Choosing the Right Countertop

The countertops that you choose for your kitchen can change the whole look of your space and will determine how much maintenance you will need to do. We discuss the different types, as well as go over the pros and cons so that you can find the right fit for your space.

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When most people choose their countertops, they are thinking about how it will look. While aesthetics are important, you must also consider how the material will perform and how much you will need to do to maintain your investment. Also, don’t be afraid to mix materials if your space allows.

When making your decision, you should keep in mind how you use your tops. Even if a material is listed as durable, we would advise taking precautions with your investment and always use cutting boards and trivets or hot pads. Repeated cutting or heat in the same area could damage or discolor that area over time.

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Granite

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Granite is still one of the most popular choices in countertops, and for good reason. It comes in a variety of colors and patterns, is easily maintained, and resists heat and scratching. This is a great choice if you love the veining and unique characteristics of natural stone, but skip it if you are looking for a pure color or consistency.

Cost: $$ to $$$$

Pros

  • Very durable- One of the most durable surfaces. Resists scratching and heat.
  • Little to no maintenance- Granite must be sealed to resist staining and watermarks. This is a very easy wipe-on process about every 6 months to a year. Some granite fabricators are even offering a 15 year sealer. The sealer is meant to keep liquids from soaking into the stone so that it will not stain. That being said, we would recommend wiping up that red wine spill before you go to bed and not letting it sit overnight, especially if you have light color tops.
  • Various colors, patterns, and textures to choose from. You can even choose a textured finish, such as honed or a raw edge in some cases. Granite is a great option for a show-stopping pattern on an island.

Cons

  • Heavy- Not recommended if you have weaker builder grade cabinetry or are not on a solid foundation, like a mobile home. If weight is an issue but you really want granite, try granite tile or a veneer option.
  • Must be sealed or can stain and develop watermarks.
  • Must be properly supported, especially on overhangs. Because granite is a natural material, it can have natural fault lines (weaknesses) in hard to determine locations. Always support overhangs from underneath to avoid unexpected cracks in the stone.
  • Pure colors are hard to find or very pricey because natural stone will contain various minerals. Better to go with Quartz if you are wanting a more pure color.
  • Because this is a natural product, once the quarry runs out, it may never be found the same color and pattern again. If you find a slab that you love and it is rare, grab it before it is gone.
  • Can chip- Though difficult, edges are especially susceptible.
  • Large patterns and veining will be very noticeable at seams, especially corners.


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Quartz

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Quartz countertops are quickly gaining on granite for the number one spot in popularity. They have the durability of granite with zero maintenance. Quartz tops are man made by combining natural quartz with resins to make a completely non-porous surface. This means no sealing like with granite. They are great if you are wanting a more pure color, like white. Manufacturers are also doing a great job if mimicking the natural veining in granite and marble. In fact, if you want the look of Carrara Marble, but actually use your kitchen (see below), this is the way to go.

Cost: $$$

Pros

  • Zero maintenance- A little wipe down is all you need
  • Antibacterial- Since it is non-porous there is no place for bacteria to hide
  • Heat and scratch resistant- Be aware that quartz can scratch itself, so make sure any extra pieces, like a cutting board made from your sink cut is properly padded on the bottom before sitting it on your countertop.
  • More uniform in color and pattern
  • Unnatural colors available since the resin can be colored
  • Seams are easily hidden using color-matched filler. Large or swirled patterned slabs are the exception to this as it is difficult or impossible to match the pattern, especially at corners.

Cons

  • More artificial feel- While they are getting much better at mimicking the natural veining in real stone, it can never truly be duplicated.
  • Heavy- You will still need to be sure that you have a good quality cabinet and a strong foundation to support the weight.
  • Can chip- Though difficult, edges are especially susceptible.
  • Seams will be very apparent in large patterned or mimicked veining slabs, especially at corners.

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Marble

Marble comes in a number of colors, but the one you will see the most is Carrara. It is a beautiful creamy white with grey veining that is elegant and simple at the same time. There is a reason it is in all of the fancy kitchen magazines. But if you actually use your kitchen, think twice about using it in your space.

