Buying Guides
Nov 4, 2008

Countertop materials: A guide

By: Martha Stewart
Style at Home
Buying Guides
Nov 4, 2008

Countertop materials: A guide

By: Martha Stewart

Butcher block
Maple and oak butcher blocks are the most common woods for countertops, although other hardwoods such as cherry, walnut and mahogany are also used. Rock maple is traditional for chopping surfaces because it is hard yet won't damage knife blades. Butcher-block counters are available in several configurations: as wide planks (also called flat-grain) or narrow strips glued together, or end-grain butcher block, made from hundreds of small wood squares laminated together. Wide planks are more apt to warp than narrow strips or end-grain blocks. Butcher block is finished with either mineral oil or polyurethane. Mineral oil prevents the wood from warping and drying out, but will not prevent stains. Polyurethane provides an impenetrable plasticlike coating.

Pros Easy to maintain; can be sanded and reoiled or resealed as needed; looks warm.

Cons Prone to water and stain damage; must be oiled or sealed periodically to prevent drying out and reduce porosity; burns easily and absorbs odours.

Do Apply polyurethane to counters around the sink, since moisture causes wood to crack and split.

Don't use vegetable or olive oils to treat wood, as they can turn rancid; use only food-grade mineral oil.

Periodic maintenance Once a month, or when oiled countertops begin to look dry, reapply oil (never oil butcher block that has been sealed with polyurethane). Place a bottle of food-grade (nontoxic) mineral oil into a bowl of hot (not boiling) water, then rub a generous amount of oil onto the surface with a soft, clean cloth, working with the grain; reapply after the wood soaks up the oil. Continue until the wood stops absorbing oil. Wipe off excess oil, then let the countertops dry for at least six hours or, ideally, overnight, before using.

Repair/restore Badly scratched or stained counters can be sanded smooth, then treated with oil or polyurethane. Use a fine-grit sandpaper (grade 220 to remove stains and 400 to smooth), sanding with the grain of the wood, before reapplying a finish.

How to clean Wipe with a damp cloth and mild dishwashing liquid. Rinse well with a clean, damp cloth. A cloth dampened with fresh lemon juice or white vinegar may remove or lighten stains, and deodorize a surface finished with mineral oil.

Ceramic tile
Ceramic tiles are made from a variety of materials and methods, and offer a range of design possibilities. The most common, traditional glazed tile, is made from clay fired at extremely high temperatures. Its tough, glasslike surface is nonporous, although the grout that holds the tile in place is extremely porous.

Pros Available in many colours, textures, and prices; glazed tile doesn't stain; resists heat and moisture.

Cons Uneven counter surface; installation requires time and attention to detail; tiles can easily chip, scratch, or crack; grout stains easily, tough on dishware and glasses.

Do Consider dark grout when installing tile, as it will show fewer stains than a light one. Treat grout with a sealer to reduce porosity.

Don't use vinegar or anything acidic as a cleaner. It can damage the glaze and harm grout.

Periodic maintenance Seal grout twice a year with a penetrating grout sealer.

Repair/restore Damaged tiles can be replaced by a professional tile installer.

How to clean Wipe with a damp cloth and mild dishwashing liquid. Rinse well with a clean, damp cloth. Tackle tough stains with a mildly abrasive cleanser such as Bon Ami and a soft cloth or a paste of baking soda and water. Grout can be cleaned with nontoxic oxygen bleach, then lightly scrubbed and rinsed.

Concrete
To create countertops, concrete is mixed with pigment, then poured into molds on-site, or precast in a workshop. After it is troweled smooth, it takes several days to dry and harden; it must then be sealed to guard against stains. Concrete counters can be as thick as desired, although anything more than four inches could strain supporting cabinets and floors.

Pros Heat- and scratch-resistant; can be tinted in a wide range of colours; can be molded into different shapes to accommodate integral sinks, drain boards, and decorative edging.

Cons Expensive and heavy; cracking is common; because it is very porous, it stains if not well sealed; tough on dishware and glasses.

Do Reapply sealer when drops of water no longer bead on the surface.

Don't use abrasive pads or cleaners, which can abrade the sealer, making staining more likely.

Periodic maintenance A coat of food-safe paste wax (available from some concrete installers and online retailers), applied on top of the sealer, can add an additional layer of protection.

