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Counters > Materials
|There can be no question that the single most important decision you will make with regard to countertops is the choice of material. This choice will have a major impact on the convenience and functionality of your worktops and on the look and feel of your entire kitchen. It is easy to become overly focused on the appearance of a particular countertop material and forget about other important aspects, such as durability, maintenance, and hygienics. The functional performance of counters is no less important than its appearance. Certain materials are too soft, quickly losing their looks under the constant barrage of banging, nicking, scratching, and spilling associated with a heavily utilized kitchen area. Other materials are too hard, resulting in broken glasses and dishware. Yet other materials are too rough, leading to discomfort and inconvenience for the cooks. Thus, by understanding the functional properties of individual materials, you can make the optimal selection for your household which will in turn mirror its unique needs.|
countertop arguably represents not only the most important work surface
in the kitchen, but indeed the most important work surface in the
entire home. It is certainly the most versatile surface. Whereas the
garage bench is used for working, the dining table is used for eating,
the bedroom night table is used for reading, and the office desk is
used for item storage, the kitchen counter is used for all of these.
From the moment when it is brought into the home, an item of food will
visit the countertop a good half dozen times - in the original grocery
bag, in its packaging, atop a cutting board, in a mixing bowl, inside a
pot or pan, and in the serving dish. Additionally, dishware, cookware,
utensils, racks, cookbooks, and small appliances are constantly brought
onto countertops, taken off countertops, and generally shifted about
from place to place. It takes a special set of materials to take all
this punishment and still retain their looks or, in some cases,
actually evolve their looks over time.
In addition, the choice of countertop material should be considered vis-a-vis the overall theme which you have chosen for your kitchen. Stainless steel or glass countertops do not belong in an Old World, traditional, or country kitchen. Ceramic tile countertops will generally look out of place in a contemporary kitchen. Concrete or stainless steel counters will look out of place in a rustic or Arts & Crafts kitchen. You can take a set of expensive custom cabinets and a set of high end counters, each of which look gorgeous on their own, and create an absolute design disaster by combining them because their individual styles are completely mismatched. Keep that in mind as you explore the various countertop options.
We begin our discussion with one of the most popular countertop materials, which is natural stone. Among the most durable surface options, stone is naturally scratch- and heat-resistant substance that offers many different textured looks. There are several specific varieties of stone which have come to the fore as working well for kitchen countertop usage. These include granite, marble, limestone, travertine, soapstone, slate, and lavastone.
In general, stone is a more upscale option for kitchen counters and more expensive than the vast majority of countertop materials. Because the countertops are cut from an actual slab of natural stone, the actual look of the countertop will vary, including such features as veining, inclusions, fissures, and fill. As a result, no two stone countertops will look exactly the same. In many cases, you have the option of actually selecting the piece of stone that you wish to have used for your countertop. By doing so, you can select the colors and patterns that you prefer.
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We next turn our attention to engineered stone. Much like engineered wood which combines wood particles with chemical resins, engineered stone combines rock particles with chemical resins to create a man-made material that is easier to maintain and more resistant to staining than natural stone. At the same time, engineered stone is somewhat less costly than natural stone because it does not need to be cut from solid slabs of stone, but can be made from smaller particles.
Most engineered stone is made from about 93% quartz and about 7% resin. Quartz is a hard mineral that is a natural component of several different types of stone, including granite. However, because quartz is the most common material used and because it makes up such a high proportion of the engineered stone, the term "quartz" has become largely synonymous with the term "engineered stone" within the kitchen countertop industry.
Although engineered stone is less expensive than certain types of natural stone, it is more expensive than other types. Compared to granite, to which it is most similar in terms of chemical composition and physical properties, engineered stone is only slightly less expensive. As a consequence, there is an on-going debate among consumers regarding whether engineered stone is superior or inferior to granite as a material option. The debate is further fueled by the claims, often exaggerated, put forward by the manufacturers of engineered stone regarding the advantages of their material relative to natural granite.
