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Choosing Stone Countertops

All Beautiful But Some Better Than Others

Stone countertops offer a natural beauty that's hard to match in the man-made world. No two countertops are exactly the same simply because no two stone slabs are exactly alike. They're the product of nature's randomness and diversity. So if you're looking for a countertop with some individuality, stone may be for you.

There are several types of stone used for countertop surfaces. The key point to keep in mind is that each stone has different characteristics and requires different levels of upkeep. Also remember that just because a certain kind of stone can be made into a countertop, it doesn't mean that it's best suited for a particular location, like the kitchen for example. This is really where you have to stop and consider the pros and cons and decide whether a particular type of stone countertop is the best choice for where you want to install it.

Stone Choices And Their Pros & Cons

Before settling on a type of stone countertop be sure to understand what you should know about choosing stone so that you'll be able to make educated decisions.

That's because there's more to choosing a type of stone than just the visual impact it'll make in your kitchen or bathroom.

Also, each type of stone has its strong points and weak points.  Some people might be fine with the weak points because the aesthetic appeal outweighs the maintenance requirements or the risks associated with that type of stone.

The key is to be educated about the particular type of stone you're interested in so that you're ultimately satisfied with the end result, as well as the long term performance of the stone.


Note - the pictures associated with each type of stone below are only show as a representative sample. For each type of stone (particularly granite and marble) there may be color and pattern variations different than what's shown.

These are your choices for the types of stone countertops that are available:

Granite
Marble
Slate
Soapstone
Limestone

Granite

granite


Granite countertops are perhaps the most common and widely used stone countertop surface. There was a time when they were found only in high-end kitchens and were among the higher-priced countertop surfaces.

Thankfully, things have changed and granite has become more affordable. One of the main reasons for this is because of improvements in the processing technology necessary to extract, cut, shape and process the granite slabs. As a result the cost of granite countertops has come down and is comparable or in some cases, even cheaper than some of the other countertop surfaces.

Despite this moderation, there are other factors that influence cost and can still cause you to pay more. Some granite varieties or colors are more rare and less prevalent than others and will be more costly than more common varieties.

Granite is an igneous rock which was formed by once-molten material that cooled and hardened. It's primary mineral constituents are quartz, mica and feldspar. Quartz is a particularly hard mineral which makes granite a very hard stone. It won't scratch unless it's scratched by another quartz material or something harder like diamond. Despite its toughness however, it does have an Achilles heel and that's its porosity. Most granites are porous and should be sealed to prevent or minimize stains from dark and/or oily liquids.

While granite overall is a good choice for a stone countertop application, be aware that there is variability among granites themselves. Some granites may contain calcite, a mineral that's typically found in marble and limestone and is vulnerable to acids. The porosity can vary as well, with some stones being very porous while others are almost impervious to liquids.

Granite is quarried and brought to market in slabs for the production of surfacing products like countertops.

The dimensions of the slabs can vary somewhat so if your countertop design has long runs or you have a particularly large island, you'll want to find larger slabs.  That will help minimize or eliminate any seams.  Seams are typically filled with a silicone caulk.

Granite countertops and any stone countertop for that matter is best purchased through a local distributor and fabricator. That usually allows you to browse and choose the slab that your countertop will be made from as well as getting to know the fabricator and their capabilities.

Publisher's Comments

One thing to be aware of regarding granite countertops is that some varieties are suspected of contributing to radon emissions within the home. You can learn more about this issue by reading this article.

Pros Cons

Very hard surface - won't be scratched by knives

Good choice of stone from a maintenance and durability perspective

Wide range of colors and patterns available

Cost-competitive relative to other stones due to improvements in processing

Widely available

Some granites are porous and need sealing for protection from stains

Dark granites will tend to show fingerprints and watermarks more easily than lighter colors

Brittle - can chip or crack if struck hard enough

More exclusive/rare colors cost more




Marble

marble


Marble is a metamorphic rock, meaning it underwent a "metamorphosis" or change from its original sedimentary form. It is primarily made up of calcite which is a crystalline form of the chemical compound calcium carbonate.  That's just the scientific way of saying that it's the residue from organisms that lived millions of years ago.

The calcite is what makes marble sensitive to acids. This means vinegar, citric juices and any household cleaners of an acidic nature will etch the surface. The etching is essentially a reaction between the acid and the calciferous makeup of the marble.

