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Countertops

Countertop buying guide

Last updated: April 2015

Getting started

The budget comes first then use this buying guide and the Ratings to find out the pros and cons of the materials you're considering, especially since some materials are close in price and special sales might sway you. You have more choices of materials, colors, and patterns than ever, and some materials such as concrete, granite, limestone, marble, and even stainless steel are migrating from the kitchen to the bathroom. Bathroom counters typically see a lot less wear and tear than kitchen counters, but consider materials that are more likely to resist stains and chips, unless the counter is for a powder room or guest bathroom.

Think big

Tiny samples make it hard to visualize what the material will look like in your kitchen. Play with online design tools, but see the materials up close and take home large samples, even if you have to pay for them. If you're considering stone, visit the stone yard. Natural stone's color and veining can vary widely even within a slab, so when you find a slab you love, reserve it. And whatever you're considering ask about the warranty.

What about the sink?

A top-mounted sink can be used with any countertop material and is dropped in after the counter is installed. An under-mounted sink is placed under the countertop and works best with waterproof countertop materials such as concrete, solid surfacing, stainless steel, stone, or quartz. Some materials, such as solid surfacing and stainless, can be used for both the sink and counter, creating a seamless look.

Ways to save

Look for sales and consider mixing materials, using the more expensive material on prominent areas such as an island and a less expensive material on the perimeter. Buying remnants are a possibility for smaller areas, such as an island, pastry slab, or bathroom counter, and you could mix and match remnants for bigger areas. Beveled and bull-nosed edges add style, but may boost cost. Rounded edges are safer than squared edges, and may not cost extra.

Be precise

Have the fabricator take final measurements, making accuracy his responsibility. Insist that the estimate and contract specify the material's thickness and finish, and fees for cutouts for the sink, faucet, and cooktop, along with edge treatment, backsplash, and removal of old counters.

Types

In our tests we stained, sliced, scratched, scorched, and nicked 14 materials from leading brands and found huge differences in materials. But there was little difference among competing brands, except for recycled glass, and that's why we rate materials, not brands.

Quartz


Also known as engineered stone, quartz is a blend of stone chips, resins, and pigments and is ideal for areas that get plenty of use and abuse. It comes in an array of vibrant colors and styles that mimic stone.

Pros:

Quartz survived a gauntlet of spills, hot pots, knives, and more with top scores, and it doesn't have to be sealed for stain protection. It's waterproof so it can be paired with an undermounted sink.

Cons:

Some patterns can appear unnaturally uniform, although manufacturers are trying for a more random look closer to natural stone. Edges and corners can chip and only a pro can repair them--rounded edges help.

Granite


Each slab of this natural material is unique. It remains popular and is a good choice for heavily-used areas and can be used with an under-mounted sink.

Pros:

Like quartz, granite survived our spills, hot pots, knives, and more with top scores.

Cons:

Edges and corners can chip and you'll need a pro to repair them, and granite needs periodic sealing for stain protection.

Tile


Ceramic tile comes in a wide selection of colors and patterns. It mixes nicely with other materials and works well on a backsplash or island top.

Pros:

Tile is inexpensive and relatively easy to install. It offers excellent heat resistance, so it's a good choice around stoves. Buying a few extra tiles allows you to repair localized damage easily, one tile at a time.

Cons:

The grout is likely to stain even when it's sealed although darker grout can help, and tile edges and corners can chip.

Laminates


Laminate generally consists of layers of paper or fabric impregnated with resin over composition wood, and is much better looking than it used to be thanks to new printing technology and decorative edges. Laminate is available in hundreds of cool patterns and interesting colors, and is inexpensive and relatively easy to install. Use in areas of heavy use but minimal abuse. Laminates typically show seams on the front edge and between the backsplash and counter, but Formica and Wilsonart offer decorative edges that replace the dark line along the edge of the counter. Another option is post-forming, a process that uses heat to form and bend laminate sheets, making them look continuous and without seams.

Pros:

Laminates excelled at resisting stains, impact, and heat; they also withstood our abrasive pads nicely. They're easy to clean, relatively easy to install, and are great for a tight budget.