Based on objective analysis, engineered stone is less scratch-resistant than granite and less heat-resistant than natural stone in general, as the resins inside the engineered stone are combustible. Engineered stone is more stain-resistant and requires less upkeep than other natural stone products as it does not need to be sealed. Engineered stone is highly durable and tough, about on par with granite. Engineered stone offers consistency and uniform coloring, with a palette of 30 to 40 color options provided by major manufacturers. By contrast, the coloring and composition of natural stone is created by nature rather than in a manufacturing facility, so it is both more unique and less uniform.
One important issue to consider with engineered stone is the use of chemical resins. Even though the product is marketed as 93% quartz, the adhesives utilized to hold the stone together are often polyester resins, which are known to outgas carcinogenic chemicals that are hazardous to health. More environmentally friendly resins have been developed, but they are typically more expensive and most major manufacturers prefer not to use them. The specific types of volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), the amounts which are liable to enter the air, and the period of time over which they will outgas will vary depending on the specific product. In some cases, the amount of outgassing may be sufficiently low as to be virtually undetectable. However, this is an important consideration and a prospective argument in favor of using natural rather than engineered stone.
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We next consider another man-made material that is common in kitchen countertop applications, which is solid surface. The material is usually made out of bauxite, which is an aluminum ore, mixed with resins and pigments. The resulting composite is tough and non-porous, giving it the durability, stain and moisture resistance, and low maintenance which are so important for kitchen countertops.
From an appearance perspective, solid surface is usually designed to mimic the look of stone. However, unlike natural or engineered stone, solid surface countertops have a matte rather than a polished finish. Solid surface is usually a slightly less expensive option than stone, but that lower cost comes with a number of drawbacks. The top of a solid surface counter can be warped, melted, cracked, or discolored by heat, so hot pots and pans should not be placed directly on the countertop. Solid surface scratches relatively easily and deep scratches can become a home for bacteria. To be fair, most scratches can be quickly repaired by sanding. While solid surface is made to resemble stone, it will rarely be mistaken for stone as it is ultimately a plastic material.
Like engineered stone, solid surface is often better known by the brand names utilized by its major manufacturers. The most popular and best known brands of solid surface include Corian, Meganite, Gibraltar, Avonite, Staron, and Hi-Macs. As with engineered stone, the differences among these brands have more to do with marketing and color options than the actual underlying physical properties or manufacturing processes of the materials themselves. One real difference is whether the resins used are acrylic- or polyester-based. Most manufacturers have moved to acrylic resins because they are tougher and less prone to cracking, chipping, and breaking than polyester resins. Some manufacturers still offer polyester resin products, whose main advantage is a lower cost. However, many professional fabricators feel that polyester is an absolutely inferior product and, in the long run, not worth the upfront cost savings.
Because solid surface countertops utilize synthetic resins, the concern for the outgassing of harmful VOCs exists with these materials in the same way as it does with engineered stone. A number of manufacturers claim to use "low-VOC" resins, but you would be well advised to do your own research on the particular resin being utilized before purchasing the product. Generally, acrylic-based resins are going to be better for indoor air quality than polyester-based resins.
Another potential health issue has to do with being able to disinfect solid surface countertops after heavy use. In general, once plastic surfaces have become heavily knife scarred, they become nearly impossible to fully disinfect, as bacteria is able to nestle in the individual cracks and deeper scratches. Since solid surface is essentially a plastic product, it can become less hygienic and more difficult to disinfect over time.
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We next evaluate a material that is more frequently encountered in kitchen cabinets than in kitchen countertops, which is wood. As it turns out, the same hardiness and natural beauty which make wood the runaway favorite for cabinetry also make it an excellent choice for countertops. Unlike stone, wood exudes warmth and offers a softer surface that is much more forgiving on glasses, cutlery, and dishware.
