Where to Find Affordable Kitchen Counters
These hard-working surfaces are easy on your budget and offer an unparalleled spectrum of colors and styles.
These days, laminate countertops have an undeserved reputation as the stuff you settle for if you can't spend the $100-plus per linear foot for solid surfacing and natural stone. At just $20 to $30 per linear foot, good-quality laminates are easier on your budget, but they have much more going for them than price. They also withstand years of use and abuse, and can turn a rundown kitchen into a showplace. Laminate counters are formed from layers of decorative and kraft papers saturated with melamine resin and bonded together under pressure. Because the decorative layer can depict anything, manufacturers offer hundreds of colors and patterns?far more than you'll find in solid surfacing. You can also enhance the standard designs by customizing your project with a contrasting edge treatment. The most crucial concerns with laminates are picking the right color and design for your kitchen and, because each counter is custom-built, making sure the countertop is assembled and installed correctly. These inside tips from professional designers and fabricators will help you meet both of those challenges.
Although most new countertops are part of a major remodel, you can transform a tired kitchen by replacing just the counter and leaving the appliances and cabinets in place. Whichever approach you take, you'll have plenty of laminates to choose from. Consider Wilsonart and Formica, which produce 75 percent of the laminates sold in the United States. Wilsonart offers 230 different colors and patterns, and Formica stocks 96 solid colors along with dozens of patterns. Don't worry about being overwhelmed by all the designs available. Home centers and kitchen dealers often feature samples arranged on pegboards, allowing you to see all the possibilities at once. That lets you zero in on a color group quickly and narrow down your choices. Formica takes the process a step further. Its selection system is based on matching counters with popular cabinet colors, because cabinets take up most of the visual space in a kitchen. The system suggests bold colors for the daring and neutral ones for more conservative homeowners and those who plan to sell their home in the next few years (neutral colors are less likely to turn off buyers). The trend in colors is toward deep, rich hues. "Six years ago everything was white," says Renï¿½e Hytry, director of design for Formica, "but there's a strong movement toward colors inspired by nature?greens and vegetable colors, such as orange, eggplant, rusts and ocher."
Finishes that work. Most of the colors are available in a variety of sheens. Glossy, shiny finishes make a kitchen sparkle, but it's difficult to keep them clean. Stick with a tough, easy-to-clean matte finish for a working, family kitchen.
Beyond the counter. If you feel hesitant about splashing bold colors throughout your kitchen, try using a neutral color or pattern for the counter and applying a bright accent color on the backsplash. "Consider butting the counter against the wall and tiling up to the cabinets, using a tile that picks up one of the counter colors or a contrasting color," says kitchen designer Mary Fisher, of Mary Fisher Designs in Scottsdale, Arizona. Another option is to install matching or contrasting laminate up the wall as the backsplash. You can also use the edge treatment as an accent area by adding a contrasting edge strip or even a different material. Once you've narrowed down your choices, determine if the samples go with your cabinets, floors and appliances. Leave them in place on your current counter for a day or two to see how they look under different lighting conditions.
There are several ways to buy a laminate counter. The easiest and cheapest is to pick one off the rack at a home center. These ready-made products are typically post-formed?the backsplash, counter and rounded front are all formed from one piece of laminate. Ready-made countertops cost the least (about $15 per linear foot), and selection is usually limited to white, off white and one or two wood grains. What's more, the thin grade of laminate (about .038 in.) needed for post-forming doesn't offer the impact resistance and ability to hide defects in the substrate beneath it that general-purpose laminate at .048-in. thickness does. You'll also have to cut the finished counter to the dimensions of your kitchen, creating an unfinished edge that must be covered with a matching strip of laminate if exposed. Another option is to buy the countertop through the kitchen department of a home center or from a kitchen dealer or designer. Your order will then be sent to a fabricator. Or you can seek out at a cabinet shop that makes its own tops. In all cases, you're best off having the pro come to your house to measure. Most fabricators deliver the finished countertops and offer installation. Whether you choose this option or not, you should carefully inspect the finished countertop before installation.
• Be sure the laminate is bonded to medium-density fiberboard (MDF). Because of its limited expansion and contraction, MDF won't crack or buckle the laminate. Also check for a small section of MDF spanning the seams beneath the counter where two pieces of fiberboard come together. This piece adds strength.
• Check that the laminate is fully bonded to the substrate. Bonding is easy to spot on the edges. To test the center, tap the surface?a hollow sound means there's incomplete adhesion.
• Look for rounded corners, including those in cutouts for the sink and cooktop. Corners are stress points; rounded ones are less likely to cause cracks in the laminate.
• Make sure the supporting cabinets are level so the countertop is, too. If they aren't level, shim them as necessary. Once the countertop is in, you can keep it looking new longer by following the manufacturer's care directions. This means avoiding scouring pads and cleansers, which will harm the surface. Finally, always use a cutting board for chopping and slicing, and place hot pots and pans on trivets instead of directly onto the counter.
Where to Find It: Formica Corp.
10155 Reading Rd.,
Cincinnati, OH 45241
8339 Telegraph Rd.,
Odenton, MD 21113
1 Pionite Rd.,
Auburn, ME 04210
800/746-6483 Wilsonart International
2400 Wilson Pl.,
Temple, TX 76503
800/433-3222 Mary Fisher Design (Designer)
Box 14393, Dept.
Scottsdale, AZ 85267
800/548-0945 Nutone (Fabricator)
201 Richards St., Dept.
Brooklyn, NY 11231