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It is true that kitchen counters can be a do-it-yourself (DIY) project from start to finish, particularly if they are made of wood, concrete, or ceramic tile. However, even in the case of those materials, this is still an involved and complex project that directly affects the look, feel, and functionality of the most important work surfaces in the home. Consequently, the vast majority of consumers prefer to hire a seasoned professional to perform the design, construction, and installation of their countertops. Of course, as with anything else, the key is hiring the right professional with the right skills at the right price.
Even though wood, concrete, and ceramic tile can be constructed and installed by an experienced DIY homeowner, as mentioned, many other countertop materials require a large-scale manufacturing process which takes place at specially designed facilities using multi-million dollar pieces of equipment. Laminate, engineered stone, and solid surface are all examples of specialty composites which are mass produced at specialized plants and then shipped to local contractors for customization and installation. The manufacture of tempered glass, the shaping of natural stone, and the cutting of metal also require professional level expertise coupled with sophisticated machinery.

Once a set of countertops has been cut, shaped, and finished, the actual in-home installation is also a non-trivial process. Given the typical materials and their thickness, countertops can be incredibly heavy and require expert handling by multiple professionals in order to avoid damage to the countertop, the walls, the floors, the cabinets, or the installers themselves. Furthermore, the countertops have to be aligned perfectly in both the horizontal and the vertical dimension prior to being permanently attached to the base cabinets, and this alignment has to then be maintained throughout the attachment process.

Although a number of countertop manufacturers are national or international brands with a well-known reputation and an established quality control process, many times the customization, finishing, and installation work is performed by a local contractor. These are usually smaller providers whose credentials warrant greater scrutiny. Consequently, you would be well advised to ensure that the provider
has the appropriate licenses, carries the necessary insurance, operates out of a legitimate place of business, and is willing to provide references. You are also better off going with a provider who specializes specifically in kitchen countertops, or at least has significant experience with countertop work. You should absolutely ask to see samples of prior countertop work, not only to examine the provider's craftsmanship, but also to help in making sure that you and the provider have a common understanding of your desired preferences.

The first order of business when it comes to countertop services is the provision of materials. Whether you are doing the countertops yourself or having them done for you, the materials have to be selected and delivered before any construction or shaping work can begin. Depending on countertop type, the furnished materials can range from raw, unfinished rock that needs a great deal of work all the way to a smooth solid surface sheet that only requires cutting to shape and installing atop the base cabinets.

If you are having stone countertops installed, you may be able to request to physically go to the quarry and select the specific slab which you would like used for the construction of your countertops. Alternatively, if the quarry is too far away or otherwise inconvenient, you can see if the service provider can still let you choose from several pieces at the shop. Because the veining and surface features vary from slab to slab, this selection can have a significant impact on the ultimate look of your countertops.

In the case of wood countertops, the key issue will be selecting the species of wood that you prefer and identifying whether you wish heartwood or sapwood to be used. Even though there will be variations in terms of graining, the overall properties will not vary from tree to tree the same way that surface features vary from stone to stone. If you have carpentry skills and have decided to install your own wood countertops, you can purchase boards either from a local lumberyard, or via mail order or Internet, from a lumberyard in another state or even another country. In that case, you may want to buy a sample piece of board first before committing to a large order.

Concrete is somewhat unique because concrete is not a pre-made material, but one that is created to order and often cast on site. The primary materials are concrete mix and pigment, which are then mixed and poured on a casting table. If you are making DIY concrete countertops, you can find the appropriate mix at certain hardware and home improvement stores, such as Quickrete from Home Depot. On the other hand, if you are having concrete countertops made for you, the major cost is the labor rather than the materials, so it is more important to communicate your expectations as far as look and design to the service provider than it is to select a specific type or grade of concrete mix.

For other man-made materials, such as engineered stone, solid surface, laminate, glass, and ceramic tile, generally you will work with either a major manufacturer or a local provider to select the particular design which you would like to see on your countertops. Since the materials are man-made, their look can be tailored many different ways. In those cases, rather than relying on nature to do the design work, as with stone veining or wood grain, you are relying on the particular manufacturer's palette options.
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The next service component which deserves special consideration is the design work for the countertops. Once the material has been procured, it next needs to be shaped in accordance with precise specifications which, in turn, reflect your desired preferences for the look and feel of the countertops. The design provides the blueprint for how the countertop will be constructed.