Because marble can be used as kitchen countertop surface, it doesn't mean it's practical or your best stone countertop choice in that environment . As stated earlier, marble has characteristics that make it vulnerable to etching and damage and your marble countertop is bound to meet up with some of these caustic characters sooner or later. Unless you plan to be very careful with how they're used you might be better off looking at other stone choices or other types of countertop surfaces altogether.

If you still find yourself with a need for marble countertops and nothing else will do, you might consider serpentine, which is a marble-like alternative. It's not a true marble in the strictest geological definition but has the look of marble. It's better suited for the kitchen because it's not affected by acids because it's non-calciferous. It's also harder and more scratch resistant than marble. On the downside, it is more absorbent than marble but you can address that with an appropriate sealer. It's also only available in green.

Pros Cons

Aesthetic appeal and visual characteristics such as veining not found in other stones

Susceptible to damage from acids which is NOT preventable by sealing - may not be practical in a kitchen environment - better in a bathroom

Softer stone - will scratch more easily than granite




Slate

slate


Slate is another metamorphic rock that originated as a sedimentary stone. The variations in the way slate was formed produced a range of qualities that make it more or less appropriate for various uses such as countertops, flooring or roofing, depending on the application.

Some slates are denser than other types of stone and as a result have a lower moisture absorption rate. However among the slates themselves there is variability so some will be more absorbent than others. Slate is on the softer side relative to other stones such as granite so it can scratch.

Opinions on the viability of slate for use as a countertop not surprisingly fall on both sides of the pro/con debate. The key to sorting it out lies in working with a reputable dealer/fabricator, one who particularly has dealt with slate and the problems and issues that you might come up against. Also, obtaining some samples and subjecting them to various forms of punishment will give you a good idea on what you can expect.

Pros Cons

Fits well with period kitchens or more casual decor styles

Some varieties are more dense than others and may not require sealing

Low absorption rate on some grades

Requires sealing depending on the grade of slate

Softer stone - will scratch more easily




Soapstone

soapstone


Soapstone is a very soft stone that has a smooth, warmer texture than other types of stone countertops. Its natural color is a lighter gray and it can include some veining of lighter gray or white.

Soapstone is a very dense stone and does not need to be sealed. In fact, it can't be sealed in the true sense of the word since there's no way the sealer can 'enter' the stone.

Left on its own soapstone will eventually darken over time however the application of a mineral oil can be used to accelerate the darkening and attain a uniform color throughout. Keep in mind though that this process isn't acting as a sealant. Also, be aware that you'll have to re-oil the surface periodically to retain its darkened uniform appearance. The frequency will vary but it could be bothersome particularly if you have a lot of things on your countertops that have to be moved each time you oil it.

Soapstone is easily scratched because it's primary mineral constituent is talc, one of the softest minerals. Soapstone is often used in sculpting because of it's softness and ease of workability.

The type of soapstone used on stone countertops is actually called steatite. It's harder than the sculpting grade of soapstone but it will still scratch. On the positive side, any unwanted scratches can actually be sanded out. Just remember that cutting on the surface isn't the only means of scratching; dragging dishes or a heavy bowl of fruit across the surface can have the same effect.

Soapstone is very heat tolerant so it's not going to flinch if you put a hot pan down on top of it. It's also an inert material which means its not affected by acids or alkali materials.

Among all the types of stone countertops you can choose, soapstone has a beautiful appearance and a luxurious feel.

Pros Cons

Very dense stone - does not require sealing

Smooth, 'soft' texture

Inert stone - unaffected by acids or alkalis

Soft enough that scratches can be sanded out

Very soft - easily scratched and susceptible to dents

Lighter natural color will show oil and water marks unless it's coated with a mineral oil

May require repeated applications of mineral oil to maintain a uniform appearance




Limestone

limestone


Limestone is a sedimentary stone which, like marble, is made up primarily of calcite (calcium carbonate). Consequently, it's vulnerable to acidic materials which are typically prevalent in any kitchen environment. Limestone is also porous and light in color which makes it susceptible to staining. Sealing will help resist staining but won't protect against acid etching.

Like with marble, although there are fabricators of limestone countertops in the marketplace, limestone may not be the best application for a kitchen work surface. Be sure that you're OK with the vulnerabilities of limestone and understand how it will stand up in your home before deciding to purchase it.

Pros Cons

Lighter colors offer a unique look

Susceptible to damage from acids that are NOT preventable by sealing - may not be practical in a kitchen environment

Scratches more easily than harder stones like granite

Not as readily available as other types of stones - fewer suppliers of countertop material although limestone tiles are more readily available




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What Should I Know Before Choosing Stone Countertops?

