The countertop makes the kitchen. It's the work surface where you prepare food, eat casual family meals, perhaps even pay bills and help Junior with his homework. And of all the countertop materials you can buy, stone is the gold standard for both durability and character.
Every rock pulled from the earth has its own mineral color, veining, and speckles, brought vividly to life by stoneworkers' saws and polishing wheels. So whether you select a solid burgundy quartzite, a sky-blue granite, or a beige travertine-embedded with fossilized seashells, it will be as distinctive as an original work of art.
And as permanent, too. Unaffected by hot pans or water, a stone countertop will last as long as your house—maybe even longer. It needs only a little routine care and forethought to ward off water marks, stains, and etching typically caused by acidic foods. But even if the worst happens—a chipped edge, a red wine spill—most stones can be restored by a professional.
We explain the differences between the various stone types, offer money-saving tips, and cover the basics of stone care. By the end, you'll know what it takes to bring your kitchen, beautifully and dramatically, into the stone age.
Standards for Stone
Follow these rules of thumb for a good-looking, long-lasting counter.
Backsplash: Seal joint with silicone.
Thickness: Choose ¾- or 1¼-inch slabs.
Cabinets: Top goes directly over base units or plywood.
Edges: Rounded ones don't chip as easily as squared ones.
Overhang: Equal to or just beyond the projection of the installed drawer pulls.
What's it cost?
Typically $25 to $100 per square foot. Sink and faucet holes and fancy edges are extra.
Does it hold up?
Impervious to heat and water but will chip if, say, you bang a cast-iron skillet on an edge.
Will it stain?
Thanks to improved factory-applied sealants, some stones now come with lifetime antistain warranties.
How much care?
Wipe spills promptly with soapy water or stone cleaner. Apply sealer as needed; for granite, that's every one to three years.
Where to buy it?
At a stone yard you can pick the exact slab you want; at a big-box store you choose from display samples. The big-box price may be lower, but don't expect your slab to match the sample exactly.
Is Stone Right for Your Kitchen?
Distinctive: Every stone is different, so the pattern and color you choose is one of a kind.
Durable: Unlike laminate, wood, solid surfacing, or engineered stone, natural stone is unaffected by heat
Virtually seamless: Stone slabs provide a smooth surface without the crumb-catching grout lines typical of ceramic tile tops.
Low maintenance: Just wipe up spills as they occur and reapply sealant when required.
Repairable: Cracks, chips, and scratches can be fixed on-site by a stone restorer. Remove most stains yourself using a poultice.
Impervious to water: Unlike butcher block—or a laminate's chipboard substrate—stone stands up to splashes.
Price: The high cost of quarrying, shipping, and fabricating stone makes it one of the most expensive countertop choices.
Brittle: Stone will crack if it's not evenly supported. Cabinet tops must be flat and level or covered with plywood and shimmed level.
Not DIY-friendly: Except for soapstone, which you can cut with woodworking tools, you'll have to hire a pro to make the sink and faucet holes and to shape the edges of your slab. Stone weighs about 18 pounds per square foot, so you need a well-muscled crew to install it.
Some are stain-prone: Travertine, limestone, and marble blemish easily if not periodically sealed; less porous stones, such as Vermont slate and soapstone, are more resilient.
May be vulnerable to acids: Citrus fruits, vinegar, and cleaners with bleach or ammonia will etch marbles, limestones, and travertines, even if sealed. A stone restorer can repolish a slab in your home.
All Stones are Not Created Equal
Even the darkest granites aren't immune to stains. A stone's resistance depends on its chemical makeup and microscopic fissures that formed millions of years ago. But you don't need to be a geologist to determine whether your counter will stand up to a little spilled vino. Just perform this simple test.
1. Get a sample piece (it's okay if it's not from the same slab, as long as it comes from the same source). Rub on a sealer.
2. Pour test dollops of ketchup, olive oil, red wine, and lemon juice. Leave them overnight.
3. Wipe the surface clean in the morning. You'll see how well it stands up to untended spills.
Stone Ranking Guide: High to Low
Note: Each stone type's resistance varies with source and color.
These man-made materials can mimic the look of stone—even rare, prohibitively pricey ones like lapis or onyx. Here's how they stack up in terms of durability, maintenance, and cost.
Moldable resins and special glues allow for a truly seamless counter, complete with an integrated sink. Nonporous; food can't etch it, stains are easy to remove, sealers aren't required. Hot pans can scorch or crack it; knives can nick it. $40 to $80 per square foot.