Marble is a soft, very porous stone that is very susceptible to staining, scratches and can easily chip. It is also prone to etching from acids like lemon and tomato. Bottom line is, that is is very high maintenance. We recommend Quartz or White Soapstone as a great substitute with an almost identical look.

Cost: $$$

Pros

  • Popular white color with natural veining
  • Honed finish is available to reduce visibility of scratches
  • Heat resistant
  • Seams are hardly noticeable, except at corners or with heavy veining

Cons

  • Stains easily- Must be sealed regularly. At least every six months.
  • Easily chipped
  • Etches with acids like lemon or tomato
  • Heavy veining may make seams more noticeable, especially a corners

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Soapstone

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Soapstone is a talc containing stone that is a great choice if you are looking for a durable countertop with an old-world feel. Unlike Granite, it doesn’t need to be sealed and unlike marble, it will not react to acids. It is unique in that it starts out a light white or grey, then darkens and patinas with use. You can speed the darkening along by applying mineral oil monthly, for a year. This will prevent it from forming the patina in splotches and give you a more uniform appearance. It will also bring out the natural veining in the stone.

Cost: $$$

Pros

  • High heat resistance
  • Acid resistant- There is a reason it is used often in chemistry labs
  • Non-Porous- Does not need to be sealed
  • Warmer, aged look than other stones like granite

Cons

  • Very Soft- Prone to chipping and scratching although, they can easily be sanded and re-oiled.
  • Patinas unevenly, unless oiled, creating a splotchy look, especially in the most-used areas.
  • Limited colors- Whites with grey veining and greys, some darkening to almost black, are available.
  • Seams may be more visible
  • Heavy and still needs proper support and sturdy cabinets

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Concrete

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Concrete is your most customizable countertop option. Because it is mixed and poured, you can easily do curves, odd angles, integrated sinks, practically every color of the rainbow, and any impression or mix-in that you can imagine. Want little pieces of colored glass? You got it. Want to imprint your favorite shell collection? This is the way to go. But be prepared, concrete will show wear and patina with time, even with sealing. Since this patina and lived-on look is part of the rustic beauty of concrete, do not use this material if a pristine look is what you are going for.

Concrete tops are also a get-what-you-pay-for type of material. The best looking and longest lasting tops typically are done by the pros. They know exactly what mixture and additives to use to make your top last with no cracks and only the necessary seams. Do-it-yourself materials and how-to videos are easily available if you want to DIY on the cheap, but the finished product may be less than desirable.

Cost: $ to $$$

Pros

  • Extremely customizable- Great if you want to get really creative
  • Minimal seams
  • Can be pored in place or formed off-site
  • Heat resistant and scratch resistant, although heat can cause discolorations

Cons

  • Must cure for several days to weeks, depending on your concrete mix.
  • High maintenance- Must be sealed, then waxed often. Sometimes monthly depending on use.
  • Can crack- hairline cracks can sometimes be repaired
  • Seams are noticeable- This can be reduced by using color matched filler
  • Stains easily- Even with regular sealing and waxing, stains can happen. Think of concrete as a countertop that will maintain the history of your kitchen.
  • Heavy- Must have sturdy cabinetry

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Solid Surface

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Solid Surface is a man-made material using acrylics and polyester resins. Think of it as similar to bowling ball material. It is a durable surface that is the only countertop surface that is almost 100% repairable. Although it can scratch easily, scratches can be buffed out. We recommend avoiding dark colors as these do show scratches very easily. They are available in a wide variety of colors and can be solid, speckled, chunky to look like Quartz or made to mimic the veining of Granite or Marble. They even make some that are meant to be illuminated by adding light underneath.

Another great feature of Solid Surface is that it can appear seamless. The installation process results in a finished product that is hard to tell where the seams are placed. This is a great option if you have a difficult layout or a large piece that would otherwise have unsightly seams. You can even have a seamless sink integrated into your top.

