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Counters > Designs
|The material that you choose for your countertops will have a profound impact on not only their performance, but also their look and feel. However, you can further extend the possibilities of that material by adding particular design elements. Indeed, once you have decided to go with concrete and chosen a color, for example, your job is not completed. There are additional decisions which need to be made as far as shaping, texturing, edging, and finishing. The way that your countertop material is shaped and edged will affect both its appearance and its convenience. And the way that your countertop material is textured and finished will impact both its form and its functionality.|
its primary function is to provide a flat worktop, the kitchen
countertop represents more than simply a flat rectangular surface.
It is also an important design element which contributes to the overall
interior decoration scheme. As such, countertops have to work
thematically and aesthetically with the cabinets, walls, and floors,
supporting a consistent and effective visual experience. In turn, this
means that significant thought should be given to the way in which the
countertops are shaped, textured, and profiled. At the same time, the
countertops have to remain functional. This means that the finish has
to protect the material's weak points, such as moisture absorbency,
without taking away from its natural color or beauty.
From a cost perspective, the incorporation of countertop design elements can materially increase the overall price tag for a kitchen remodeling project. A great deal depends on whether the particular design element is a standard option or represents a special order. It also matters whether particular the design element is labor intensive or represents a minor adjustment on behalf of the service provider. Last, but not least, there is significant variation among service providers. Some have greater experience with particular countertop design elements than others and are therefore willing to offer a more competitive price. Consequently, it is advisable that you seek out multiple quotes on a countertop project before committing to a particular service provider.
We begin out discussion of kitchen counter design features by examining the different shapes commonly utilized for countertops. As you may imagine, the countertop needs to be sufficiently large to cover the tops of your base cabinets. However, beyond that basic requirement, there are many options available with respect to both how the countertops are sized and how they are shaped. In turn, these decisions will affect not only how the countertops look, but also how comfortable they are to use, how easy it is to access the base cabinets, and how much unobstructed space is available in the kitchen.
The most common shape used for countertops is the basic worktop rectangle that is a little over two feet in depth, or about an inch and half deeper than the average base cabinet. This creates a slight overhang, placing the front edge of the countertop at about the same level as the top of the base cabinets' knobs or pulls. In terms of width, the countertop will typically run the full length of the cabinets, either from a wall to the opposing wall, or from a wall to the last cabinet in case of a peninsula. In case of an island, the countertop will usually be deeper, providing a table-like surface to cover the island base cabinets.
The countertop also usually incorporates rectangular cut-outs for appliances such as freestanding ranges and refrigerators. These can either be cut into the countertop, or unconnected sections of countertop can be used and simply spaced apart to allow for the incorporation of appliances. Sinks are typically cut into the countertop in the form of a rectangular, circular, or oval shape, depending on the sink basin design. In some cases, sinks can be formed out of the countertop material itself - this is discussed in greater detail subsequently.
The standard height at which countertops are installed is about three feet above floor level. The actual height can vary and will depend not so much on the countertops, but more on the base cabinets. If there is a need or to install countertops either lower in the case of specific cooking preferences or short-statured or wheelchair-bound residents or higher in the case of tall-statured residents, the adjustment has to be made on the cabinet side of the equation. Thicker or thinner countertops can raise or lower the worktop surface, but the difference will only be a matter of an inch or two.
The thickness of a countertop is more of a visual preference than a functional one. Typical countertops are between 3/4" and 1 1/2" thick. However, thicknesses of 3" or more are also available with most materials. Thicker counters are not going to necessarily stand up to punishment any better than thinner countertops, as most issues such as staining, discoloring, and chipping affect the top of the surface. If anything, thicker countertops are going to be more of an issue as they will be heavier and therefore harder to both install and remove. In addition, they will place much greater weight on the base cabinets, which may or may not be sufficiently strong to support that weight over a prolonged period of time.
