Kitchen Countertops 101: Choosing a Surface Material

Explore the pros and cons of kitchen countertop materials to help you narrow down your many options and select the best one for your home.

Whether you’re remodeling a kitchen, building one from scratch or just ready to give yours a face-lift, countertops are a central part of the look. And you may be daunted by the wealth of options on the market; countertop surfaces range from well-known marble to less common materials such as quartz. We’ve chosen the most popular countertop options to get you started. Read on to find the one that’s right for you.

Granite

There are plenty of reasons granite is so popular — this natural stone has plenty of character, with unique grains, colors and customizable finishes. When properly sealed, it’s one of the most durable options out there.

  • The Basics: Granite is a natural stone, composed of at least 20% quartz as well as mica and feldspar. Colors choices span the rainbow, from a monochromatic slab to bold patterns.
  • Finish Options Include:
    • Polished: The most common finish; it’s mirror-like, stands up well to stains and is the least porous
    • Honed: A matte finish that is typically not recommended, as it can stain and scratch more easily
    • Satin/ Brushed: Similar to a honed finish, though less matte in appearance and better performing
    • Antique: Has a brushed, dull appearance that is slightly textured
  • Pattern Options Include:
    • Fleck/ Speckled: Has a splattered painted effect, and works well in kitchens that need something to break up an overall neutral color scheme. It offers more variation in texture and colors than any other type. They add virtual interest, and ones with metallic hued flecks in the pattern will complement other metallic accents in your family’s kitchen. This pattern has a more consistent look. A slab of this type of granite will look pretty much the same anywhere you see it. A small sample of a this type of granite can usually serve as a good representation of the entire slab. This type of pattern can be especially useful when there is a lot going on in the room in other areas such as flooring, wallpaper etc. These types of granite appeal to people who like calm and predictable looking stones.
    • Veiny/ Marbled: Looks just like the name implies, it has vein lines. If you want to add a touch of luxurious elegance to your family’s kitchen without sacrificing most of the budget, then choose a granite countertop with a natural veiny or marble pattern. Veiny patterns are more inconsistent, and the amount of  inconsistency can vary greatly. The irregularity can be in the color, pattern or both. In the stone industry the inconsitentcy in the pattern is referred to as movement, which looks like a wave flowing through the stone making each piece of the stone unique. When choosing a stone with movement “what you see is what you get” and this is the beauty of the stone. A small sample of this type of granite is not a good representation of the entire slab. You will want to see the slabs that will be used in your kitchen. A piece of granite with movement is sure to be the focal point of your room. Keep in mind if you find yourself liking only parts of the stone then it may not be the right choice for you.
  • Pros: Granite is tough to beat when it comes to durability, due to its heat- and scratch-resistant qualities; it can bear up to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Granite can also be stain and water resistant when it’s properly sealed. Those seeking an unusual slab or a unique pattern will not be disappointed with the seemingly limitless choices.
  • Cons: Like most stone, granite must be sealed every so often to avoid stains. Also, installation can get tricky due to granite’s hefty nature. And if you choose some of the more exotic slabs, costs can quickly escalate.
  • Maintenance: Limit routine care to a soft cloth and warm water or cleansers made specifically for granite. You’ll want to seal your slab every year or two with an impregnating water-based sealer made for granite.
  • Average Cost: $35 to $100 per square foot, installed. Price variations depend on color choice, configurations, and your location. Also, don’t overlook the availability of remnants, which are often discounted so you can still get an amazing countertop, at a bargain price.

Read More About Granite Here: Kitchen Counters: Granite for Incredible Longevity

 

Quartz

Crafted of resin and quartz chips tinted with color, quartz surfacing (also called engineered quartz or engineered stone) is a good compromise between the beauty of stone and the easy care of solid surfacing. Engineered quartz is the style chameleon of countertops. Whether you love modern or traditional, apple green or ecru, honed or polished, flecked or patterned, quartz’s myriad options will have you covered. Engineered quartz is also easy to maintain, nontoxic and nonallergenic — there’s not much to dislike about this stunning man-made material.

