The Ultimate Guide to Selecting a Countertop

When building or remodeling a kitchen or bathroom, it is important to weigh all options before selecting a countertop. Countertops are an investment, but are used daily and can be a beautiful focal point in a room. There is no right or wrong material – it is about understanding the pros and cons of each, then deciding what is best for your lifestyle. In this article, we cover countertop options such as materials, thicknesses, finishes, overhangs, and edge profiles.

Countertop Materials

Marble Countertops

Marble is our top choice due to its timeless, elegant nature. It will elevate the appearance of any kitchen or bathroom, and comes in a variety of different colors to suit your style. It is a quarried, natural stone, so no two slabs are the same. Marble is a great countertop for bakers, as it naturally maintains a cold temperature.

Marble takes maintenance and you must use caution with heat and liquids. Acidic liquids, if not wiped up immediately, will “etch” the surface of marble. This means that the liquid slightly erodes the surface and leaves a dull looking spot where it was, even after it is wiped off. This cannot be cleaned off, but countertops can be professionally refinished.

Marble can also stain from dark liquids such as red wine or coffee. To best protect your marble countertop, you should seal it every other month or as needed. This is easily done yourself with an affordable spray formula. While sealing it does not completely protect it, it gives you more time from when a spill occurs to when it will soak in and damage the counter. Like other natural stone countertops, marble needs to be cleaned with a special cleaner that you can find at the grocery store.

There are a variety of marble options at different price points. Usually, the more veined and unique the slab, the more it costs. Calcutta Gold, a bright white with golden/neutral veining running through it, is a popular selection but is higher on the price spectrum. Carrara is a little more gray and uniform throughout, but is much more budget friendly.

Quartz Countertops

Quartz is a manmade material designed to look like marble or quartzite. It consists of 90% ground quartz, and 10% resin, polymers, and pigments. Quartz growing in popularity due to its durability and increasing visual similarity to natural stone. It comes in a wide variety of colors, thicknesses, and finishes.

The downside to quartz is that it does not possess the same unique and custom look that a natural stone has. The veining will be more uniform throughout, and overall the appearance is more modern than marble. The price of quartz is comparable to most types of natural stone.

Because it is engineered, it is much less porous than a natural stone. There is no need to seal it, and liquids will not stain or etch the surface. It is also a harder material than natural stone, making it more difficult to scratch or crack. Quartz’s binding materials cause the countertops to be more sensitive to heat than natural stone. Hot pans strait off the burner should never be placed directly on the countertops.

Overall, quartz is a good option if you like low-maintenance, don’t want to have to worry about your counters when cooking or entertaining, or if you have children.

Granite Countertops

Granite is a natural stone that possesses many similar qualities to marble. Most people recognize granite when brown and speckled, but it actually comes in many different colors and patterns. Color options range from black, white, brown, blue, green, and pink. Some granite has a veined appearance similar to marble.

Granite is porous, and must be sealed every month or so to help prevent etching and staining. It is heat resistant, a great benefit if you frequently cook. Granite can crack or break, but is not likely to scratch.

Soapstone Countertops

Soapstone can be found in varying shades of gray and black, some with beautiful veining. The undertones can be neutral, blue, or green.

It is softer than most natural stones, so you must use extra caution to not cut or drop anything as it will get scratches and nicks. These can be sanded out if they do occur. However, this softness prevents the soapstone from cracking easily, so it is both a pro and a con.

Its non-porous nature makes it less prone to stains and etching from acidic liquids. It is also heat resistant. To maintain the dark color, it is recommended that you seal it with oil every couple of months.

It will develop a patina and character over time – in the more used areas this will happen quicker than other areas. Mineral oil helps to even it out, deepen the color, and remove imperfections. It is a timeless material that will not go out of style, but is not recommended for someone who wants their countertops to look like they were just installed years later.

Butcher’s Block Countertops

Butcher’s block is made up of individual strips of wood, bonded together. It can be made of any wood, but maple is common due to its hardness. Butcher’s block countertops gives a home a very cozy, lived-in feel. They are generally more affordable than stone surfaces, and installation is DIY-friendly.

Butcher’s block can be used in a whole kitchen, or as a unique accent for an island. Wood is more sensitive to water than other materials, so it is more suitable for a kitchen than a bathroom. Use caution if installing it around a sink – water can cause discoloration and rot.

