Deciding which is right for you is easier if you first weigh three factors: clean-up, maintenance, and durability.
Scratches, burns and stains can be sanded out of solid surface counters, for example, while ceramic tile needs regrouting every few years. Soapstone, on the other hand, can withstand both hot and cold without cracking. Every countertop material has its aesthetic and practical benefits. Weigh them carefully against your space and budget and you'll discover the right counter for your kitchen.
In our Billerica, Mass., project house, homeowner Sandy Silva settled on tough but beautiful Kirkstone. Traditionally used as a roofing slate, this sea green rock has a reputation for strength and durability and was used on many of London's fine, historic buildings. Today Kirkstone tiles are widely used for flooring and tilling in showers or bathrooms as well as for kitchen counters and backsplashes. In the garden, Kirkstone is often used as pool surrounds or as pavers because it is durable and withstands all kinds of weather.
Kirkstone, found in the hills of the English Lake District, was originally cut from the hillside by hand, loaded onto wooden sleds and dragged down the slopes to pack horses who carried it along wild mountain tracks to the coast for shipping to Britain's major ports. At the beginning of the 20th century, synthetic roofing materials became available and forced a large number of Kirkstone quarries to shut down. Today, only a handful of quarries survive, but advances in industrial technology have created diamond-tipped machine tools that enable manufacturers to cut and shape the stone in new ways and increased its potential uses dramatically.
The key to Kirkstone's toughness is its unique geology—successive, dense layers of volcanic dust and ash that give the stone its beautiful natural markings. Almost as hard as granite, Kirkstone makes an excellent kitchen work surface. However, like all natural materials, it must be treated with care. Acidic spills, like citrus, red wine or cola, should be wiped up immediately to avoid surface dulling, and a wooden chopping block should be used to save the surface of the stone. Otherwise, cleaning with a damp cloth is all that the stone requires from day to day.
To install the countertops in Billerica, Joe Ferrante cut the stone with a wet diamond blade. The pieces are then fitted into place without mechanical fasteners. Any joints were bonded with a two-part epoxy colored to match the stone that rendered the seam nearly invisible. Ferrante finished the surface with a penetrating sealer that darkened the counter's color to a rich dark green. The Kirkstone countertop cost approximately $85 a square foot installed—in the same ballpark as granite and marble.