There are three different ways that wood boards can be oriented in constructing a countertop. If the boards are laid the long way, with their widest portion facing the top and showing off the wood's natural grain, this is known as a "face grain" orientation. If the boards are laid on their sides, so that the narrow side of each board instead of the face is facing up, this is known as "edge grain" orientation. Finally, if the boards are stood on their ends, so that their ends rather than their sides are facing up, this is known as "end grain" orientation. The different types of wood orientation perform differently when exposed to common countertop operations such as cutting and chopping. The face grain orientation is the most attractive configuration, as it shows off the natural grain of the wood, but is also the softest and least dent-resistant orientation. As a result, a face grain orientation should be used for decorative rather than work surfaces such as, for example, serving counters. The edge grain orientation is more durable than the face grain orientation and more resistant to scratching. The end grain orientation is the toughest of all and is also, interestingly enough, the most forgiving on knives and cutting utensils. End grain is most typically used for butcher's blocks and cutting boards. What happens with end grain is that knives separate the wood fibers rather than cutting through them, which allows them to spring right back into place and prevents the knives from becoming dulled.
Wood surfaces usually need to be protected against moisture and staining. This is typically done by using a food-safe finishing product such as mineral oil or tung oil. These oils have to be reapplied periodically. Polyurethane is a more permanent finish, but it is not safe to be used as a food preparation surface and it also outgasses harmful VOCs into the air. If you decide to go with wood countertops, make sure that you discuss what type of finish will be applied with the service provider in advance.
As each of the material choices, wood countertops have their own benefits and drawbacks. The benefits are that wood is a warm, attractive, and durable material. Scratches can be sanded out or, alternatively, left in place as, unlike plastic, wood scratches can provide an attractive "distressed" appearance. As far as hygienics, recent studies suggest that wood countertops are actually safer than plastic with respect to bacterial contamination. Wood is also surprisingly heat-resistant, easier on cutlery, and represents an environmentally friendly alternative. Wood is long-lasting, with many consumers reporting that their wood countertops have served them well for multiple decades. Last, but not least, wood is a natural product and, when combined with non-toxic low-VOC adhesives and finishes, does not have the same negative effects on indoor air quality as the plastics and resins in surfaces such as engineered stone, solid surface, and laminate. On the negative side, wood can be susceptible to water damage and staining. In order to protect against this type of damage, either a permanent sealant or on-going upkeep in the form of periodic reapplication of oil is usually required. Wood will also dent, scratch, and chip somewhat easier than harder surfaces such as stone or tile. However, by using harder woods in end grain orientation, it is possible to create a surface that is highly resistant to scratching or denting.
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We next turn our attention to a substantially less expensive countertop alternative than the ones considered so far, which is laminate. This is a construction in which a thin layer of plastic is bonded to either particle board of medium-density fiberboard (MDF). Mass manufactured and utilizing lower cost materials, laminate is one of the most economical countertop options available.
The main benefit of laminate aside from its low cost is the myriad of colors, patterns, and textures that are available. Laminate can be made to resemble stone, wood, metal, glass, or any other surface with the same level of detail as a photographic image. The latest laminates even incorporate subtle tactile detailing that provides a texture that resembles natural materials, so that the surface not only looks, but also feels like the real thing. In many cases, the mimicking is so spot on that your guests and visitors will not know that your "granite" countertops are actually laminate unless they either make a real close inspection or you choose to tell them.
Laminate is easy to maintain. It is a non-porous material, so it does not retain moisture or stains. Spills are easily wiped and many cleaning products can be used without a problem. However, laminate can scratch and chip and if it does, this requires professional repair. Even then, the repaired areas will still be visible. In many cases, the only aesthetically acceptable option for a damaged laminate countertop is to replace the entire countertop. In addition, laminate is not heat resistant and placing a hot pot or pan on the countertop can leave an unseemly burn mark that is next to impossible to remove.
With respect to health considerations, laminate is a major offender when it comes to the outgassing of harmful VOCs. Because it is usually comprised of plastics and fiberboard, laminate incorporates a lot of chemical resins which are known to offgas harmful substances into the ambient air. Even though the industry has been moving toward water-based adhesives, laminate surfaces remain a danger to indoor air quality.
Given its many disadvantages, laminate is generally considered to be a low cost alternative employed when most other countertop options are not possible due to budgetary constraints. However, with the increased affordability of stone, wood, and solid surface countertops, coupled with the increased attention being paid to indoor air quality, laminate has become a less popular choice than it was in the past.