In most cases, the design will be performed by the same service provider who does the subsequent construction and who will work with you to identify what you need and then do the actual shaping of the countertop. However, in some cases, an interior designer or a kitchen remodeling specialist can also be involved in the process, particularly if you are trying to create a kitchen that is designed around a certain theme.

The design should incorporate exact dimensions for each countertop, including cutouts for sinks and any other built-in appliances. The service provider will need to make precise measurements of your kitchen, including base cabinets, walls, appliances, and the rest, to make sure that the countertops fit exactly into the apportioned space, without interfering with any other elements on the one hand and without leaving any unplanned for gaps on the other. Any countertop overhangs or unusual shapes, such as radius curves, should also be included in the measurements.

In addition, the design should incorporate any decorative elements, such as edge profiles and inlays. Not all decorative elements are possible with all materials. Some countertop materials can only support basic edge profiles while only a selected few are amenable to inlays. Certain decorative elements can actually interfere with the functionality of the countertop, such as particular inlays, inserts, or terrazzos which result in a highly uneven surface. The benefits and drawbacks of such decorative add-ons should be discussed and ultimately finalized during the design stage. A quality service provider will offer a balanced opinion regarding decorative elements, rather than simply pushing for or against such add-ons because of the possibility of a higher price or limited expertise.

Finally, the preferred finish for the countertop should be addressed during the design stage, including both the relative smoothness of the material and any additional topcoats, such as sealants or varnishes. This is particularly important if the countertop surface is intended to be used for food preparation, where the chemicals from a topcoat can possibly leech into the food. Alternatively, you may simply prefer a particular sealant due to its low-VOC qualities.
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Arguably the most important service associated with kitchen countertops is, of course, the actual construction of the countertops. This involves taking whichever materials has been selected, shaping it to the necessary size specifications, incorporating the requested decorative elements, and finishing it to provide the required level of smoothness, appearance, and moisture- and stain-resistance.

In many cases, countertop construction is a two-stage process. The first stage often involves a major manufacturer which creates a standard sheet made of a given material, with a particular design, texture, and finish. The second stage usually involves a local service provider or home improvement center where the standard sheet is cut to size and edge profiled to customer specifications. This approach is common for solid surface, engineered stone, terrazzo, and laminate, which are all mass manufactured synthetic composites.

Certain brands have established themselves as leaders when it comes to particular countertop materials and, consequently, should be on your list of candidates if you are considering that material. To help with this task, we provide a rundown of the leading brands.

For engineered stone, the top brands are Silestone from Cosentino Group, CaesarStone from CaesarStone, Zodiaq from DuPont, Quartz Based Stone from Stone Italiana, Quartz Compac from Compac, and Celador from Stone Source.

For solid surface, the top brands are Corian from DuPont, Avonite from Avonite Surfaces, Hi-Macs from LG, Gibraltar from Wilsonart, Meganite from Meganite Company, Solid Surfacing from Formica, and Staron from Samsung.

For laminate, the top brands are Formica Laminate from Formica, Wilsonart Laminate from Wilsonart, Pionite and Nevamar from Panolam Industries, Arborite from Illinois Tool Works, Laminate from Abet Laminati, Fine Laminate from VT Industries, and Gem-Loc from Loti Corporation.

For terrazzo, the top brands are Vetrazzo from Polycor, IceStone from IceStone, EnviroGLAS from Recycled Glass Products, and Concetto from CaesarStone.

For other materials, such as wood, stone, concrete, tile, metal, or glass, the process is usually performed from start to finish by a single regional or local service provider. This allows for greater customization, but it also removes the peace of mind associated with purchasing a quality controlled, mass manufactured product which is backed by a large corporation and made on a consistent basis in a controlled environment. Consequently, it is even more important to do your homework and locate a provider with a proven track record, competitive pricing, and a long list of satisfied customers.
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Once a set of countertops has been designed and constructed, the next step is the installation. Although it is possible to install countertops on your own, this is not generally advisable. Even if you are making the countertops yourself, the installation will often require the assistance of another person as countertops are often incredibly heavy and, without the use of specialized lifting equipment, are too much for a single person to handle on his or her own.

