When it comes to choosing a kitchen countertop, Jesse Vickers, principal designer at JLV Creative, has one piece of advice: "Don’t be afraid to go bold. Bold countertops can be a love of a lifetime, and actually help you sell your house down the line, setting you apart from a sea of white quartz with grey veining."
That being said, there are many, many options when it comes to countertop material, and unlike some design decisions, it’s not one you can just throw money at. The highest-end countertops are actually some of the trickiest to maintain; it can be easy to spend too much on a look you love, but is a maintenance nightmare.
How to Choose a Kitchen Countertop Material
Think about your needs first and foremost. Do you do lots of food prep right on your counter? Avoid porous or soft materials—and while seals can help keep natural stone and concrete looking lovely, required maintenance is rarely a check in the "positives" column for any material.
Durability and maintenance should be top of mind. "Countertops take a lot of abuse. The most beautiful marble in the world will not last if it is not properly treated and installed," says Terri Lee of Appel Architecture, who works in New York and Los Angeles. "We always recommend testing samples based on how it will be used. How does the material hold up to heat or spilled liquids? Does adding special sealers or finishes change the look significantly?"
Consider, also, where the materials will be placed. Will you have a kitchen island? Will you want to use the same material for your backsplash, or will you mix and match? "Consider if you want to cover an entire backsplash or create a waterfall edge on a countertop," says Sarah Latham, principal at Latham Interiors in Ketchum, Idaho. "These materials are coming up in new locations that are surprising and elegant."
Style and color are key, too. "A stone countertop material can literally instigate an entire design," Vickers says. "I’m very drawn to marbles with a ton of movement, like Arabescato Corchia and Arabescato Vagli, Calacatta Blue, Lasa Bianco, and Oyster White, to name a few." But if you want vibrant colors and more modern designs rather than the natural look, concrete, laminate, tile, and porcelain will be on the table.
Next, we come to the price. "Before installation, you’re looking at a range of $35 to well over $100 a square foot," says Vickers, although the much-maligned but resurging laminate can be as low as $10. "Generally speaking, countertop materials that are easier to come by—meaning there is a lot of it—are going to be less expensive," she says. "Higher price points also generally correlate with whiter backgrounds in marbles."
An important item to remember is that the material costs are one part of the budget, but fabrication and installation can easily double the cost of the overall countertop. "Spending more on countertop materials can sometimes relate to a better installer, or when it’s specifically the countertop itself, you are getting a better manufactured or sometimes more unique, natural material," says Latham.
Natural Stone Vs. Manufactured Materials
There’s a raging debate in the design world between natural and engineered materials. Many designers wax eloquent about the beauty of natural stone, but if it’s shipped from thousands of miles away, its carbon footprint can be noxious.
"It’s trendy to be looking at natural resources, sourced in a way that’s responsible," says Charlie Hellstern, principal of Charlie Hellstern Interior Design. "That’s really important. Just as you should look for FSC-certified woods, you should also consider the material health of your countertop material and how the stone, a raw material, is sourced, quarried, and manufactured in an environmentally friendly way." Additionally, engineered products such as quartz and terrazzo can contain plenty of recycled materials, making them a green choice.
Natural stone is not always more expensive than manmade per square foot, but if you have a complex project where there are unusual shapes or edges, the price for natural will be higher as it requires cutting, whereas most manmade materials can be poured into molds of any shape.
How Much Should You Spend on a Kitchen Countertop?
Material costs vary widely not just by type, but by style and design. Typically, the budget range for materials is from $10-$50 square foot plus installation (but with the option of DIY). In the mid-range, it’s $60-$90 per square foot with some self-install options; and at the high-end, it’s $90 per square foot and up, and you’re not touching this stuff yourself.
The type, design, and provenance of individual products that can also push costs up, so you could spend $45 per square foot on marble—or $200. Installation is also a major factor in the cost and can be half as much again on top of the material cost, to two to three times that, depending on the complexity of your individual project. Installation costs also vary by location. On the budget end, wood and laminate are typical, quartz and quartzite are mid-range, and natural stone and high-end marbles sit at the top of the range. Additionally, sealers required for most natural stones will increase the price.
Here we look at common countertop materials, ranked in order of lowest starting price.
Laminate ($10-$40 per square foot)
Scratch- and stain-resistant and available in endless options in terms of styles and color, laminate is an easy DIY option and an excellent addition to a midcentury-modern kitchen. However, it’s not heat resistant and can chip easily.
Ceramic Tile ($15-$30 per square foot)
With limitless designs and colors, ceramic tile is a great choice for a countertop refresh, as it can be installed over existing laminate. But, you will need to reseal the grout regularly. It’s also heat-resistant, so it stands up to hot pans, and it’s a great choice if you’re after a retro look. However, it’s harder to clean, and the porous nature of grout can be a bacterial hazard waiting to happen.
Corian ($30-$150 per square foot)
The solid surface option, Corian is a mix of solid stone materials (granite, quartz, or aluminum) and plastics (acrylic polymers). Invented by DuPont in the ’60s, Corian is the original brand name, but there are many other options on the market now. With a seamless and warm look, it resembles stone while being stronger and non-porous, but it’s not heat resistant and can be scratched and dented.
Wood ($35-$200 per square foot)
Wood countertops—also called "butcher block"—can be one of the least expensive options. Warm and organic, it can be solid plank or pieced together. "We love butcher block," says Lee. "It’s a natural material with beautiful variation, and it’s easy to work with, so installation and labor costs aren’t as expensive. Plus, it’s easy to refinish if it scratches and stains."