Cost: $$

Pros

  • Variety of colors and patterns- Can even mimic Quartz or Granite
  • Seamless look- Great for odd kitchens or large pieces
  • Integrated sink available
  • Very low maintenance- Never needs sealed
  • Heat resistant- though can melt at high temperatures

Cons

  • Has plastic feel
  • Scratches easily- Although they do not show easily on light colors and can easily be buffed out.
  • Dark colors should be avoided- dark colors often scratch white, making them highly visible until repaired.
  • Can melt with high heat exposure

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Butcher Block

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Butcher Block has increased in popularity with the surge of the modern farmhouse style. They are typically made of maple or walnut, but other species are available. One of the great things about Butcher Block is that it is a fairly easy DIY option. You can even purchase slabs on Amazon.

Butcher Block will have a couple of different properties depending on how it is finished. You usually can find it either oiled or varnished. With varnished, it will be pretty impervious to stains and is better around water, but takes more work and re-finishing if you need to repair scratches. We don’t recommend cutting directly on the surface anyway, but you would definitely want to use a cutting board with a varnished surface.

An oiled finish, on the other hand, requires a little more maintenance. You must re-oil monthly to keep the wood from drying out and harboring bacteria. It is extremely easy, though, to lightly sand out any scratches and oil again. This would be the best option if you want to cut directly on your tops.

Cost: $$ to $$$

Pros

  • Warmer and softer than other tops- Much less chance that your glass will break if dropped on Butcher Block.
  • Can cut directly on oiled Butcher Block, although this will increase your maintenance drastically.
  • Can be varnished to avoid staining, moisture issues, and reduce maintenance.
  • Various wood species and grain options available
  • Fairly easy DIY option by purchasing the slabs and cutting to fit.
  • Any burns, scratches or stains can be sanded away.

Cons

  • Requires a lot of maintenance, especially the oiled finish. Even the varnished option will still be prone to scratches.
  • Can harbor bacteria if not kept oiled or varnished. Although, a little vinegar now in then will help to disinfect.
  • Must be careful to protect from standing water, especially around the sink area. Wood can split and even mold if not maintained properly.
  • Seams are very noticeable, especially at corners with the board direction change. An end-grain option is available to eliminate this, but is a more expensive option.
  • Scratches, burns, stains, and dents- While these are repairable, you do need to be a little more careful with these tops unless you are going for the lived-on look.

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Laminate

Laminate is, usually, an inexpensive options for countertops. When you hear laminate, you may be thinking of your grandmothers gold color tops, but laminate has come a long way. With very modern patterns, literal pictures of real granite and quartz, and even textures to mimic the real thing, it is sometimes hard to tell they are not real by just looking at them from across the room.

If you don’t have the budget for real stone, but want the look, this is the way to go. Pro-Tip: Order your countertops without a backsplash, then tile your wall to make them look more like the real deal. The integrated backsplash is a dead giveaway. Just make sure that you seal your back seam well to avoid moisture damage.

Laminate is also an easy DIY option. Pieces can be ordered pre-cut and finished to your exact measurements, then fit together on site. We would not recommend trying to make the slabs yourself out of laminate sheets. It is harder than it looks and the edges and seams tend not to wear as well over time.

Cost: $ to $$

Pros

  • Typically Inexpensive- Cost will be mostly determined on the layout of your kitchen. If you have a straight forward kitchen, maybe with a couple of corners, it will most likely be your most cost effective option. On the other hand, if you have some crazy angles or a lot of seams, you may find that a Solid Surface or stone top might be almost as cost effective and will look and perform better in the long run.
  • Durable- As long as you use hot pads, a cutting board, and you wipe up your red wine spills, they will last for a very long time.
  • Many colors, patterns, and textures available. Even some more funky options for the more adventurous.