As mentioned, most countertops are rectangular and more or less flush with the front of the base cabinets. However, this is certainly not a requirement and subject to design adjustments. Countertops can be made to overhang the base cabinets by anywhere from several inches to several feet. Generally, such an overhang is utilized on the outer side of a peninsula or an island where there are no cabinet doors. This overhang can then be used as a serving area with tall stools or chairs placed beneath the overhang. By contrast, using overhangs on the inside of the kitchen or above base cabinet doors can be counterproductive as it reduces aisle space and limits access to the base cabinets.
Counters can also be designed to be rounded at both the corners and the front rather than squared off. Such counters are referred to as having a radius edge. The rounding serves to give a softer, more ergonomic look and feel to the counters. You can just have the outer and inner corners rounded, or you can utilize elongated ovals as the underlying shape for the entire countertop. A number of kitchen designers now offer rounded base cabinet and countertop designs which are variously referred to as organic, aerodynamic, holistic, or ergonomic.
If you choose to go with an unorthodox or significantly rounded shape for your countertops, consider not only the aesthetic component, but also the functional component. Will your base cabinets still be reachable? Will your worktops be appropriately sized for ease of use? Will your aisles remain sufficiently wide? In addition, keep in mind that unusual shapes will usually carry a substantially higher cost as they require custom work.
Last, but not least, it bears noting that your counters can be shaped not only horizontally, but also vertically. Dual-height designs for peninsula and island countertops have become more popular in recent years. This involves two countertops positioned at different heights, with a worktop at the usual height, or somewhat lower, and a serving counter that is a foot to a foot and a half higher. This is a design inspired by bar counters and it can be effective for homes where snacks, drinks, and minor meals are often served directly from the kitchen.
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Another important design element involves the textures applied to countertops. While a flat surface is a functional requirement, that surface does not necessarily have to be perfectly smooth. The addition of textures can transform and enhance the appearance of certain materials. In some cases, texturing can actually improve the functional properties of a countertop and reduce the amount of cleaning and upkeep required.
For wood, because end boards are typically utilized, the natural texture is not attractive, so the surface is sanded down until it is smooth, resembling the surface of a cutting board. However, in cases where face boards are used, the surface can be lightly grooved where the seams run between adjoining boards. Such a grooved countertop can look appropriate in a rustic or Arts & Crafts kitchen.
With concrete, the surface texture options are virtually unlimited. Concrete is made from a semi-liquid paste that can be formed into virtually any shape and then hardened. Consequently, many different design elements can be applied to the concrete mixture before it sets. For countertop applications, most homeowners prefer a smooth finish because it is both more attractive visually and more pleasing to the touch than the feel of rough concrete. However, brushed designs and glass inlays that incorporate either concavities or convexities can be easily incorporated. In addition, you can have different vertical levels built into the countertop, such as a recessed worktop for baking, a raised worktop for a cutting board, or an angled and grooved worktop for draining.
With ceramic tile, you also have many different textures available. Because the tiles are individually made out of clay and then hardened through a firing process, they can incorporate virtually any three-dimensional patterning. A smooth finish is most common for kitchen counters, but ultimately your options are only limited by what is available from the myriad tile producers out there or, in the case of custom-made tiles, by your imagination.
Finally, solid surface and laminate countertops traditionally came in the same smooth finish as most plastic furnishings. However, most recently manufacturers have begun to offer additional texture options in order to compete more effectively with natural stone. Certain types of solid surface and laminate countertops offer basic texturing which mimics the feel of stone, wood, or concrete, albeit at a higher cost relative to the base product.
In selecting textures, keep in mind that incorporating even minor grooves can make countertop surfaces significantly more difficult to clean. Moisture, grease, and grime will tend to accumulate in the valleys between grooves and can be difficult to access with your usual cleaning materials. From this perspective, bubble-type textures will be easier to keep clean than sharp-edged textures with pronounced peaks and valleys.
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Closely related to textures is the subject of countertop finishes. The finish can refer either to the way in which the surface is smoothed, to the topcoat which is applied to the surface, or both. The particular finish that is utilized for kitchen countertops will generally have both aesthetic and functional qualities, providing the desired look and feel on the one hand, and the required performance and durability on the other.
