The Great Countertop Debate: An Insider Look at the Most Popular Tops!

When I grew up, you were lucky to have some faded laminate as a small prep area beside the sink. In today’s world, the possibilities are endless. Consumers can choose from hundreds of different colors, patterns and textures! Sounds great (and it is!), but sometimes too many options can make the decision a bit daunting. It’s easy to become quickly overwhelmed by all the options. So, let’s talk a little bit about what you’re really debating. 

The key is to simplify the debate. Change your focus from the brand name on the countertop to the material it’s composed of. Once you get beyond the brand names, your countertop options really are narrowed down to just a handful of materials. Let’s take a look at the four most popular countertop materials: natural stone, solid surfaces, wood, and concrete.

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Natural Stone

The most common natural stones used to make countertops include granite, marble, and soapstone. Here’s a brief look at each material.

Granite, once found only in expensive, high-end kitchens, is more commonplace today and is by far the most popular natural stone countertop material. Granite comes in a wide array of colors, ranging from vibrant blues and variegated browns, to midnight black, deep red and mottled white. It’s cut into long, thick slabs that require few–if any–seams. Most fabricators routinely make one-piece granite counters up to 10 ft long. The widespread popularity and availability of granite has stabilized prices somewhat, but it’s not exactly cheap. Depending on the granite color and complexity of the fabrication, granite can cost anywhere from $40 to more than $250 per sq ft, or anywhere in between.

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A time-honored choice for countertops, marble (shown below) is a classic that’s versatile enough to look good in all sorts of kitchens and bathrooms. That said, it’s not without its downsides: Susceptible to staining, scratching, and etching, marble is a natural product that is more high maintenance than most people desire in their homes. Marble is one of the more porous of the metamorphic stones, which is why it’s prone to staining. Because of it’s porous nature and vulnerability to acids, sealing marble used for countertops is a must. However, please take note that even with a sealer, this natural stone will absorb stains over time and develop a patina (which some people desire). Some people like a surface that reflects their cooking history, others don’t. Marble is not a budget countertop material. The price range is high and wide, usually falling between $125 to $250 per sq ft, with some variance at both ends of the spectrum.

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Soapstone (pictured below) comes in far fewer colors than granite and marble, and seems to be the current hot trend in kitchen remodeling. Just like granite and marble countertops, soapstone countertops are durable surfaces that do not crack easily. Soapstone has varying densities; the softer variety is used in making smaller structures like vases and goblets while the harder variety is used in making heavy-duty structures like fireplaces or countertops. Soapstone is usually dark greenish-black, although lighter green-gray slabs are also common. Soapstone is porous, and must be sealed with mineral oil to reduce staining. Soapstone is priced comparably with mid-range granite: $90 to $150 per sq ft.

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Solid Surfaces

 

Solid-surfacing materials–such as Corian (pictured below), Wilsonart’s Gibraltar and Avonite–are made of 100% acrylic, 100% polyester, or a combination of acrylic and poly. These materials are highly resistant to stains and scratches, and are completely renewable and repairable. Scratches and burns can be sanded out; deep gouges can be filled. Seams are fused together to create undetectable joints. And the material comes in literally hundreds of colors and patterns, many of which resemble natural stone. Corian is price comparable with lower-priced granite, and costs around $35 to $60 per sq ft.

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However, in the land of solid surfaces – the most rapidly growing trend is quartz. Quartz composite, also known as engineered stone, is composed of about 90% quartz granite (the hardest type of granite) and 10% acrylic or epoxy binder. The main differences between engineered stone and traditional solid surfacing materials are that engineered stone is much harder and has a depth, clarity and radiance not found in other solid surfaces. Quartz composites cost slightly more than traditional solid surfaces, but surprisingly both materials are comparable to granite – quartz being a bit on the higher end. Expect to pay $85 to $150 per sq ft for a quartz countertop.

Which brings us to one of the most asked question in the showroom…

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The Quartz vs. Granite Debate

I get this question at least once a week– Quartz or Granite? The truth is – they’re both great materials! Like everything else in life, both types of countertops have their advantages and disadvantages but on the other hand different people have different preferences. Granite is a naturally occurring strong and dense material. It is extracted from earth in large blocks but later broken down into sizeable slabs (think about slicing a loaf of bread). The slabs are later treated to a fine polish using a polyurethane sealer or a resin that leaves the granite slabs waterproof. Quartz is a natural element that is available in large quantities on earth. It is very hard and almost scratch-free especially in its crude form. It is ranked 7th on the Mohs’ Hardness scale which measures scratch-resistance properties of naturally occurring minerals. In fact the only minerals that actually beat quartz in terms of scratch-resistance are diamond, sapphire, and of course topaz. Quartz countertops are made of 93% quartz which ranks them among the hardest and most durable countertops available in the market today.

So, what it really comes down to is user preference. Granite offers some of the most vibrant naturally occurring colors and magnificent veining, and can be a great statement piece for a kitchen. Quartz, while able to mimic these bright colors and veining patterns, offers something that granite isn’t able to… consistency. The up and the down side of granite is that no two slabs are the same. When the blocks of granite are extracted from the earth (again, think of cutting a loaf of bread), the first slab will not look exactly the same as the last slab.

Wood

Wood (shown below) is another traditional countertop material that has lost prominence over the years due both to the widespread popularity of granite and solid surfaces, and to the mistaken perception that wood can harbor germs and bacteria. Here’s a fun fact – in a UW study in which microbiologists intentionally contaminated wooden cutting boards during testing, 99.9% 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 maintenance can be another issue, though: While polyurethane seals can protect a counter for a few years, many owners prefer to draw out the natural beauty and warmth of wood with a less glossy mineral oil finish. Maintaining an oiled surface, which requires reapplication every four to six weeks, is more of a commitment than most busy homeowners are willing to make. But there are secondary surfaces where using wood makes sense, such as a prep area or chopping block. In fact, wood is the only countertop material recommended for cutting, slicing and chopping.

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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 ways that wood countertops are fabricated: 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 (butcherblocks) are constructed of 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. This is the most beautiful and traditional style of wood counter, but it’s also the type that’s most susceptible to cracking and warping, if it’s not meticulously maintained.

Prices vary depending on the wood species and complexity of the finish, but on average they will run somewhere from $50 to $250 per sq ft.

 

Concrete

 

Concrete counters, which closely resemble slabs of natural stone, are becoming increasingly popular. Today’s fabricators offer precast counters that are made in a workshop and delivered–fully cured and finished–to the job site. There many advantages of precast counters… they 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. Poured concrete needs several weeks of curing time before it can be adequately sealed, which creates a huge inconvenience for homeowners.

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