Boston experts help choose the best countertop
By Linda Lesyna and Kim Eifrid of Boston Building Resources
In recent years, some new options for countertops have become popular with homeowners and architects. These join tried-and-true countertop surfaces to make for a wide range of choices that vary by price, practical qualities, and environmental impact.
One of the newest, and greenest, choices is a paper-based countertop material, such as Richlite. It is made of Forest Stewardship Council–certified wood or recycled paper treated with resin, pressed, and baked into sheets.
Softer and warmer than stone, this material is the same color throughout and comes in a limited palette of solid colors. Due to its tensile strength, it can be cantilevered for longer spans than other materials without additional support. It is available with numerous edge details and in several thicknesses, from 3/4 to 1-1/2 inches. It is heat-resistant up to 350 degrees and scratch-resistant, though it's not meant to be cut upon.
Although Richlite is nonporous, it still requires periodic resealing with mineral oil to maintain a consistent appearance. Richlite is made in the U.S. and costs between $85 and $110 per square foot, including templating and installation.
Synthetic quartz, or engineered stone, has many of the qualities of natural stone, but it's nonporous, making for a cleaner surface and eliminating the need for the periodic resealing. This material is highly rated by consumer magazines as one of the most maintenance-free countertops available.
Composed of ground-up natural quartz and a binding resin, it is more homogeneous in color and pattern than natural stone. Brands include Cambria, Caesarstone, Silestone, and Zodiac. Prices run between $72 and $100 per square foot, including templating and installation.
Natural stone is certainly not new, but has enjoyed resurgent popularity over the past decade. Stone countertops are most commonly available in granite, but also in soapstone and marble. They come in a number of different colors, and each piece is unique. Because individual slabs come in different sizes, larger tops may require seams. Granite should be resealed every one to two years.
Stone (and quartz) countertops offer numerous edge details—but the more complex the detail, the greater the cost. Because stone is so hard, it has no resiliency; if you drop a glass on it, the glass will break. This same quality makes it scratch-resistant and able to tolerate extreme temperature variations. Stone countertops vary greatly in price, from $60 to $100 per square foot including templating and installation.
While we think of stone as a material that will last forever, it does require some attention. Stone is porous and needs to be sealed on a regular basis. Highly acidic foods and cleaners will react with the stone and discolor it. Each installer will provide a fact sheet on how to care for the stone.
Butcher block countertops are another classic material with environmental qualities that give it a renewed appeal. Butcher block is usually made of laminated strips of hard maple; most come with an oil finish that is easily renewed as it wears.
They need to be resealed periodically and maintained with mineral oil. There are standard sizes available, so seams may be necessary on large or irregular shapes. Butcher block is a good surface for cutting and is fairly heat-resistant, but is not recommended near sinks because water will stain it. Butcher block countertops run between $20 to $30 per square foot.
Plastic laminate countertops are the most economical option. This material is made of layers of paper laminated with glue and finished with a top coat that has color, design, and texture. Brands include Formica, Wilsonart, Nevamar, and Pionite.
Plastic laminate offers the most color choices. It is fairly durable, but it will scratch and burn. Once the surface of a laminate countertop is marred, it cannot be repaired. Several edge options are also available with laminates, including postform, a factory-molded top with an integral backsplash.
One disadvantage of laminates is that they cannot be used with an under-mounted sink. Custom plastic laminate countertops are made to order, so they will fit any size or configuration. Prices vary from $11 to $30 per square foot.
Solid-surface countertops are made of man-made composite materials. Like quartz, granite, and Richlite, and in contrast to laminates, the color or pattern runs throughout the material.
Solid-surface countertops will scratch and burn, but damage can be sanded out. Brand names include Corian, Fountainhead, Gibraltar, and Swanstone. Solid-surface countertops include color choices that look and feel like stone (but are softer and warmer in temperature) and offer unlimited options for edge details. A major advantage is the capacity to hide seams. Solid-surface countertops run from $70 to $90 per square foot and must be manufactured and installed by a licensed fabricator.
Choosing a countertop is a matter of balancing function, environmental characteristics, and the colors and patterns that visually please you. It is well worth spending some time learning about the different choices before deciding which one is right for you.
Linda Lesyna and Kim Eifrid are kitchen design specialists at Boston Building Resources, a consumer co-op. They work with homeowners to find the best cabinet and countertop options to fit the way you live and cook.
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