Go shopping for countertops and you might feel overwhelmed by the number of choices. But the truth is that, once you go beyond brand names, there are just a handful of materials.
There is certainly a lot of choice within those materials: hundreds of colors, patterns, and textures, in materials ranging from natural stone and acrylic sheets to quartz composite and exotics like slate and reclaimed wood. But the basic types are relatively few, and it’s easy to sort out which ones are likely candidates for your kitchen or bath remodel. Here’s a look at each type, its pros and cons, the freshest trends, and how to pick the best countertop for you.
How To Narrow Your Choices
To find which countertop materials best suit you, think first about your needs and habits in the kitchen. Do you do lots of food prep directly on the counter surface, for instance? That might rule out soft or porous materials that could show stains or knife marks.
Also consider your kitchen design overall. If you’re set on an undermount sink, that means no laminate counters; they don’t work with the style. In addition to the counter cost, consider your backsplash as well. Contrasting backsplashes work great, but if you want the same material there as the counter, make sure to factor the added square footage into your costs.
This family of countertop materials includes quarried stones like granite, marble, soapstone, and slate.
Granite: once found only in expensive homes, granite is more common today and is one of the most popular materials. They’re sold through local countertop specialists, but also in many home centers and kitchen showrooms. Granite comes in a wide array of colors: vibrant blues and variegated browns, to midnight black, deep red and mottled white.
Pros: no (or low) visible seams, durable surface, heat-resistant
Cons: must be sealed to resist stains, expensive
Marble: This high-end natural stone comes in fewer color patterns than granite, and is also softer. It’s a fantastic work surface for activities like baking or making fresh pasta, but may show knife scars, and take care with acidic foods like citrus.
Pros: durable, striking natural patterns
Cons: high-maintenance, needs repeated sealing, expensive
Soapstone and slate are more exotic materials and each have their upsides and downsides. Soapstone and slate are both non-porous, so they won’t need sealing, but soapstone is soft and may show knife marks, while slate can be brittle, especially at corners. Both come in fewer colors.
An increasingly popular choice, engineered stone is made mostly of quartz, an extremely hard material that needs no sealing. Early versions of engineered stone suffered from a limited color palette and patterns, but modern offerings are much broader. Common brand names include Zodiaq, Silestone, Cambria, and Caesarstone. They’re sold through specialists and home centers.
Pros: Durable, low-maintenance, lots of colors/patterns
One popular trend the past five years is concrete, an extremely hard and durable material that makes a great work surface. It must be professionally installed, but installers can mix a wide range of colors, and even do artistic treatments like embedding glass or other materials. Precast is the preferred choice now, according to Gerry Santora of Chicago-based Soupcan: “Precast molded slabs are extremely flat and very smooth, as compared to hand-troweled finishes. And poured-in-place counters are notorious for curling up at the corners due to uneven curing.”
Pros: won’t scratch, heat-resistant, lots of colors
Cons: expensive, needs sealing
Made from a dense acrylic, polyester, or blend of the two, solid-surface countertops offer low maintenance and a wide variety of color and pattern choices. Seams are fused together to create undetectable joints, which makes solid surface great for large or long sections of countertop. You can also get solid-surface sinks to match. Common brand names include Corian, Gibraltar, and Avonite. A newer, eco-friendly option is Paperstone, created from recycled paper and non-petroleum resins.
Pros: Low-maintenance, non-porous, repairable
Cons: not heat-resistant, will show scratches
Known widely under the brand name Formica, this affordable material was once ubiquitous in American homes. It’s durable and hard-wearing, making it a surprisingly resilient option. Plastic laminate is easily the most affordable countertop material of the bunch, and has the added convenience of being one of the few available as ready-to-install slabs at home centers. Plastic laminate also comes in sheets, typically 2×4 or 4×8 feet, that are cut to fit. If you’re buying laminate to apply to an existing surface, make sure to only buy matte-finish, general purpose laminate. Thinner laminates or ones with a glossier finish aren’t suited to countertop use. Modern laminates have come a long way in the design department, with realistic graphics that can imitate materials like stone.
Pros: Most affordable material, lots of colors
Cons: Can chip or scratch, not heat-resistant
You can use all kinds of tiles to make a countertop, but the most popular are ceramic and stone (it’s a little cheaper than slab stone counters). You get almost limitless color and style choice, but make sure to select only tiles rated for floors and counters. Install it over existing laminate, or fresh plywood topped with cement backerboard. “Never use wall tile on a counter. It’s too thin and will easily crack,” says tile contractor Jimmy Tiganella of Classic Tile in Oakville, CT.
Pros: Affordable, lots of choices, ceramic tile is non-porous
Cons: Regular grout resealing needed
Wood countertops are a great choice for a work surface. In fact, according to a 1993 University of Wisconsin study in which microbiologists intentionally contaminated wooden cutting boards during testing, 99.9 percent of the bacteria introduced died within 3 minutes of exposure to the wood’s surface. The study found that wood cutting boards are safer, bacteria-wise, than plastic ones.
Wood counters are typically made from rock maple–an extremely dense, blond hardwood–but teak, walnut, cherry and oak are also used. There are three styles: edge grain, end grain and wide plank. Edge-grain counters are made of long, thick strips of wood that are glued together with the edge grain facing up. End-grain counters (aka butcher block) have relatively short, square sticks of wood that are joined together with the tough end grain facing up. Wide-plank counters are made by edge-gluing wide boards together. It’s beautiful, but also most susceptible to cracking and warping, if it’s not meticulously maintained.
Pros: warm, ideal work surface, heat resistant
Cons: medium maintenance, will show knife marks
Current Trends in Counters
The improvement in graphics has breathed new life into plastic laminates. Some of these counter surfaces look identical to real stone (but don’t put a hot pan on one!) at a far lower price. Along with Paperstone, another eco-friendly choice is reclaimed wood, although it’s harder to find; you’ll need a specialty installer.
Metals are a newly fashionable choice, with stainless steel providing a sleek-looking, durable work surface, and more exotic choices like zinc and copper for striking visuals.
One other trend to consider is mixing materials and patterns. That could be using a dark granite on the main counters and a contrasting lighter one for a kitchen island. Or it could involve mixing types of countertops: a butcherblock work surface set next to a range, with engineered stone elsewhere.