Countertop Materials: The Pros and Cons

The countertop you pick can make or break your project. Some countertop materials are gorgeous, some are blah, some are scary, some are cheap looking, some stain and scratch, and some might be better than others for your project and budget.

Choose wisely, because you will live with your countertops a long time and might never change them again. If you have a tile or stone backsplash, removing your existing countertop probably means you must remove/replace your backsplash. And this probably requires sheetrock work on your backsplash, as well as removing/replacing/adjusting electrical outlets on the backsplash, and possibly moving/adjusting under-cabinet lighting. It also entails removal of your faucet/sink, any sink-based appliances, and your dishwasher—and re-installing these. Costs mount up.

Marble-like Quartz Countertop

A Gorgeous Marble-like Quartz Countertop (My Project)

Here are some of the basic countertop materials in use today, with comments about each:

Laminates Laminates are the least expensive option and they also look the least expensive. Some are interesting in the right application, but many are dreadful. They are also not as hard and or durable as some of the other materials. The edge detail is limited to two basic shapes: 90 degree drop edge with seam at edge and the preformed curved edge. Boring. And if you let your designer/contractor design/install one of the 6” – 9” laminate backsplashes….shame on you! These shout “apartment cheap countertop.”

There are so many nice and beautiful countertop materials and backsplash materials out there—don’t settle for this disgrace to backsplashes! I have rarely used laminates for countertops and hope not to, but I did use an interesting black textured-laminate countertop for a gorgeous home office once. Mainly it’s a matter of your budget (not all budgets can take the cost of a stone or a quartz) and what you like.

A Great Use of a Laminate Countertop (My Project)

Corian Twenty to 30 years ago or more, Corian was all the rage when someone could not use granite. Luckily we now have much better options and virtually no one uses Corian or Corian-like countertops today. It scratches….and with the high-gloss Corian’s this is a disaster. I do not recommend any acrylic countertop surface. Period.

Tile Tile has been used for countertops for a long time. It is not used as commonly now. I have rarely used it on my projects and probably only outside for a barbeque island. One of the major problems with tile is that the grout stains and has to be cleaned from time to time. There is a new grout that has a sealant embedded in the grout, which seems to help keep grout from staining a little.

On a backsplash, tile can be great and I’ll write a blog on that soon, but on the countertop, where you prepare things and foods might get on it all the time, I’m not a fan—the grout lines are just more crevices for bacteria and debris to build up in. Another drawback of tile countertops is that you see the grout lines—even if were to use a grout the same color as your tile, you see the grout lines. This has an esthetic affect and looks busier than if the lines were not there.

Another drawback is that if the tile is glossy, over time the gloss can wear down and look dull and worn out. And the tile can chip and crack.

A big drawback for me as a designer is the edge detail when using tile. You’re limited in edge details. And, you never want to see the side edge of a tile in a finished tile project unless that edge is ‘finished.’ Some tiles are not and the ‘body’ is a different color than the surface. And the height of the countertop edge can be a problem too: some tiles are longer/wider than your typical 1.5” countertop edge. This means the edge must be cut. A cut tile as an edge can look odd and it must be sanded so that no dangerous sharp edges are left to slice your fingers on. The edge design/installation must take all of this into account.

A good tile installer is an artist and knows how to do the edge detail properly, how to set the tile pattern so that you don’t get any funny little cut pieces, how to keep the tiles straight, etc. The cost of tile installation is not inexpensive for a good job.

Additionally, some tiles are not meant to be used as countertops and will not wear well, so be sure to ask your tile supplier if the tile you’re considering is meant to be used for countertops.

And if your countertop is outside, be sure to ask if the tile is meant to be used outside, many are not. If you use a medium to dark color outside, it can get hot enough to burn you....be careful. And I'd worry about expansion and contraction of the tiles from hot/cold cycling damaging the grout and looseing the tiles.

A Tile Countertop on a BBQ Island (My Project)

Granite

Granite countertops were all the rage 20 or so years ago, before all of the current quartz countertops were created. In my opinion as a designer, granite is out-of-style. I wouldn’t use it in a kitchen or bath or on a barbeque island now unless my clients really wanted it even after I helped them understand all their choices and the pros/cons of granite.

