Choosing a Countertop

By Tosha Kelly

One of the most important design decisions you’ll make is choosing the right countertop for your kitchen or bath. Do you need an easy-to-maintain surface? Are you looking for a budget–friendly alternative?

Or is style what matters most?

With so many countertop materials out there, it can be hard to choose. The solution? We asked local design and countertop pros to lay it all out for us.

Unique and environmentally friendly, Formica's 180fx in Black Walnut Timber is created from a high-resolution scan of an actual black walnut.

ADVANTAGES: Laminate, the most widely used countertop material in kitchens and bathrooms, is better than ever. “Great strides have been made in the past years to improve these materials,” says Justin Anders, an interior design consultant at Grayling Construction. Products like Formica or Wilsonart offer a broad range of new patterns that resemble natural stone, wood, quartz and other pricier surfaces. It’s also one of the most affordable countertop materials, making it a desirable option for remodelers and homeowners on a budget. It’s wear- and stain-resistant, easy to clean and maintain, durable and available in a huge array of colors and styles.

CONCERNS: One design drawback is that only certain patterns are available in a bull-nosed edge or with an attached backsplash, says Anders. And even though laminate is relatively durable, a cutting board and trivet is recommended as it is prone to scratching, burns and, in some cases, staining. “Another disadvantage is you are not able to undermount a sink,” adds Anders.

COST: Laminate countertops range between $17 to $30 a square foot depending on the pattern and brand.

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Handmade artisan tiles from McIntyre Tile, distributed by Pacific Tile.

ADVANTAGES: Tile provides an attractive, long-lasting finish for countertops in both kitchens and bathrooms. Inexpensive and modular, ceramic and porcelain tiles resist heat, sharp blades and stains. The nearly limitless color and design options make it easy to achieve almost any style. Tile can mimic the look of natural stone and concrete without having to deal with the mess of maintaining it, says Roland Baldwin of Pacific Tile. For a more casual look, Baldwin recommends Seneca. For a more contemporary feel, he suggests Florida Tile or Iris US.

CONCERNS: Worried that grout lines will trap dirt and encourage mildew? Choosing the right grout alleviates these problems, says Baldwin. He recommends a urethane grout that is very stain resistant, won’t absorb water, never needs to be resealed and comes in a variety of colors. It’s even a bit flexible, he says: “The stuff will actually bend and twist and not crack.” Clean up is easier than regular grout too. Don’t want grout lines? Use larger format tiles like 12” by 24”, suggests Baldwin. One tile can fit across the whole counter.

COST: Tiles range anywhere from $3 to $40 per square foot.

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Here, glass is used as a smaller, accent piece in conjunction with another surface material, Ashford natural quartz from Cambria’s Quarry Collection.

ADVANTAGES: Glass countertops are not only decorative but functional for both kitchen and bathroom countertops, says Baldwin. Glass is a non-porous surface, so it won’t need to be sealed in order to prevent microbial growth or water damage. It also can withstand high temperatures without damage. Design-wise, the options are endless. Companies like UltraGlas, Inc. can custom make glass counters in any size, shape and thickness. Pair it with LED or fiber optic lighting for a nice glow – perfect for a contemporary style.

Eco-minded homeowners can find 100-percent recycled glass options from companies like Vetrazzo and Fireclay Tile, available locally through Pacific Tile. Recycled glass is one of the greenest countertop options because it’s comprised mostly of post-consumer recycled content, which keeps material out of landfills, and has no petroleum-based chemicals or resin.

CONCERNS: Whatever type of glass countertop you choose, it can be pricey. If budget is a concern, consider using a glass countertop as a smaller, accent piece in conjunction with another surface material.

COST: Glass will run $100 to $300 per square foot.

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This bathroom vanity features Corian's Sorrel (main counter) and Corian's Copperite (underneath the vessel sinks). The swirling earth tones and subtle silver metallic flecks of Sorrel complement Copperite's rich copper color. Fabricated by Mountain Tops Ltd. and installed by Grayling Construction.
Solid Surface

ADVANTAGES: Manmade solid surface options like DuPont’s Corian are virtually indestructible, says Anders. It’s also the easiest to maintain since it doesn't require sealing and cleans up with soap and water, says Paul Rasmussen of Mountain Tops, Ltd. It’s totally non-porous, UV resistant and antimicrobial.

