Ready to Remodel? Revisiting Countertop Options, Part 2

 Granite in a non-white kitchen (for CandysDirt.com commenter “JT”)

Granite in a non-white kitchen (for CandysDirt.com commenter “JT”)

Back in 2015 I wrote a pair of columns on countertops, and specifically issues I’d been having with mine. Based on new information, I thought a revisit was in order. In Part One I wrote about some of the more unusual countertop options like paper, wood, and glass before diving into the varieties of stone.  In this column, I’ll finish up with the rest of the stone landscape.  As with any list, it’s by no means exhaustive.  New stones are being mined all the time and new materials are being pressed into service (who’d have thought about lava rock 20 years ago?).

Regardless of the type of countertop you select, understand that there are different things that impact overall pricing.  Each material has different grades, which equate to different prices for the raw material.  Often it’s based on rarity or difficulty in manufacturing the product.  From a fabrication perspective, complicated shapes, cutouts, and edge treatments can add cost depending how complicated you get (complication equals time/money). Finally, there’s installation.  How easy will it be to get the countertops into the building?

That said, let’s talk about marble …

 

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Marble

Marble counters have been around since the stone age (get it?).  Centuries ago, they were used extensively by bakers and candy makers because of their cool, smooth surface.  They stained and etched quite easily, but who cared — only servants and shopkeepers saw them.  The ladies and gentlemen of the house barely knew where the kitchen was.  Marble is problematic for the same reason calcites are — calcium is really soft and porous.  It will also show knife and burn marks, so always use a cutting board and trivets.

Flash forward and marble has been having a renaissance in kitchen countertops due to improvements made in stone sealers.  While the sealants are good, they’re no guarantee of a stain-free life.  Sealers must be regularly used and spills mopped up pretty quickly.  Regardless of the sealer, I would never leave a dribble of wine on the counter overnight.

The other reason they’ve become popular is because of the white/white color palette so popular in kitchens these days. Marble’s more reasonable price tag over quartzite is a selling point, and people always think they’ll take care of the stone (like kids promising to care for a pet). Adding to style concerns is open-concept living, where kitchens take pride of place.

Use marble in bathrooms where, while not risk-free, it is less likely to face stains. In kitchens, really understand the maintenance and be honest with yourself about whether you’ll actually do it. Spending a pinch more now on a product that’s more durable might make long-term sense.

 

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Onyx

Onyx is another often wacky patterned and colored stone. It’s also a stone you don’t want to put in a kitchen you’re actually going to cook in as it’s not very durable from staining and marks.  If your life revolves around pizza delivery and doggy bags, have at it.

Onyx is formed by drips. As you can see above, layers of different colored liquids drip in place for varying amounts of time. These drips form striations in the stone as minerals are deposited.  The exact makeup of the dribbles results in the different colors.  One of the more popular is honey onyx and that’s the general color of it.  It’s one of the stones that’s also translucent. If you want drama, hang it in front of a light and be amazed by the colors that come to life.  For the unlimited checkbook folks, backlight your backsplash — it’ll be the talk of the town.

I really like some of the colors onyx comes in, but I’m deathly afraid of staining and damaging it.

 

Soapstone

Soapstone is an odd duck.  It can be soft enough that ancient peoples carved it easily into shapes and tough enough for counters. The reason is talc.  Soapstone containing less than 30 percent talc is what’s used in countertops, but talc content can run over 80 percent (used for carving).  Oddly, some of those ancient cultures carved soapstone into pots and pans.  The name is derived from the soapy feel of the stone. Colors include black, brown, green, and grays. Veining varies by slab, but you can consider it the photo-negative to Carrara marble.

It’s a good choice for counters because it is very heat resistant (no trivets) and radiates heat slowly (why it was made into pots). If you want to freak out your friends, get small chunks of soapstone, freeze them and plop them into drinks on a warm summer day … the slow heat transmission works both ways making them act like ice cubes.  It’s also unaffected by acids and alkalis, meaning slopping marinara won’t harm it.  As it’s talc-based, it’s not super hard so it’s easily scratched, but unlike other stones, you can sand away minor scratches (unpolished only or you’d have to re-polish it).