Certain surfaces which are porous require the use of a sealant as part of the finishing process in order to protect against staining. This includes most types of granite, wood, marble, concrete, limestone, and travertine. Ceramic tile will not stain, but the grout will, so these countertops still require sealing. Terrazzo that incorporates cement also needs to be sealed. On the other hand, engineered stone, soapstone, solid surface, slate, glass, metal, and laminate are all non-porous materials that do not require sealing.
With respect to sealing, it is important that the sealant that is used be low in toxic chemicals and VOCs which could be released into the ambient air and affect the health of anyone using the kitchen. Water based sealants are generally going to have less hazardous components than other types. Finding an environmentally friendly sealant is especially important for materials which need to be re-sealed on a periodic basis.
For wood, the finish involves a topcoat that provides both a seal and a polish. The most common options are a type of varnish, such as polyurethane, shellac, lacquer, or natural oil. Polyurethane is a hard, waterproof, and abrasion-resistant material that forms a semi-transparent film over the wooden counter. However, it is high in VOCs and has a plastic feel to it. Lacquer offers better transparency and gloss relative to polyurethane, but somewhat less durability. Unfortunately, it is also high in harmful VOCs. For both polyurethane and lacquer, newer water-based options are going to be relatively safer than more traditional alternatives. Shellac is a more natural and safer option than either polyurethane or lacquer, and it provides a rich, glossy finish. Natural oil is the most basic, natural, and safe option, with a number of different oils available for this purpose, such as mineral oil and tung oil. If you intend to use the wood countertops as a food preparation area, then the safest option is something like food grade mineral oil.
For stone counters, finish generally refers to the relative smoothness and glossiness of the surface. The finish can be polished or honed, where a polished finish produces a sleek, glossy top and a honed finish produces a matte, dull top. There are also finishes which incorporate textures, such as leathered, flamed, and sand blasted, which were described in detail in the preceding section.
For concrete countertops, finish incorporates texture, color, and anti-moisture seal. Surface textures can be created, as described in the previous section, and the concrete can then be sanded down to a greater or lesser degree of smoothness, depending on preference. A color pigment or mix is added to attain the desired shade. Finally, a seal is applied as the topcoat to ensure that moisture and stains cannot seep into the pores and discolor the surface. Once again, a low-VOC sealant is preferable.
Synthetic materials such as engineered stone, solid surface, and laminate come fully finished from the manufacturer and do not require additional sealing or finishing. Metal and glass countertops incorporate various textures and can be made in either a more glossy or more matte finish, but beyond those choices do not require an additional finishing layer. Finally, for dense stone countertops, such as soapstone or slate, food safe oil finishes are available which bring out the natural beauty of the stone while helping to protect its surface.
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In addition to the texture and the finish, an important design component from a visual standpoint is the profiling applied to the edges of the countertops. Many consumers do not give much thought to edge options or assume that the only choice is between a square edge and a rounded edge. In reality, there are dozens of decorative possibilities available with respect to edge profiles and these have a more significant impact on the look and feel of the countertop than most consumers realize.
At the same time, not all decorative edge options are available for all countertop materials. Certain materials are not amenable to shaping. For example, ceramic tile and laminate offer only limited edge options because both represent a top layer that is glued onto a substrate. By contrast, stone, wood, glass, and metal all allow extensive edge profile shaping.
The bevel, the quarter round, and the bullnose can be applied either only to the top edge, or to both the top and bottom edges. If you have young children in the home, you may want to utilize an edge profile that is rounded on both top and bottom in order to eliminate the possibility of a child hitting his or her head on a sharp protruding corner of the hard countertop.
Wood and soft metals such as zinc and pewter allow the most detailed edge profiles, as they have the malleability required for creating intricate patterns. Such profiles combine multiple coves and ogees at varying depths and sizes to form unique carved relief effects. These can add a touch of sophistication and elegance to a traditional style kitchen.