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A more upscale and cosmopolitan choice compared to laminate is concrete. Although it is traditionally associated with the gray, rough appearance of building foundations and street sidewalks, concrete is actually one of the most versatile construction materials in the world. The specialized concrete utilized for interior applications such as kitchen countertops has a much smoother and more polished look and feel and many more options as far as colors and designs.
By way of background, concrete is a man-made material that is created by combining an aggregate made of gravel, sand, or crushed stone with a paste in the form of cement, where the cement is itself a mixture of various rock-derived minerals with limestone, clay, and gypsum. Additional admixtures can be added to concrete in order to affect its texture and color. After it is mixed with water, concrete solidifies and hardens as a result of a chemical process called hydration, creating a robust, tough, stone-like material.
Concrete has to be poured into a cast to conform to the required shape and then hardened. This process can either be done on- or off-site. If performed off-site, the countertops are referred to as "pre-cast". Because concrete can be cast in virtually any three-dimensional shape, it provides a great deal of flexibility with respect to incorporating integral sinks and backsplashes, as well as utilizing a vast array of edge profile designs.
Unfortunately, like any other material, concrete has its disadvantages as well. The material is highly porous, which makes it absolutely essential that it be sealed in order to prevent staining. In turn, the sealant makes it impractical to use the concrete countertop as a cutting surface. Additionally, sealants are not perfect and it is not unlikely that the most trafficked parts of the concrete countertop will exhibit signs of staining over time. In addition, the countertop surface will naturally change its appearance over time - we mentioned this as an advantage from the standpoint of the countertop developing character, but it can also be a drawback if you prefer the way the countertop looked when first installed. Concrete is also a hard surface and it can be tough on glasses and dishware. Last but not least, despite improvements in its appearance for interior applications, concrete will typically still look more "industrial" than other countertop surfaces. Thus, for many consumers, concrete countertops are either a "love it" or "hate it" proposition.
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We next explore a material that is probably best known for wall and floor applications, which is ceramic tile. The process for making ceramic tile starts with creating a dry powder made primarily from clay, but also incorporating such elements as sand, feldspar, and quartz. This dry powder is then pressed into various shapes which are known as bisques. Finally, the bisques are glazed and fired in specialized kilns creating the final product, which is ceramic tile.
Ceramic tiles can be made to varying degrees of strength and durability. For example, floor tiles are made to withstand much greater weight pressure than backsplash tiles. The relative strength of a particular ceramic tile is expressed by its class value. Class 1 and 2 tiles are intended primarily for wall applications. Class 3 provides the necessary toughness to work for flooring applications and also for countertops. Class 4, 5, and beyond are even hardier and primarily used for commercial buildings and high foot traffic areas.
With respect to sizes, shapes, and design options, ceramic tiles represent the most versatile countertop material available. Tiles are available in every imaginable color and can incorporate hand-painted designs and pictorial reproductions ranging from simple lines and shapes to intricate nature scenes and Impressionist artwork. Tile turns countertops into a canvas full of possibility.
In addition to its design and installation versatility and low expense, tile is heat- and stain-resistant. Hot pots and pans can be placed directly on tile countertops without a problem. Tile is somewhat scratch-resistant and although it is possible to cut directly on top of a tile countertop, it is not advisable to do so as knives can scratch the finish, especially if it is a high gloss finish. Tile is also cheap and easy to replace, as individual damaged tiles can be quickly substituted with new ones.
On the downside, tile can chip or crack if a heavy object is dropped on top of it. As mentioned, a damaged tile can be substituted, but only if you have retained back-up tiles from the original installation. Otherwise, finding new tile that matches the old tile exactly can be a painful process. In the cases of hand-painted tiles or complex patterns where individual tiles are not the same, the only way you can be assured of having a spare is by having a double of each unique tile, which can significantly increase costs.
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We next turn our attention to a material whose name is virtually synonymous with strength and durability: metal. This is the material of choice for commercial restaurants all over the world and a mainstay for professional chefs. Like stone, metal is a timeless and elegant option that adds class, character, and capability to any kitchen.
