Countertops are a major element in any kitchen renovation. Claiming horizontal real estate atop lower cabinets and across kitchen islands and peninsulas, countertops have to handle a hefty assignment load, and look good doing it—whether it’s food prep, homework, or providing space for serving trays and small appliances. While serving a multitude of functions, we also expect countertops to make a style statement that can complement cabinetry and surrounding décor.
Choosing the right countertop is a tough task, because of the vast variety of materials available, appearance and durability details, and a square foot price range that starts around $20 and stretches up to $250.
Consider Countertop Space Requirements
Before the fun part of exploring materials, consider how much space you’ll devote to countertops and where you’ll put them. While this may depend on the size of your cook space, the National Kitchen and Bath Association recommends a total of 158 inches of countertop frontage, 24 inches deep—ideally including an uninterrupted 36-inch-wide section adjacent to the sink. This amount will allow room for basic prep as well provide landing for groceries and a few everyday devices like a toaster and coffee machine.
Another way to conceptualize countertop needs is to dedicate three separate zones for the different phases of kitchen chores: one for preparation, one for ready-to-serve foods, and one for dirty cookware and dishes. This not only helps maintain organization and efficiency, it’s a safety measure, keeping, say, raw chicken from contaminating a freshly tossed salad.
Beyond KP duties, if you desire casual dining at an island, peninsula, or breakfast bar, allot 24 inches in width per person to eat comfortably, plus an overhang of 12 to 18 inches to tuck stools under.
Finally, know that when it comes to countertops, you can have too much of a good thing. Keep the countertop for a kitchen island to a width under 40 inches so that you won’t have any trouble reaching across its width.
Survey the Material Spectrum
The broad array of countertop materials currently on the market can be mind boggling. Because budget is likely to be a prime concern, the simplest way to review options is by price, from low to high. The prices given below represent the starting point for an installed countertop. Special edge treatments and style choices will cost more. For maximum savings, you’ll note that several countertop materials are DIY friendly.
Laminate ($20/sq. ft.): Made from layers of paper, fabric, or plastic that are fused together with a hard-wearing resin, plastic laminate has been a popular countertop material since the 1930s. Offering a good combination of durability, workability, and affordability, along with a staggering array of color and pattern choices, this material is also popular for other applications. It serves as the finished surface for shelving, partitions (in offices and lavatories), desks, and cabinet doors. Plastic laminate is not heat resistant (trivets a must), and can chip from hard impacts. Popular brands include Formica®, Wilsonart®, and Nevamar®.
Manufactured in large sheets, laminate is typically glued to a particleboard substrate. Postformed laminate countertops -available at home centers and building supply outlets—are made with thinner, more flexible laminate that can be bent around the substrate to create a thick, finished front edge and a short backsplash. But for a more distinctive look, you can select from hundreds of patterns and colors and either have a local fabricator make your countertops or do the job yourself. Plastic laminate is a very DIY-friendly material. See the instructional video here:
Ceramic Tile ($30/sq.ft.): With seemingly endless color, pattern, and shape options, ceramic tile allows you to express your unique style. It’s also a good option for DIYers. Though ceramic is resistant to heat and generally easy to clean, the grout lines between tiles are prone to pesky stains. And though it’s technically simple to replace a damaged tile (see the how-to here):
Manufacturers tend to change patterns and colors often, potentially making it difficult to locate an exact match. That’s why it’s smart to buy more tile than you need and reserve the leftover tile for future repair work.
Wood ($30/sq.ft.): If a warm, welcoming kitchen is your goal, the organic beauty of wood is a natural choice. Rather than a solid slab, wood countertops are typically made by gluing thin strips of wood together in classic “butcher block” style. Hard maple is the favored species because of its hardness and durability, but fabricators can make custom wood countertops from many other species. DIYers with access to basic woodworking equipment (table saw, thickness planer, random-orbit sanders, clamps) can make and install their own wood countertops.(see the how-to here):
Wood countertops are beautiful and easy on dishware, but they can be damaged by hot cookware and regular exposure to water. While burn marks and water stain damage can be repaired by sanding and refinishing, the best strategy is to avoid installing a wood countertop around a sink, and to use trivets or pads as protection against cookware burns. All wood countertops eventually require refinishing, but this isn’t a difficult task.
