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The secret to getting great kitchen counters

  • Story Highlights
  • More kitchen counter choices than ever
  • Each type has pros and cons
  • Choose a surface that suits your lifestyle
  • Next Article in Living »
By Roseann Henry
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(This Old House) -- There are more options than ever in kitchen surfaces each with pros and cons. The biggest trend right now is stone, stone, and more stone. There are almost limitless choices in stone, all of them extremely durable. They'll take a lot of abuse, but the cons are that they're expensive, cold, and tough on glassware; if you drop a glass on a stone counter, your counter will be fine but the glass will break.

Every kitchen surface will have pros and cons.

Sort out the choices, weigh all the factors before you commit. However, one rule is tried and true: choose a surface that suits your lifestyle.

Here's a rundown on a few options:

Engineered Stone combines the durability of granite with the colorful palette of solid surfacing. This is a good choice for homeowners who want the natural look of stone without its maintenance; it provides lots of color options and a wide cost range. Its distinct look might not be for everyone, but it's structurally and aesthetically predictable, stain- and scratch-resistant, unfazed by heat, and unaffected by everyday acids like coffee, citrus, and vinegar.

Cost: Can range anywhere from $60 to $120 square foot installed.

Natural Stone, including top-of-the-line granite as well as marble, limestone, and slate, makes a wonderful style statement. It's available in a broad range of colors, grains, finishes, and textures, which means it can work with any design scheme. Granite is heat- and stain-resistant; marble and limestone are likely to show stains and scratches. Marble is usually a better choice in an area where it will get less wear and tear. Joints will show on all natural stone counters.

Cost: Prices vary regionally, but expect to pay at least $60 to $120 per square foot depending on the type of stone, the detailing, and the complexity of the installation.

Concrete is a trend in kitchen surfaces; you can dye it whatever color you want or have it embedded with stones, jewels, and fossils, but be prepared, it stains and cracks.

Cost: Prices vary significantly, depending on grade and quality, complexity of the installation, detail, and finish. Expect to pay anywhere from $60 to $350 per square foot.

Stainless Steel can withstand almost any abuse without rusting or discoloring. It keeps its luster, it's easy to maintain, and it's nonporous, so bacteria doesn't grow on it. It's especially good for someone looking for a hypoallergenic solution, but it's not for neat freaks, since it shows surface abrasions, fingerprints, and smudges. Some people find its look to be cold or sterile.

Copper has lots of character. It's warm and beautiful, long-lasting, and nonporous, so it does not foster bacteria. It will take a lot of maintenance if you want it to look shiny all the time, as it takes time to polish. It will naturally oxidize and develop a patina over time, and like stainless steel it will scratch. Copper has extremely limited customizations options.

Cost: Stainless steel and copper are both expensive, ranging from $130 to $200 per square foot installed, or even more based on the customization, size of the project, and geographic region. Ask your contractor to line-item the installation.

Ceramic Tile has long been a regional favorite in the west, less popular in the east. It's highly resistant to stains and heat, and easy to repair if a damaged tile needs replacement. It's very versatile, and counters can be made in virtually any shape. It can be high-maintenance, as the grout lines can stain and require regular cleaning. Be careful of getting fine-ground coffee between the tiles. Always buy extra when choosing tile, because manufacturers change patterns and colors often. Even seemingly common tile can be hard to find later.

Cost: Prices vary, but basic ceramic tile (4 1/4 to 6 inches square) runs about $25 to $30 per square foot installed. Expect to pay more for complicated layouts, custom touches, and specialty tiles.

Solid Surfacing was pioneered by DuPont as Corian some 30 years ago and is now made by half a dozen manufacturers. It's nonporous, does not stain, and offers a large number of colors and patterns from which to choose. Installation is seamless, so there's no place for dirt to accumulate, and it can be curved in all different ways for a customized shape. Integral sinks can be added for a completely seamless installation. Because the surface is solid, without the thin decorative layer of laminate, scorch marks, scratches, and other defects can be sanded out or repaired. It will scratch, though, so you shouldn't cut directly on it. It's also not heat-resistant.

Cost: It's not cheap, ranging from $40 to $75 per square foot. It's less expensive than engineered stone and granite, but pricier than tile.

Wood (Butcher Block) is the original solid surface. It works with many different kitchen styles, from tradition to contemporary, but today's trend is to mix it with other surfaces. Butcher block counters are warm, resilient, and long-wearing, and the forgiving surface is easy on your knives. Damaged areas can be scraped, sanded, and refinished to get a nearly new appearance. Wood countertops do require regular attention and ongoing applications of oil (as often as every four to eight weeks). Standing water will damage the wood and make it split or crack, so you need to mop up spills immediately. It's not heat-resistant, and it's vulnerable to burns. The biggest common myth about butcher block is that wood promotes bacteria, but that's not necessarily true. The capillary action of the dry wood makes germs disappear from the surface quickly. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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