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Counter Tops

Choosing Kitchen Countertops
By Scott Gibson
Fine Home Building - Winter 2001
Yearning for the good old days?

Take a close look at an old kitchen. Even well-appointed houses were likely to have kitchens that look utilitarian, even stark, when compared with what contemporary cooks expect. Counter space often was provided by a built-in cabinet or dresser with a wood top, or even just a big table. Not these days. We want counter-tops that delight the eye, stand up to heat, keep out food stains, are easy to clean and are more durable than the deck of a battleship.

Amazingly, a variety of materials, both natural and man-made, manages to fit the bill: plastic resins, sheet metal, wood, stone, ceramic tile, concrete, even slabs of quarried French lava. Prices range from less than $5 per sq. ft. for plastic-laminate countertops $300 per sq. ft. for granite as rare as blue Brazilian bahai.

In addition to their many practical contributions, countertops also make a big visual and tactile impact. The huge variety of materials-each with its own range of characteristics and cost-allows a kitchen countertop to fit neatly into just about any lifestyle and architectural tradition. Spending thousands of dollars isn't hard to do, but far more economical alternatives also exist. The only trick is wading through all the options.

Scott Gibson Is a free-lance writer. Cost estimates are gathered from manufacturers, retailers and installers as well as Repair & Remodeling Cost Data by RS Means. Prices vary by region.

Butcher Block

Built-in cutting boards

Butcher block is one of the few totally natural kitchen-countertop materials. Typically made from strips of hard maple, 11/2-in. thick butcher-block counters are glued up to expose wear-resistant edge grain. They can be ordered in sizes up to 12 in. long and 4 ft. wide for about $30 to $35 per sq. ft. Butcher block can be ordered through local lumberyards and home centers as well as a few large manufacturers. One of them, John Boos & Company, also makes end-grain tops 4 in. thick in sizes up to 60 in. by 38 in. for about $85 per sq. ft.

Among its advantages as a countertop material: It's easy to work and install, has a visual warmth and pleasing resilience, and can be used as a cutting board. Scratches, scorch marks and other signs of wear and tear can be counted as character, or scraped and sanded away. One drawback is that wood is susceptible to water damage, so butcher block used around the sink should be carefully sealed.

  • Pros: Resilient, easy to work, relatively durable, can be used as cutting board, surface can be repaired.
  • Cons: Will scorch, not as easy to keep clean as some other materials, can stain if unsealed, susceptible to moisture damage around sinks.
  • Cost: $30 to $85 per sq. ft. uninstalled (shipping, if applicable, extra).

Butcher Block Sources

John Boos & Co.
(217) 347-7701

The Hartwood Lumber Co.
(800) 798-1269

Solid Surfacing

A 35-year-old Wunderkind in the kitchen

Few products have had more influence in kitchen design in the past 35 years than DuPont's Corian. What was then the world's first solid-surface countertop material now has many rivals. Avonite, Gibraltai; Surell, Pionite, Swanstone and Fountainhead all are brand names for essentially the same stuff: polyester or acrylic resin plus a mineral filler called ATH, or aluminum trihyd rate. Solid surfacing comes in plain colors, patterns that resemble stone and, more recently, translucent versions that are glasslike in appearance.

Regardless of brand, solid surfacing has a long list of attributes that make it a nearly ideal countertop material. 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. And it's highly stain resistant. Solid surfacing can be fashioned into a sink and then glued to the countertop for a seamless, leakproof installation without any crevices or edges to catch and hold food and debris. It can be worked with regular woodworking tools, and solid surfacing comes with a long guarantee, usually ten years. It's typically sold only to certified fabricators who have taken a manufacturer's training course.

Countertops are most often formed from 1/2-in. thick sheets. Edges are formed by building up layers of identical or contrasting material and milling the profile with a router. Sheets 30 in. and 36 in. wide run to 12 ft. in length. Solid surfacing is expensive-roughly $50 to $100 per sq. ft.-and it's a plastic, so not as appealing to some homeowners.

  • Pros: Nonporous and nonstaining, easy to clean, repairable, durable, wide range of colors and patterns available, integral sinks possible.
  • Cons: High cost, should be protected from high heat, sharp knives.
  • Cost: Typically installed by certified fabricator, $50 to $100 per sq. ft.

High-Pressure Laminate/ Solid-Surface Sources

Avonite Surfaces
(800) 428-6648

(800) 426-7426

Wilsonart International
(800) 433-3222

(800) 746-6483

Surell, Fountainhead
(800) 367-6422

(800) 325-7008

Slab Stone

Durable, heat resistant and popular Slab stone, especially granite, is cold to the touch, heavy, hard to work and expensive. It's also so popular, says former stone-restoration contractor Fred Hueston, that it's now going into spec houses selling for $100,000. "It's the big one now," says Hueston, owner of the National Training Center for Stone and Masonry Trades in Long-wood, Florida. Granite comes from all over the world, in a variety of colors and patterns. Prices show big regional differences, starting at $40 to $50 per sq. ft. (possibly lower in some areas) and commonly running to $80 to $100 per sq. ft. installed.