Solid Surface ($40/sq.ft.): Developed by DuPont in the 1960s under the brand name Corian® but now produced by other manufacturers, solid surface countertops are made by blending crushed minerals with filler, pigments, acrylic chips, and resin. Solid surface countertops can be made to look like natural stone or to show off a wide variety of patterns and colors. You can even get it with an integrated sink of the same material. Smooth, hard, non-porous, and stain resistant, this material ideal for hard-working kitchens. The material can be damaged by hot cookware, butany dings or scratches that do accrue can be buffed out.
Natural Stone ($50/sq.ft.): The luxurious look and feel of real stone has led it to dominate kitchen wish lists for quite a few decades, despite prices that climb to $200/sq.ft That said, homeowners can save money on natural stone in several ways:
- Choose a lesser quality stone or a widely available color;
- Stick to a relatively simple design;
- Opt for a thinner slab;
- Have the countertop fabricated and installed by a local stone yard if possible (stone is heavy, so shipping is expensive);
- Do your own demo, rather than have the installer rip out the old countertop.
Several varieties are used for countertops, including limestone, soapstone, travertine, and slate, but granite and marble remain most popular. With its striking colors, grains, and veins, granite has the most dramatic appearance potential. Once granite countertops are polished and sealed, they are heat, stain- and bacteria-resistant, and virtually impervious to chips, scratches, and cracks.
Available in a host of hues and subtly impressive patterns, marble is a softer stone; even when properly sealed it’s considered high maintenance. Marble is susceptible to scratches, chips, stains, and etching damage from such common kitchen acids as vinegar and tomatoes. As a rule of thumb, marble needs daily cleaning with mild soap and water or commercial stone cleaner, and annual re-sealing.
Engineered Quartz ($70/sq. ft.): This durable, low-maintenance surface is the result of combining up to 95 percent quartz crystals with resins and pigments, and then compressing it into slabs that have the feel of real stone. The leading engineered quartz brands are Silestone® and Caeserstone®.
In addition to shades that imitate natural stone (but with more uniformity), you’ll increasingly find bold hues to satisfy the wildest imagination, and finishes including matte, textured, and polished. Engineered quartz is a stain-, scratch-, and heat-resistant non-porous surface, which can be imbued antimicrobial protection to combat germs, mold, and mildew. Clean with mild soap and water, or a nonabrasive cleanser for a stubborn splotch; avoid abrasive cleansers that could dull the surface.
Concrete ($75/sq.ft.): Stepping up from sidewalks, concrete has entered the kitchen thanks to creative staining, pigmenting, and polishing techniques. Concrete counters can replicate the look of stone, offer incredible color variations, and even boast bits of embedded tile, glass, or shell for utterly unique appeal. Concrete countertops can be fabricated in a workshop or created on-site, using temporary molds that are built on top of base cabinets. The labor-intensive fabrication process can be done by ambitious DIYers, using materials and supplies that are available online and at building supply outlets.
Though concrete is incredibly rugged, standing up to wear and tear without scratching, it’s vulnerable to cracks and even more so to stains—initial sealing is a must, with resealing everyone to three years. Some manufacturers add a layer of wax to improve resistance to moisture and stains.
Stainless Steel ($75/sq.ft.): Nothing says modern like metal, and stainless steel countertops bring a sleek, cool edge to a kitchen. A handy homeowner can install a stainless-steel countertop, placing a fabricated metal plate over plywood and then sealing the seams. Because it’s neutral in color, stainless steel pairs well against bold-hued appliances and cabinets, with either a polished, brushed, quilted, or hammered finish.
Stainless steel is close to indestructible. It doesn’t stain, and it can’t be damaged by heat or water. It is, however, prone to scratches (you’ll call it patina after awhile), and it’s a smudge/fingerprint magnet (fortunately, it cleans up with a soap-and-water swipe). Stainless steel also tends to amplify rather than muffle kitchen noise like clattering silverware.
Once you finally choose a material, you’ll need to think about thickness (the thicker, the pricier, especially when it comes to stone and butcher block). And what about the edge detail? Will you go with a simple square or chamfered edge, a rounded bullnose, a more ornate ogee, or something else entirely? Clearly, the time to start considering countertops is the moment you decide your kitchen renovation is a go.
Explore all your options by visiting showrooms, perusing pictures, and discussing ideas with your designer/architect. Now, that’s counterintelligence.