“The colors are a little limiting and the finish is matte but many designers and homeowners are doing some creative things with this product,” says Anders. “Pricewise it is less expensive than some of the more exotic granites. There are even colors that are translucent and can be backlit.”

Anders recommends products like Caesarstone, Cambria and Zodiaq that have a variety of patterns resembling granite and marble but never need sealing and resist stains.

CONCERNS: Solid surfaces are not as heat resistant as natural stone. The surface can take a hot plate or pot, but very high and direct heat will damage most solid surfaces. To prevent heat damage, always use a hot pad or trivet with rubber feet.

COST: Solid surfaces like Corian usually range from $65 to $85 per square foot for a B Grade.

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Shown here: Suelo Marino polished granite, installed by Grayling Construction.

ADVANTAGES: “For many people, granite countertops represent the definition of elegance and style,” says Valerie Hurst of Kitchens by Valerie. “Granite continues to be the top contender in countertop choices simply because of its beauty, large range of colors, durability and its low maintenance. I always describe granite as a large polished rock. Granite has come a long way in terms of types of finishes and textures such as: honed, satin, polished, anticado, antique and river washed finish. Granite will last a lifetime and add value to the home.”

Martha Leffek, office manager at Rino’s Tile & Stone says they prefer granite in kitchens due to its density. “It will be the workhorse of your kitchen.” A penetrating sealer will render the stone virtually stain-proof. It can take heat of up to 600 degrees and is very tough to scratch. If you do inflict damage, it is hands down the easiest countertop material to repair, she says.

One of the most important things about granite countertops is the thickness, says Leffek. “We use 3cm (1-1/4”) thick exclusively for a couple of reasons. It is much more structurally sound than its alternate 2cm (3/4”) thick, which means it does not require a sub-deck. The granite is mounted directly on top of your cabinets. This reduces issues down the road as over time plywood (the most common sub-deck material) swells and shrinks with moisture exposure and seasonal changes, causing the granite on top to move, popping seams and even breaking the stone in some instances.” The thicker material costs a few dollars more but in the long run it will save the homeowner time and headaches, he adds.

CONCERNS: This durable stone makes it perfect for kitchens, but Anders says it must be resealed about every five years to avoid stains. If you put a drop of water on the counter and it doesn’t bead up then it’s time to reseal, explains Anders.

COST: Granite will typically range from $80 to $130 per square foot (custom fabrication and installation included).

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Traditional kitchen island featuring white carrara marble by Alaska Marble & Granite. Photo credit: Photo Arts by Janna.

ADVANTAGES: “Marble is a material that looks and feels very glamorous. It’s another good choice due to its natural beauty and notable veining and markings,” says Hurst.

The material comes in a virtual rainbow of colors – from nearly pure white and pale pinks and blues to dramatic blacks and browns. Beth Sprano of Alaska Marble & Granite says they’ve seen an increase in the use of marble over the past few years – particularly the traditional materials of Calcatta and Cararra for kitchen counters.

CONCERNS: Marble stands up to heat well, but it is susceptible to stains and scratches. Marble is generally more porous so it stains easier and should be resealed more often than granite. For that reason, homeowners may prefer to limit it to one or two small areas. “I recommend honing marble if using in the kitchen,” she says. “A local chef/baker once told me that marble is the perfect surface to roll out pie dough as opposed to granite.” Both Hurst and Anders agree that marble is more suited to bathrooms. It is less likely to take abuse, says Hurst.

“Marble (requires different care) than a material like granite or engineered stone but if it's approached with that understanding and expectation, it will provide a classic look that isn't achievable with any other material,” says Sprano.

COST: $40 to $80 per square foot but total cost varies due to fabrication options and installation.

