Natural Stone
Where manmade composites are uniform and predictable, natural stone is varied in color, texture, hardness, stain resistance, strength and, of course, price. Stone is truly a global business, and fabricators draw on sources from all over the world. At the top of the pecking order is granite, now used so often it might be suffering from overexposure. Harder than most other materials, granite also comes in many different colors and in both gloss and matte finishes (matte, or honed, is slightly more expensive). Granite is heat- and stain-resistant (not stainproof). Prices vary regionally, but expect to pay $60 to $100 per square foot, depending on the type of stone, detailing and the complexity of the installation. Because granite is not much more expensive than solid surfacing, it is luring some homeowners away with its natural look and heat resistance. Although granite gets most of the attention, there are other stone surfaces to choose from, including slate, limestone, marble and soapstone. Prices for these slab counters are often somewhat lower than those for granite. Marble can be elegant in appearance, and is often chosen for pastry and baking work centers, but is has less structural integrity than other stone counters (it is sometimes shipped with a fiberglass-epoxy backer to add strength), and it stains easily. According to Bill Gulliver, of Freshwater Stone + Brickwork Inc. in Orland, Maine, marble is not as heat-resistant as granite and works best in bathrooms, where wear and tear is less than in a kitchen. Soapstone is soft and heavy, described by Gulliver as "sort of like a pine floor" in how it shows signs of use. Because slabs are smaller, you'll get more seams in a soapstone counter. Limestone is the most porous of the lot. Soft and generally light-colored with a honed finish, limestone has an earthy, old-world look, and it is generally a little cheaper than other stone choices. Slate is available in a variety of grays, blacks, soft blues, greens and purples. The Vermont Structural Slate Co. says its slate is even less absorbent than granite, and highly heat-resistant. Slate from other regions may differ. Slab sizes are somewhat more limited than for some other stones, but costs are on the low end of stone--$60 to $70 per square foot installed. Stone countertops are measured, cut and installed by professional stone shops. Concrete Counters
Once considered a cutting-edge, idiosyncratic or just plain weird material for countertops, concrete is now almost mainstream. Basically the same material used for sidewalks and bridge abutments, it can be cast into counters that resist heat and wear while offering a tremendous range of colors, textures and styles. One California designer, Fu Tung Cheng, casts strips of metal or even old gears in countertops he fabricates. Buddy Rhodes, a San Francisco-based pioneer in using concrete for furniture countertops, developed a distinctive variegated look that contrasts different shades of mortar. Concrete is a medium that responds to just about any inventive style. Although the raw materials are inexpensive, concrete countertops can be just the opposite, rivaling some types of stone in cost. Rhodes, for instance, charges $55 to $75 per square foot for a 1 1/2-in.-thick slab, depending on size, and extra for edge detailing ($12 to $18 per linear foot) and backsplashes ($17 to $25 per square foot). The reason: Concrete countertops are labor-intensive, and it's difficult to do them well. Concrete counters are made on site by casting concrete in forms built on lower cabinets, or poured elsewhere and installed once cured. Either way, it takes practice and a thorough knowledge of the material to get good results. Casting countertops is not the same as pouring a basement floor, so make sure you find a fabricator who has some experience.

Keeping the surface sealed is crucial if you want to avoid stains. Concrete also is heavy, so it can require beefier-than-usual cabinets to support it. Then there's the problem of what to do if you don't like the concrete once installed. It is unlikely you will be able to remove cast-in-place counters without seriously harming your cabinets. Although concrete can be fashioned into a truly memorable work surface, it is not a material meant for everyone. In the end, that's part of its charm.
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