Probably one of the most frequently-asked questions regarding stone countertops involves the type of care they'll need. Answers run the gamut, depending on who you talk to and whether they're selling you the stone or trying to sell you an alternative countertop material. It basically comes down to this: yes, there will be some care and maintenance involved with stone countertops but it varies based on the type of stone you choose.

To help determine if stone countertops are right for you, consider the following questions. Taking some time to answer them will help you determine if stone countertops are best suited for your kitchen or whether you'd be better off with a different countertop surface.

  1. Do you prefer a 'high-maintenance' or 'low-maintenance' stone countertop surface? (Perhaps the question is better stated as 'are you OK with high-maintenance worktops?. The answer may seem obvious but virtually all stone requires some level of maintenance.  Some stones require more maintenance than others depending on which stone you choose and/or the level of performance you're looking for.
  2. What kind of environment will your stone countertops experience? Will they be in the center of food preparation activity where they'll be exposed to oils, food-related acids and other types of stains or is the stone intended for a less hard-working location?
  3. Do you want a particular look for your kitchen that only a special kind of stone will achieve? Certain stones and stone finishes work well with older or period homes whereas others find a better fit with more contemporary styles of homes and kitchens.
  4. Are you aware of other countertop choices that offer a similar look and feel of stone but better suit your needs? Engineered stone, solid surface or other types of countertop design choices are worth investigating and some offer less maintenance than stone.
  5. Do you have local access to stone distributors so that you can choose the actual stone slab your countertops will be made from? The natural variability and veining that occurs in some stone may not be visible on a small sample. Being able to inspect the slab or slabs that eventually become your countertops will eliminate any surprises.

Choose The Stone That's Right For You

Once you have a good idea what kind of duty your countertops will see as well as understanding how much effort you're willing to expend in maintaining them, it's time to choose. Understanding some basics about stone will help you make a more informed decision and prevent buyer's remorse later on.

  • Porosity
    Stone is porous, meaning it absorbs liquids. Some stones are more porous than others.

    Granite for example is very hard but it is porous. A protective sealant should applied to reduce the risk of staining. Soapstone on the other hand is very dense and doesn't require sealing.

  • Mineral Content
    The minerals that make up the stone determine its qualities and capabilities.

    Quartz and feldspar, two main constituents of granite, are very hard giving granite its hardness and high scratch resistance.

    Soapstone contains the mineral talc which is one of the softest minerals making it soft and easily scratched.

    Calcite, a primary component of marble and limestone, makes them susceptible to damage from many common substances you'll find in a kitchen.

  • Grade of Stone
    Various types of stones are available in different grades which make them suited for different applications depending on the grade.

    Marble is classified by grades A through D, with grade A possessing the best qualities relative to strength. It typically has the fewest inclusions and least amount of veining.

    Slate also has certain grades that make some better for roofing applications and others that are best for countertops.

The point here is that while you don't need to become a geologist to choose stone countertops, it will help to understand some basic information about stone in order to make an educated decision. This understanding may just reinforce your decision to use stone in your kitchen or, it might cause you to think hard and look at other countertop alternatives. The bottom line is that ultimately you want to be satisfied with your purchase, not only from an aesthetic point of view but from a performance-related aspect as well.

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Understand The Maintenance Involved With Stone Countertops

If you do some research on stone you'll probably find conflicting information and opinions regarding how your stone countertops should be cared for. Taking the time to sort through all the information and the perspective of the various sources generally leads you to a point somewhere in the middle that's ultimately dependent on how you want your stone countertops to look and last. In other words, stone requires some care and maintenance.

Expecting stone to remain looking new or free from any blemishes without any maintenance is unrealistic. The longevity, appearance and performance of a stone countertop will depend on the care and treatment it receives which is no different than any other type of surface. The difference with stone is that it requires more care than some other types of countertop materials.

The fact remains that most stone is porous so if you choose granite, and it will see the likes of spilled wine or cooking oil, you should protect it. Otherwise, the stone will stain.

granite countertop

Marble and limestone, because of their makeup, are two of the more delicate stone countertop choices. They will etch if left unprotected and exposed to vinegar, citric juices or other types of acidic liquids. The etching will usually result in a noticeable dulling of the surface finish.

In order to avoid this type of deterioration it makes sense to protect your investment by sealing your countertops. The frequency of re-sealing will depend on the stone type, the amount of use the countertop sees and the cleaning methods you use.

