Countertops 101

Your countertops (or worktops as our British cousins call them) are quite possibly the most important items you can select when designing a kitchen renovation. It is where you will be chopping vegetables, rolling dough, and even helping kids or grandkids do their homework or artwork. There are many materials available, each with their own unique set of properties.

Plastic Laminate

You may know these best as Formica countertops. This material is used widely since the middle of the 20th century. You may recall your mother or grandmother having gold flecks on white, or even a boomerang pattern. Laminate is durable, is non-porous, and easy to fabricate with basic woodworking tools. The downside, however, is that it is easily damaged by a knife or a large pot scraping across the surface. It is also sensitive to heat. There advantages though. There are many patterns to choose from, including many natural stone looks. Modern digital photography technology has made it possible to transfer a photograph of an actual granite slab to a laminate sheet, giving the look of a granite or marble in limited-budget renovations. The two top manufacturers, Wilsonart and Formica, have formulated top surface finishes that are more resistant to scratches and damage than previous generations.

Natural Stone

Natural Stone comes from the ground in quarries all over the world. It is taken from the ground in large blocks, then it is sliced like a loaf of bread. Each slice is polished to a high shine and sealed with a silicone-based sealer. Depending on the stone, it may go through an additional finishing process to give it a texture other than gloss, such as “leathered” or “Honed”.

Granite

By far the most common natural stone used today is granite. The most common stones are not native to North America, even though much of our ground (especially here in New Hampshire) is composed of granite. The most commonly used stones are imported in large quantities from places like India, Brazil, parts of Africa, and China. The colors and textures vary widely, from browns and tans to greens, blacks, whites, and even blues. Some have small speckled patterns, while others have larger speckles with pockets of grey, maroon, and black. Others still have wild patterning with long streaks and veins in varying colors. Granite is extremely durable. It is not susceptible to high heat and is very difficult to scratch. It is, however, porous and should be sealed regularly. The length of time between sealing can be anywhere from six months to 15 years depending on the sealer used.

Marble

Marble has been used since ancient times and is still a fairly popular choice today, but it is far more porous and softer.than granite. It is easily recognizable, especially the Bianco Carrara color, the white marble with gray veining that you see pretty much everywhere.

Soapstone

Soapstone is another material that has been used for ages, especially during colonial times in North America. it was popular due to the fact that it was soft and easy to fabricate into work surfaces and sinks. It is extremely non-porous, and not affected by chemicals, which makes it an ideal choice for chemistry labs. Its colors can range from light grays to dark grays, and even greens and blues, usually with white veining. If a darker color is desired, it can be treated with mineral oil to give it an overall patina, or it can be allowed to darken on its own with use over time. Due to its soft nature, soapstone scratches easily, giving it a distressed look over time. There are black granites that look like soapstone when “honed”, or polished to a matte finish, and even Quartz surfaces (more on that in a minute) that simulate the look of soapstone, but, for those that love it, there is no substitute

Engineered Stone

Engineered stones, or stones that are “man-made” from crushed minerals and resins, have been around for decades. Their mineral content can be marble, granite, quartz, or even recycled glass.

Quartz

Quartz counters are so-named because they consist of 93% quartz, and 7% resins and other ingredients. the most basic quartz counters have a small speckled pattern or are solid colored. there are some larger patterns that more closely resemble granite and some extremely large patterns that resemble large veined stones. The most popular quartz counters are those that resemble marble, especially patterns that have gray veining and look like Bianco Carrara marble. There are several brands of quartz surfaces, but the top manufacturers all use the same equipment and formula. manufactured by an Italian company called Bretton, this machinery and formula assure the consumer that they are getting consistent quality, regardless of the quartz brand. As with most products, there is reverse engineering of the product and machinery, causing an influx of potentially inferior products into the market. these off-brand materials can be less expensive, but may not give the best long-term performance. some of the name brands to look for are Cambria, Silestone, LG Viatera, Hanstone, and Caesarstone. You can be assured of a good quality product if you select any of these manufacturers.

Others

Another type of engineered stone, which is made in a similar way to quartz, is called Curava. The main material used in the manufacture is recycled glass, along with recycled porcelain and even seashells in some patterns. It is considered to be a more environmentally friendly choice due to the recycled content.

Acrylic solid surface

According to Wikipedia, solid surface was introduced by Dupont in 1967 under the name Corian. It was first introduced for sale in 1971 at the National Association of home builders meeting In Houston Texas. It was introduced as a kitchen surface and came in just one color, white. Corian has since expanded the offering to well over 100 colors, many of them looking like a natural stone. It offers many benefits, including being completely non-porous, with the color the entire thickness of the material. Sinks can be attached to the underside without any discernible seam. Depending on the pattern, larger sections can be assembled without a discernible seam as well, unlike laminates and stones, which have noticeable seams. It used to be selected as an alternative to granite or marble because the material cost less. But, as Natural Stone grew in popularity and availability, it has become the more expensive material. This has made its popularity dwindle, at least here in the Northeast. Regardless of the material you choose, you will have a product that will perform for many years to come and will give your kitchen a more modern look. What’s your favorite material? Please leave comments below.

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