Milwaukee/NARI Offers Suggestions On Choosing Kitchen Countertops

March 9, 2009

Whether thinking of a total kitchen remodel or just updating your look, nothing makes a bigger difference than countertops. Countertops are often the first thing people notice about your kitchen and with so many colors and styles to choose from, they are a way to express your personality and the tone of your home. While style and function are unique to each homeowner, Remodelers with the Milwaukee Chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) offer some points to consider when choosing countertop material.


“Our most popular sellers are quartz, granite, and Corian,” said Terry Ripple of The Cabinetree in Brookfield. “In most new kitchens, granite and quartz are close in popularity, but in re-dos, synthetic materials are the choice.”


Quartz: Quartz, such as Silestone, Cambria, and Zodiac, also known as engineered stone, is made by combining 93 percent quartz with resin and pigments in a process that binds the medium permanently. Although the look of engineered stone is more uniform than natural stone, it still gives kitchens an upscale look. Like granite, quartz is durable, and resistant to wear and tear, stains, scratches, and high temperatures, although trivets or hot pads are recommended before setting a pan directly from the stove to the countertop. Quartz also comes in a wide range of colors.


“An advantage to quartz is a 10-year warranty, versus no warranty for granite,” Ripple said. “Quartz is not porous and 50 percent harder than granite and it doesn’t scratch, but quartz can’t duplicate the look of granite”


Concrete: Concrete countertops project a modern look with a slightly higher price tag than quartz. Sometimes the choice of concrete is used only for a focal point, such as an island. “They are versatile in style because they can be dyed, textured, or customized to any shape, but they can develop cracks and seams are visible,” said Sandra Bernacchi, a designer with Colleen Horner Bath & Tile, which has showrooms in Pewaukee and in Milwaukee’s Third Ward, “Sealers resist stains but not heat.”


“Vivendi makes a concrete-type product that’s more consistent in color, pattern, and is fabricated at a shop. These countertops are used for bathrooms, laundry rooms, and kitchens," she said.

Granite: With granite, every piece is unique and the stone has movement to it as well as a variety of exotic and vibrant colors to choose from. Granite can also be honed to give it a matte finish.

“Granite varies by the region it comes from so a color from India would vary from the ‘same’ color in Brazil,” Ripple said. “A homeowner really needs to see the sample.”


Granite is heat resistant, durable, and waterproof. Although hard to scratch, it is porous so it can stain, particularly with citrus juices. Therefore, sealing is important and should be done at least once a year.


“There is a learning curve for those who have new granite or quartz counters,” Ripple added. “They are very sensitive to dishware and glassware. Setting an object down too harshly on granite can result in breakage of the object.”


Solid Surface: Solid surface materials such as Corian, Swanstone, and Avonite, are durable, long lasting, and heat and stain resistant. Solid surface countertops are available in any color imaginable and since the color goes all the way through the countertop, if it is scratched or stained, a light rubbing of sandpaper will grind it out. Corian also offers an undermount sink weld to the countertop, which provides a totally seamless and customized look.


Soapstone: An interesting alternative to the top sellers is soapstone, a rarer product, much softer than granite, which patinas over time.

“Soapstone is an excellent alternative to marble or granite as long as the homeowners realize the maintenance issue with it,” said Ray Shelton of Artisan Kitchen & Bath Gallery, Wauwatosa. “It is generally gray, green, or bluish in color and has a smooth feel to it. It is often seen in historic homes, although it is also used in modern homes as both a countertop and sink material.”


Soapstone is a fairly soft material, but scratches can easily be sanded out with a fine sandpaper. After sanding, soapstone is usually wiped with mineral oil to darken the stone and conceal any scuffs. The mineral oil creates a darker, richer look that many homeowners prefer.

In addition soapstone is inert, which means acids and alkalis will not etch it. Soapstone is considered nearly impenetrable and will not absorb stains like some other materials.


Marble: “Marble is a wonderful stone that has been mined, cut, carved, and chiseled for thousands of years. Its unique veining and ‘movement’ make it a beautiful stone for fireplace faces, showers, and vanity tops,” said Shelton. “It offers a more traditional old-world look than granite does, although it is rarely used as a kitchen countertop because it can be scratched, etched, or stained. However, within the last few years, impregnating stone sealers have come a long way, and if used properly, have made marble surfaces much harder to stain. Many cooks like to include a marble top baking center in their kitchen because it is a great material for baking and candy making.”


Limestone: Another natural stone option is limestone, which doesn’t have heavy veining or graining and can withstand heat. Limestone has a neutral color palette including blue-gray, tans, golds, ivory, and creams. “Limestone is a more traditional look used often in bathrooms with coordinating stone used on the floors and shower walls,” said Bernacchi. “Being more porous and not as stain resistant, the bathroom works better than a heavily used kitchen. Limestone is a very soft stone that is easily slicked, nicked, and scratched.”


Ceramic Tiles: Decorative possibilities are endless with ceramic tile, which comes in a wide variety of colors, patterns, and textures. It’s also budget friendly and easy to install for the do-it-yourselfer. “Ceramic tiles are best for use near stoves because they are heat resistant,” said Bernacchi. “They come in many colors, patterns, and prices, but tiles can chip easily and grout between tiles stains even when sealed.”


Butcher Block: For the casual kitchen, Butcher Block provides a warm and homey look. Plus it’s easy to install. “It’s great for cutting produce and it is easy to repair, but it needs periodic sealing or refinishing to remove cuts, dings, and scratches,” said Bernacchi. “And the finish affects performance. Varnish improves stain resistance, while penetrating oils decrease it.”


Laminates: For the budget conscious homeowner who wants to change the look of their kitchen, laminates such as Formica, Nevamar, and Wilsonart are options. They come in many colors and styles; some even resemble granite. Although laminates resist stains and heat, and cleans easily, scratches and chips are very difficult or impossible to repair. Plus, most laminates have visible seams.


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