The Homeowner’s Guide to Countertop Materials

Dark Wood Kitchen Countertops
© annaia / Fotolia

As one of the most prominent features in your kitchen and bath, the countertops help set the mood for the whole room. While they need to look good, these hardworking surfaces also need to stand up to heavy use. Popular countertop materials vary in how well they fulfill these requirements. Knowing the pros and cons of each will help you make the best choice for your home’s design and your lifestyle.

Timeless Classics: Natural and Engineered Stone

Stone Kitchen Counterop Material Samples
© StudioDine / Fotolia

Its classic, natural look and durability makes stone one of the most common countertop materials, particularly in high-end kitchen and bath designs. It’s not the cheapest choice and some types of stone require careful maintenance, but it can reward you with long-lasting beauty and years of reliable use. Among your options for stone counters are:

  • Granite
  • Marble
  • Soapstone
  • Travertine
  • Quartz

Granite

Pros: Long among the most popular countertop options, granite lends your room a sense of luxury and timeless appeal. This material is most often available in two finishes: polished with a glossy, modern look or honed with a soft, matte surface.

Cons: While it’s resistant to scratches, chips, and burns, it’s susceptible to staining and etching. You’ll need to keep the counter properly sealed and clean up spills quickly to maintain a spotless surface.

Cost: $20 to $100 per square foot.

Marble

Pros: Marble is perfect for creating a sense of stately opulence. The varied pattern of veining in marble helps hide small stains, keeping your counters looking good longer. It’s softer and therefore easier to shape than many common countertop stones, making it a good choice if want a counter with decorative edges.

Cons: Because this stone is more porous than granite, it’s more susceptible to stains.

Costs: $40 to $100 per square foot.

Soapstone

Pros: For stone counters that create a soothing, homey warmth, soapstone is an excellent choice. This stone comes in a range of gray shades from nearly white to dark charcoal gray. The light veining gives each slab a unique look. Soapstone resists stains and, because it’s not as brittle as granite and marble, it’s less prone to cracking. As a plus, soapstone is also non-porous, so it doesn’t absorb liquids and doesn’t allow bacteria to build up.

Cons: You won’t need to seal it, but you will need to apply mineral oil regularly to maintain the counter’s shine and color, and tone down any scratches.

Cost: $40 to $70 per square foot.

Travertine

Pros: Although more often used in flooring, travertine is also an option for elegant countertops. Found in warm, earthy colors such as cream, beige, and walnut, this stone has a subdued Old World air that’s particularly well suited to Mediterranean decor schemes.

Cons: On the downside, travertine countertops need a lot of attention. Travertine is prone to staining and etching, sensitive to heat, and requires gentle cleaning and yearly sealing. Sealing is particularly important due to the stone’s pitted surface which can collect grime and bacteria if not sealed.

Cost: $25 to $50 per square foot.

Engineered Quartz

If you love the look of natural stone, but not the high price, consider engineered quartz. This material is manufactured from around 90 percent ground natural quartz and 10 percent plastic resins and pigments, then formed into slabs. The exact contents vary by manufacturer. You’ll find it in a wide range of colors and patterns, including white, marble, and granite.

Pros: While engineered quartz has all the beauty of quarried stone, it’s far less fussy about maintenance. It’s resistant to scratching, impact, and stains from acids and oils. The non-porous surface doesn’t require sealing, unlike natural stone.

Cons: Engineered quartz isn’t as resistant to heat as many stones, so you’ll need to use care with hot pans. The contemporary appearance of this material can look out of place in a traditional or antique-style kitchen.

Cost: $40 to $55 per square foot.

Budget-Friendly and Low-Maintenance

Solid Surface Countertop with Inlay
© B-DIZZY / Fotolia

Stone might be a classic, but not everyone wants to deal with the relatively high maintenance requirements. What’s more, stone doesn’t fit every style of home interior. If stone doesn’t give you what you’re looking for in a countertop material, there are plenty of other options.

Tile

Pros: Looking for a countertop material that offers a time-honored beauty, versatility, and ease of maintenance? Ceramic or stone tiles might be your best choice. This material works especially well in rustic kitchen designs or if you’re going for a classic 1970s or ’80s look.

With so many sizes, colors, and textures of tile available and the ability to mix and match, tile makes it easy to create a unique design for your kitchen or bathroom counters. If you’re handy with basic home improvement jobs, you can tile your countertops in just a few days.

Cons: Ceramic tile is resistant to stains and heat, but prone to cracking. While it’s easy to remove a cracked tile, you might have a hard time finding a perfect match to replace it with. To avert this problem, keep a few leftover tiles in storage after your tiling job is done. You’ll also need to clean the grout joints regularly and seal them yearly to keep them free of food debris and grime.

Cost: $4 to $8 per square foot.

Laminate

Pros: Laminate enjoyed a long period of popularity from the 1950s through the 70s, and although it fell out of favor for a time, it’s seeing renewed attention thanks to new designs that mimic the look of natural stone and wood. That makes laminate the ideal choice if you want to stay true to your home’s mid-century modern design, but it can work just as well in a traditional, country farmhouse, or minimalist home.