Granite can stain. Oils can seep down into the granite and form oil spots that are very difficult if not impossible to remove. This has always been true, but before recent times, there was no better alternative. If you want a true stone look, and if you find a granite color that goes perfectly with your other materials to create the gorgeous look you want, then use it. But know that you must take care of it and keep it clean. If you have children (even teenagers), you might not want to run the risk of your granite staining—especially when there are alternatives.

Removal and replacement of a granite countertop is expensive and involved (see opening remarks above). You don’t want to have to ever do this. Fabricators recommend you have it sealed every few years (or less). People tend to forget to do this and even if it is sealed, there is no guarantee that it might not stain (due to wine, oils, mustard, tomato sauce, etc.). So use granite with caution and only if you are willing to accept the consequences.

Some types of granite are ugly. I mean really ugly—as if mold is growing on your countertops. Some people think that because it is granite, it must be nice. This is not true. And some of the lower-priced granites fall into this category. Make sure you love the granite (or any material in your project) you choose.

Granite is usually more expensive than tile and certainly more than laminates. See my future blog on about backsplashes for my recommendations on using granite as a backsplash.

Granite can usuall be used outside on a BBQ island or in an outdoor kitchen/room. But, the darker the color, the hotter it will get in the sun. A medium to dark color can get so hot it can burn your skin. Be careful what color you choose and make sure that you granite supplier will warranty it if used outside. Some stones have hidden fractures in them and the granite will expand and contract with sun/shade and hot/cold temperatures, possibly causing the slab to crack.

A 3/4"-thick Granite Island Countertop, Corian in White (My Project)

Marble Marble can be gorgeous, but never, never, ever use it in a kitchen or bathroom! Marble is made from calcium carbonate and it will dissolve in acids, like lemon juice, tomato sauce, etc. If you set a glass on a marble countertop and an acid gets on the marble, it can remove the shine on your marble—even if it has been sealed. And you can’t ever fix it properly. It will stain, even worse than granite.

I see real marble used in kitchens and baths all the time in magazines--do a search on the internet and you will see them thousands of projects with real marble. They look beautiful, but I just shake my head and know how outraged the owners will be when it is ruined. Behind or next to a cooktop--a disaster waiting to happen. In a bathroom where hair products and makeup are used--another diaster waiting to happen. Don’t do it!

Don’t even use it on a backsplash in a kitchen or bath….or as the tile in a shower…..and very carefully consider it for any flooring (shiny flooring can be a very dangerous water/slip hazard). If you use marble in the wrong place, you will regret it.

A Real Marble Countertop (Photo from Internet)

Quartz

Quartz countertops are manmade ‘stone.’ They are made from pure quartz material (a rock), colorants, and resins to hold it all together. They are the answer to the staining problems with real stone. Most quartz countertop manufactures now guarantee that their quartz won’t stain, possibly with a limited warranty. They don’t tend to stain, but, keep in mind that if they do stain and you execute your warranty, I believe that is for material replacement only, not for labor or all the other costs associated with removing and replacing your countertops.

Some quartz manufactures also warranty that they will not scratch. I have seen some quartz countertops that are badly scratched. So take a sample of the quartz material you are considering using and try to scratch and stain it…..see what it takes to do this.

There are several really great quartz companies out there and some really beautiful colors/styles. Some are hideous. Some are an obvious attempt to look like granite, but they don’t really—still, some of them are lovely or interesting. If you’re using quartz, which is probably similar in price to anaverage-priced granite, you will have many colors/styles to choose from, so be sure to find out who all the manufacturers are and look at their products before you decide on which one you want.

Another good thing about quartz is that you do not seal it. A sealant will just flake off…so don’t seal it.

And….you can find several marble-like or sandstone-like quartzes and they are lovely--really lovely--and are perfectly ok to use in a kitchen. This is how to get the marble look without the danger of staining and damage.

In my opinion, quartz is currently the best overall indoor countertop for look, price, and maintenance and I tend to look for the perfect color/style as options for my clients.

Most quartz materials are not OK to use outdoors, though I think I heard that at least one company has come up with some that are. Check with the quartz manufacturer as to whether they warranty it for outdoor use. Outdoor use is a much harsher environment and you don't want to end up with damaged countertops in your lovely outdoor project.

The darker the quartz color, the hotter the countertop will get in the sun, just as with granite. If you find a great quartz that is warrantied for outside use, keep in mind that you can burn yourself on medium to dark surfaces.