Ultimately, the edge profile should be chosen to complement the cabinetry and promote the overall theme of the kitchen. In a kitchen with simple flat panel or slab door cabinets, an ogee or waterfall countertop edge will tend to look overly ornate. By the same token, in a kitchen with arched recessed panel doors and crown moldings, a square or beveled edge will look too basic and simplified. Generally, contemporary, rustic, country, and Arts & Crafts kitchens call for simpler edge profiles while traditional and Old World kitchens call for more intricate edge profiles.
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Another feature which, although not always a part of the countertop itself, nevertheless plays an important role in countertop design is the sinks. As far as counters go, there are three types of sinks. Overmount sinks have edges which extend from the top of the basin and which rest on top of the countertop. These are also referred to as "drop-in" sinks because they are simply dropped into the opening made in the countertop for the sink. The basin goes into the opening while the edges lie on top of the countertop and support the weight of the basin. By contrast, undermount sinks are installed from below the counter and their weight is supported by a strong adhesive which bonds them to the underside of the countertop. The third option is integral sinks which are thermoformed into the countertop itself, creating a seamless basin made of the same material as the counter.
From the perspective of countertop design, the most important determination is whether to incorporate an integral sink. Visually, an integral sink provides a uniquely sleek, contemporary, and seamless appearance. It is easy to clean because there is no rim or seam to trap dirt. However, not all countertop materials can be thermoformed to create an integral sink. If you want to go this route, you will need to purchase a countertop made of either solid surface, concrete, metal, or glass. However, keep in mind that porous countertop materials may not be the best surface to use for a sink, where they will constantly be wet. For example, integral concrete sinks are likely to stain over time and discolor relative to the rest of the countertop, even with consistent reapplication of sealant.
If you incorporate an integral sink, you will need to agree with the service providers on the size and shape of the sink. This includes not only figuring out the overall dimensions, but also determining whether the sink will have a round, oval, or rectangular opening; whether it will have one, two, or three separate compartments; whether it will have a flat, trough, or slanted bottom; and whether it will include an adjoining drain board.
However, if you intend to install an overmount or undermount sink, the only requirement you will need to determine with respect to the countertop is the size and shape of the opening. If you already have the specific sink or sinks you intend to install, the process is significantly simplified. Otherwise, you will need to figure out a standard shape and size that will support the type of sink you are most likely to purchase. This will require a degree of advance planning, as reconfiguring the countertop opening at a later point will incur additional expense.
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The final design element pertaining to countertops that we will discuss is the use of inlays. An inlay can refer either to a multi-colored visual design that is added to the countertop material or, more commonly, an actual external object that is structurally incorporated into the surface of the countertop material, but that is physically and visually different from that material. Like integral sinks, inlays are only possible with certain countertop materials, which are primarily concrete and terrazzo, and to a lesser extent, solid surface, glass, and wood.
From a functional perspective, inlays can interrupt the flow of the countertop, adding bumps and protrusions that can make the countertop less comfortable as a working surface. From that perspective, consider carefully the optimal placement of any inlays. By putting them near corners or embedding them into the side edges, you can still keep the working surface even and functional. Alternatively, you can choose flat objects such as pieces of glass which can be made flush with the countertop surface.
With wood countertops, inlay options are more limited. Because wood is a solid material to start with, it cannot be made to set around an inlay the way concrete does. However, inlays can be routed into the surface of the countertop providing spaces for the addition of other fillers, such as ceramic tiles. The wood cuts and the tiles have to be measured precisely, with a small amount of space left all around the tile, allowing it to "float" in a bed of flexible adhesive. The reason for this rather than a flush inlay is that wood tends to grow and compress with changes in humidity. Similarly, designs can be routed into solid surface countertops with the added benefit that solid surface does not "shift" the way wood does, so it makes measuring and incorporating inlays easier.
A final note on inlays is that they are neither easy nor inexpensive to undo once they have been incorporated into a countertop. As a permanent decorative element which changes the look and feel of the counter, you should carefully consider whether a particular inlay is not just a "cool idea", but indeed a decorative element which you will enjoy having embedded in the countertop for years to come.
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