  • The Basics: Engineered quartz is a man-made product formed from roughly 90 to 95 percent ground quartz and 5 to 10 percent resins and pigments. Commonly found brands include Caesarstone, Silestone, Zodiaq, Cambria, Technistone, HanStone and Q. Several manufacturers have upward of 40 options, so there are a variety of finish, pattern, and color options available.
  • Finish Options Include:
    • Polished: Glossy, polished appearance.
    • Matte/ Honed: Softer, more natural, feel than polished. It can take on the look of slate, concrete or limestone, without the inherent delicate qualities that comes from a softer stone.
    • Textured Surfaces: Just as it sounds, it has some light texture, rather than being smooth & flat.
  • Pattern Options Include: The surface of manufactured quartz depends on how the quartz is ground.
    • Flecked: Created by coarsely ground stone
    • Smooth: Created by finely ground stone
    • Natural Stone Lookalikes: Manufacturers have also created colors and patterns that resemble those of natural stone, such as marble and granite.
  • Pros: Engineered quartz has many bragging rights. Thanks to the quartz content, it’s tough like granite, and the resin makes the material malleable and impact resistant. Both materials offer stout durability. Engineered quartz is also nonporous, making it resistant to stains, scratches, and bacteria. And this material has a leg up on natural stone when it comes to large installations: Because it can flex, engineered quartz can be fabricated in larger pieces and with fewer joints. Also, it’s consistent in color and texture, won’t chip and or crack, and often comes with long warranties.
  • Cons: This material doesn’t have the natural variegation of granite, so it may be evident that it’s an engineered product. It lacks variations in patterning and veining, and it’s not as heat resistant as stone so trivet use is recommended. Although it’s relatively pricey,  its durability make it a worthwhile investment.
  • Maintenance: The surface requires no sealants or waxes (either initially or for ongoing upkeep). Routine cleanup is a breeze with soap and water. For a stubborn spill, you can use a nonabrasive cleaner like Soft Scrub. The polished finish will stay intact with no need for ongoing maintenance other than avoiding abrasive cleaners that could dull the surface. Note that honed surfaces show more fingerprints and other signs of use than other finishes and require more frequent cleaning.
  • Average Cost: $40 to $90 per square foot, installed. Like granite, price variations depend on color choice, configurations, and your location. Also, don’t overlook the availability of remnants, which are often discounted so you can still get an amazing countertop, at a bargain price.

 

Marble

Is there anything that looks and feels more glamorous than a marble countertop? Peerless in terms of its luminescence and distinctive veining, it’s an ultratraditional choice. Marble has an unrivaled, classic look that always seems to be in style. For lovers of white kitchens in particular, marble offers more variety than almost any other material. Like a white button-down shirt, white marble is adaptable, mixing well with different styles and a wide variety of materials (stainless, wood, tile). It can be dressed up with a polished finish, or made more casual with a honed finish.

  • The Basics: Marble is a natural stone composed of calcium carbonate; it’s in the same stone family as limestone and travertine. Color variations occur in marble due to mineral impurities in the stone. Slabs, rather than tiles, are typically used for countertops, where the dramatic veining can be displayed.
  • Finish Options Include:
    • Polished: A grinding and buffing process results in a high-gloss slick surface, favored for bringing out the details of the marble’s color, veining, and character. While polished marble is the least porous of the finishes, it’s the most susceptible to getting etched by household acids and cleaners.
    • Matte/ Honed: Created by sanding the marble so that is has a satiny-smooth, almost soft feel, a honed surface doesn’t show as many scratches and flaws as a polished finish, and it also mutes the color of the stone. Warning: Honing the surface opens the pores of the marble, making it more susceptible to staining
    • Leather: This option is created by adding a leather-like texture to a honed surface. It has a soft sheen, but is not reflective like a polished finish, and is most commonly used with dark marbles. The texturing is an effective concealer of fingerprints and other imperfections. Note that the amount of texture created in the process varies from stone to stone.
  • Pattern Options Include:
    • Carrara Marble: This is generally white, gray or blue-gray. Its veining is more linear and can either be small and fine or soft and feathery, although it can be dramatic. One of the more readily available marble options, Carrara is one of the most commonly used marbles in residences. Since it can have a stark, pristine whiteness, it is often used to add an airy and clean feel.
    • Statuary Marble: A sister stone to Carrara, statuary marble features a uniform background and light gray tones with distinctive and more dramatic veining. Its semi​ translucent white background gives it a shiny, glossy feel, reflects light and provides a radiant finish that enhances any room.
    • Calacatta Marble: Due to its rarity, many people consider Calacatta a luxury stone. Calacatta marble shares similarities with Carrara marble, such as their white coloring with gray veining, they have several distinct characteristics that set them apart. Calacatta marble is generally white with dark veining in large, thick patterns. For some homes, it can add a striking look when paired with the stainless steel of a kitchen. Calacatta gold marble adds a splash of richness to the countertop, and it can radiate either warm and cool tones depending on what colors you match with it.
    • Emperador Marble: This stone varies from the whites and grays associated with Calacatta and Carrara and comes in different shades of brown. It typically exhibits fine grains with irregular veins.
    • Crema Marfil Marble: This comes in many tonal variations. The most prevalent and well-known tiles have a light-beige or yellowish color with uniform backgrounds and veins varying in intensity and irregularity. Crema marfil is typically used with other darker and more colored natural stones. A large reserve and wide market availability makes this an appealing choice for homeowners and architects.
  • Pros: Nothing beats marble for sheer elegance. For those whose heart is set on a white, natural stone counter, few other options are available with the breadth of choices that marble offers. Experienced bakers know that marble’s naturally cool temperature makes for great pastry making.
  • Cons: It’s softer and more porous than granite or quartz, meaning it scratches and stains easily. Acidic foods cause surface etching (though the appearance of the etching can be lessened with a honed finish).
  • Maintenance: There are more don’ts than dos when it comes to maintenance, where use of even mild detergents can dull your marble’s finish. Routine care is best limited to a soft cloth and warm water or cleaners made specifically for marble. You’ll want to seal your marble every year or two with an impregnating water-based sealer made for marble.
  • Average Cost: $50 to $100 per square foot, installed. Like granite & quartz, price variations depend on color choice, configurations, and your location. Also, don’t overlook the availability of remnants, which are often discounted so you can still get an amazing countertop, at a bargain price.