Butcher’s block countertops can be used as a cutting board and will not damage your knives like other countertop materials. The downside is that this will create scratches. Wood is soft, so this countertop is bound to develop some scratches and dents over time. Sealing the countertop monthly with mineral oil will help to protect it from liquids, stains, and bacteria growth. Butcher’s block can be sanded down and resealed to remove scratches/stains.

Concrete Countertops

Concrete countertops are a unique way to get an industrial, modern, yet sometimes rustic look. They can be poured in place or fabricated based on your kitchen’s measurements, eliminating the need for seams. Since concrete countertops are fabricated for each individual kitchen, they are completely customizable. You can select the color, sheen, marbling, thickness, etc. The finishing selections can completely change the look, depending on what you are going for. For example, a smooth, matte, evenly mixed concrete countertop might look more modern; on the other hand, a textured, patinaed concrete countertop would look more farmhouse style.

One common misconception about concrete countertops is that they are cheaper than other materials. If professionally installed, they often range from $65-$150 per square foot. They can be DIYed, but it is difficult and you can generally tell the difference between DIY and a professional concrete countertop.

Since concrete is porous, it should be polished and sealed upon installation (typically with an epoxy), then sealed with a wax a couple of times per year. Even with these precautions, concrete can stain if messes are not immediately wiped up. Some people choose to embrace color variations and staining, as these imperfections give the counters a lived-in, textured appearance.

A downside to concrete is that it cracks as it settles and over time. Think of how many concrete sidewalks that you have seen with zero cracks – very few. It also scratches fairly easily. These things can be fixed, but it is extra maintenance and will still not look brand new. Another con is that it takes several weeks to build the molds, pour, cure, and finish. If you need a quick turnaround, concrete is not for you. Concrete is a permanent countertop – to replace it, you likely will need to jackhammer it out, and will damage cabinets in the process.

Overall, we recommend concrete countertops only if you genuinely love the appearance and are okay with imperfections. If you are considering it only because you think it will save money, you will probably not be happy in the long run.

Countertop Finishes: Honed vs. Polished

honed vs polished 2
honed vs polished

When selecting stone countertops, you have the option of either a honed or polished finish. A honed finish means that the marble or stone is not shiny, and is slightly sanded. It is still smooth to the touch, but is much more matte than polished. Polished countertops are extremely glossy and shiny.

As we discuss above, marble and granite will get etch marks over time from acidic liquids eroding the surface, creating dull marks. Etching and other imperfections are less obvious on a honed countertop than on a polished one, since the surface is less reflective. On the flip side, polished countertops are naturally more sealed than honed, so they will stain and etch less easily (but if they do etch, it will be more noticeable).

Honed versus polished is ultimately a personal preference, but the general trend is that honed countertops are used for classic/traditional homes, and polished are used for modern homes.

Countertop Thickness

The most common countertop thicknesses are 2 cm and 3 cm.

countertop options thickness

A 2 cm countertop will cost much less than a 3 cm countertop of the same material – often a 25-33% difference. It will provide a more delicate appearance than a thicker counter – this can be good in a busy or small kitchen. It still shows its beauty, but without looking bulky or overwhelming the space. A downside to 2 cm countertops is that they will be more fragile than a thicker counter. Natural stone can chip or break during installation or from things like a dropped pot.

A 3 cm countertop will cost several thousand more, but will be stronger due to the added thickness. Thicker countertops really make a statement, and draw eyes in. They are also the more common selection for modern homes.

Countertop Overhang

An countertop overhang should be functional, as well as visually appealing. Overhangs are meant to protect cabinets from food and liquids that may fall from the counter. The general rule is that the overhang should stick out .5″-.75″ over the furthest part of the cabinet face. Meaning that if you have inset cabinets, your countertop overhang would be .5″-.75″ from the frame. For overlay cabinets, you would add the thickness of the drawer face to the overhang from the frame.

overhang countertop options

Another consideration is the depth of your cabinet hardware. If you are using deep or bulky hardware, you may opt for a slightly bigger countertop overhang to balance out the profile.

Countertop Edge Profiles

Countertop edge profiles can be square, rounded, or decorative. The most common edge profile is squared-off with the edges and corners slightly eased for safety and to prevent chipping.

An edge profile with more curves can give you a more traditional/ornate feel, but can sometimes appear outdated.

countertop options edge

There are many things to consider, so we hope that you found this information helpful as you move forward in selecting your countertop! If you haven’t yet read it, you should check out A Full Guide to Cabinet Design: What You Need to Know.

If you have any additional questions, please comment below!

Are you planning a kitchen or bathroom remodel, or in need of any other design help? Know that we now offer virtual design services!

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