The Competition: Concrete
Pour your own or buy custom slabs from local shops in the color and shape of your choice. Site-poured counters can be seamless. Sensitive to acids and requires frequent sealing. DIY: $8 to $15 per square foot. Hire it out: $75 to $100 per square foot.
The Competition: Engineered Stone
A factory-made mix of 93 percent quartz granules held together with a resin binder, engineered slabs are impervious to acids and stains. Very hot pots may cause superficial damage. Comes in colors not found in quarried stone. $50 to $90 per square foot.
The Competition: Enameled Lava
Here's a gorgeous stone hybrid you'll probably never buy. Called Pyrolave, it's a lightweight volcanic stone with a tough-as-nails glass enamel coating. It comes in 32 vibrant colors and is a heftier version of ceramic tile but without annoying grout lines. Perfect, except for the price: about $370 per square foot; pyrolave.com.
Pick Your Stone: Slate
Name: Dark green (Vermont)
Highlights: So dense that sealing isn't required. Buff out scratches with an abrasive pad. For more gloss, use mineral oil. Highly acid-resistant.
Price: $80 per sq. ft. (uninstalled); sheldonslate.com
Pick Your Stone: Marble
Name: Calacatta gold (Italy)
Highlights: A classic white Italian marble with gold veining. Can be polished or honed. Seal every few months. Low acid resistance.
Price: About $100 per sq. ft. (uninstalled); cancos.com
Pick Your Stone: Granite
Name: Floresta verde (Brazil)
Highlights: Polishes to a high shine; very acid-resistant. This stone has sealer with 15-year antistain warranty.
Price: Starting at $57 per sq. ft. (installed); sensagranite.com
Pick Your Stone: Travertine
Name: Volcano (Turkey)
Highlights: Surface pits are filled with grout or resin to prevent food particles from being trapped. Seal frequently. Low acid resistance.
Price: About $30 per sq. ft. (uninstalled); akdo.com
Pick Your Stone: Quartzite
Name: Burgundy (Italy)
Highlights: No veining. Very resistant to scratches and acids; seal every two to five years.
Price: Starting at $90 per sq. ft. (installed); charlesluck.com
Pick Your Stone: Limestone
Name: Jerusalem gold (Israel)
Highlights: Soft colors and matte surfaces distinguish it from marble. Can't take a high polish. Seal frequently. Low acid resistance.
Price: About $30 per sq. ft. (uninstalled); akdo.com
Pick Your Stone: Soapstone
Name: Black venata (Brazil)
Highlights: Dense and acid-resistant. No sealing required; can be treated with mineral oil to darken color. DIYers can cut it with woodworking tools. Soft and easy to scratch; buff scratches out with an abrasive pad.
Price: About $25 per sq. ft. (uninstalled); soapstones.com
Pick Your Profile
Choose an edge that reflects the style of your kitchen and your budget.
A simple treatment that goes well with modern and Shaker-style decor. No extra charge.
Pick Your Profile: Bullnose
Versatile and tough, there are no sharp edges or corners to run into or chip. $10-$20 per linear foot.
Pick Your Profile: Ogee
This graceful shape adds an elegant touch to any counter. $20–$30 per linear foot.
Pick Your Profile: Triple Pencil
A sleek, undulating profile reminiscent of 1920s Art Deco. $30-$60 per linear foot.
Is It Time to Seal?
Let your stone be the gauge. Just put some water on it; if it beads up, the sealer's still good, but if the water soaks in, your counter is due for a dose. Use only water-based, impregnating sealers, such as Sealer's Choice Gold from Aqua Mix. Unlike surface-type sealers, which can affect a stone's color, impregnators penetrate without altering appearance. Apply the sealer with a paint pad, let stand for 5 minutes, then wipe off the excess with a clean rag. Give it 2 hours to cure before putting your coffeemaker back on the counter.
How Do You Get It?
Who to call: Most stone yards and home centers offer one-stop shopping: You choose a stone, they take care of fabrication— cutting holes for the sink and faucet and shaping the edges—and installation. Or you can buy your slab from a retailer who just sells stone and find your own fabricator.
What they do: A crew makes templates of the tops of your base cabinets. (For retrofit jobs, the crew may have to remove your old counter.) You provide dimensions for the faucet and sink cutouts.
How long it takes: The lead time is about one to three weeks to cut the slab to your specs and rub in an extra-tough high-tech sealer that lasts longer than ones you can apply at home.
