Kitchen countertops are hard-working surfaces that more or less act as the kitchen's 'workbench'. However any functional similarity with their garage counterparts ends when you consider the wide range of material choices that are available.
There's probably no other product in the house, other than flooring perhaps, that's available in such a wide assortment of materials and styles.
But that wasn't always the case. Years ago you had only a few choices for countertop surfaces. That's all changed because today you have a vast array of materials to suit your style and taste. Products range anywhere from glass to stone and recycled paper to concrete.
Don't forget that your counters present a pretty large surface area too and as such, give you a large palette on which to influence the décor of your kitchen overall. The key is matching a material and style you like to the kind of lifestyle you live.
In other words, good looks are important but don't make choices at the expense of durability. Some surfaces are better than others at standing up to the rigors of the kitchen (and some kitchen environments are harsher than others).
The best choice is one that will meet your performance expectations, offers great aesthetics and leaves some money in the bank account.
So where do you begin? Let's first start out by doing a little self-assessment on what your expectations are. From there you can check out what's available and the highs and lows of each material to help determine which option might be a good fit.
Choosing your countertops is one of the fun parts of a designing your kitchen. But before letting emotion completely take over, identify or write down your goals on what it is you want to achieve with your new kitchen or remodel. This will help you identify specific types that fit your objectives.
Despite the wide range of choices available, each has their own distinct advantages and disadvantages. Take time to ask yourself the following questions to help focus in on a short list of options:
Once you've put some thought into these questions you should be better equipped to sort through the various choices available to you and narrow down your options. But before you do that here are a few more points to keep in mind before you make your ultimate decision:
Sensa Granite by Cosentino - Photo Courtesy of Cosentino
So here are your choices for countertop surfaces. Take some time to get familiar with them, dream a little, and then take a look at the pros/cons to get a better feel for whether they fit your requirements.
Keep in mind that the choices listed here are primarily categories. Within each category there are various brands and products that are available. For example, there are multiple solid surface manufacturers, each with their own design formulas, styles and innovations.
Any product types that show up as blue hyperlinks will link to another page on this site that goes into more depth.
Well known by trade names such as Formica®, laminate countertops have stood the test of time. New innovations make for a broad range of colors and patterns and more recently, the addition of textures.
Almost limitless range of colors/patterns
Edges and seams visible (on many varieties but not all)
Not heat tolerant
Can scratch and chip
Chips not easily repaired and repairs (such as colored pastes) are still visible after repair
Solid surface is basically a plastic but that's where the blandness ends. Many styles and colors are available and the seamless characteristics work well for expansive countertops and integral sinks.
Renewable (cuts and scratches can be blended out)
Allows for the use of integrated sinks (no visible seams between sink and countertop)
No visible seams which is advantageous on large countertop designs
Many patterns and colors available, some which (try to) resemble natural stone
Softer and easier to scratch than stone or other harder surfaces
Not heat resistant
Relatively higher cost among the countertop surfaces
Requires professional fabrication/installation in most cases including repairs
Glossier surfaces can dull over time from scuffs and small scratches
Granite, slate, soapstone, marble, gemstone, the list goes on. Natural stone has an inherent beauty but there is some maintenance involved in keeping it 'healthy', depending on the type of stone you buy. Stone countertops are sometimes perceived to be expensive and in some cases this can be true. But there are types of granite that can be had for very affordable prices.
Natural beauty that's not really duplicated with man-made products
Lasts virtually forever if maintained
More heat tolerant than other countertop surfaces
Some stone requires maintenance such as sealing to prevent stains
Porous - some granites and marble can stain without proper protection
Can chip and crack
Can be expensive depending on the stone type, color, and rarity however some granites have become very affordable due to more cost effective processing techniques
Speculation exists about radon emissions from some types of granite (see this article for more information)
Engineered stone combines the properties and benefits of real stone (beauty, hardness, durability) with other ingredients to make a product that eliminates the Achilles' heel of stone, which is mainly it's porosity and maintenance requirements. Quartz countertops make up a large part of the engineered stone category though there are other types of stone that are used. Some of the colors and patterns do a pretty good job mimicking the look of natural stone.
