The Right Countertop for Your Kitchen

Concrete Counters
With Concrete Counters You Can Achieve Almost Any Color

Selecting a countertop material for kitchen remodeling seems to be one of the tougher choices for many of my clients.  And I understand why — the many options and choices can be daunting plus the typical lists (like the one below) don’t seem to help much in the narrowing choices.  Depending on your selection, your countertops may be one of the most expensive single components of your kitchen (after cabinets).

So here are the questions I ask my clients to help them figure out what’s right for them:

How tight is your budget?  One of the easiest ways to cut kitchen remodeling costs is by selecting laminate countertops.  If you like modern, they are the rage in high-end European kitchens.  The only downside that I see is that you can’t have an undermount sink.  But you could design the kitchen so that only the area around the sink is stone using laminate elsewhere.  Or you could use a flushmount sink with integrated work surface like the one below.  Such an approach can be either more country or more modern depending on your tastes.

Sink with Integral Work Surface
Sink with Integral Work Surface

Another lower-priced possibility is DIY or contractor built tile countertops.  With today’s rectified porcelain tiles, it’s easy minimize both the number and size of the grout joints.  Almost all other material is considerably more expensive.  You can also look around for specials on installed granite countertops.  It will still be more expensive than laminate and your stone selection and the complexity of the countertop will be more limited.

Is it important that the countertop look like “new” years after installation even if you’re a messy cook?  If the answer is yes, think about engineered stone.  It’s almost impervious to anything.  The color selection is quite broad and you can find selections to match any style or look.  One of my favorite manufacturers is Ceasarstone.  You can go very modern

Ceasarstone can Look Very Modern
Ceasarstone can Look Very Modern

Or more classic:

Ceasarstone Can Also Look More Classic
Ceasarstone Can Also Look More Classic


Do you like natural materials develop a classic patina of age over time?  My personal answer to this is “yes” so I tend toward concrete counters, soapstone, and marble.  Many kitchen designers steer clients away from marble in the kitchen but I actually like it a lot – but you have to enjoy the patina of age.  Look at the original marble on some antiques to see if that appeals to you or not.  As an artist, concrete is a personal favorite because of the ability to personalize it like the countertop and backsplash below:

Concrete with Glass & Stone Inlays
Concrete with Glass & Stone Inlays


Do you want drama?  Marble and granites with more veining can yield incredible drama in a kitchen.  But only use drama sparingly or it will overwhelm.  Also consider that if you keep a lot of clutter on your countertops, you probably don’t want drama because it will only accent the clutter.    As you can see, above, you can also create drama with concrete.  You can also use glass and light to create drama.

Do you want eco-cred?  There’s a tremendous amount of “green-washing” where every manufacturer claims that their product is eco-friendly.  Keep in mind that a few percent of recycled material does not eco-friendly make.  Look for cradle to cradle certification – that considers the feedstock, manufacturing process, and the waste stream.  You want a product where the waste stream is recycled into additional products.  Equally important, you want to look at transportation distances.  A 100% recycled glass countertop that is manufactured in  (and shipped from) Turkey is much less eco-friendly than one that uses 70% recycled materials and is manufactured 100 miles away.  One of my favorite eco-friendly local materials is New River Countertops – a recycled aggregate from VA dams, fly ash & cement.  Another is Icestone which is manufactured in New York and is made from recycled glass and concrete.
Do you want a warm or cold feel?  To my hand, polished granite has a cold feel.  I prefer materials that have a warmer feel to the touch – like soapstone or honed granite.  To me, glass countertops also feel cold.  I’m afraid of breaking things if I set them down too hard on granite or glass.  But most homeowners disagree with me and enjoy the cold, hard feel of polished granite.

Do you like a light or dark work surface?  I’ve worked on both light and dark counters and prefer something in-between – neither real light nor real dark.  The related question  is whether you want the countertop to contrast with or blend with your cabinets.  I personally care more about the contrast than the color of the countertop.  Depending on the answers to the other questions, the answer to this one will help you think through what material is right.

A mid-toned concrete counter provides contrast with off-white cabinets
A mid-toned concrete counter provides contrast with off-white cabinets


A Granite Counter Offers Little Contrast to Walnut Cabinets
A Granite Counter Offers Little Contrast to Walnut Cabinets but contrast is achieved in the backsplash

Below, I’ve listed many of the options with some of the pros and cons including thoughts about the eco-friendly creds of each material.  You can see many such lists in books, magazines and thoughout the web.

1. Granite Counters
Granite seems to be the “go-to” material.  In the Washington DC area, Real Estate Agents, often recommend replacing older countertops with granite to improve the likelihood of a sale.
– Pros: holds up to heat; comes in lots of colors; looks permanent and substantial.
– Cons: very expensive, requires maintenance, including periodic sealing; absorbs stains; can crack.  The polishing – which really helps repel stains – for me, makes for a cold hard feel that I don’t like.  But honed granite (matte finish rather than polished) is much more likely to stain and will show fingerprints.  I personally like the veined look of stones like marble and soap stone rather than the granular look of granite.
– Eco-Friendly:   Very low.   Not renewable.  Once it is removed from the earth is cannot be easily reused.   Transportation costs are quite high since most granites today come from overseas – South America and China.  If your job is small you can also seek out remnant slabs.