How it goes down: For 1-inch slabs, installers lay plywood over the cabinets (no underlayment required for thicker slabs, as long as cabinet tops are flat and level) and squeeze beads of silicone caulk. They lay the new counter and fill any joints between slabs with a color-matched resin. They then mount the sink and faucet, though a plumber may need to make the final connections.
What can go wrong: Contracts are rare, but a reputable installer should make good if the counter cracks, chips, or scratches while going in, or if there are uneven overhangs or gaps at the wall—a sign of slipshod templating. If your walls get dinged, expect him to pick up the tab for the painter you hire.
Four Ways to Save
Using 12-inch-square floor tiles gets you an approximation of a slab for about one-third the cost. Cut them yourself with a wet saw. Cover the edges with thin tile strips, or wrap them in metal nosing or wood bands (shown). Joint lines will be visible.
Prefabricated counters, sized to standard cabinet depth and finished with bullnose edges, can save you up to 30 percent. Typically sold as 96-inch-long solid slabs, they still require a fabricator to cut sink and faucet holes. No two slabs are exactly alike, so they're best used on straight runs without seams.
Save 50 to 80 percent off retail by prowling house-part recycling centers, such as Habitat for Humanity's ReStore, Craigslist, and kitchen cabinet outfits refreshing their displays. These tops are typically cut to someone else's kitchen layout, so plan on adjusting yours to fit.
Stone yards frequently offer clearance-sale prices of up to half off for small leftover slabs, which often work well for prep islands, pastry stations, and kitchen offices. Selection is limited, and you pay for any custom cuts.
Stone for Every Style
With so many patterns and colors—including speckled and vibrant and subtle and subdued—stone complements most any type of kitchen. Here are some tips for selecting the right stone for you
Colors: To best showcase the counter, pick a stone that contrasts with the color of the cabinets. Pair a creamy travertine with a clear-coated cherry, for instance. A monochromatic coupling of Carrara and white lacquer is clean and contemporary but will downplay the stone. Avoid trendy or extreme colors that you (or the next owner) will likely tire of.
Patterns: Don't be afraid of natural veining—it's what makes quarried stone different from most man-made countertop -materials. Variegated patterns also hide stains and grime better than those with uniform coloration.
Stone for Every Style: More Considerations
Surface treatment: A shiny granite may best suit a formal kitchen, but in a more rustic setting honed is usually a better choice. Some stones, such as soapstone and slate, can't be polished; a matte, honed finish is your only choice. Keep in mind that the surface treatment can also affect maintenance. Polished granite, for example, is easier to keep up because it resists stains and water marks better than honed. But on softer stones, such as marble or limestone, a honed finish is easier because you can use a scrubber sponge or a light abrasive cleaner such as Soft Scrub without worrying about scratches.
Thickness: Stone slabs come in two standard thicknesses: about ¾ inch (2 centimeters) and about 1¼ inch (3 centimeters). Thicker stone has a greater visual heft that's generally preferred in kitchens. To get the look for less, ask your installer to glue or "laminate" a strip of stone to the edge of a ¾-inch slab. In a quality job, these edge strips will be cut from the same slab and the transition will look seamless.
Pro Tip: "Before you buy a slab, bring home a few samples and look at them in your kitchen at various times during the day. A stone's appearance changes dramatically depending on lighting conditions." —Carole Freehauf, This Old House interior designer
Sleek and Modern
A high polish and extra-thick square edges complement the flat-panel cabinetry.
Inset: Giallo Vicenza granite, about $60 per sq. ft. installed; sensagranite.com
Earth-toned flecks pick up the rich tones of honey-colored wood and gray-blue tile.
Inset: Soleil granite, from $65 per sq. ft. installed; Innovative Stone
Ochre veining echoes the bright paint and tile in this update of a cheery 1950s kitchen.
Inset: Yellow Spring marble, about $30 per sq. ft. uninstalled; akdo.com
An ogee edge and creamy color work with neutral glass-front cabinets, evoking a late-19th-century kitchen.
Inset: Crestola marble, about $40 per sq. ft. uninstalled; stonesource.com
The near-black color of this top echoes the ebony accents on this Japanese-style island.
Inset: Midnight Magic granite, from $70 per sq. ft. installed; stonemark.homedepot.com
The soft matte surface and flannel-gray color suit the casual feel of this kitchen.
Inset: Julia unoiled soapstone, about $30 per sq. ft. uninstalled; soapstones.com