A Marble-Like Quartz Countetop with 2" Edge Height (My Project)

Specialty Stones There are several specialty stones on the market being used for countertops. Most are even more expensive than higher-priced granites. Most will stain, like granite. And most are very, very loud and colorful. They make a very big design statement. This might be good, but it might not be. My design principle includes the idea that it’s not usually the countertop that is the main focal point of the room, but sometimes it works.

And don’t forget that you will be looking down at your countertop for years. Do you want a loud, bright, busy countertop to look at, or do you want a calmer, more subdued countertop that fits in with your overall scheme? Choose carefully. Try to see it installed somewhere before you decide to use it. The photo below gives me a headache....even though I love rocks.

A Very, Very Loud, Busy Countertop (From Internet)

Butcher-block Countertops

These used to be fashionable, especially for an island (rarely for an entire kitchen and I've never seen one in a bathroom), but I don't believe they are as common any longer. I personally NEVER use them unless my clients still persist despite all my dire warnings. They are wood. Wood is relatively soft and it will mar, scratch, dent, discolor, and roughen over time. You can't really ever clean them. And if you think that you will use them as cutting boards, wow.....a costly mistake, because they will look even more terrible over time.

Any sealants/stains put on these are toxic, so food should never be put on wood countertops.

If a client loves the look and doesn't care about the many reasons not to use them, then I suggest a large cutting board made from the other countertop material in the kitchen (such as granite or quartz) and set that on the butcherblock to use for cutting.

While it is true that you might be able to have your worn butcher-block countertop sanded down to look better, you might not be able to. And who wants to have dust flying all over their house? My recommendation: DON'T USE THEM.

A Butcher-Block Countertop (Photo from Internet)

A few other types of countertops are speciality glass (very expensive), metal (a commerical look), and concrete. I'll discuss these in a later blog.

Countertop Edge Thickness

A few comments about countertop edge thickness: the standard countertop edge height is 1.5.” In California, most countertop materials (granite, stones, quartz) are ¾” thick. The stone is usually set on top of a ½” – ¾” plywood subtop. This means that you need to build up the countertop edge height to cover the raw edge of the plywood subtop. This is where the 1.5” edge comes from.

Whatever the subtop height, it must allow the cabinet doors below the edge to clear the bottom edge of the countertop, so your contractor and installer must make the specified countertop edge work. Sometimes a thicker countertop edge looks nice. Not always. But when you increase the edge thickness, you are raising the countertop height. Standard countertop height is 36” off finish floor. For all except very tall people, countertop height should not go above 36”. It is harder to work on a countertop higher than 36” for average to short people. But there is a problem if you increase the edge thickness but don’t raise the countertop—because most cabinets are ‘off-the-shelf’ and not custom and they are made for a 36” high countertop with a 1.5” edge. In general, if you decide you want a 2” or 3” countertop edge all around in your kitchen or bath, if you are keeping a 36” height countertop, you must use custom cabinets that are decreased in height to accommodate your special countertop edge height. This is costly and might not even be doable. Keep in mind that a 39” countertop height is TOO HIGH and 38” is probably too high also, even for tall people.

What about a ¾” countertop edge height? You might save a little money in the edge fabrication, but in my opinion, it doesn’t usually look good…too thin. If you do this, know that you must have your contractor apply an edge banding to the raw edge of the subtop, and if the installer has to shim your countertop because your cabinets are not level, you might have to cover the shim/gap also, making the edge-banding thickness inconsistent. I think this is a problem waiting to happen—better to use a 1.5” edge thickness.

Countertop Edge Styles In a well-designed kitchen or bath, every single detail is chosen and planned to fit in with the whole. Usually there is a style (contemporary, or traditional, or rustic, or Craftsman, etc.) that the project is designed around. The countertop edge detail should be chosen to fit with the style. A good designer will pick a few edge styles that fit with that style, are practical, and fit with the client’s budget, and suggest those to the client. It’s important to me to keep control of all design aspects of a project….even minor deviances from my plan and materials can keep the project from being as great as I envision it. See my earlier blog "The Designer's Vision..."

Any questions or comments on my thoughts? Send me a reply.

A Lovely Granite Used for Countertop, Shower, and Bath Surround (My project)

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