The cherry on top
Countertops are almost as visually impactful as cabinet doors, so they can have a strong influence on the tone, mood and aesthetics of a kitchen or bathroom. The most common options are quartz, granite, plastic laminate and solid surface, but there are numerous other options to consider.
Quartz was introduced in the 1960s as a substitute for natural granite and has , become a primary choice for many woodshops. The material is made by grinding quarried natural quartz rock into a fine dust and then combining that and other ingredients such as glass or metal fines with plastics and pigments. The mix is usually about nine parts quartz to one-part additives. All that hard rock makes it durable and scratch resistant (about twice as tough as marble). The plastics seal any tiny holes that the rock might have, so it doesn’t need to be sealed, but those plastics can be damaged by caustic chemicals or high heat. Because it’s man-made, the design choices are endless and range from imitating stone (complete with veining) to solid colors and flecked surfaces. Some designs and colors make it difficult to hide the seams. Quartz is expensive and may cost more than natural stone depending on the complexity of the project, but it’s essentially maintenance-free. It’s also very heavy and requires sound infrastructure and professional installation. Quartz is not UV proof and can get a yellowish tone as the plastics react over time in direct sunlight.
Granite comes in a variety of shapes including large slabs, modules and tiles. While slabs are the most expensive, they can offer a visually monolithic, seamless look that can tie disparate elements together in a room. Modules are essentially large tiles that usually run as a single piece from front to back, so the seams are all in one direction. And granite tiles can be purchased at a big box store and come in sizes ranging from 6” to 18” square, or in rectangular forms that can be installed with a running bond. Many installers add a ceramic backsplash and front profile to a field of granite tile. The advantage to using small tiles is the material cost but building the countertop can eat up a lot of time and expense. Plus, all those seams need to be sealed periodically to prevent biological growth or staining. Smaller tiles generally come only in a high gloss finish, and many are composite rather than true quarried stock. But they can be worked with an inexpensive tile saw and a grinder, so with a little research, most talented woodworkers can install a granite tile top. Natural granite can handle up to ten times as much heat as most manmade surface materials, but it does tend to stain because it is porous.
Plastic laminate has come a long way over the past few decades, in part thanks to printing technology. Some of the wood and stone grains available in high-pressure laminates are almost indistinguishable from the originals in nature. Laminate is relatively inexpensive, somewhat pliable, easy to work, easy to maintain and clean, and comes in a monumental array of colors and patterns. Laminates do have a few downsides. Many products can age over time and lose their luster or suffer delamination from overexposure to heat or dampness. They can also chip, especially on edges and outside corners, and can melt or burn when, for example, a hot pan is placed directly on the countertop for more than a few seconds. But consumers are familiar with laminates because of their long history, and most will use a trivet and a cutting board. Overall, plastic laminates are an excellent choice for kitchen and bath surfaces because of their cost, durability, and design options. Unfortunately, the real estate market tends to undervalue this family of products, so resale can be contentious.
Solid surface countertops are made with acrylic or polyester (or both), with mineral fines such as marble or an aluminum derivative, and pigment. The acrylic base is a bit easier to work, a little more expensive, and more of a matte sheen, while the polyester brands generally have more vibrant colors and are UV resistant. Solid surface materials are widely available with familiar brand names such as Corian, Hi-Macs, Wilsonart, Formica and Avonite, and the industry is well versed in forming and repairing them. They aren’t very heat resistant, can be scratched with sharp tools and knives, and can be susceptible to chemical discoloring, but solid surfaces are essentially non-porous and hardy. They resist bacteria and don’t require periodic sealing. They’re low maintenance, easy to work, easy to seam, and are relatively budget conscious.
Shops looking for sustainable solutions might be interested in Alkemi-acrylic, a relatively new product (2011) manufactured by California-based Renewed Materials (renewedmaterials.com). It’s made using pre-consumer waste flake aluminum and copper, solid surface scrap, and recycled acrylic. With no VOC content, Alkemi-acrylic is safe for people and friendly to the environment. The recycled content ranges from 88 to 97 percent, so it’s an ideal choice for clients with a green agenda. It satisfies LEED criteria for 4.1 and 4.2 credits, and it comes in 18 different colors and in finishes from matte to gloss. The finish is created by the fabricator. It can be used vertically and horizontally, and it can be fabricated and installed by qualified solid surface professionals using conventional woodworking tools and methods. The colors and patterns are a direct result of the available scrap and waste materials at the time of manufacturing, so color and pattern may appear to vary throughout the sheet, as well as from one sheet to another. It’s a plastic, so it doesn’t like heat. The company does make matching adhesives and small scratches can be removed by sanding while bigger ones can be filled with the adhesive.