The look mimics some granite and other natural stone
Durable as stone but non-porous and stain resistant so it doesn't require sealing
Can be offered in colors not found with natural stone
Can be expensive and/or on par with some natural stone prices depending on color choice and edge profiles
Not completely immune to scratching (due to the softer resin binder that holds the stone matrix together)
Wood countertops no longer mean just butcherblock countertops. There are plenty of style options involving wood species and edge treatments and even the option of using reclaimed wood for those who want an eco-friendly countertop. There are lots of wood countertop sources too so finding a supplier shouldn't be a problem. There is some maintenance involved to keep them looking good however so it's worth investigating further to know if it's right for your kitchen.
Unique aesthetic appeal
Offers a warmer surface than stone or engineered stone
Butcher block style provides good cutting surface
Requires sealing and periodic resealing depending on the application
Susceptible to water damage if not properly treated/sealed
Generally a softer material and can dent and will scratch and show cut marks
Photo Courtesy of Totally Bamboo
Bamboo is a versatile material that's well-suited for countertops, flooring, cabinets and a host of other products. One of it's best attributes is the fact that it's a green material so if you're looking for ways to introduce eco-friendly products into your kitchen, bamboo countertops are an excellent choice.
Made from an eco-friendly and sustainable resource
Distinctive look - not everyone has this kind of c'top
Hard and durable surface
Like wood, it's renewable (scratches can be sanded out)
Needs more care (surface sealing) in wet areas
Limited number of color shades and styles
May not be as widely available as other c'top products in your local area
Stainless steel is probably the more widely known type of metal counter but if that's too clinical for you, picture your kitchen countertops in the rich color of copper, which gain a unique patina over time. Or consider the interesting gray pallet of pewter countertops.
Non-porous and sanitary, particularly stainless steel
Offers a unique look
Different metals offer different colors and decorating options
Can scratch depending on the metal used
Prone to denting if objects are dropped on it
Some metals like copper require sealing if you don't want them to change color over time
Photo Courtesy of The Slab Lab
Concrete counters offer endless design options since they're fabricated to your specifications, either right in your home or in a design studio and then shipped to your kitchen. Concrete offers a smooth surface in just about any color along with a stoutness that embodies solidity.
Can be made to any shape/style and color
Can incorporate inlaid decorative items/patterns or useful implements such as trivets
Possible to fabricate yourself (instructional materials are available)
May develop natural hairline cracks (characteristic of the material)
Can be chipped
Heavy - requires sturdy cabinetry/support structure
Not as widely available depending on location but fabricators are becoming more prevalent and some specialty fabricators ship worldwide
Composite & Recycled
Composite and recycled countertops deliver some interesting alternatives for countertop surfaces. Some are made from recycled paper combined with resins to form a surface that's hard yet warmer than stone. Other choices include recycled glass countertops that use crushed glass and porcelain mixed with resins or cement. The result is a durable but distinctive terrazzo-like surface. The eco-friendly nature of these choices may also give you the satisfaction of having helped the environment.
Offers a look similar to some natural stone depending on color (some black paper-based products resemble slate)
'Green' qualities - made from recycled and earth-friendly materials/techniques
Offers a warmer surface to the touch than stone or engineered stone or glass
Some color change or fading may occur depending on product and use
Still somewhat new in the marketplace (relative to other well-established materials) so their long-term durability is unknown
May not be as widely available in your area as other types of c'top materials
Photo Courtesy of Pyrolave USA - www.pyrolave.com
Lava stone is volcanic lava that's hardened to a stone-like consistency. It's processed similarly to natural stone in that it's extracted, cut and shaped into slabs. The difference however is that lava stone is glazed with a hard enamel coating that makes the surface similar to tile. You get the benefits of that kind of smooth, durable surface that's easy to maintain except you don't have any grout lines to deal with like you would with a tile countertop. It falls in the more expensive range of countertop materials but you get a unique and durable surface for your money.
Offers a unique look; not a common surfacing material
Enameled lava stone has similar properties to tile (heat, scratch and stain resistant, non-porous) making it a very durable surface
Bright and unique (for countertop choices) color range available
Typically more expensive than most other ctop materials, save for some exotic stone
Not as readily available as other countertop choices - essentially one source (Pyrolave) with limited studios (suppliers) around the world
Tile's another choice that's been available for years but you're not limited to just the basic 4-inch squares anymore. Natural stone tiles like granite are available and come in large sizes which means you could have a granite countertop with just a few grout lines for less cost than a granite slab.