Cons:

Most versions have a colored top layer over a dark core, which shows at the edges. Water can seep through seams or between the countertop and backsplash, weakening the material beneath or causing lifting. Laminate is easily scratched and nicked and can't be repaired--so use a cutting board. Textured finishes are better than flat finishes at hiding imperfections.

Solid surfacing


Made of polyester or acrylic resins combined with mineral fillers, this material imitates concrete, marble, and other types of stone, as well as quartz (an imitation of an imitation). Solid surfacing can be used for counters, sink, and backsplash, creating a seamless look since the joints are almost invisible.

Pros:

Resistance to heat and impact are pluses, and scratches and small nicks can be buffed out and repaired. The material is waterproof, so it's a good choice for an undermounted sink.

Cons:

Solid surfacing scratches and cuts easily.

Concrete


Concrete countertops can provide a unique look as this material is typically custom-formed by local fabricators. That said, quality may vary.

Pros:

Concrete can be tinted and textured and can include stone chips.

Cons:

It chips and scratches easily and can develop hairline cracks. Topical sealers can protect against stains but not heat; penetrating sealers can handle heat, but not stains.

Stainless steel


It lets you integrate countertops in a kitchen with stainless appliances for a sleek, commercial kitchen look. Stainless can be welded, ground, and buffed to get rid of seams.

Pros:

Resistance to heat and stains is a plus.

Cons:

Steel dents and scratches easily and shows fingerprints. Drain cleaners and hard-water deposit removers can discolor steel.

Limestone


Limestone provides a stone look without heavy veining. It's attractive but impractical, so consider it for low-traffic areas.

Pros:

Limestone resists heat well.

Cons:

Scratches and dings from our dropped 5-pound weight marred the surface of this soft, porous stone, and even a high-quality sealer didn't protect against stains. Eleven of the 20 substances we applied left stains still visible after they were left on the surface for just 24 hours.

Butcher block


These countertops add warmth to any kitchen. Maple is common, but you'll also see other woods, including teak.

Pros:

This material is useful for food preparation such as chopping and slicing. It's relatively easy to install and repair.

Cons:

Damage from heat, cuts, scrapes, and impacts make for high maintenance. Butcher block countertops must be treated regularly with mineral oil or beeswax. Varnished butcher block was extremely stain-resistant, but terrible at everything else. Butcher block with an oil finish was better at resisting heat, but stains spread and were impossible to remove. Fluctuations in humidity affect wood, making butcher block a poor choice for over a dishwasher or around a sink.

Marble


Beautiful and classic, marble has been used in European kitchens for ages. To some, marble takes on a patina, but others will see it as marred.

Pros:

Small nicks and scratches can be polished out.

Cons:

Marble chips and scratches easily and you'll need to seal periodically to protect from staining. Most stains that marred unsealed marble wiped away with water on sealed samples, but hard-water deposit removers left a permanent mark, even on sealed stone.

Recycled glass


Take shards of recycled glass, turn them into a countertop and the result is an infusion of color and style.

Pros:

Best for a contemporary look when it's made with large shards, or it can resemble solid surfacing when the glass is finely ground. Resistant to heat, cuts, and scratches.

Cons:

But chips and stains can be a problem. Unlike other recycled glass counters we tested, Cosentino's Eco line developed a thin crack during our heat tests.

Soapstone


It's beautiful and not as common as granite.

Pros:

Best for adding the beauty of stone to a low-traffic kitchen. It withstands heat very well and small scratches can be repaired. Slabs vary, visit a stone yard and pick the piece you love.

Cons:

But it's easily sliced, scratched, and nicked. Stain resistance is so-so and it needs to be periodically rubbed with mineral oil.

Bamboo


While bamboo may be eco-friendly, it isn't user-friendly.

Pros:

Best for show rather than daily use. It's available in several styles, including a parquet pattern.

Cons:

But it's easily stained, scorched, sliced, and nicked. Ask if you can use near a sink because moisture can warp it, and note that bamboo may darken over time.

   

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