Cons

  • Not repairable if scorched, scratched or stained.
  • A set-in sink is usually your only option- Because the underlayment of laminate is particle board, it can not get wet. To avoid this, you must use a drop in sink. The only exception is that some manufacturers offer to integrate a sink into the countertop using a special process. This is a great look, but you will often find that the cost to do so is prohibitive and will often bring you into the lower price point of granite and solid surface.
  • Must make sure seams are away from water- Another drawback to that particle board backing is that you must make sure seams are as far away from water (the sink) as possible and that any spills around a seam are cleaned up immediately.
  • Can look fake- The downside of photos of stone. The average person may not be able to see they aren’t the real deal, but they won’t feel like cold, hard stone. If this bothers you, then you might want to splurge a little on the stone or go with a pattern that isn’t trying to be something it is not.

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Metal

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Metal tops have found there way into our kitchens over the years, for good reason. They are typically very durable, heat resistant, non-porous and can be beautiful. Their exact properties will be determined on the metal that you choose.

The most common metal found in homes is stainless steel, like what you find in restaurant kitchens. Don’t choose metal, though, if you want your countertops to look pristine. All will show scratches and dents, especially copper and zinc which are loved for the rich patinas that they develop with time.

Cost: $$$ to $$$$

Pros

  • Zero maintenance- If you want the natural patina, that is.
  • Non-Porous- Will not have to worry about stains and is naturally antibacterial. That being said, if letting your top patina, removing a spot might remove the patina underneath. Best to let be for the lived-on look.
  • Beautiful way to get the lived-on look and a top that takes on the history of your kitchen. With Stainless, a great way to get that clean, modern look.
  • A number of metals are available for a variety of looks. Stainless, pewter, zinc, bronze, and copper are most common.
  • Easily recycled when it is time to remodel.

Cons

  • Reacts to acids- Lemon, tomato, etc. will remove the patina on your tops creating “bleach” spots on your top. Stainless steel is the exception.
  • Will require maintenance if you wish to keep your tops without the patina. Stainless steel is the exception.
  • Can be quite expensive
  • Will show wear in your most used areas.

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Composite

Composite countertops have popped up as an answer to those homeowners looking to be more environmentally responsible. Also known as recycled countertops, you will find countertops made of glass, mirror, fly-ash, paper, cement, and many more. These are not recycled from other countertops, but are made of materials saved from the landfill. These materials are usually manufacturing waste, but sometimes do contain post-consumer materials.

There are too many different types of composites to go over here, but typically they will perform similar to the type of countertop that is made most like them. For example, the recycled glass tops are bonded with a resin making them perform almost identically to Quartz countertops. Check with the manufacturer of the tops you are interested in for details.


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Tile

Tile has to be the most versatile option when it comes to countertops. You are really only limited by the tile that you choose. Gone are the days of using ceramic with large grout lines. Today’s tile tops are using larger tiles of marble and granite with minimal grout lines to give you those stone tops for far less than a slab would cost. Most of your cost here will be in labor.

As far as wear, this will be determined based on the type of tile that you choose. Granite and marble, for example will wear the same as their slab counterparts. Maintenance will also be the same, but with the added maintenance of the grout. Unlike ceramic, stone tiles are usually laid with 1/16th grout lines so are easier to maintain. You can use typical unsanded grout or epoxy is a more durable option, but harder to install. Whichever grout you choose, don’t forget that you still must seal your stone.

Cost: $ to $$

Pros

  • Fairly easy DIY
  • Almost unlimited options
  • A less expensive way to get the durability and beauty of stone tops.
  • Easily continue tile as backsplash for a cohesive look.

Cons

  • Labor can be expensive unless you DIY. You will not find a fabricator for this type of project. This would be done on-site by an installer. Make sure to check references and see examples of their work.
  • Grout lines must be maintained and may need re-grouted in the future. Epoxy is the most durable and almost maintenance free option, but is more difficult to install.
  • If using stone with veins, grout lines may be very noticeable as it is nearly impossible to get your veining to match.
  • Must determine how you will finish the edge of your top, which can be difficult. You can use cut stone to match, which will give a very hard edge or use something like these metal edges to nicely trim out your top.

Related Reading:

Choosing a Kitchen Sink Part 1: Style

Choosing a Kitchen Sink Part 2: Materials and Maintenance

Choosing a Kitchen Faucet

Hiring the Right Contractor


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