Laminate is budget friendly and, for the price, durable enough for a family kitchen. It stands up to heat and resists staining, but it’s relatively easily scratched. This material is more environmentally friendly than you might think. It’s made primarily of paper covered with a thin protective layer of melamine resin.

Cost: $25 to $35 per square foot.

Acrylic

Pros: Also known as solid surface countertops or by brand names such as Corian, Formica, and Avonite, these counters consist of a thick piece of acrylic over a layer of particle board or plywood. They’re stain and scratch resistant, and easy to clean. The high-gloss finish lends a modern air to the room. Although similar to laminate in appearance, acrylic is more durable.

Cons: This material can sustain cuts and burns, but those are relatively easy to repair. Despite the color options available, some find the plastic appearance of this material too artificial for their tastes.

Cost: $40 to $80 per square foot.

Paper Composite

Pros: Paper might not seem like the best countertop surface, but this material is a lot tougher than it sounds. Paper composite countertops are made of paper or wood fibers, natural pigments, and non-petroleum-based resins baked into sheets. The end result looks and feels similar to stone.

They’re stain and damage resistant, and easy to clean, but develop a patina with age. Prices run in the low to mid-range compared to other countertop options, but because the material is light and easy to handle, it’s relatively easy for a DIY enthusiast to install, which can reduce your labor costs.

Cons: Due to the resins used, these countertops are available primarily in a range of dark matte shades that will darken more over time. That said, some manufacturers also produce lighter wood tones.

Cost: $40 to $110 per square foot.

Butcher Block

Pros: Butcher block is composed of small, narrow lengths of wood glued together and is the most common material for wood countertops. It creates a sturdy, durable surface that can take a lot of hard use. It’s more heat resistant than most other lower-cost countertop material. The look of natural wood is ideal for country cottage-style kitchens.

Cons: These counters must be sealed correctly and regularly, or they’re likely to sustain water damage.

Cost: $40 to $60 per square foot.

Modern and Minimalist: Metal, Glass, and Concrete

Young Woman Cooking on Stainless Steel Countertops
© ADDICTIVE STOCK / Fotolia

Some countertop materials let you achieve the smooth, gleaming finish that’s ideally suited to streamlined modern kitchen and bath designs. These tough, low-maintenance materials can also be found with more subdued finishes for traditional decor styles.

Stainless Steel

Pros: Nothing will give your kitchen that sleek, modern professional look quite like stainless steel counters. This silver gray metal coordinates well with any color palette. It’s also one of the easiest materials to clean.

Cons: While these countertops start off bright and shiny, they quickly develop a patina and pick up scratches and even dents. The industrial look of stainless steel doesn’t appeal to everyone and the noise these counters make when you’re moving pots and pans around on them can be off-putting.

Cost: $60 to $100 per square foot.

Copper

Pros: Copper’s eye-catching look will make the counter the jewel of the room. It creates a warm, homey ambiance and is perfect for getting that rustic cottage look, but it also fits in with modern and industrial decor schemes. Its natural anti-microbial properties help keep the kitchen cleaner.

Cons: With use, a copper countertop develops a patina and picks up scratches and dents. Some see this as added character, but if you prefer your counters to look pristine, copper’s not your best option.

Cost: $90 to $140 per square foot.

Zinc

Pros: Relatively uncommon as a countertop material, zinc will give your kitchen a striking look that stands out from the ordinary. It has a modern, streamlined appearance similar to stainless steel, but its warmer tones make it feel less austere.

Cons: The silvery-gray surface of a new zinc countertop will darken to a blue-gray patina over time. Zinc is relatively soft and sensitive to heat, so you’ll need to treat it gently to keep it looking good.

Cost: $150 to $200 per square foot.

Glass

Pros: Glass combines a modern minimalist appearance with a natural, traditional feel. Naturally non-porous, it’s easy to keep clean. It won’t be damaged by heat, and it’s unlikely to stain. Choose from solid glass for a classic look or crushed glass to give your kitchen or bathroom a colorful, artistic flair.

Cons: Keeping these countertops clean isn’t hard, but you’ll need to wipe them down frequently if you prefer them to look spotless. Although durable, glass can still be scratched and chipped with heavy use. Glass countertops are difficult to repair if severely damaged and will most likely have to be replaced.

Cost: $60 to $100 per square foot.

Concrete

Pros: Far from the drab concrete of your neighborhood sidewalks, concrete countertops can be found in a range of fashionable colors as well as in decorative designs embedded with tile, stone, glass, or even seashells. As you might expect, these counters are exceptionally durable. They won’t scratch, dent or be damaged by heat.

Cons: The main weakness of concrete is its susceptibility to staining from acidic and oily foods and drinks. Correct, regular sealing every one to three years is essential to maintain the counter’s non-porous surface, which keeps it looking good and prevents bacteria buildup.

Cost: $15 to $120 per square foot.

With so many countertop materials and designs available, you can find one that perfectly fits your style of interior, whether it’s sleek modern minimalism or homey country charm.

If you’re prepared to pay between $30 to $60 per square foot, you’ll have a wide range of countertop materials to choose from. As you weigh your options, also consider the durability and maintenance requirements of each material, as well as the installation costs.

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