Laminate

Although it’s sometimes scoffed at by stone lovers, laminate still has a serious fan base. The wide range of customizable edges and finishes means it can work in any design. However, it’s not the most durable of countertops, so it may not be best for heavy-duty cooks.

  • The Basics: Laminate countertops consist of a wafer-thin finish adhered to a plywood or particleboard substrate. That thin finish is a high-pressure laminate (HPL); it’s made of three layers of material bonded together by high heat and pressure: a clear melamine top for protection, a decorative layer and a backing made of phenolic resin-coated kraft paper.
  • Finish Options Include: 
    • Matte: Low-sheen satin finish with subtle surface clefts and crevices that mimic softly brushed stone. It is ideal for hardworking surfaces and is a better choice to help hide scratches.
    • Satin: Has just a touch of polish, making it more shiny than matte & less shiny than Polished, just like paint finishes.
    • Polished/ Glossy: A mirror sheen finish, which gives a smooth, brilliant appearance. It will show even minor scratches though.
    • Textured: Brings additional realism to stone and granite patterns by imitating real stone that naturally have pits & craters. Mostly texture is combined with a matte finish, but can be added to any finish
  • Edging Options Include:  Because laminates are so thin, edge details require forethought to avoid that telltale brown line at the counter’s edge.
    • Profiled Edge: Laminates have advanced to now have beveled, ogee and bullnose edge profiles, which vary by manufacturer, see the below image for some of the most popular
    • Edge Band: These thick and dense veneers are adhered to the cabinet edge and are made for abuse.
    • Metal Edge: Go retro with this detail that harks back to the 1950s; a metal edge is fastened to the edge of the counter. Neatniks might think twice about this crumb-catching detail.
    • Exposed Plywood: As shown in this photo, some modern designs showcase the thin laminate veneer and adhere it to premium plywood, leaving the thin veneer edge and plies exposed.
  • Pros: Laminates come in a staggering array of colors, patterns and finishes: from eggplant to amber, maple to marble and high gloss to grained. Laminate is one of the most affordable countertop materials, so it’s a good choice if your budget is tight. It’s low maintenance and easy to clean. Its light weight doesn’t require the support of a thick cabinet base.
  • Cons: Laminate is prone to scratching, burns and, in some cases, staining. With wear and moisture exposure, the layers can peel. Because of the raw particle board core, you can’t use laminate with undermount sinks, and it’s also difficult to repair if it gets damaged.
  • Maintenance:  As with most counters, stick with a damp cloth or sponge and mild detergent for routine cleaning. Avoid bleach, as it can cause discoloration. Long-term care is a breeze, as the top coat of protection is permanent and requires no sealing.
  • Average Cost: $8 to $30 per square foot, installed. The key difference between high- and low-end priced laminates is generally the finish of the material. Higher-end products offer greater variety in luster or sheen and texture. They also come in a broader range of colors. The cost of the laminate will be affected by whether or not there is a built-in backsplash and how high or low the backsplash may be.