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Choosing Kitchen Countertops: Which Materials Are Right for You?

Updated:2008-07-25 09:00:34

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When homeowners decide to renovate their kitchens, new countertops often make the top of the "to do" list. But with the large assortment of countertop surfaces and styles on the market today, it can be difficult to choose one that fits your style and budget. Lou Manfredini, OurHouse.com's "Mr. Fix-It" and national home solutions expert, TV personality, radio host and author, cautions homeowners about choosing counters based on price alone, "I always tell people to consider value more than price, to think about the long term and what they'll be getting in years to come." While some surfaces may be more affordable initially, they may not last for more than a few years, and having to replace, or live with damaged, unattractive counters, detracts from the money saved during the installation.

It is impossible to name one "perfect" countertop material. Every home has different needs, but regardless of which material you choose, you'll want something that is both durable and attractive. As Lyn Wexler, CKD of Kitchen Quest, points out, counters must stand up to a wider variety of use and abuse than any other surface in the kitchen: burns from hot pans, scratches from knives, the weight of people leaning on them, stains from all sorts of foods, crafts, and everyday items. Needless to say, finding a material that can handle such varied and constant use is difficult, but knowing a bit about the advantages and disadvantages of the materials available will help you select a kitchen counter that meets your needs.

PLASTIC LAMINATE

Plastic laminate materials are the most popular, and the most affordable of all the countertop materials. "High-pressure laminates can look nice, but durability is limited," says Lou Manfredini. There is a seemingly endless array of colors and styles available, and maintenance consists of simply wiping down the surface periodically to clean. However, despite the low price, there are drawbacks to laminates. Knives can scratch the surface and most can't stand up to hot pans. Over time, the colors may fade or chip and stains may be hard to erase. Upper-end laminates may offer a slightly thicker surface layer, meaning that minor scrapes and scratches can be sanded out.

SOLID SURFACE

This trendy, high-quality material is made from acrylic or polyester with a mineral filler. Seams are virtually imperceptible. Solid surfacing features easy cleanup and comes in many colors and styles, including some that offer a reasonable simulation of marble and granite. Because they are man-made, solid surfaces can be sculpted, trimmed and inlaid with other colors and materials for a variety of decorative options. Although fairly durable, solid surfacing can't handle extremely hot pots and pans, and cut marks and scratches are visible, especially in darker colors. Solid surfacing is fairly expensive, and generally costs only 15 to 20 percent less than natural stone.

CERAMIC TILE

Cermaic tiles are impervious to heat and stains. They are available in thousands of colors and styles, including the intricate patterns and images seen in tiles made by artisans in countries like Mexico and Italy. Tiles are quite hard, so dropped glasses tend to break, but the major drawback to tiles is the grout used between them. Grout, unlike the tiles it joins, stains easily, and the grooves between tiles catch dirt and food particles, making the counters more difficult to wipe clean than a smooth, flat surface. Tile counters range in price from affordable to quite expensive.

STONE

Lou Manfredini likes the look offered by stone, but warns homeowners that a lot of work is needed to keep the surface looking and performing well. "I love stone countertops-there is nothing as beautiful and rich, but stone can chip and it's porous, so you have to worry about bacteria and yearly maintenance." Stone countertops have long been the ultimate choice in high-end kitchens and the cold, smooth qualities of stone are a natural choice for pastry chefs. The elegance and long-lasting appeal of natural stone counters come with a high price tag, and the natural hardness of the material makes stone an especially unforgiving surface for breakables. There are a number of stone materials used in counters today, each with its own individual characteristics.

Marble offers deep color, with veining and textures to add marvelous variation to the look of your kitchen. However, it is an extremely high-maintenance material and requires constant cleaning and polishing. Marble must also be sealed upon installation, then resealed annually. Also, be careful about spilling acidic foods on the surface, they can cause the stone to loose its shine.

Granite is the hardest of all natural stones and offers real durability, although Lyn Wexler points out that "if hit just right, chips can occur." The flecks of color and high shine of granite lend a sleek, exciting look to the kitchen. Animal fats can stain the surface, so be prepared to spend a considerable amount of time waxing and polishing to keep the counters shining.

Other natural stones used in counters include limestone, slate and soapstone. These unusual materials are for those seeking a unique look for the kitchen. These surfaces tend to be softer and more porous than marble or granite, so they may be more likely to chip and stain.

A newcomer to the world of countertop surfaces is stone composite material. DuPont recently introduced Zodiaq and Cosentino offers Silestone. Both are composed mainly of quartz crystal, offering great strength and durability and they come in several rich, sparkling colors. And because the surface is manufactured, it can easily be made in large slabs, unlike the limitations found in the size of natural stone surfaces.

WOOD

Wood is rarely used as a primary countertop material, but many homeowners opt to include a wood butcher block section in their kitchens or on a kitchen island for a convenient and durable cutting surface. Wood requires a regular application of food-grade mineral oil to prevent the surface from absorbing stains and odors. Avoid installing butcher block tops or wood counters near sinks or other sources of moisture because wood can swell when soaked with liquid.

STAINLESS STEEL

Once reserved for use in commercial restaurants and cafeteria settings, stainless steel is now appearing in private kitchens. When used to complement classic wood cabinets and floors, or in combination with a more traditional countertop material, steel can offer a clean, classic look. Stainless steel is a non-porous surface that will not absorb bacteria or stains and can stand up to all temperatures. There is no protective coating to maintain, and the smooth surface is extremely easy to clean. Steel will occasionally show scratches, however, and can dent if not installed over a sufficiently supportive substrate.

CONCRETE

One of the newest materials used in a today's kitchens is concrete. Concrete can be mixed in a variety of colors and textures-not just the standard, flat gray used in sidewalks and building foundations. Materials such as stone or glass can be mixed into the material for a natural stone-like appearance. Countless colors can be mixed for a customized look. Concrete is strong, though it will develop small, fine cracks over time, and this is usually considered to add to the aged, rustic charm of the surface. Concrete must be sealed and waxed regularly to prevent stains. Most heat and scratch damage occurs only to the sealer and wax coating the concrete and can be repaired when the surface is resealed. Surprisingly, concrete counters are quite expensive and it can be difficult to find a craftsman who installs the material for counters.

When choosing a countertop material, keep in mind that the surface you choose is an investment you want to last for 10 years or more. Although, if building a new home, you may opt for a more affordable material initially, with plans to install your "dream countertop" in the future, when funds become more plentiful. Many homes now feature kitchens with mulitple types of counter surfaces for a fresh look that also offers flexibility when preparing foods or working on different projects. Be sure to spend time speaking with kitchen specialists and counter manufacturers and installers. Specify your needs and style preferences in detail and you'll find a material that will help make your kitchen a pleasureable place to live and work.

Source:Associated Content

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