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.
Here in Part One, I’ll talk about the various choices along with my thoughts on quartzites and calcites. In Part Two, I’ll talk about the rest of the stone spectrum, including marble, onyx, granite, soapstone, and manufactured quartz.
There are myriad of options for kitchen and bath countertops. Some of them are better than others for certain jobs. Most of the better or worse comes from durability and their ability to resist staining, fading, yellowing, chipping, and my favorite, etching.
Before we dive into the stone options, there are a lot of other options available.
There are countertop materials made from slab glass, concrete, stainless steel, recycled paper, lava rock, and good old-fashioned wood. I have seen slab-glass counters and they look really crisp and clean. They’re super easy to keep clean and not much will stain them, however, as you might imagine, chipping is a constant fear.
Concrete counters leave me cold. They seem a fad that HGTV will be made for sledgehammering out in future renovation programs.
I fear lava rock counters are the same. Lava stone is mined from an old volcano in France, covered in enamel and baked. They’re extremely heavy and durable, but there’s nothing “stone” about this material as the solid color, brightly colored enamel covers the stone. They’re also faintingly expensive at $250-plus per square foot.
One company that manufactures paper-based countertop material is called Paper Stone out of Washington state. Their product uses between 50 to 100 percent recycled paper held together by a phenol-based resin (non-petroleum). Their colors are mostly dark because of the resin used and aside from the green credentials, aren’t cheaper than stone. The company estimates their prices for material, fabrication, and installation to run between $50 and $80 per square foot. The question to ask here is about scratching and fading. The company says their product won’t fade in indoor applications, but I suspect that’s true as long as the counter isn’t in direct sunlight. Another question to ask is about chemical staining. They have a detailed chart listing chemical reactions, but it could be simpler with entries for tomatoes, wine, etc. versus “Ethelene Glycol Mono Butyl Ether.” One benefit unique to Paper Stone and wood is the warm-to-the-touch feel versus stones.
Wood is a fussy surface for a counter getting serious use. Sure, it looks great, but it has to be sealed often and it’s very susceptible to water and burn marks. Knife-wielding chefs will need a cutting board within reach at all times. There’s no letting water dry on the surface as you would with other options. You can repair stains, but at some point there are diminishing returns. About the only way I’d use it is if it were sealed by a fabricator experienced in marine environments to repel water, and then only in a bathroom. Costs have been estimated at $40 to $65 per square foot.
Within the category of stone we have marble, granite, soapstone, quartzite, onyx, calcite, and manufactured quartz composites. There are more varieties than I could name, but these are the biggies.
Aside from manufactured quartz products, the remainder are slabs of stone mined from the earth and, aside from some cutting and polishing, sold as-is. One thing you will likely figure out when visiting stone yards as part of your research is that getting a consistent answer is about as easy as it is within any government agency.
For whatever reason, the stone industry thrives on naming the exact same material differently. Without the commonality of naming, you’re left to a camera to really compare what with what. Imagine walking into a store and asking for shoes and being directed to hats. It’s about that bad. The only exception is in the builder-grade stones. Baltic Brown is pretty much Baltic Brown all over town. And that may be a tip for buyers. If you see tons of the same stone with the same name at multiple stone yards, know that it’s builder grade.
When I say builder grade, that’s not to take away from any feature inherent in the stone. It’s to point out that builders buy miles of these relatively inexpensive stones. If you want something more unusual, you’ll want to stay away from these abundant, ubiquitous slabs.
Let’s talk specific stone types. Since quartzite and calcite caused the most stir, let’s start there.
The real McCoy — real quartzites are durable stones that come in a variety of colors from near white to an artist’s palette of vivid greens, reds, oranges, and blues. What makes quartzites different from granite is the vividness and sometimes subtleness of the striations. If you need a clown car of color that looks almost like a painting, quartzite gets you there in a way granite can’t. If you like the ghostly movement of marble but want something that won’t stain, look at quartzites.
Quartzites are expensive at about $4,000-plus per slab just for the material, plus another $30 to $60 per square foot to cut, polish, and install. Because there is so much mismarking of quartzite and calcite (below), I recommend that you first talk to someone who knows what they’re talking about (for example, Aria Stone Gallery versus IMC, who sold me calcite under the guise of quartzite). I also recommend that you get a sample to test. Bring a chunk home and drop it in a glass of (cheap) wine overnight and then repeat with tomato sauce and citrus juice. If it survives, break out the checkbook.
Calcite (Soft Quartzite)
Run away. Quickly. If you plan to use this stone for anything more than a wall hanging, I do not recommend it. This is the pretty, mislabeled junk I purchased that loves to etch. Etching is caused when something either acid or alkaline comes in contact with this stone. As I said two years ago, many suspected that the etching was caused by resins used in the curing process of the slab. I’ve since been told that there are not resins used (believe who you will). But it doesn’t matter, if you want a shiny surface and you cook, this isn’t for you.
As I note, this was marketed to me as soft quartzite and is now more accurately referred to as calcite. Calcium is fine for bones, but it will react with acids in tomatoes, wine, citrus, and other foods you’ll often find in a kitchen. There’s the added fright that the crystals might have air pockets between them which add instability to the stone. So installing a heavy undermount sink might be a little daring to fill with water.
Sales people may tell you to use a “leather” finish. All this does is pre-dull the surface so it all looks etched. It doesn’t stop future etching, but much like a car that’s been banged once, the second ding doesn’t look as noticeable. Just remember, vertical surfaces = good, horizontal surfaces = bad.
A neighbor with children also reports that the crystalline structure also makes it quite easy to chip.