Kitchen Countertops Buying Guide

Everything you need to know about the different types of kitchen countertops

By Lisa S. Kahn

The kitchen countertop serves dual functions: it is both an important design element and a practical work surface. It not only needs to coordinate beautifully with your cabinetry and appliances but also work well with your cooking style. This guide will help you choose the type countertop material that's just right for you.

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The Hard Facts about Stone Countertops

Stone countertops have an earthy beauty that transcends fads. Every slab reveals its unique palette of color, streaks, and specks that are made more vibrant under a stoneworker's hand. Most stone countertops will last as long as your house and need only routine care to ward off stains and scratches.

The pros:

  • The pattern and color you choose are unique
  • Natural stone is impervious to heat
  • Stone is water-resistant
  • A seamless stone slab has no dirt-catching grout lines
  • It's low maintenance: just wipe up spills as they occur and reapply sealant when required

The cons:

  • This is one of the most expensive countertop choices
  • Stone is brittle and will crack if it's not evenly supported
  • It requires professional installation
  • Stains can occur in porous stones like travertine, limestone, and marble if not periodically sealed
  • Acids like citrus, vinegar, bleach or ammonia will etch marble, limestone, and travertine, even if sealed

Types of Stone Countertops

Innovative Stone

Granite remains the most popular countertop for a host of good reasons. It's as beautiful as it is durable, the color selection is virtually unlimited, and it adapts well to nearly every kitchen style. Granite is available in polished, honed, and matte finishes and a variety of edge treatments. While granite's cost is determined mainly by its color and pattern, prices have become more reasonable as manufacturers vie for a greater share of the booming market. Price: Starting at $57 per sq. ft. (installed).

Good to know about granite: Granite should be resealed periodically with products you can buy at any home supply store. Stains such as red wine should be wiped up promptly.

Marble is a classic stone that is making something of a comeback in modern kitchens. For years, stone fabricators have steered customers away from using marble for countertops because of its reputation for staining and etching. However, each marble has different properties and some, like Vermont's Danby White, are actually less porous than granite. White marble has been used in professional kitchens for centuries and can be an excellent choice if you're a frequent baker. Price: About $100 per sq. ft. (uninstalled).

Good to know about marble: Annual sealing and regular cleaning with a pH-neutral stone cleaner can decrease the risk of staining. If stains do occur, a poultice solution can usually draw them out.

Slate is an easy-care countertop material. It's so dense that it doesn't require sealing; this same characteristic also gives slate its stain-resistant, antibacterial, and heat-resistant qualities. It can be honed for a natural, matte appearance or oiled for a glossier look. Slate is softer than granite, so countertop edges should be rounded to discourage chipping. Scratches can be buffed out with an abrasive pad. Price: About $80 per sq. ft. (uninstalled).

Good to know about slate: Color choices are limited to tones of green, gray, purple, and black.

Soapstone. Although is has been around for at least 300 million years, soapstone is a relative newcomer to the North American countertop market. Originally mined in Vermont, most soapstone is imported from Brazil in a range of blue-gray tones. Its soft, warm appearance and feel are due to the talc that's a large part of its composition. Soapstone is non-porous, heat-resistant and impervious to bacteria and chemicals. No sealing is required, but mineral oil will bring out the luster and marbling. Soapstone is soft and easy to scratch; buff scratches out with an abrasive pad. Price: From $55 per sq. ft. fabricated.

Good to know about soapstone: Unlike granite or quartz, soapstone does not require the extra cost of a substrate to install.

Limestone, with its serene desert tones and striking fossil imprints, limestone is generally considered too porous to withstand heavy kitchen use. However, some formations are surprisingly moisture-resistant and can work beautifully with a bit of extra care. To minimize staining, limestone requires periodic treatment with special sealers and impregnators. Limestone can be chemically etched with acids such as vinegar, citrus, and tomatoes. It may help to dampen the countertop before you work with these foods. Price: About $30 per sq. ft. (uninstalled).

Good to know about limestone: Don't even consider installing a limestone counter yourself. The stone is extremely heavy and requires meticulous installation to avoid cracking.

Stone slabs come in two standard thicknesses: about 3/4 inch (2 centimeters) and about 1¼ inch (3 centimeters). Thicker stone has a greater visual heft that's preferred in kitchens. You can achieve this look for less by asking your installer to glue a strip of stone to the edge of a 3/4-inch slab. When cut from the same slab, the look will be seamless.

A note on pricing: Product and installation costs vary widely depending upon where you live and the experience of the people doing the installation. It can be worthwhile to pay a bit more for the assurance of a reputable installer standing behind the work.

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