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Choosing kitchen countertops

Cait Braeden is a freelance writer from California, who considers herself a Jill of all trades... and mistress of none.

Counter intelligence

Did you know when you go to sell your home, you may be able to recoup upwards of 80 percent of the cost of a major kitchen remodel? That's not to mention the fact that well-done improvements increases your home's curb appeal, making it more likely to sell -- and sell quickly. But, best of all, gorgeous kitchen countertops can transform the room from "just a place to cook" into a wonderful place to live.

Kitchen cabinets and countertops

When choosing what countertops to put on top of your kitchen cabinetry, there are many things to consider. Here's where you can begin:
Polished slab granite countertops and island

Countertops for cooking

In order to get the most out of the countertops that you select, consider the following questions first. Do you cook every day? Do you cook once in a while when you cannot avoid it? Are you the type of chef who likes to place hot pots on the countertop without the benefit of a hot plate or thermal barrier? Do you use a lot of heavy duty cookware that may scratch unprotected surfaces?

>> Are your kitchen counters hazardous to your health?

You will need to take all of these things into account when selecting the type of countertop that you want for your kitchen. For example, engineered stone and granite provide excellent scratch-and heat-resistant surfaces.

Countertops for baking

If you are a baker, then you may want to consider some of the above considerations as well. Do you need a surface that can resist the heat of tray after tray of deliciously warm cookies? Perhaps you will also need a stain-resistant countertop for all of the food colorings that you might be using in your cake and cookie decorating endeavors. In this case, consider manufactured stone or stainless steel surfaces, both of which provide excellent heat- and stain-resistance.

>> Tips for better baking

Marble is a favorite surface for rolling dough, but is prone to staining, cracking and chipping. If this is something you'd really like in your kitchen, perhaps you could have a special section of that kind of countertop embedded in another material.

Counters for entertaining

If you entertain a lot, then you should consider durability along with visual and aesthetic appeal. Entertaining your guests necessitates a lot of wear and tear on the kitchen countertops in most cases -- in fact, not everyone will be as careful of your countertops as you will be.

Here are a few things to consider:

Juparana granite countertopsDecorative countertops

If your kitchen is more of a gathering place and less of a central cooking or baking station, then you may place more emphasis on the decorative aspect of your countertops. You may be more concerned with issues seam visibility more than those of, say, heat resistance.

If that is the case, then you may want to consider any of the following all of which provide excellent lack of seam visibility: engineered stone, stainless steel, butcher block or laminated surfaces.

>> Maintaining stainless steel surfaces

Countertop options & pricing

Even if you have a limited budget, you can still have attractive kitchen countertops. Modern technology has advanced to such a degree that there are a wealth of affordable options. However, for the least expensive selections, you may want to consider butcher block, tile or laminated surfaces.

Laminate you say? Really -- today's Formica is more durable than that material of yesteryear, and is available in a wide range of colors, patterns and finishes. You might be surprised!

One of the newest countertop materials out there is made out of paper combined with resin and then baked. Richlite is a solid surface (the same material runs all the way through) and is heat resistant up to 350 degrees F. It's also considered environmentally-friendly, as the raw material used in its manufacture is derived from renewable or recycled resources. The end result is a tough surface that isn't cold like stone or many other solid-surface materials.

On the other hand, if there's no upper ceiling on how much you can spend, you have a world of options -- literally. For instance, there's Blue Bahia granite, found only in the mountains of Brazil; Pyrolave Enamelled Volvic Lava from French volcanoes; granite with fossilized shells embedded throughout; or, from India, Emerald Green Soapstone.

If you want the look of granite or marble countertops but can't afford slab, tile (usually 12x12") is a much more affordable option. Natural stone countertops are usually laid without groutlines, and the tiles are allowed to touch ("butted"). This makes the countertop easier to clean and also creates a more slab-like look.

So with everything from natural products (limestone, granite, marble) to those that have been manufactured (concrete, stainless steel, engineered stone), your options are plentiful. Or mix and match!

You can even hire a professional contractor for a special custom design for the countertops themselves, or a backsplash behind the stove.

Maintenance issues

Engineered stone, stainless steel and granite are probably the easiest surfaces in terms of upkeep. They are extremely durable, provide both heat and scratch resistance, and are relatively stain-resistant.
Marble, however, is more porous than granite and, as such, is pretty high-maintenance. Even when sealed, it is easily stained by tomato sauce, coffee and wine, is prone to scratching, while hot pans may cause scorch marks. With regular use, it is also susceptible to cracks and chips.

>> How to quickly get rid of sticky countertop stains

Choosing granite, marble or limestone

Natural stone for countertops typically comes in two finishes: polished (shiny) and honed (matte or satin). Polished stone is more popular and usually easier to clean.

As a natural stone, granite slabs -- even those with the same name and mined from the same quarry -- may have variations in color and veining. There may also be some minor geological flaws (voids) which usually will be filled prior to sale. Unless the voids are extensive, don't consider this granite to be damaged. Instead, think of each piece of granite to be an individual piece of art.

If you go to a slab yard to choose your granite or marble, be sure to sign your initials on the back of the slab you select and be sure it is marked as "sold." (This is particularly true if you are buying two or more slabs from the same piece of stone, because you will want the pieces to match.) Sometimes slab sellers will deliver the wrong piece, sell your slab or -- in the case of less-reputable dealers -- switch out the premium slab you selected with a piece of lesser quality or a different striation pattern.

>> More tips & info on types of countertops

Installation considerations

If you are concerned with the amount of time needed to complete the job, laminate, engineered stone for resurfacing, butcher block, and tile offer the shortest installation times in most situations. Other variables may come into play such as availability of materials and unforeseen complications.

Replacing countertops

If you're replacing your old laminate or ceramic tile countertops with stone, you need to be sure that your cabinetry can support the additional weight. (Slabs range in weight from about 13 to 18 pounds per square foot, depending on the thickness of the material.)

Warranty concerns

Particularly when you're dealing with natural stone -- because of inherent variations in color, shading and texture -- material warranties are not particularly generous. Manufactured "stone" and other solid surfacing (Silestone, Corian) offer more comprehensive guarantees.

Don't rush to buy

Countertops are a major purchase for any home, and make a difference to both your enjoyment of the kitchen and your home's resale value. Be sure to remember that when it comes to home improvement (among many other things in life), there is no "one size fits all." Take the time to find the perfect combination of decorative and functional, and you'll take pleasure in your kitchen for years to come.

Read more about remodeling and improving your home:

 

Do it yourself!

>> Get DIY tips, tricks and techniques to make your home better than ever!


 

All photographs courtesy Steve Price, BeautifulRemodel.com

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