Soapstone is never going to be see-your-face shiny, but as you can see above, even a little polishing makes a vast difference is its appearance.  Soapstone was one of the older stone counter options you likely came into contact with. Your high school science class’ worktops were likely soapstone.  Figure pricing in the $70 to $120 per square foot range.

 

Granite

I love granite.  It’s durable, comes in a variety of colors and patterns and … did I mention it’s durable?  Prior to my calcite disaster, I’d always used granite.  Colors range from light whites to blackest blacks.  While a granite white will never be confused with white marble, granites can still be very light.

From an expense point of view, the ones you most often see in apartments and lower-priced homes and condos are often what I term “builder grade.” They’re everywhere because there is so much of it and it’s less expensive.  The more “movement” seen in the stone, often the pricier it is.  Movement refers to the stone’s veining and the overall flow of the stone. Stones that look like piles of large salt crystals and pepper flakes with no discernable direction are among the cheapest and most available.  Unless you go nuts, expect to pay around $60 to $100 per square foot installed.

If you do want to go nuts, the sample above is one of the more unusual varieties officially known as Labradorite (but has other names at stone yards). It’s technically categorized as a Feldspar although typically lumped-in with the granites (even though it’s a mineral, not a stone). It is principally mined in Labrador, Canada, (hence the name) but is also found in some Nordic countries, Australia, and Madagascar.  What makes the stone unique is the luminescent, almost opalescent glow in parts of the stone (which makes it freak-show expensive … $200-plus per square foot).  It also has some translucence that can glow when lit from behind.

 

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Manufactured Quartz

I’ll admit to not being a fan of manufactured quartz, but I will say it’s definitely getting better.  The first samples had the appearance of solid and clear crystals, giving it a decided fake appearance (Corian 2.0 as I called it). Today they’re making slabs that look like real stone. The above picture looks like the Carrara marble so popular these days except that, because it’s nonporous, it’s much more stain-resistant than marble.

In case you didn’t know, manufactured quartz takes crushed quartz crystals, mixes it with resins and bakes it under extreme pressure to create a very durable, hard surface.  Price-wise, don’t think that because it’s not 100 percent stone that it will be cheaper.  With averages running from $50 to $150 per square foot including installation, it won’t.  Be aware, all manufactured quartz materials are not the same. Like all stones, different grades are more expensive than others (more difficult to make).

If you like the look, about the only downside I’ve heard is that it can fade/yellow if it’s installed in an area of direct sunlight (especially the lighter varieties).  When I redid my windowsills in black granite, my stone guy suggested manufactured quartz.  I said fine, as long as he agreed to replace it for free if it discolored in the sun. His reply was that granite was an excellent choice.  That said, nearly all manufacturers have 10-plus year warranties on the product.

 

 Pre-fabricated counters can save money

Pre-fabricated counters can save money

Countertops should be an investment that lasts for the life of the kitchen.  You don’t want fussy materials that will stain, chip, or etch before you’re ready for a major remodel.  That said, you want to be honest in your kitchen usage.  If it’s a show kitchen that’s infrequently used for more than microwaving leftovers, you have more leeway than someone like me who cooks at least five nights a week and loves tomato-based recipes.  There’s also compromise. Use a durable stone on the countertop and then show your personal style with a slab backsplash … maybe even backlight it if you’re feeling a dazzle coming on.

One final note. Solid-surface counters are far from the cheapest options on the market, but there is a way to save money.  If one of the more popular stone materials catches your eye, look for places that stock pre-cut, counter depth sheets (usually eight feet lengths, sometimes with 4″ backsplashes).  This saves you a ton because all an installer has to do is pick them up and cut a sink hole and the ends off to fit. You just need a kitchen design that works with that (no islands, etc.).

Secondly, be a dumpster-diver … well, not really.  Depending on your needs, scour multiple stone yards and look at their remnant rack (leftovers from other jobs).  Sometimes there’s enough to suit your needs.  Don’t be afraid of finding the same stone at two different places and piecing it together.  Just be aware, some yards only charge for fabrication and installation (because someone else already paid for the slab) while some double-dip and charge you for the remnant someone else already paid for. It’s also a great way to mix it up with your bathrooms where a vanity counter of something cool becomes an option when you don’t have to buy a full slab.

Now go get stoned!