2. Engineered Stone
Engineered stone is composed of quartz particles. It is available in an extremely large range of colors and has a nonporous surface that resists scratches. It’s easy to maintain, without the annual sealing required by natural stone. Brands on the market are DuPont Zodiaq®, Silestone, and CeasarStone.
– Pros: resistant to stain and acid; easy care.
– Cons: Expensive.
– Eco-Friendly:   Mining of the quartz clearly has an impact on the environment.
3. Solid Surface
Because solid surface counters are just what they’re called, solid, any scratches can be sanded out. The countertops are custom-made to your specifications by companies such as Avonite, Corian, and Swanstone.
– Pros: comes in a rainbow of colors and patterns; seamless; stain resistant.
– Cons vulnerable to hot pans and stains which can damage the surface; can be moderately expensive.
– Eco-Friendly:  No-VOCs, but clearly not as green as products such as IceStone, otherwise they would have the certifications like those of IceStone.
4. Ceramic Tile
Ceramic tile is durable and easy to clean. Add to that inexpensive and you’ve got a really good choice for countertops for the average home. Because it’s installed a section at a time, it can be done by most resourceful homeowners.
– Pros: takes hot pans; easy to clean; wide range of price, color, texture and design.  Grout lines can be minimized with today’s rectified tiles (the edges are more precise so the grout lines can be ultra-thin).  Also, today’s epoxy grout is much easier to work with than epoxy grout of previous times and so staining of the grout can be much less of an issue.
– Cons: counter surface is uneven; tiles can chip or crack; some homeowners don’t like the grout lines; custom-designed tiles are very expensive.
– Eco-Friendly:  Some ceramic tile is made from recycled content such as old lightbulbs, bottles and porcelain.  It is biodegradable, and use low-VOC adhesive.
5. Laminates
Laminate counters bear trademarks such as Formica, Nevamar, and Wilsonart. Traditionally laminates were made of plastic-coated synthetics with a smooth surface that’s easy to clean.  Today’s laminates are often made with melamine impregnated paper.  Laminate pieces are cut to size and finished on the ends.
– Pros: you can buy laminates in lots of colors; easy to maintain; durable; inexpensive.
– Cons: scratches and chips are almost impossible to repair; seams show; end finishing and front edge choices can add to the price.
– Eco-Friendly:  Look for laminates that advertise that they use no urea-formaldehyde.  and that qualify for are certified by the Green Building Council for Indoor Air Quality, Recycled Content, and Rapidly Renewal Content, and Responsible Forestry Management.
6. Wood or Butcher Block
Wood countertops offer a beautiful warm look and are available in a wide range of colors and finishes. Hardwoods such as maple and oak are most often used as countertop woods.
– Pros: easy to clean; smooth; can be sanded and resealed as needed.
– Cons: can be damaged by water and stains over time; scratches must be oiled or sealed according to manufacturer’s instructions.
– Eco-Friendly:  Look for wood with FSC certification, and use of low-VOC sealants and water-based finishes
7. Stainless Steel Counters
For a really contemporary and industrial look for your kitchen, stainless steel is a good choice. They are heat resistant and durable. Because they’re constructed to your specifications, you can have a seamless countertop.
– Pros: takes hot pans; easy to clean.
– Cons: Expensive; noisy; may dent; fabrication is expensive; you can’t cut on it.
– Eco-Friendly: Look for recycled steel, because mining and refining steel uses a large amount of energy and pollutes the environment.
8. Soapstone Counters
Soapstone is generally dark gray in color and has a smooth feel. It is often seen in historic homes but is also used in modern homes as both a countertop and sink material.
– Pros: rich, deep color; smooth feel; somewhat stain resistant.
– Cons: requires regular maintenance with applications of mineral oil; may crack and darken over time.
– Eco-Friendly: Barely friendlier than Granite as soapstone is mined from the surface, but some areas where soapstone is mined is not only impacting the environment, it is impacting animals – such as tiger habitats in India.  Soapstone is a material that is definitely harder to come by in the world, and diverse places are being impacted by searches for soapstone – please use fair trade merchants.
9. Marble
marble is not often seen on kitchen countertops but I think it’s because designers steer homeowners away fearing staining.  To get the luxurious look, use it on an island or inset at a baking center. Marble requires constant maintenance, as it easily stains. Some new sealers retard staining.
– Pros: waterproof; heatproof; beautiful.
– Cons: expensive; porous; stains easily unless professionally sealed; can scratch; may need resealing periodically as per manufacturer.
– Eco-Friendly:  Same as Granite above.
10. Concrete Counters
If you have countertops in unusual shapes, concrete may be a good choice, as they’re often cast right in your kitchen. The high price tag may be beyond most people’s budget.  It is very important to have them sealed.
– Pros: heat and scratch resistant; can be color-tinted; looks exotic and unusual; new treatments eliminate cracking; additives reduce porosity; new finishes are more decorative.
– Cons: mid to high range on cost due to custom work; cracking is possible; can look somewhat industrial; porous but can be sealed.
– Eco-Friendly:  The aggregate mixed with cement and water should be recycled for concrete to count as green.  Also look for low-VOC sealers.
11. Glass
Glass offers a sleek, modern style that doesn’t have to look like a bland glass tabletop. You can find various colors and different textures to give it some distinction. Glass countertops are sturdy enough to stand up to their role however you’ll still want to be sure you avoid dropping something large and heavy on them.
Eco-Friendly:   If made from recycled glass.
12. Composite & Recycled Materials
Composite and recycled materials deliver some interesting alternatives for countertop selection. Some are made from recycled paper and combined with resins to form a surface that’s hard yet warmer than stone, and others are made from recycled glass held together with either cement or resin.  The eco-friendly nature of these choices may also give you the satisfaction of having helped the environment.  Some of the companies producing recycled paper products using a phenolic resin, or products made from recycled glass, cement and plastics include: Richlite, IceStone, Vetrazzo, EnviroGlas, Paperstone, Squak Mountain Stone and EcoTop.
Eco-Friendly:  Highly eco-friendly.  Do look for low-VOC resin usage, and in the case of paper products look for FSC certification.

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