Reclaimed wood is more expensive and harder to find, but a great eco-friendly option. Wood does need regular maintenance and can get scratched and stained easily, but this often lends to its character; plus, you can seal it to make it more durable. Maple is the most common and least expensive option, but teak, cherry, walnut, and oak are options. "The most unique counter I’ve seen was made of end-grain Parallam beams coated with epoxy resin," says Lee. "The compressed wood strands end up looking like yarn, and it was a very cool, unexpected use for an engineered structural product that is usually hidden beneath other finishes."
Granite ($40-$200 per square foot)
The high-end choice for decades, granite is a natural stone that’s very hard, and totally scratch- and heat-resistant. As a natural material, its color choices are more limited, it can’t easily be removed, and it has to be re-sealed to prevent staining. Prices have come down substantially, but installation costs are still high, although you can save money by having granite tile installed instead of slabs.
Paperstone ($45-$75 per square foot)
A countertop material made out of 100% post-consumer recycled paper, non-petroleum resin, and natural pigments, Paperstone is supremely eco-friendly. The material is compressed and heated to create a durable, non-porous countertop surface that looks like stone but is warmer and softer. It can be sanded and requires a sealant to protect against stains, but it’s not very heat-resistant and will develop a natural patina over time.
Marble ($45-$200 per square foot)
Marble is another natural stone made from limestone that has been naturally affected by heat and pressure, causing it to melt and recrystallize. This makes it more dense and durable than limestone with each piece being one-of-a-kind. Expensive and high-maintenance (it needs frequent resealing), it’s easy to scratch, soil, and chip—but looks amazing.
Terrazzo ($50-$100 per square foot)
A composite material made by embedding marble, granite, quartz, and/or glass chips in a cement binder, terrazzo can be crafted to create almost any design or color. "Terrazzo has really made a comeback in the last couple of years," says Lee. "People are looking for more colorful, warm accents in their kitchens, and terrazzo is highly customizable so you can get the exact color palette you want."
Acrylic Resin ($50-$125 per square foot)
Commonly used in laboratories, acrylic resin countertops resist impact, scratching, and heat, they’re also not susceptible to staining from acidic foods and liquids. "We love architectural resin that allow the ability to be underlit or backlit for a unique lighting effect from a surface you may not have been expecting," says Latham.
Quartz ($55-$155 per square foot)
Quartz is a manmade material fabricated from natural silicon dioxide and plastics such as resin. Its engineered nature means it’s available in many colors, whereas the similarly named quartzite is a natural stone usually found in white and gray (more on this material later). Quartz is less prone to denting and chipping than quartzite and requires no ongoing maintenance. It doesn’t need any sealing or polishing and is much more impact-resistant, although it doesn’t like heat. Quartz is sold under brand names like Silestone and Caesarstone.
Porcelain Slab ($60-$100 per square foot)
Extremely hard and resistant to staining, etching, and other damage, porcelain can be manufactured in any color or style you want—it can even look like marble. It’s 30% stronger than granite and will last a very, very long time. Around the same price at quartz, it is more fragile in the fabricating process, which can push up the price, but once installed, it’s bulletproof. From a design standpoint, it can work excellently in integrated sinks.
Popular in Europe, porcelain is still a new concept in the U.S., so a lot is imported. It doesn’t need to be sealed because the fire glazing during manufacture makes it naturally stain-, moisture-, and heat-resistant. Made from natural clay materials, VOC-free, and completely recyclable, it’s a very green product. "Porcelain used to be really limited but has come a long way," says Vickers. "You can find beautiful marble-like porcelains that hold up better than natural stone and have less of a man-made appearance that some quartz. The price point and durability of porcelain can make it desirable."
Soapstone ($60-$185 per square foot)
A type of serpentine granite, a softer granite, soapstone contains talc, which gives this natural stone its soap-like texture. It is easy to scratch, but looks great in a rustic setting.
Quartzite ($60-$200 per square foot)
Made up of quartz sand, quartzite is a naturally occurring metamorphic rock, meaning it has been substantially altered by natural forces. It’s a dense, hard-to-scratch surface that resists abrasions. "The difference between quartz and quartzite is that quartz is man-made, and quartzite is a natural stone. Quartzite is stunning when honed and cut on the vein," says Latham. It looks a lot like marble and often features the same veins and complex color patterns.
Like granite and marble, quartzite is mined, honed, and sawn into slabs which are then polished and sealed, which means it does need to be resealed once or twice a year. "Quartzite is about as durable a natural stone as I’ve been able to find," says Hellstern. "But, exposure to acidic products like soap, wine, vinegar can still cause etching."
Concrete ($70-$140 per square foot)
A popular DIY option, concrete countertops are inexpensive compared to natural stone. But, it’s a porous material that needs to be sealed to avoid stains. Often thought of as ideal for an industrial look, the many colors and pattern options available make this a versatile countertop.
"Concrete can be really nice. You can find consistency in color, but it’s still made by someone," says Hellstern. "There’s an artisanal aesthetic that comes with that—and a human element, which I like. As a designer, you come to find and like people who have mastered their craft, which is fun. With concrete, there’s an element of surprise. There’s always variation, which comes mostly from the sand of the local cement company—sand from the area that affects the color and texture."
Metal ($80-$220 per square foot)
Stainless steel is the go-to for the restaurant world, making it popular in residential kitchens, too, as it’s super durable, scratch-resistant, and very low maintenance. But it’s very loud, and can dent or scratch easily. The higher the gauge of the steel, the more expensive and durable it is. For a really striking, high-end look, opt for zinc or copper.
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