Repair/restore Hairline cracks are just part of the aging process. Repairing more serious damage depends on the size of the damaged area. Small chips might be repairable; larger ones might necessitate countertop replacement. Either way, consult a contractor; concrete repairs are not do-it-yourself jobs.

How to clean Wipe with a damp cloth and mild dishwashing liquid. Rinse well with a clean, damp cloth. Although a sealer offers protection, spills still must be wiped up immediately with a damp cloth or sponge to prevent staining. Acidic foods and cleaners will etch the surface; cooking oil will leave a mark. Use coasters to prevent ring marks.

Page 1 of 4


Excerpted from Martha Stewart's Homekeeping Handbook by Martha Stewart. Copyright 2006 by Martha Stewart. Excerpted with permission by Clarkson Potter. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced without permission in writing from the publisher.

Engineered stone
This relatively new countertop material is a composite of rock aggregate (which makes up 90 per cent of its mass), resin, and pigments. Engineered stone is sold under brand names including Zodiaq and Silestone. Available in dozens of colours, it is nonporous and scratch-resistant. The most common (and most durable) engineered stone is made from quartz particles. Because these stones do not contain fissures or veins, the strength of a slab may be more consistent throughout than that of a natural stone. That consistency also makes seams easy to match.

Pros -- Easy to maintain; resistant to stains, heat, scratches, and acid; sealing is generally not required; colour consistent throughout, so scratches are less noticeable than with other materials.

Cons -- Expensive; less natural-looking than marble or granite.

Don't clean with chlorine bleach or products containing chlorine bleach, which can mar the colour of the stone.

Periodic maintenance None

Repair/restore Any damage must be repaired by a countertop professional; consult an engineered-stone installer for advice.

How to clean Wipe with a damp cloth and mild dishwashing liquid. Rinse with a clean, damp cloth.

Granite
A popular countertop choice because of its appearance and durability, granite is a siliceous stone made from an extremely hard volcanic rock. It is available in a range of colours and is often flecked with bits of minerals that produce a salt-and-pepper look. There are two types: consistent, which has the same pattern throughout, and variegated, which has veins.

Pros Heat-resistant; beautifully coloured; luxurious; each slab of granite is unique; good surface for working with pastry dough, since it doesn't conduct heat.

Cons Expensive; requires regular maintenance, including periodic sealing; stains; can crack; can be tough on dishware and glasses; variegated granite pieces hard to match.

Do Reapply sealer when drops of water no longer bead on the surface.

Don't use soap, detergent, all-purpose cleaners, or citrus-based cleaners -- products that are too alkaline or acidic can etch stone. Don't use abrasive powders or dusting sprays, which can damage the surface.

Periodic maintenance If the polish dulls, it can be revived with a commercial polishing agent (available from stone suppliers), but this should not be done more frequently than every three or four years, and the counter should be resealed afterward.

Repair/restore If there are deep stains or there's erosion, the stone will have to be rebuffed and resealed by a stone professional.

How to clean Dust once or twice a week with a soft cloth, and wipe periodically with a cloth dampened in warm water and a bit of pH-neutral cleaner formulated for stone (available from stone suppliers).

Marble
Marble and other stone countertops are beautiful, and they generally outlast all other kitchen surfaces. But because it is a calcareous stone, marble is softer and more porous than granite. Its permeability makes it susceptible to scratches, chips, and stains, and its luster can be dulled if not properly cared for. Many homeowners choose to confine it to an island or baking centre.

Pros Holds up to heat; beautiful and luxurious; ideal for rolling out dough, since it doesn't conduct heat.

Cons Expensive; must be sealed to protect it from stains; requires regular maintenance; very soft, so it scratches and etches easily; can be tough on dishware and glasses.

Do Reapply sealer when drops of water no longer bead on the surface. Protect marble from acidic foods; vinegar, lemon, and tomato will etch it instantly.

Don't use soap, detergent, all-purpose cleaners, or citrus-based cleaners -- products that are too alkaline or acidic can etch stone. Don't use abrasive powders or dusting sprays, which can damage the surface.

Periodic maintenance See Periodic Maintenance for granite, above.

Repair/restore For stains such as rust marks or oil spots, try a poultice treatment. If marble is badly stained or starting to erode, the stone will have to be rebuffed and resealed by a stone professional.

How to clean Dust once or twice a week with a soft cloth, and wipe periodically with a cloth dampened in warm water and, if necessary, a bit of pH-neutral cleaner formulated for stone (available from stone suppliers).

