Countertops are expected to look great day in and day out for a decade or more, and remain fashion forward enough to appeal to changing tastes in home design through many seasons.
Your kitchen countertops are among the hardest working surfaces in your home: they're exposed to high temperatures, potentially damaging substances like high acid lemon juice or wine, and food ingredients that can stain, like mustard. They're also on the front line for food prep where they're repeatedly whacked with meat mallets, scored with knives, and otherwise used and abused. They're expected to do more than survive the onslaught, too.
Not every countertop material sold on the market is up to the task. Actually, no countertop available today is impervious to all types of damage. There are, however, some that are great at withstanding assaults from different threats, like, say, surviving the impact of a 32-ounce can falling from the pantry or absorbing the heat from a stove-hot pot.
The following list of popular residential countertops will give you a good idea of what's out there, together with a sense of how the material stacks up to everyday use.
When you want luxury and durability, stone sounds like a great bet... but there are some important exceptions when it comes to stone countertop products.
Granite - A natural material that will update your kitchen and add cachet to your interior decor, granite stands up to heavy use with excellent resistance to heat and cutting. It fares less well against inadvertent impacts, where it can chip or crack, and most granite has to be sealed regularly.
Newer granite countertops may only need to be resealed once a decade, but there are still granite products around that will need a refresher once a year if you don't want that spilled tropical punch to result in a permanent stain. According to a recent evaluation by Consumer Reports, granite countertops are available in a pretty wide price range, from $45 to $200 a square foot. Shop for your deal and stick to neutral colors.
Limestone - On the plus side, limestone is heat resistant, but it's also a soft stone that's easily nicked and scratched. There's more bad news: limestone is very porous, which means that it's liable to stain over time. It does have minimal veining that creates a nice looking countertop, but with significant disadvantages. At prices from $60 to $100 per square foot, limestone is a pricy option when you consider the drawbacks.
Marble - Although beautiful, marble is one of the least durable stones you can use in your interior design. It's liable to stress fractures and it's easily scratched. It also will begin to deteriorate when exposed to acidic substances like lemon juice or vinegar. It is somewhat heat tolerant, but not enough to make it a no-fuss choice near a stove or grill. Think of marble as strictly decorative (and it can be lusciously decorative), and keep it in low traffic areas like guest bathrooms, or light use areas like bake stations.
Quartz is one of the hardest minerals in nature. Countertops made from it are very strong and durable. Quartz countertops aren't solid stone, though. They're a manufactured composite made up of quartz embedded in a hard drying epoxy. The resulting material looks like stone and wears better than any other countertop material on the market. Engineered stone products get top marks for scratch resistance, heat resistance, and easy maintenance. You can find engineered quartz like the Silestone quartz countertops available at Home Depot stores for between $50 and $100 per square foot.
Currently touted as an eco-friendly choice for kitchen design, concrete countertops are gaining in popularity. They offer lots of options for dyeing and texturing. They have to be sealed periodically to keep them from staining, though, and they are susceptible to chipping and cracking. Coming in at $80 to $120 per square foot, concrete is a high-end choice with unique appeal.
Tile is a classic countertop material that lends itself to lots of design styles. From a ruggedness standpoint, it's a mixed bag. Tile is heat and mar resistant, but it's prone to chipping and cracking. Discolored and deteriorating grout can cause difficulties, too. You can avoid some of these problems by sticking with quality ceramic and porcelain tile manufactured for heavy duty use and opting for a narrow-grout tile design, or a layout that uses dark instead of light grout.
One growing trend is to tile over an existing laminate countertop to give a kitchen a fast makeover. It's a low cost option that can work for enterprising DIY-ers with tiling experience.
Solid surface synthetics
Acrylic countertops blend functionality with an attractive appearance. They can look like stone, but for a price that's just a bit higher than a high end laminate. If a solid synthetic surface is upbraided or scratched, it can be re-polished. Unlike a laminate that has a thin surface "finished" layer, solid surface countertops have a continuous thickness that can be buffed and resurfaced as needed. Look for brands like Samsung Staron and Corian, and expect to pay $35 to $100 a square foot.
Easy to install and available in lots of colors and patterns, laminate is a versatile and budget friendly countertop choice. It has other advantages, too. You can find seamless designs nowadays that look great, and laminate countertops are heat and scratch resistant. Going for between $10 and $30 a square foot, they're worth a look if you're counting your pennies.
If you want to walk on the wild side, there are lots of options for countertops you may not have considered. They aren't for everyone, and some of them can get pricy, but if you like to be on the leading edge of design and enjoy the idea of having your kitchen sport extraordinary elements you don't see just anywhere, consider:
Stainless steel - For a modern kitchen, stainless steel is easy to clean, stain resistant, and heat tolerant. It can also be fabricated without seams, which creates a slick, finished appearance. Expect to pay $100 to $150 a square foot for it, though.
Butcher block - You probably don't need to hear about the potential problems of wooden countertops, but in a small area, like on a baking prep counter, butcher block can be a convenient and charming countertop choice.
Specialty stone - With a protective top coat, many types of stone can be used in countertop design like lava rock, serpentine, and even turquoise. However, before you fall in love with a specialty stone product (such as Caesarstone's Concetto, which we checked out here), determine its hardness and porosity -- that will give you a heads up about how durable it's likely to be.
San Francisco interior designer Kristi Witt says that you should also consider sustainably-made, eco-friendly products such as Vetrazzo. "Vetrazzo is 85% glass, it is highly durable and all the glass used is recycled, making it an excellent choice that is good for the environment." She also suggests another option: Bamboo. "End-grain bamboo, another great surface, utilizes the strength and durability of bamboo and adds to that by stacking bamboo pieces, adhering them and then cutting slices of the end-grain."
Armed with an idea of how durable and expensive your countertop choice is, you can proceed to evaluate some of the decorative elements beyond color and texture, like choosing an edge style (Rounded [bullnose], S-shaped and slanted are the most popular), and deciding on the look and construction of your backsplash.
How to care for marble countertops
Marble countertops look beautiful in any style kitchen or bathroom. To help you make the most of your money, Meghan Carter visits Vermont Marble Museum to discover how to select the right marble countertops for you, and how to protect them for staining.