a truly memorable work surface, it is not a material meant for everyone. In the end, that's part of its charm.
A Snapshot of Counter Materials
$8 to $10
No-frills surface. Integral backsplash and rolled front edge. Curves and undermount sinks won't work.
$15 to $20
Good value. Huge range of colors, patterns and edge treatments. With care, long-lasting but extremely difficult to repair.
$25 to $30
Unlimited design options, with great heat and stain resistance. But a hard uneven surface, and grout lines can stain.
$30 to $40
A warm look and a resilient surface. No need for an extra cutting board, but plan on regular maintenance.
$30 to $40
Same slablike appearance as stone at a lower cost. Limited colors. Will stain without regular resealing.
$45 to $80
Stain-resistant and repairable, and integral sinks make for a seamless appearance. Many colors and patterns, but pricey.
$60 to $100+
Hard and unyielding, but beautiful textures and colors available. Some stone stains easily. Elegant but expensive.
Where To Find It:
American Fiber Cement Corp
6901 S. Pierce St
Littleton, CO 80128
Fiber-cement countertops; will direct callers to nearest fabricator
John Boos & Co
315 S. 1st St.
Effingham, IL 62401
Wood butcher block
7834 Hawn Fwy
E.I. du Pont
Barley Mills Plaza
Wilmington, DE 19880
10155 Reading Rd.
Cincinnati, OH 45241
Plastic laminates, solid surfacing.
Lewis Kitchen & Bath Center Inc.
130 Scott Rd
Waterbury, CT 06705
Buddy Rhodes Studio Inc.
2130 Oakdale Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94124
10707 Corporate Dr
Stafford, TX 77477
Quart aggregate counters
Vermont Structural Slate Co.
3 Prospect St.
Fair Haven, VT 05743
Wilsonart International Inc
2211 N. General Bruce Dr
Temple, TX 765043
Laminate, solid surface and solid surface veneer