Another trending green solution is recycled or ‘crushed’ glass. It can be a bit pricey because of all the processes it undergoes, but it can also be very attractive and quite dramatic. It is also unique: no two tops are identical. The glass is most often used and recycled, but it can also be primary factory waste. Most countertops embed the glass in acrylic or concrete. The acrylic makes it look like the glass is floating, and it can even be backlit for more drama. The concrete option needs to be sealed periodically. To see what it looks like, visit the products page at vetrazzo.com. Resistant to heat and scratching, crushed glass does nonetheless retain the possibility of chipping under impact, especially along profiled edges.
PaperStone (paperstoneproducts.com) is a new composite that is manufactured in Washington state and most of the catalog is FSC certified. All the paper is either post-consumer recycled or old cardboard. Layers of this paper are pressed into ‘stone’ using resin made from industrial byproducts that would otherwise go into the waste stream. The result is a hardwood-like, highly workable, very attractive and non-brittle composite panel.
Recycled or reclaimed wood can make at attractive countertop, and it certainly is sustainable. Depending on the source and species, it may be both FSC and LEED certified. The key is to use this porous surface wisely. Many designers incorporate sections of a more durable surface such as copper or granite in the working areas of the countertop, and then use the richness of the recycled wood color to offset monochromatic coatings on cabinets. Some reclaimed or recycled boards have a patina that can be saved. Others have cracks and checks or even architectural milling such as mortises that can be filled with clear or colored epoxy. If the board has been around a while, it may be done misbehaving (expanding, contracting, bowing, etc.) and can be quite stable. If it’s new wood that has been stressed or processed to look like old wood, that probably won’t be true. The only downside to using recycled wood is that it may have toxins such as traces of lead paint, or it may have been used in a factory or shop that did unsanitary things such as processing chemicals, or perhaps an abattoir or mine. So, it’s important to know its provenance before installing it in a customer’s kitchen.
Bamboo is an extremely fast-growing grass that makes an acceptable but not very durable surface. It is very renewable and environmentally conscious, but it requires multiple food-safe oil or sealant coatings to become water resistant (not proof). Like wood, bamboo moves with changes in heat and humidity. Unlike wood, it has some resistance to bacteria.
Other natural countertop choices worth exploring are lava, marble, slate, soapstone, travertine, gabbro (a granite-like rock), and quartzite.
Ceramic tile is still a viable option for counters, and especially backsplashes. Some designers consider it dated, but new tile designs can be very minimalistic or sleek. Tile also provides the opportunity to insert periodical design elements such as themes or color palettes. The grout lines can absorb liquids and discolor, but damaged tiles are relatively easy to replace. The bottom line on ceramic tile is that it’s an economical choice that requires artistic flair to make it work.
Concrete can be relatively inexpensive or extremely costly, depending on who is doing the work. It takes a lot of experience to get it right. Concrete is heavy, hard to work, porous, not overly attractive, and often badly poured and finished. On the other hand, a professional concrete job can be very eye-catching.
Epoxy resin makes great river tables and other art works, but it can be quite expensive and very unforgiving when it’s being worked on the jobsite. Factory manufactured epoxy counters can be very dramatic and relatively scratch resistant.
Glass has become a viable countertop material over the past few years because it is heat and scratch resistant, won’t absorb liquids, and has very hygienic qualities. It can be quite expensive and being glass, it will always be at risk of cracking under impact. But it can also come in opaque, clear, solid colors or even speckled. It can be manufactured to shape and incorporate seamless sink bowls, and designers can do some startling things with glass and LED lights. Textured glass also diffuses natural light and has a pattern on the underside that can disguise fingerprints on the topside.
Porcelain is perhaps more familiar as the material of bathroom fixtures than as a countertop. It’s made by firing specific clay and stone at high temperatures, and the countertops are coated with a glaze. It’s stronger than granite, waterproof, stain resistant, UV resistant, and can be colored with pigments and can emulate marble, wood, concrete or other materials. The slabs need to be custom manufactured to size and shape. It can also crack or shatter from impact.
The pandemic made manufacturers take another look at metal countertops due to its bacteria resistance. There are claims that copper can be especially effective against microbial diseases. Galvanized zinc and stainless steel are also being used, with the steel being an up-market option that is most often used in restaurants and hospitals.
Butcherblock countertops reveal long lengths of edge-glued side grain, while a genuine butcher’s block is all end grain. Commercial ‘butcherblock’ can make a serviceable and attractive counter, but it requires regular maintenance and won’t behave well in wet areas. Maples are the traditional choice because of their hardness and stability. All edge-glued hardwood or softwood stock is going to expand and contract across its grain, so the installation must accommodate future movement. Generally, solid wood counters are secured at the wall and allowed to float a little at the middle and front of the cabinet by installing the screws in slots. Without this, they can buckle.
No matter what surface material is being considered, the client’s concerns are going to be aesthetics, cost and durability – and probably in that order. The shop, on the other hand, needs to consider sourcing and workability, including the need for training or subcontracting. Sometimes, the cost of a countertop has very little to do with the material itself.
This article was originally published in the November 2022 issue.