You'll also have to be careful on your choice of cleaning solutions more so than you would with laminate or solid surface countertops. The chemical makeup of the cleaner needs to be compatible with the stone so that you don't end up deteriorating it when you're actually trying to give it proper care. The wrong cleaner can also deteriorate the stone's protective sealer, shortening its life and potentially exposing the stone to the elements you're trying to protect it from.

The best place to get answers and information is to start by asking your stone countertop provider for their recommendations on how to care for the stone. If they don't recommend sealing, be sure to ask why and make sure their reasons are backed up by logical facts.

There are stones that are dense enough, like soapstone and even some granites for example, that don't require sealing. But soapstone will absorb oil and if you don't pre-oil (to achieve a uniform darker color), your light gray counters will show those oil spots. That may be OK with you. But if you don't like that 'lived-in' look, you'll probably want to coat the stone with mineral oil. That may require periodic repeat applications so you'll need to decide if that's something you're willing to sign up for. If your stone sealer requires a cure time, be sure you can live with not being able to use your countertops or have anything on top of them while the sealant cures.

Remember, this is your investment, so make sure that you've satisfied all your questions and concerns before you make a decision and you're aware of what it will take to maintain your stone countertops.


Publisher's Comments - A Recommendation

When it comes to choosing a particular type of stone countertop a good recommendation is to obtain some samples, bring them home, and rough them up. Drop some cooking oil on them, cut on them, spill some red wine, let some ketchup sit on them overnight, use a sealer on one half and not on the other and see what kind of results you get.

If you're planning on stone countertops for your bathroom, treat the samples to the typical "stuff" you keep in the bathroom. Spill some hair spray liquid on them, dribble some nail polish and the remover solution on them and some of that sticky, red or purple cough medicine.

By torturing your samples you'll get a first-hand understanding of how the different types of stone countertops will hold up to the normal substances they'll "see" in their lifetime in your bathroom or kitchen.

Another good test is the moisture absorption test. Put several drops of water on the stone and observe how long it takes for the water to be absorbed. If the water's absorbed within a minute or so, the stone is fairly porous and would benefit from some type of sealant. If the water beads up and remains on the surface, you'll know the stone is dense and may not need sealer and will stand up to spills better than other types of stone countertops.

A twist on the moisture test is to use lemon juice instead of water. Its naturally caustic nature will also tell you if the stone has any properties (like calcites) that are vulnerable to acids.

Let's face it, your stone countertops are going to see all of the above at one time or another, no matter how careful you think you'll be. I prefer not to be paranoid about how I use my countertop workspace and I want easy cleanup. I think that's what most people want. So, understand your stone, what it will stand up to and the ongoing care that's involved. Then once you're OK with that, relax and enjoy your stone countertops.

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Where To Get Stone Countertops

Stone countertops are widely available, offered by big-box home centers, local countertop fabricators and even online retailers. You shop for and choose the stone and the fabricator cuts, polishes and installs it for you.

Small projects, like a bathroom vanity top or a small kitchen can be purchased pre-cut and finished. They can be found both online and at some home centers. The drawback here is that the selection is somewhat limited, both in stone type and colors/patterns.

Custom stone countertops are fabricated and installed per your specifications. After you choose your stone the fabricator will come and measure your countertop area. Who you choose to make and install your stone countertops is really a function of who offers you the right stone at the right price. Or, you might be working with a contractor who uses a particular stone countertop fabricator.

If you'd like help finding stone countertop fabricators in your area you can use the form below. It'll provide you with one or several sources for stone countertops in your local region.

The science of stone and the technology associated with carefully protecting it are broad subjects in and of themselves. If you'd like to do some more on-line research on stone and the care of stone countertops, check out FindStone.com. It's a good source for lots of information about stones, stone care and their application in your home. Their Q & A section is searchable and is where you can find some informative topics. (Note - these links will open a new browser window.)

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Here's More Related Info That Might Be Helpful...

Engineered Stone Countertops - Learn about other types of engineered stone countertops in addition to quartz.

Quartz Countertops - Quartz is a durable and beautiful countertop option. Find out more in this article on what quartz has to offer and how to choose.

Laminate Countertops - There's still a lot to like about them such as durability and low cost.

Solid Surface Countertops - For a seamless look there's no match for solid surface counters.

Wood Countertops - Find out if these warm and beautiful counters are right for you.

Metal Countertops - Whether it's stainless steel, copper or pewter, metal countertops offer a distinctive style choice.

Composite & Recycled Countertops - They might include recycled paper or glass which makes these countertops eco-friendly.

Choosing Kitchen Countertops - Find out what choices you have and their pros and cons.



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