When it comes to durability and beauty, few countertop materials can compare with natural stone. And when it comes to elegance, granite, marble, and travertine take the top honors.
Here is a look at stone countertop materials:
Granite is a time-tested material that has been around for some 300 million years. Few surfaces match granite for its hardness and durability. It is also resistant to burns, scorching, and stains, although some varieties can soak in liquids if left to sit for an extended period of time. Also, abrasive cleaners or those containing harsh chemicals should be avoided as their repeated use will cause the surface to dull. A sealer should be applied after installation and reapplied every one to three years.
Granite comes with numerous variations in color, pattern, and tone-qualities referred to as the stone’s “movement.” Varieties that have a fairly uniform speckled pattern are considered “consistent,” while “variegated” types have more disparate veins and swirls that give each slab a unique appearance.
It is important to note that no two samples of granite will have the exact same appearance. To get the best idea of what your countertop will look like, it is advisable to see the slab from which your countertop will be cut, not just a showroom sample.
Most granite countertops come with a high-gloss polish, but other finishes are available, offering a range of sheens and textures.
The rich tones and dramatic veining of marble make it an elegant, sought-after choice for kitchen and bathroom countertops. Colors include creamy whites, pinks, and beiges; mellow golds and oranges; and luxurious dark greens and blacks.
While marble is generally quite durable, it is, however, softer than granite and scratches more easily. Although it is fairly heat-resistant, intense heat can permanently discolor a marble surface. It is also highly reactive to acidic foods such as lemon and vinegar, which will destroy the polish, leaving dull spots. Marble countertops have to be sealed quite often to protect their surface from wear and tear.
However, you may desire the changing nature of marble over time; the eventual stains and evolving patina of the natural material may provide just the lived-in character you want. You may especially love marble if you bake a lot; marble is considered by professional chefs to be the perfect surface for rolling out pastry dough. If you are choosing marble for your kitchen, request a honed finish-a slightly matte finish that will resist the etching and scratching that afflict a high-gloss finish that is subjected to heavy, daily use.
Travertine lends a room a classic, Old World appearance. The stone comes in earth tones ranging from ivory to brown and is known for its textured, slightly pitted surface.
These pits, while offering character, can absorb liquids and trap food particles, eventually staining the countertop. Travertine’s softness also means it is more prone to etching and other abrasion. In addition, acidic substances can readily stain the surface.
To protect travertine from scratches, dirt, and stains, it can be honed to a slightly matte finish, its naturally occurring pits can be filled with grout or resin, and the surface can be sealed. While this is a high-maintenance countertop, particularly for a kitchen application, you may feel the aesthetic benefits of travertine outweigh the cons.
Though it is pricy, nothing beats natural stone as a countertop surface for elegance and durability. In addition to the popular granite, marble, and travertine, there are some lesser known but equally elegant stone materials:
Countertops made of limestone typically come in a beige color with little crystals that provide visual interest. Some countertops are even embedded with tiny fossils. Limestone has long had a bad reputation for staining and eroding, but if you buy from a reputable dealer you will get a countertop made of dense limestone that is nearly as stain-resistant as granite. As with all stone surfaces, most stains-even red wine-can be removed using an oxygen cleaner.
The subtle, gentle appearance of soapstone has been appreciated for hundreds of years, not just for countertops but sinks as well. It resists stains and damage from acids and even retains heat (making it an excellent sink material). Though strong, it is surprisingly easy to cut with carpentry tools. It is fairly easy to chip or scratch soapstone, but you can usually repair the damage using fine sandpaper and elbow grease. Because it naturally resists bacteria, there is no need to seal soapstone.
This is a very high-end material, made from volcanic lava stone that is glazed with enamel and then fired in a kiln to produce a glossy surface. The result is as smooth and slick as an enamel cooking pot (see photo at right).
Available in a wide variety of densities, the slate that is used for countertops is among the densest, but it is still softer than granite and even marble. It comes in shades that include gray, black, green, and rust. Like soapstone, it is soft and susceptible to scratching, but it also can be repaired fairly easily. Slate may be highly polished or left with a matte finish for a rustic look.
If you want the look of natural stone for a fraction of the cost of a granite slab, consider installing stone tiles. The resulting countertop will not have the massive appearance of a slab, but it will have all of the same visual interest. And, if properly installed, it will be nearly as smooth as a slab.
Granite is the most popular stone choice for kitchen countertops due to its strength and stain-resistance. You can also use any type of stone tile made for flooring, but ask your dealer about its stain-resistance and whether or not you will need to seal it.
Polished tiles 12 inches square make a good choice for a kitchen countertop, which is typically 25 inches deep; check your base cabinets to be sure the countertop will overhang them by at least 1/2 inch. You may choose to install a fairly thick backsplash in order to bring the tiles out farther.
At the front edge you have a number of options:
1) You could cut 1-inch-wide pieces of the tile and tuck them under the edges of the surface tile. If you do this carefully, the appearance can resemble a thick slab. If the face of the tile is polished but the edge is not, pay a fabricator to polish the edges, or apply several coats of clear lacquer to the edges.
2) You could install decorative wood trim about 1/16 inch below the surface of the tiles. But be sure you have plenty of fastening surface in the countertop substrate. If possible, fasten the trim with a biscuit joiner so there will be no visible fastener heads.
3) Or, you could install ceramic or stone bullnose or V-cap tiles of a color that harmonizes with the field tiles.
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