Sold in two thicknesses (3/4 in. and 11/4 in.), granite is resistant to heat and scratches. Most countertop material is polished, but it also is available in a honed (matte) finish, usually for a little more money. Slab size is usually limited to 10 ft. in length, 5 ft. in width.

Although resistant to acidic foods such as lemon juice, Hueston says, granite will stain. It's especially susceptible to oil. Penetrating sealers, commonly called impregnators, can keep out oil and water. Hueston prefers sealers containing fluoropolymers (the same chemical used to make Scotchgard).

Other stone options include slate and soapstone. Both come in smaller slab sizes than granite (roughly 6 ft. long and between 30 in. and 40 in. wide) and in not nearly the variety of colors. Prices of these two types of stone are similar, $65 to $80 per sq. ft., not including installation or shipping.

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 runs in a wider but still limited color palette. blacks, greens, reds, grays and muted purples. Like soapstone, slate is relatively soft, although scratch marks can be buffed out with fine steel wool, says Daphne Markcrow of Vermont Structural Slate Company in Fair Haven, Vermont. Vermont slate needs no sealers, she says, and no maintenance, although slate mined in different regions may be more absorptive. Hueston says slate, which is formed in layers, will occasionally delaminate.

  • Pros: Wide variety of color and textures, heat resistant, very durable (stain and scratch resistance varies)
  • Cons: High cost, some type may stain, slab size may be limited. Can delaminate.
  • Cost: $50 to $100+ per sr. ft. fabricated and installed

Plastic Laminate

Old standby still rules

High-pressure laminate is the family mini-van of the countertop world: It's practical and economical, and you'll never brag you own it. Still, laminate is the choice in as many as three-quarters of all new kitchens in the United States. Standard high-pressure laminate, roughly 1/16 in. 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.

Laminate is available in dozens of colors and patterns for $2 or less per sq. ft. in sheets up to 12 ft. long and 5 ft. wide. Post-formed counters, ready to drop into place, may be $5 or less per sq. ft. at big home centers. There are fewer colors to choose from, and post-formed counters are for straight runs only; curvaceous kitchen designs won't work.

Most kitchen countertops are made of general-purpose laminate, but laminate is also available in high-wear, extra-thick and fire-retardant versions. In addition to its low cost, laminate has many other attributes. Hard and durable, laminate is highly stain resistant and stands up well to everyday use. However; heat and sharp knives damage the surface, and any water getting into seams may degrade the substrate.

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, but at a higher cost.

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.
  • Cost: Uninstalled post-formed counters, $5 per sq. ft., $1.50 per sq. ft. for sheet laminate. Installed, $8 to $11 for post-formed, $10 to $17 for laminate sheet.

Plastic-Laminate Sources

(800) 428-6648

(800) 426-7426

Wilsonart International
(800) 433-3222

(800) 746-6483

Surell, Fountainhead
(800) 367-6422

(800) 325-7008

Stainless Steel

The pros like it for a reason.

Like stone and concrete countertops, stainless steel can't easily be modified on site. Countertops are usually fabricated from templates, often in 16-ga. material. Sheet metal is glued to a substrate of medium density fiberboard. Sinks can be welded in.

Expect to pay $60 to $80 per sq. ft. But edge details, sinks and over all complexity can change prices dramatically. Mark Ponder, an estimator at Weiss Sheet Metal, cautions that generalized prices can be misleading. A plain 10-if. long counter with a simple sink and a 4-in. backsplash might cost $1,200, a price that does not include the substrate, shipping or installation. Linda Bergling of The Stainless Steel Kitchen, a large Mid-western fabricator, says her shop charges about $160 per running foot with backsplash. But the stainless is already laid up on a substrate and ready to go in.

Counters are typically made from 304 stainless with a #4 brushed finish, the same stuff used in restaurants and commercial kitchens. Length is usually limited to 10 ft., widths to 4 ft., although larger sheets can be ordered. Stainless steel can be cleaned with a mild detergent or baking soda or vinegar diluted in water.

Counters also can be fashioned from copper zinc and nickel. But prices are usually higher, and these materials require more maintenance.

  • Pros: Nonporous and nonstaining, resistant to heat, durable, easy to clean.
  • Cons: Can dent
  • Cost: $45 to $65 per sr. ft. for uninstalled straight runs; $80 to $90 installed

Stainless Steel Sources

The Stainless Steel Kitchen
(800) 275-1250

(800) 787-3247

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