Butcher block is one of the few totally natural kitchen-countertop materials. Usually made from strips of hard maple, 1 1/2-in. thick butcher-block counters are glued up to expose wear-resistant edge grain.
Wood must be oiled regularly to prevent drying. Cleaning is necessary to remove bacteria—the same as with wooden cutting boards.
PROS: Resilient, easy to work, relatively durable, usable as a cutting board, repairable surface. Scratches may be removed by sanding and refinishing.
CONS: Will scorch, not as easy to keep clean as some other materials, can stain if unsealed, susceptible to moisture damage around sinks.
Synthetic materials—acrylic resins or polyester plus a filler called ATH—that resemble and feel like polished marble. Pricey, but popular because they are durable and easy to keep clean.
Few products have had more influence in kitchen design in the past 35 years than DuPont’s Corian. What was the world’s first solid-surface countertop material now has many rivals. Avonite, Gibraltar, Surell, Pionite, Swanstone, and Fountainhead all are brand names for the same type of materials. Solid surfacing comes in plain colors, patterns that resemble stone and, more recently, translucent versions that are glasslike in appearance.
Solid surfacing is the same material all the way through. Minor surface blemishes—a scorch mark, for example—can be sanded out. It’s nonporous, so it’s easy to keep clean. It’s highly stain-resistant. Solid surfacing comes with a long guarantee, usually ten years. Sinks may be under-mounted, which makes cleaning easier because there is no lip to catch dirt.
PROS: Nonporous and non-staining, easy to clean, repairable, durable, wide range of colors and patterns available. Integral sinks possible.
CONS: High cost. Must be protected from high heat and sharp knives. Not a do-it-yourself project.
Granite, slate, and soapstone are the common types of slab stone.
Slab stone, especially granite, is cold to the touch, heavy, hard to work with, and expensive. It’s so popular that it’s now going into spec houses selling for less than $200,000. Granite comes from all over the world, in a variety of colors and patterns.
Granite: Sold in two thicknesses (3/4″ and 1 1/4″), granite is resistant to heat and scratches. Most countertop material is polished, but it also is available in a honed (matte) finish. Requires resealing with penetrating sealer every couple of years to prevent stains. Try sealers containing fluoropolymers (the chemical used in Scotchguard).
Soapstone: Both slate and soapstone come in smaller slab sizes than granite and in not nearly the variety of colors. Blue gray and lightly variegated when newly installed, soapstone oxidizes and darkens with time to a rich charcoal. It is extremely dense, with better stain resistance than granite. But soapstone is also soft. Soapstone is usually treated with mineral oil. Scratches in soapstone can be sanded out.
Slate: Slate runs in a wider but still limited color palette than soapstone—blacks, greens, reds, grays, and muted purples. Like soapstone, slate is relatively soft, although scratch marks can be buffed out with find steel wool. Vermont slate needs no sealers and no maintenance. Slate mined in different regions may be more absorptive. It will occasionally delaminate, because slate is formed in layers.
PROS: Wide variety of colors and textures, high resistant, very durable.
CONS: High cost, some types may stain, slab size may be limited. Can delaminate.
Once found only in commercial kitchens, stainless-steel counters are gaining ground at home.
Like stone and concrete countertops, stainless steel can’t easily be modified on site. Countertops are usually fabricated from templates, often in 16-gauge material. Sheet metal is glued to a substrate of medium-density fiberboard. Sinks can be welded in.
Counters are typically made from 304 stainless with a #4 brushed finish, the same stuff used in commercial kitchens. Length is usually limited to 10 feet, widths to 4 feet. Larger sheets can be ordered.
Stainless can be cleaned with a mild detergent or baking soda or vinegar diluted in water. Avoid bleach. Some foods—mayonnaise, mustard, lemon juice—that sit on the counter may cause a white surface discoloration that can be rubbed out with a fine Scotch-Brite pad.
PROS: Non-porous and non-staining, resistant to heat, durable, easy to clean.
CONS: Can dent.
Besides the numerous natural countertop materials, a variety of newer man-made materials are available.
Caesarstone: A composite of 93% quartz aggregates, pigments, and polymer resins that are molded, pressed, cured, and polished before being shipped. There are over 40 colors and textures available with a wide variety of thickness options due to its high strength. The surface is nonporous and scratch, stain, and heat resistant.
Silestone: A composite of 93% quartz, resin binders and pigments. It is made in Spain and sold in the USA through a network of distributors. A similar material is made by DuPont under the Zodiaq brand name. Silestone is available in 35 colors and three thicknesses—7/16 inch, 13/16 inch, and 1-1/18 inch.
High-pressure laminate is the workhorse of the countertop world: it’s practical and economical, and you’ll never brag you won it. Laminate is the choice in 65-75 percent of all new kitchens in the US.
The real name for plastic laminate is “thermo-setting high pressure decorative plastic laminate”.
Plastic laminate was invented at Westinghouse, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1907.
Laminate was invented as a material for electrical insulation, not decoration.
Despite the fact that we call it “plastic laminate”, laminate contains only 18% plastic resins, the rest of the product (82%) is comprised of paper.
Standard high-pressure laminate, roughly 1/16 inch thick, is a sandwich of kraft paper impregnated with phenolic resin and topped by a decorative layer of melamine-protected paper. In sheet form, laminate is glued to a particleboard substrate, either on site or in a fabricator’s shop. A thinner version is manufactured into a ready-made countertop with a rounded front edge and an integral backsplash called a post-formed counter.
Most kitchen countertops are made of general-purpose laminate, but laminate is also available in high-wear, extra-thick, and fire-retardant versions. A variety of new edge treatments has eliminated one of laminate’s long-standing aesthetic weaknesses: the dark line formed where the top of the counter meets the front edge. Edging made from wood, solid-surface material or beveled laminate can make that seam all but invisible.
Laminate’s real breakthrough in recent years has been in the top decorative layer. Digital printing and metallic inks have resulted in higher-fidelity reproduction, allowing manufacturers to create uncannily accurate patterns of materials such as wood, stone, and fabric.
PROS: Inexpensive, relatively durable, easy to clean, needs no regular maintenance, wide range of colors and patterns available.
CONS: Damaged by sharp objects and heat, not repairable.