Buying Guide for Kitchen Countertops

Revamping an old kitchen or building a new one from the ground up requires thought, planning and organizing. The purchase of kitchen cabinets may require at least 40 percent of the budget earmarked for the kitchen area, but don’t forget that the cabinets will need a countertop. The countertop is the surface area most visible to anyone in the kitchen. Take a good look at countertops, the various materials used to create them, and what you plan to do with them before you buy.

You’ve probably already decided on cabinets and you know what style your home is or is going to be, so don’t skimp on the countertops. Don’t make a snap decision. Take the time to learn the types of countertops available. Feel the surfaces. Find out the pros and cons before you open your wallet.

What’s Available?

The Stones
Granite says elegance and luxury with a price tag to match. Expensive and high maintenance, it’s not for the faint of heart. You can set a hot pan on granite and it won’t leave a burn, but it does tend to absorb moisture over time. Sealing it is required.

Limestone speaks to sumptuous surroundings, and like granite, limestone comes at a high price. The problem with using limestone as a kitchen countertop is that it scratches easily and requires careful sealing periodically.

Soapstone comes in one color: gray. The gray of soapstone takes on a desirable dark patina over time, but the color limitations leaves it wanting in the countertop department. A good choice for restoring 200 year old homes, soapstone simply does not have the offerings of other materials in the stone family to make it a top choice for most buyers. As a soft stone it scratches quite easily and stains. It must be treated with mineral oil intermittently.

A kitchen is all about function. Marble, a softer stone than granite, is heat resistant, but trying to remove stains is nearly impossible. It has a more posh bathroom quality to it and will do better in that area of a home. As the other members of the family stone, it needs regular coats of sealer to maintain its beauty.

If you want an all work and no play look in your kitchen, you might consider slate. An inexpensive stone, it is used in kitchen countertop construction. Slate tends to be an uneven surface, making clean up a bit more difficult. After repeated use, a slate countertop can become chalky. It has tendency to scratch and chip, and because it’s a porous stone, it can absorb bacteria.

Engineered Stone
Corian and Zodiaq are examples of engineered stone. Particles of quartz are combined with resin and pigments to create a beautiful look of stone with more durability. Engineered stone is not easily scratched or stained, making it that much more appealing. It’s lighter and easier to work with and gives a seamless appearance to countertops.

Ceramic Tile
Ceramic tile can be a uniquely beautiful choice due to hand painting the tiles with whatever pleases you. Resistance to heat and easy daily maintenance makes ceramic tile a popular choice. You’ll pay less for ceramic tile than for many of the stone materials used in countertop production. The down side? It cracks easily and the grout must be sealed when installed, and it’s a good idea to seal it from time to time, which can be messy.

Plastic Laminate
A very inexpensive way to go, plastic laminate has come a long way. There are lots of new styles that emulate the stones without the bother or the price. A wide color palette gives you plenty of choices. Cleaning up a surface covered in plastic laminate requires little more than a damp soapy cloth. Just remember, plastic laminate burns and scratches, and if it’s damaged, repairing it is next to impossible.

Butcher Block
The inviting look of wood countertops brings warmth to a kitchen. If you bake a lot or worry about making slash marks on the other materials, look into a butcher block counter. It's an inexpensive alternative that looks great with many different styles of cabinets. Keep in mind that bacteria can penetrate wood, so keeping it as clean as possible will be important. Butcher block countertops must be treated with linseed or mineral oil every two to three months to keep it in tip top shape.

Stainless Steel
If you’re a serious cook and having a commercial style kitchen appeals to you, consider stainless steel countertops. You don’t have to worry about hot skillets being placed on the counter, and water is no problem. It doesn’t crack and stains just can’t happen. Stainless steel offers the most sanitary answer for anyone who cooks a lot. Just as a butcher block warms a kitchen, stainless steel gives it a cold, austere feel and does not fit in well with more traditionally designed kitchens.

Have you ever thought of using concrete as a material for your countertops? It is a very expensive road to travel, but concrete has become a trend in kitchen countertop surfaces. Lots of color choices and the ability to have rocks, seashells, sea glass, or any interesting objects embedded into the concrete gives countertops a very personal touch. Concrete countertops can be formed into various shapes, adding a certain value to them. Now comes the bad news: they’re very expensive, stain readily, crack over time, and they need to be sealed intermittently. Also the fashion reality of “here today, gone tomorrow” might make them outdated in a short time.


Don’t forget the edges! Talk to the designer about various options for the different surface materials. You may be able to choose from rounded and bullnose or beveled or waterfall edges. Most of the stone surfaces can be shaped to your specifications. Wood is malleable and easily manipulated into desired angles and ogees. Keep in mind that if wood trim or edges are too intricate, food can become trapped and harbor bacteria. Keep it easy to clean. Laminate edges can be higher at the edge to create a dam that won’t allow liquids to drip off the countertop and onto the floor. If you choose to tile countertops, be sure to ask for specially made tile edges that will match the surface tiles.

As you’re shopping around, keep in mind these important aspects of countertops: durability, resistance to staining, ability to handle hot cookware, ease in cleaning and maintaining, and of course pleasing to the eye. You don’t have to choose all one variety of surface material - a combination of several may be more functional. Stone or solid surfaces work best around the stove and ovens. An area of butcher block allows for chopping, and plastic laminate around sinks works great. The key is to get the most functionality for the money spent and be happy with the end result by being an informed consumer.