A simple guide to countertop materials

countertop samplesIn many kitchens, the countertop design sets the tone for the rest of the room’s color palette. Face it—it’s a lot easier to pick out an alternative hue than to find just the right marble to match your paint swatch!

When planning a full-on kitchen makeover, it’s best to decide on a countertop first and go from there. Here’s a basic guide to the most common counter materials and how each type rates in terms of durability, price and style.

Granite: the granddaddy of durability

Granite is perhaps the most affordable natural stone countertop material, with each and every sample offering a unique blend of hue, grain and design. Depending on the shape of the slabs, installation can cost as little as $50 per square foot, with the price going up from there based on the rarity of the stone.

When properly sealed, granite is extraordinarily durable and scratch resistant.

Tip: When shopping for granite, you will pay for the full uncut slab and not the measurements of your installed countertop. Measure your slab first and try to incorporate the dimensions into your design to avoid paying for wasted materials.

Marble and soapstone: the natural stone alternatives

The beauty of marble is unrivaled, but expect to shell out nearly double what you would for granite. Marble develops an attractive patina over time and its unique pigmentations and patterns match well with white color palettes, but since it’s a softer stone, marble can be susceptible to stains and scratches.

Soapstone is more durable than marble and offers additional benefits such as resistance to stains, bacteria and chemicals. Installation costs are in the neighborhood of $100 per square foot, but soapstone countertops will last for the life of your home.

Tile: the DIYer’s dream

Tile is one of the few countertop materials that can be installed by any moderately skilled do-it-yourselfer. Simply cut and install cement backer board, mix up your adhesive and start laying!

Even if you decide to hire a pro, tile can be very affordable. Starting at just $30 per square foot, ceramic or stone tile is durable and available in a broad range of colors and styles.

Here’s the caveat: tile counters won’t be as universally smooth, and over time grout is bound to stain and discolor.

Copper, zinc and stainless steel: the metal options

Out of the most popular metal finishes, stainless steel is the most prevalent. It’s non-staining, heat resistant, durable and super easy to clean. A stainless steel counter gives your cooking area the look of a professional kitchen and the cost of $80-90 per square foot undercuts stone options. The downside of stainless steel is that fingerprints and scratches stand out in the light.

Zinc and copper offer homeowners a countertop that grows over the years. Both metals develop a patina over time, with zinc darkening and copper shifting into a subtle blend of reds, browns and greens. The effects of these transmuting metals fall into the “love it or hate it category”—if you love it, expect to pay well over a hundred bucks per square foot for installation.

Engineered quartz: a customized natural look

If you like the look of stone but wish you could have more control over the color palette and finish, consider engineered quartz. By amalgamating ground quartz, resin and dyes into a durable, nonporous material, engineered quartz is available in every shade imaginable and is ideal for custom jobs.

Fooling Mother Nature isn’t cheap, though. Expect to pay $110 and up per square foot installed.

Recycled paper: a way to go green

Relatively new to the marketplace is a system of mixing recycled paper with pigments and resin to create an eco-friendly substitute for soapstone. Paper offers the advantage of broad color possibilities and a relatively low sticker price. Expect to shell out 40-80 bucks per square foot.

Concrete countertops: the latest rage

A skilled concrete countertop contractor is less of a tradesman and more of an artist. When done properly, a stained concrete countertop can truly function as the centerpiece of your entire home—but the key word here is “properly.”

A quality contractor will bill $100-150 per square foot, but concrete is extremely tough and built to last. This is the ideal material for those who wish to unleash on the world a never-before-seen countertop vision.

Plastic laminates: last but not least

Popular with builders in the ‘60s and ‘70s, plastic laminates cost less than half of what you’d pay for the next-cheapest material, tile. Before you cast off “Grandma’s” countertop as not being chic enough for your home, consider that laminates come in a wide variety of colors, patterns and finishes to match any taste.

Laminates are particularly popular with homeowners who already own an aging laminate countertop. You can apply a fresh new look to your kitchen for a fraction of what it would cost to rip out the plywood and start from scratch. Plastic is also a good choice if you plan to sell your home within the next few years.

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