Page 2 of 4


Excerpted from Martha Stewart's Homekeeping Handbook by Martha Stewart. Copyright 2006 by Martha Stewart. Excerpted with permission by Clarkson Potter. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced without permission in writing from the publisher.

Plastic laminate
The most common -- and usually most affordable -- countertop choice, laminates are made of multiple sheets of kraft paper, like that used for grocery bags, and plastic resins. Brand names include Formica and Wilsonart. The layered paper creates dark edges, which are visible where two pieces of laminate meet. More expensive plastic laminates -- known as colour-through laminates -- retain the surface colour throughout the layers, so nicks and scratches are less noticeable, and there are no dark seams. Laminate countertops are available in granular, matte, or glossy finishes and sold premolded with rounded edges or in sheets, which are glued onto a plywood form on-site.

Pros Inexpensive; sturdy; resists scratches, scuffs, burns, and other normal wear and tear; available in many colours and patterns; easy to clean.

Cons Not stain- or scratch-proof; can be impossible to repair if damaged by burn marks and deep scratches; seams show; potentially costly end finishing and edge choices.

Do Rinse laminate surfaces after cleaning; even a small amount of detergent residue can cause damage -- any moisture the residue comes into contact with can reactivate it, and result in etching.

Don't allow water to pool -- if it seeps into seams, it can cause swelling.

Periodic maintenance None

Repair/restore Repair superficial scratches and small chips with laminate-repair paste, available at home-supply stores in a variety of colours (or you can mix the paste to match your countertop). If the laminate has begun lifting off the substrate below, reattach it with contact cement.

How to clean Wipe with a clean, soft cloth and a mild dishwashing liquid and water, then wipe away streaks with a clean, damp cloth. Treat stains with a paste of 3 parts baking soda to 1 part water; do not rub, as doing so could mar the surface. Wipe away paste with a clean, damp, soft cotton cloth, and then rinse with clean water. (Some stains, such as food dyes or coffee and tea stains, will not disappear right away, but may with repeated cleanings.)

Slate
Traditionally used to make durable rooftops and walkways, slate can be formed into kitchen counters that are at once classic and modern. It comes in deep greens, blues, greys, and purples, and has a matte surface and a distinctive cleft pattern. Although it is less porous than granite or marble, and less prone to staining, most stone professionals recommend sealing slate to be on the safe side.

Pros Heat-resistant; timeless; natural style; luxurious.

Cons Expensive; brittle; scratches and chips easily; tough on dishware and glasses.

Do Reapply sealer when drops of water no longer bead on the surface.

Don't clean with abrasive cleaners or dusting sprays, which can damage slate (and other natural stones).

Periodic maintenance Aside from sealing, none.

Repair/restore Slate is less susceptible to etching from acidic cleaners and foods than other stones. It does scratch easily, however. Small scratches can be sanded away with fine sandpaper. If your slate countertop cracks, the entire countertop will have to be replaced. Consult a general contractor for advice on how to deal with the damage.

How to clean Dust once or twice a week with a soft cloth, and wipe periodically with a cloth dampened in warm water and, if necessary, a bit of pH-neutral cleaner formulated for stone (available from stone suppliers).

Soapstone
Named for its smooth, soapy touch, soapstone is composed of mineral talc, quartz, and other minerals. It starts out light grey in colour but darkens significantly as it ages. (Frequent applications of mineral oil hasten the darkening process.) It is used for science laboratory counters because of its resistance to acids and alkalis, which means that chemicals or cleansers won't cause it to deteriorate. Soapstone is both softer and less porous than granite.

Pros Rich, deep colour; smooth feel; doesn't stain easily; very resistant to heat.

Cons Expensive; requires regular maintenance; may crack and darken over time; scratches and chips easily; hard on dishware and glasses.

Don't apply any type of sealer to soapstone.

Periodic maintenance After the initial installation, you will need to apply mineral oil over the entire surface often. Apply weekly to monthly until the counter stops darkening, which can take a year or more. After that, reapply mineral oil about every six months.

Repair/restore Remove small scratches with fine sandpaper or try rubbing them out with mineral oil. If the stone cracks, the entire countertop will need to be replaced. Consult a general contractor to assess the situation.

How to clean Wipe with a cloth dampened with water and mild dishwashing liquid.

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Excerpted from Martha Stewart's Homekeeping Handbook by Martha Stewart. Copyright 2006 by Martha Stewart. Excerpted with permission by Clarkson Potter. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced without permission in writing from the publisher.