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Stainless Steel

ADVANTAGES: Want to cook like a pro (or at least look like one)? Stainless steel, once found only in commercial kitchens, is now right at home in sleek, contemporary kitchens. With its hygienic properties and its ability to handle high temperatures without scarring, it's ideal for heavy-duty cooking and food-prep areas. It's durable and stain resistant too, says Rocky Schank of H&K Sheetmetal Fabricators, Inc. Unlike many other surface materials, no type of cooking liquid or substances – not wine, grape juice or even food coloring – can penetrate stainless steel, which means that stainless steel won't stain or harbor bacteria. These countertops can be custom made in virtually any shape, size and configuration, says Schank. Homeowners can also choose from a wide range of finishes, including brushed, polished, quilted and hammered.

CONCERNS: Stainless steel can get dents and scratches, though light scratches can be rubbed away with a non-metallic abrasive pad. Polished finishes have a tendency to show scratches, says Schank, adding that other finishes, such as a distressed finish, will help camouflage scratches and won't show as many water spots and fingerprints.

COST: Expect to pay close to $75 to $140 per square foot. Details like backsplashes and types of front edging will add to the cost.

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This Buddy Rhodes concrete counter by Davis Block & Concrete features the powder color "Smoke" and was finished with a light grind, then sealed and waxed.

ADVANTAGES: Not just for floors anymore, concrete is a surprisingly versatile material for countertops: It can be cast in any shape and custom-tinted in just about any shade. “(Concrete has) a unique look and endless design possibilities,” says Ron Joslin of Glacial Concrete Decorative Supply.

Adding to its versatility, homeowners have the option of adding unique inlays, such as glass fragments, rocks, metal and even fiber optic lights, says Regina Daniels of Davis Block & Concrete. “You can also get creative with the types of finishes, such as a light grind, troweled finish or pressed finish (veined).”

Extremely durable and heat- and stain-resistant, concrete is also “a timeless product,” says Daniels. “There is nothing like cracking an egg on a concrete counter!”

CONCERNS: Concrete is porous and will stain without frequent sealing. Small cracks can develop. Extremely heavy, concrete will need strong support underneath it. Any customizing will up the price tag.

COST:Precast countertops (made offsite) start around $80 per square foot; Cast in place (poured right onsite) starts around $125 per square foot.

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The rich grays, creams and blues in Cambria's natural quartz are equally calming and vibrant depending on the space and mood of the room. Shown here: Bradford.

ADVANTAGES: “Quartz is an up and coming trend as it is durable emitting a glossy sheen and is easy to clean,” says Hurst. “Quartz countertops represent a man-made stone that is resistant to scratches, acids and stains. A wide range of colors is available in quartz countertops, and there is no need for periodic resealing.

“New colors are continually being developed by the major manufacturers,” says Sprano. “Many to mimic natural stone, and they can offer a consistency in pattern and color that is not always achievable with natural materials. Some of the lighter colors are problematic but there are some great options out there in the darker patterned material for those who are more comfortable with an engineered product.”

The main draw to quartz surface is its beauty, says Leffek. “It is great for a mid-century modern space or if the homeowner wants to do something really fun and unique with backsplash tiles. There are several different brands of quartz surface that will range in price and color. CaesarStone is the top of the line, whereas Pental Quartz is a more budget-friendly option.”

CONCERNS: Quartz is nearly as tough as granite, says Leffek, but it does not have the heat resistance. Additionally, be sure to price quartz against real stone, advises Hurst – “you might be surprised that it is sometimes more expensive than granite.”

COST: Ranges from $90 to $130 per square foot (custom fabrication and installation included).

Other worthy countertop contenders include wood or butcher block, quartzite and the newcomer, lava stone. No matter what the material, each one has its own pros and cons. But in the end, the right material is the one that best suits your lifestyle, tastes and budget.

Sources: Alaska Marble & Granite; Kitchens by Valerie; Mountain Tops, Ltd.; Spenard Builders Supply; Pacific Tile; H&K Sheetmetal Fabricators, Inc.; Kitchens & Baths by Design; Grayling Construction; Davis Block & Concrete; Glacial Concrete Decorative Supply; Rino’s Tile & Stone