Durable; heat tolerant, scratch and stain resistant
Endless variety of styles and colors available
Can be very cost efficient depending on the type of tile chosen
Larger natural stone tile such as granite can be used to provide a more affordable granite kitchen countertop compared to a solid slab
Can be bothersome to wipe clean because of the interruptions in the surface from the grout lines
Grout can stain and discolor over time
Natural stone tiles may need period sealing to keep them stain resistant
Porcelain Slab & Ultra Compact Surfacing
Photo of Neolith Courtesy of THESIZE
One of the newer materials to join the parade of countertop surfaces includes large porcelain slabs and ultra compact surfaces. If you're familiar with porcelain tile then you're familiar with porcelain slab to some extent. What's different, beyond just size, is the technology that's behind this new class of porcelain surfacing. It's thin yet strong and offers a sleek look with extreme durability. It evolved from the same surfaces that are designed to be walked on or clad the exteriors of buildings. In short, it redefines durability.
Compact surfaces are similar to porcelain slabs in that they share similar properties and benefits. They're produced using a process called "sintering" that creates a very dense, very strong material. The compaction that occurs during the manufacturing process makes these surfaces non-porous and impervious.
Benefits of surfaces like stone and quartz without the drawbacks of porosity, staining, and other limitations of those materials
Very durable surfaces; non-porous, highly resistant to physical damage like scratching and cracking
Very heat resistant; some products can integrate induction cooking features right into the material
Tolerant to all temperature extremes making these surfaces good for outdoor kitchens
Some products have "full body" construction meaning their color goes through the material
Product sizes large enough to cover kitchen islands and large areas similar to natural stone slabs
Availability in North America is limited until market reach broadens
Requires skilled trades and proper equipment for fabrication/installation
Availability of experienced installers familiar with these products may be limited
Cost is generally in the mid to high-end range for countertop surfacing; can be expensive depending on the specific product
Photo Courtesy of ThinkGlass
Glass countertops offer a sleek, modern style that's unique and usually custom-designed so there's little worry of having a kitchen just like everyone else. There's a world of choices in textures, styles and colors so there's virtually no limit to the level of distinction you can put in your kitchen. Glass countertop sources include architectural glass fabricators and glass art studios so there's bound to be a design that's right for you. Glass countertops are sturdy enough to stand up to their role but you'll still want to be sure you avoid dropping something large and heavy on them. They will scratch and they're not immune to cracks or breaks.
Heat tolerant and stain resistant
Wide range of styles, colors and textures available offering a unique style choice
Eco-friendly when using recycled glass
Hygienic, non-porous surface that's easy to clean and won't harbor germs/bacteria
Custom-made product - styles are limited only by the capabilities and features offered by the fabricator
Cost can be high depending on the style and characteristics of the countertop design
May show fingerprints and water spots more easily than other countertop surfaces (primarily smooth-surfaced glass)
Typically strong but not immune to cracks or fractures if objects are dropped on it
Acidic substances can etch and mar the glass surface
Before I show too much favor I'll just cop out and admit that I don't have one single kitchen countertop preference. But in my own defense, here's the reason: it really does depend on what style you're looking for, the type of duty your kitchen countertops will see and of course, the size of your pocketbook. So different products satisfy different needs.
I'll go with my top 3 choices and the reasons why.
I'm a maintenance-oriented guy so the concept of periodically sealing a granite countertop is no big deal. Somehow the natural but rugged qualities of stone resonate with something inside of me that wants it real. Sure, my house provides me with shelter from the outside, but somehow I still want some connection to the earth we live on.
It's a perfect marriage between nature and man's brainpower. The natural quartz crystals bound up in the resin matrix add a depth and translucence that you see with some stones like granite. But the fact that it's virtually non-porous eliminates the need for sealing and the worries of staining. Pretty nifty idea.
Those are my picks but what are your favorites? If you're on the fence and want some more information like price quotes from local sources, enter your zip code in the box to the left.
You'll be contacted by countertop specialists in your area who can give you a free estimate on a particular type of countertop you might be interested in. There's no commitment or obligation so don't worry about feeling locked in.
Here's to finding your perfect countertop surface.