Solid surfacing
Solid-surface countertops, including the brand names Corian and Avonite, are a blend of acrylic polymers and materials derived from natural stone. To form countertops, the composite is poured into molds. Counters are generally about half an inch thick, although usually thicker on edges, which can make the counters appear deeper. Solid-surfacing simulates marble, granite or other hard stone. It is widely considered to be the lowest-maintenance luxury countertop material and is often recommended for busy kitchens because of its durability and lack of porosity. Solid surfacing is sold in matte and glossy finishes.

Pros Available in a wide range of colours; seamless; stain-resistant; low maintenance; holds up well to abrasives; scratches can be sanded out; can incorporate integrated sinks.

Cons Expensive; looks less natural than stone.

Don't On solid surfacing with a high-gloss finish, don't use anything harsher than a mildly abrasive liquid cleaner and a sponge.

Periodic maintenance None.

Repair/restore Treat minor damage, including scratches, stains, scorches, and minor impact marks, with a light abrasive cleanser or a nylon scouring pad as described above. For difficult residues and stains, use a commercial spray cleaner made specifically for solid surfacing (available at home-supply stores).

How to clean Wipe with a damp cloth and then towel-dry. Treat spills or light stains with mild dishwashing liquid or an ammonia-based cleaner. Remedies for tougher stains depend on the finish: On matte (nonshiny) finishes, use an abrasive cleanser and a nylon scouring pad. Semigloss surfaces require a mildly abrasive liquid cleaner (such as Soft Scrub, which is recommended by Corian's manufacturer) or a solution of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water, and a white scouring pad.

Stainless steel
Stainless-steel countertops are heat-resistant, extremely durable, and easy to keep clean. Because stainless countertops are built to measure, there are no seams to trap dirt and bacteria. Most health codes mandate it in commercial kitchens. Although stainless steel can scratch, over time the scratches mesh, forming a soft patina. Stainless-steel counters should be at least 1/20 inch thick (1/16 inch is preferred) to prevent them from denting and buckling.

Pros Resists rust, corrosion, and common household stains; withstands heat; easy to maintain; can incorporate integrated sinks; resists acids and oils.

Cons Expensive; can be noisy; may dent; shows fingerprints and water marks.

Do Always wipe with the grain.

Don't let it come in contact with chlorine bleach, which can pit the surface.

Periodic maintenance Deep scratches or dents may be impossible to remove, but minor, everyday scratches can be camouflaged by rubbing with a nylon abrasive pad. Start with a gentle pad, and work in the same direction as the existing grain. Switch to a more abrasive pad if necessary. If you create an area that looks different from the rest of the counter, gently rub the changes in with a feathering stroke to help them blend. You can also hand-polish the entire counter to blend the finish.

Repair/restore Deeper scratches require more aggressive treatment; consult a metal fabricator (look in the Yellow Pages to find one) for repair recommendations.

How to clean Wipe with a soft cloth and a few drops of mild dishwashing liquid, or a dry microfibre cloth (without cleaner). You can also use a gentle abrasive powder such as Bon Ami. Buff the surface dry after cleaning. Most hardware stores and home-supply stores sell spray cleaners specifically for stainless steel; they effectively remove fingerprints and water marks.

Zinc
Zinc is shiny like stainless steel when it is new, but it develops a warm, soft patina with time and wear. It has long been formed into restaurant countertops, sinks and bars, and can lend an old-fashioned look to any residential kitchen. For durability, choose zinc countertops that are at least 1/20 inch thick (preferably 1/16 inch).

Pros Heatproof; can incorporate integrated sinks; develops a warm glow over time.

Cons Scratches easily; can look industrial; shows fingerprints and watermarks.

Don't use cleaners that are highly alkaline (such as ammonia) or acidic (such as vinegar), both of which can cause damage.

Periodic maintenance To minimize tarnishing, apply a thin coat of food-safe paste wax (with a clean, lint-free cotton cloth, preferably a diaper), available from online retailers.

Repair/restore If dull or corroded, rub with number 000 steel wool.

How to clean Wipe surface with a solution of warm water and mild dishwashing liquid, then rinse well and towel-dry thoroughly.

Page 4 of 4


Excerpted from Martha Stewart's Homekeeping Handbook by Martha Stewart. Copyright 2006 by Martha Stewart. Excerpted with permission by Clarkson Potter. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Countertop materials: A guide