On the Surface

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Selecting the right counters is critical to every kitchen design. Not only do they have to withstand the rigors of the hardest-working room in the house, they also have to look good. So when it comes time to decide what counters you want for your kitchen, there are several things to consider, including price, maintenance, durability and of course, style.

Laminates
One of the most common types of surfaces used for countertops is laminate because it??s durable, affordable, available in hundreds of colors and styles, and is relatively easy for the experienced do-it-yourselfer to install.

Solid, neutral colors have always been the dominant choices in laminate, but there are other designs available. Formica Corporation, for example, offers about 500 colors and patterns, including those that mimic granite, marble and slate.

Laminate counters resist grease and stains, and cleanup generally requires only soap and water. However, sharp knives and hot pans can cause damage that is oftentimes difficult to repair. To prevent problems, select a high-quality laminate product that has color running all the way through the polymer sheet. Extended contact with water can also dissolve glue lines and cause the subsurface to warp, but at $15 to $50 per linear foot installed, laminate is one of the least expensive countertop options.

Tile
The two main types of tile are ceramic and porcelain. Ceramic tiles are made from pressed clays with a matte finish or ceramic stain. Porcelain tiles are thicker, and the color goes all the way through the tile rather than just covering the surface.

Glazed ceramic tile comes in the widest range of colors and patterns, and is both durable and easy to clean. Heat, stain and scratch resistant, it can, however, chip if hit with heavy objects. Stained grout is the biggest concern with tile counters, but colored grout and grout additives decrease (but not eliminate) the problem. A good grout sealer is also critical. The price for tile varies widely depending on the type you choose, so prices can range anywhere from $1 to $100 per square foot.

Natural granite
Granite is a beautiful??and popular??choice for counters. The Building Stone Institute, a trade group that promotes building with stone, says granite is a worry-free surface that requires few special precautions. Pam Sanchez, CKD, CKB, Allied ASID, president of the Georgia/West Tennessee NKBA chapter agrees. ??Granite is the hardest of stones,?? she says. ??It resists chipping, staining and holds the sealer best, and needs the least amount of upkeep of all of the stone species.?? Marble, Sanchez explains, is softer than granite, and should be reserved for areas that get light use, such as baking centers.

Because of its porosity, granite does require a non-permanent surface sealant to prevent staining. And, be cautious when placing hot pots directly on granite, as heat can break down the surface sealer. While granite is generally very strong, weak spots may exist due to internal fissures, natural cracks or impurities. If any damage does occur, it is usually necessary to hire a professional to fix it. Keep in mind there are a limited amount of colors available, because you can only buy what nature creates. So if you??re concerned about matching colors samples exactly, granite might not be for you.

While cleanup generally requires only warm, soapy water, mildew and bacteria can build up in small surface crevices. Applying a non-yellowing paste wax twice a year helps preserve the granite??s original brightness and luster. Given that it costs between $80 and $100 a square foot installed, you??ll want to be sure to keep it looking good for as long as possible.

Don't be afraid to mix andmatch several different countertop surfaces in your kitchen. Pam Sanchez, CKD, CBD, Allied ASID, designed this kitchen for the Thomas family with three different surfaces, including granite, marble and wood.

Solid surfaces
Solid surface countertops are man-made and ideal for countertops. They are manufactured under several names, including Corian, Gilbraltar, Staron, Surell, Fountainhead and Avonite. The major difference between the varieties is the binder that is used to create them. Those with acrylic binders??like Corian, Gibraltar and Staron??represent the best in product value because polyester-bound products are more difficult to fabricate.

Solid surfaces are not completely resistant to stains or extreme heat, but they are difficult to permanently damage. Because the colors and patterns run through the counter??s entire thickness, stains and many scratches can be removed with ordinary abrasive cleansers or fine sandpaper. To protect solid surfaces from heat damage, trivets or tiles can be inlayed directly into the countertops. Cleanup generally requires nothing more than soapy water or an abrasive cleanser.

Corian is probably the most recognized solid surface due to its vast color selection, built-in sinks and decorative edge treatments. It can be installed for around $35 to $85 per square foot. Engineered quartz surfaces

Want the look of granite with the benefits of a solid surface? An engineered quartz surface could be your answer. Quartz surfaces are made of 93 percent quartz, and major manufacturers include Cambria, Silestone and DuPont. Quartz is extremely resistant to cracks, scratches, stains and heat, and unlike granite, requires no sealing. It??s also easy to clean with common household cleaners.

Since granite forms naturally, it??s difficult to guarantee color consistency, but manufactured quartz color can be precisely replicated. Because it begins as white quartz, and the pigments don??t change, the color remains consistent throughout. Currently, there are 30 colors available, far more than granite. At $65 to $100 per square foot installed, it is a viable alternative to granite.

Wood/butcher block
Wooden surface tops impart a warm friendly glow to any kitchen, and can be used on an island, a built-in work area, or as a complete countertop system. Brazilian cherry, red oak, Ogee-edged American cherry and African iroka are all excellent countertop materials.

However, butcher blocks are very high-maintenance; heat can cause the wood to warp and split, and stains are difficult to remove. Vinegar and other detergents can cause cracking and warping, so mild soap and water is recommended for cleanup. The surface must be oiled to prevent penetration of salmonella and bacteria. Priced between $60 and $100 a square foot installed, butcher-block countertops look great if you don??t mind the maintenance.

Stainless steel
Stainless steel is a specialized surface that works well near water. Because it is impervious to heat, it is also practical near ovens or ranges. Stainless is also one of the hardest materials around, but it does scratch. Eventually, the scratches run together and it develops a softer finish.

Cleanup usually requires a mild detergent, or baking soda diluted with water. If you do use an abrasive cleanser, always make sure you clean in the direction of the grain.

Finally, stainless can be high maintenance. Day-to-day kitchen condiments, including ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, lemon juice, vinegar, salt or salad dressings can bleach the surface if left on too long. Just keep in mind, stainless is one of the most expensive choices for countertops??about $85 to $100 per square foot.

Concrete
Believe it or not, concrete is ideal for countertops. Because it??s poured into a mold, custom pieces can be created specifically for your kitchen in a variety of colors, textures and stains. Craig Smith, owner and designer of Dex Studios, creates concrete countertops that incorporate glass chips, stones and even wine bottles. ??The concrete we use for countertops is much more durable than typical concrete,?? Smith says. ??And it??s so versatile, it really allows us to be artists.??

Concrete naturally resists water and stains, but Smith uses a protective sealant and wax on all of his products. And, concrete will develop hairline cracks that, overtime, add to its uniqueness.

Cleanup requires only mild soap, but polishing with wax every few months will help ensure the life of the product. Because concrete is so custom, prices vary depending on the style of product you choose, but expect to pay anywhere from $65 to $150 a square foot, plus installation.

While the choices are limitless when it comes to countertops, Sanchez recommends you choose the right material for the right kitchen task. And, be sure you invest wisely. ??The most expensive mistake you can make is buying in a price point that doesn??t complement the value of your home,?? Sanchez says. ??When deciding how to stay within a budget, choose a plan with a qualified professional, employ the best craftsmen you can afford and then choose the materials that work within your budget.??

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