There are several types of metal which are typically used for kitchen countertops. Stainless steel is the most common and the most popular - it is the choice the first comes to mind when the words "metal countertops" are mentioned. However, stainless steel is not the only game in town. Zinc, copper, pewter, bronze, and brass also provide workable and attractive choices. With all of these metals, the countertop is usually not made of solid metal, but rather a sheet of the metal is fastened to another material that is used as backing, such as wood. As with tile, the backing material is not visible.
As metal has become an increasingly popular countertop material for residential kitchens, a number of improvements have been innovated to further enhance the visual appeal of the material. Stainless steel countertops are now also made with a brush finish which adds an attractive texture that effectively minimizes smudging and obscures scratches. Copper countertops can be pre-treated with patinas to create a beautiful custom pattern reminiscent of autumn leaves. Softer metals such as zinc and pewter make it possible to incorporate intricate edge profile designs.
On the whole, metal is an excellent choice for kitchen countertops, providing a terrific combination of form and function coupled with quality hygienics. However, metal is not a low cost option. In fact, metal is one of the most expensive and upscale materials, which makes sense given the many advantages afforded by this material.
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We next consider a composite material that dates back to the Renaissance called terrazzo. It was invented by Venetian construction workers as a way to put to use the marble chips left over from upscale installations. As these workers could not afford solid marble for their own homes, they would take the marble chips, set them in clay, and seal them with goat's milk, using this combination as a flooring material for outdoor patios. Today, terrazzo can still be made with marble, but quartz, granite, glass and other suitable chips are also commonly utilized. Instead of clay, the binder is usually either cement or epoxy resin.
Terrazzo offers an attractive appearance that is more textured than stone and more aesthetic than concrete. It is also a versatile look that can work in a range of kitchen styles, from country to contemporary. Terrazzo can be particularly effective in providing a visual offset to the more pared down look of European style cabinetry with its slab doors and sleek handles.
Like stone and concrete, terrazzo is durable, heat-resistant, and easy to clean and maintain. It does require sealing in order to prevent staining, particularly if cement is used as the binder. The look and feel of terrazzo also will depend on whether cement or epoxy is used. If you prefer better air quality and a more natural feel, then cement is definitely the way to go. Epoxy is essentially a plastic and it has the look and feel of plastic. It also contains greater amounts of potentially harmful VOCs.
Two leading brands of cement-based terrazzo are IceStone and Vetrazzo, which offer a number of design and color schemes in a durable and safe set of countertop materials. In addition, many of the manufacturers of engineered stone have started to offer resin-based terrazzo, such as the Terra line from Zodiaq and the Recycled Collection from CaesarStone. These are less expensive than the cement-based terrazzos, but the trade-off is that they incorporate plastic.
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The final material that we consider is glass. The glass we mean is not the sort used in windows, which would be far too thin and fragile. Rather, the glass utilized for kitchen countertops is architectural crafted glass such as tempered glass, textured glass, and reverse gilded glass, also known as verre églomisé. This is thick, tough glass that can withstand the punishment associated with kitchen worktop surfaces. Usually, the bottom of glass countertops will be painted or treated with an opaque coating so that it does not reveal the contents of the base cabinets underneath.
On the downside, glass can scratch, chip, or crack. A cutting board is a must if you have glass counters and care should be taken not to bang down heavy objects. Some types of glass, such as tempered glass, are stronger than others, so the toughness of the countertop can vary depending on the specific kind of glass that is used. Smooth glass countertops will show fingerprints and water spots, although this can be largely eliminated by utilizing textured glass. In addition, glass is vulnerable to etching from acidic substances such as vinegar, wine, or juice, so care should be taken to wipe up any spills right away.
Depending on the specific type of glass used, the designs and colors, and any other physical or artistic embellishments, the price for a glass countertop can vary widely. This is not a low-cost alternative, but it can be either cheaper than stone, or much more expensive, depending on exactly what you want. From a thematic perspective, glass would look most appropriate in a contemporary kitchen, where it can make an incredibly powerful visual statement.
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