Choosing a Countertop - On the House

Choosing a Countertop

By on August 25, 2015

In this day and age of high priced construction countertops are getting as hard to choose as plumbing fixtures or light fixtures. There are the solid surface materials such as Corian®, Gibralter ® and Avonite ®. There are plastic laminates from Formica® to Wilsonart®. And don’t forget ceramic tile, porcelain tile, slab and tile granite, concrete, slab and tile marble – and what about stone? How easy it is to become confused by all that’s available.

In a kitchen the countertop has as much to do with the overall appearance as the cabinets do. In some cases – even more! The look of high quality cabinets easily can be cheapened when the countertop is of good quality and has a striking appearance. With a great top, simple, inexpensive cabinets can be made to look more interesting.

In a nutshell– and in order of cost – we can class countertops into six basic categories with the three in most common use listed first (laminates, tile and synthetic solid surface products):

  • Plastic laminate tops (Formica® or Wilsonart®)
  • Ceramic or Porcelain Tile
  • Solid Surface Countertops
  • Marble, Granite and Stone Tile
  • Concrete Slab (poured in place)
  • Slab Marble or Granite

Plastic laminate has been around since the beginning of modern kitchens. We actually saw it made once. Several layers of resin-coated paper are sandwiched together (and held under heat and pressure) to form what we think of as Formica ®. Plastic laminate tops come in more colors and textures than Carter has little liver pills. If you can think of a color or style it probably already exists in plastic laminate. The latest rage is having your plastic laminate custom designed to your own color, texture and style. What a country! Be prepared to spend a few bucks on this one. With standard plastic laminate tops the color is in the final layer. When it is applied at corners you see the resin coated layers of paper as a black line. With higher quality plastic laminate ALL layers of the material are colored – not just the final one. When this material is applied to a corner there is no black line. An entire laminate counter can be installed for somewhere between $600 and $1,800 for most kitchens.

There are so many different brands, styles, colors, surfaces and textures it would be hard to describe what is available in ceramic and porcelain tile. There is literally no limit to what you can do with ceramic tile. Inlaid with real gold, burnished for texture and hand painted finishes are just a few of the choices. The problem here is grout lines. No one seems to want to deal with grout cleaning any more. The truth is that tile grout does require regular maintenance. Sealing the grout only means that cleaning will be easier to do. So far we haven’t heard any complaints about tile except that the surface begins to dull after about 40 years if abrasive cleaners are constantly used. By the way, porcelain is harder than a rock and far more durable than conventional ceramic tile. It also is more expensive to purchase and install. Fewer color choices are available in porcelain. Ceramic tile and porcelain are more than double the price of plastic laminates.

The new synthetic solid surface countertops continue to grow in popularity. The grout cleaning and maintenance problem that we just mentioned disappears with solid surface materials. We consider all of these products a good bet. Each manufacturer has its own series of colors. Given all of the manufacturers we mentioned earlier the choice of color and edge detail gets to be pretty good. Although Dupont’s entry, Corian®, can be sanded if burned or gouged, it remains a surface somewhat susceptible to scratching and similar damage. Other brands are harder, but cannot be repaired on the spot by a novice. Bottom line – if you decide on any of the solid surface products be sure to take it easy. You will be trading off grout cleaning for a surface that is less durable than tile. Solid surface countertops prices begin where tile prices leave of. Here the sky is the limit.

Marble, granite and stone tiles are for those who would prefer them in slab form. But, as 1940’s super sleuth Charlie Chan would say, “We would like to have the most elegant, but can’t afford same”! The neat thing about these tiles is that the grout line can be extremely thin. This certainly reduces the need for extensive grout cleaning (especially if one-foot squares are used), but does not “completely eliminate” the chore. Most marble is susceptible to damage from citric acid and alcohol. It may sound funny but a spilled Screwdriver (the drink – not the tool) contains both. Vinegar is another mild acid that will quickly remove the shine from most polished marble surfaces. In a few seconds the surface can be devastated. The same is true for many polished stone surfaces. Marble and granite tiles are about the same price as the solid surface products we just mentioned.

If you want to test stone to insure that it won’t fail as a countertop simply lay a sample in the kitchen sink and pour vinegar onto the polished surface. If the shiny surface dulls you already know what will happen when it becomes a countertop. Yuck!

Granite is by far the best of the stone tiles. It is the hardest and is impervious to just about anything that you can pour onto it. Unfortunately, because all of these products are natural you are limited to what Mother Nature has to offer. We think that granite tiles give ceramic tile a real run for the money when it comes to elegance.

We don’t see a lot of concrete being poured on kitchen counters (inside the home at least), but they are gaining in popularity. Concrete countertops are expensive, require a sealant and must be treated with care. So what’s the difference between a concrete counter and a concrete driveway you ask? Geography we say. Who needs a counter that you can park a car on anyway? Prices for concrete tops are all over the board. Expect to pay through the nose.

Slab marble has the same problems that exist with marble tiles. Alcohol and mild acids are bad medicine. Tile or slab this is one beautiful surface, but it must be handled with kid gloves. Get this. Many types of hair spray contain alcohol – a no, no around marble. Granite on the other hand is extremely hard, incredibly durable and absolutely maintenance free. In fact, our experience is that slab granite is the single most maintenance free surface of all. Maybe that’s why it is so darned expensive. You can expect to pay as much as $200 per square foot for certain colors of slab granite. A hundred dollars installed is more common than not. Ouch!

The good news is, that with its sudden and overwhelming popularity, granite is getting cheaper and easier to buy – by the day. As more companies get involved the completion continues to drive granite prices downward. That’s when we as consumers win big time. Today the big box stores are offering granite installed for $70 per square foot. Expensive yes, but certainly more palatable than the $100 plus we are used to seeing. We recently spoke with a fellow named Steve Neal, owner of Straight Line Importers in Martinez, California, who is part of a small new group of stone contractors selling pre-fabbed eight-foot long counters – ready to install – for $30 to $50 per square foot (depending upon the color) – that’s less than the cost of most popular synthetic solid surface materials.  Steve says that colors are limited to five choices now, but twelve colors will be available soon. He says that shipping cost to anywhere in the USA is about $350.

Countertop times are a changing. What a country. And, good luck!

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