Unless your home is a new construction or you just had new cabinets put in, part of the installation process will involve removing and disposing of the old countertops. This means shutting off the water supply to the kitchen sinks, disconnecting the plumbing, and removing the sinks. Then, the old countertops have to be pried away from the base cabinets, which may involve removing nails or screws and, in certain cases, cutting or breaking up the old countertops to facilitate removal.

Once the old countertops have been removed, the base cabinets have to be primed for the installation of the new countertops. This may involve applying a treatment to the tops of the base cabinets, such as installing buildup strips. Then, you have to undertake a scribing and fitting process, where the countertop is adjusted so that it fits into the available space with absolute precision, eliminating any gaps or openings between the counter and the wall while ensuring that the cabinet overhang is consistent at the front. This can be particularly challenging when dealing with corner joints. Once the countertops are properly placed and fitted, the next step is to attach them to the base cabinets, usually utilizing screws, and to connect them at any adjacent corners, usually utilizing bolts and glue. Finally, the sinks need to be re-installed and the plumbing re-attached.

The installation process is even more involved for certain materials when there is no wood backing. And, of course, any mistake along the way can result in a poorly fitted, uneven installation which requires a complete redo. So it is definitely advisable to ensure that the countertop installation is performed correctly the very first time. Unless you are a highly experienced DIY homeowner, employing the services of a contractor is a virtual must.

In the vast majority of cases, the service provider who is designing and constructing your countertops will also provide installation services. While you may be able to save some money by using a local handyman to perform the installation, the relative cost savings are not worth the risk of a poorly performed installation or, worse yet, an installation which damages the countertop. All of these negative outcomes will end up costing you more than simply using the same service provider that is furnishing the countertops to go ahead and perform the installation. That way, if anything should go wrong, the service provider will still bear the responsibility of redoing the installation or replacing the countertops.
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The final service type which is necessary to discuss with respect to kitchen countertops is refinishing. This service involves resurfacing your existing countertops, giving them a fresh look for a fraction of the cost that would be incurred if you were to replace your old countertops with brand new ones. This service can be thought of as a facelift for your kitchen counters.

The primary benefit of refinishing is that it can provide the look and feel of brand new countertops for 30% to 50% less cost. In addition, refinishing is a faster process than replacing, with a turnaround of a day or two rather than a week or longer. A properly refinished countertop looks no different from a new installation and can extend the useful life of the counter by a decade or longer.

Whether or not your old countertops are amenable to refinishing largely depends on the shape they are in and the material from which they were made. Tile and laminate countertops can be resurfaced, with a number of service providers specializing in the application of restorative topcoats, glazes, and composite layers for these surface types. The new layer can be made to resemble stone, wood, metal, or virtually any other surface type. Meanwhile, natural wood countertops can be refinished even more easily, usually requiring nothing more than the stripping of the existing topcoat, sanding, and the applying of a new topcoat.

For stone, individual chips or cracks can be repaired. Alternatively, if the entire surface is worn, the entire countertop can be refinished by removing the top layer with specialized tools and then re-smoothing the surface and reapplying the appropriate finish and sealant. Similarly, chips or cracks in most brand name solid surface countertops can be repaired by utilizing color- and pattern-matched fillers and finishes available from refinishing service providers. For concrete, a worn concrete counter can have the top layer ground down and a new mix of decorative concrete poured on top, providing a fully refinished surface.

An interesting option which is becoming increasingly popular is countertops which can fit over your existing countertops, much like a glove fits over a hand. For example, Granite Transformations offers granite countertops which are shaped with a hollowed out inner pocket so that they can be placed on top of an old countertop and bonded in place. This is less expensive that replacing the countertop, yet it offers a brand new, quality stone surface.

Regardless of your existing countertop material, if you are considering replacing your countertops, you should look into refinishing options before making a final decision. A full-on resurfacing performed by a quality service provider can result in kitchen counters which look and feel brand new and which will provide many years of useful service.
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