by Kathryn Loosli Pritchett for The Contra Costa Times
When selecting a countertop material for your kitchen, the first thing you have to ask yourself is: “Are you a granite person or not?” If you are, you can head to the nearest purveyor of igneous rock and pick out a slab of your favorite stone. If you aren’t, you’ll have a lot of countertop options to consider.
Granite is a perfectly lovely option—some of my favorite people have granite countertops–but I don’t think I’m the granite type. It feels too hard, too cold, and frankly, nowadays, too predictable. I want something just a little out of the ordinary to go with my mostly traditional new kitchen design.
In the next few months we’re planning on gutting the kitchen in our lovely old Edwardian home and removing the original stove flue from 1915, the chipped and peeling painted cupboards installed in the 1940s, and the imitation wood laminate countertops that were added in the 1960s. Along with all the other design decisions I need to make, I must choose the perfect 21st century material to replace those practical but terribly outdated countertops.
“There’s a countertop material for everyone,” says Berkeley-based kitchen designer Beverly Wilson. “You just need to look at all the options until you find something that appeals to you.”
Ok, so I’m looking for something durable, easy-to-maintain, beautiful, and just a little unusual. With all the terrific design resources here in the Bay Area, that shouldn’t be so difficult to find, right?
I start my countertop quest at a stone yard in San Leandro. I know I said I wasn’t interested in granite countertops, but frankly, stone is the starting point for all modern (and ancient) countertop choices. Stone, specifically granite, has become so ubiquitous as a countertop material that nearly every other product is compared to it in terms of durability, maintenance and cost.
Walking through a stone warehouse like Alpha Granite & Marble is a bit like strolling through Fred Flintstone’s Rockhead Quarry. Hundreds of large slabs of polished stone rest side-by-side waiting to be adopted by a willing customer, while a fleet of small forklifts whiz by to manipulate the slabs for inspection. It’s all a little unnerving, but with the help of salesman Ron Gilligan I learn some fun facts about granite.
Confirming what I suspected, Gilligan tells me that granite makes up 85% of Alpha’s sales. “Granite is just more durable than limestone, travertine or marble,” says Gilligan. “It comes in a hundred colors with black being the most dense and blues and other exotic colors the most expensive.”
Granite runs anywhere from $15 per square foot to $100 per square foot, uninstalled. And, you must buy an entire slab. You can’t just take the portion you need, like yardage off a bolt of fabric.
On my way out, I pass a wall of tile-sized samples, including several basic browns that Gilligan points out are in every upscale tract home in America. I go in search of other classic materials that might be a little less weighty–and widespread.
I decide to investigate countertops made from wood after recalling a conversation I had with a Utah-based designer who does upscale kitchen remodels in Park City and Palm Springs. He told me that mahogany countertops are really the hot new thing in lavish kitchen designs, so I stop by Sullivan Countertops in Emeryville where I see the beautifully crafted wood countertops by Spekva and ask salesman John Zeissig to describe the optimal wood countertop customer.
“Wood countertops are best for people who don’t cook or people who have obsessive/compulsive tendencies,” he tells me. Zeissig gets points for candor.
Zeissig explains that wood countertops need regular, ongoing maintenance (primarily oiling) to look as beautiful as they do in a showroom. I think of the dry, scarred, wooden cutting boards that I’ve been meaning to oil for months and decide I’m not worthy of wood. And probably not tidy enough to maintain the grout lines with ceramic, porcelain or glass tile, either. Maybe I should consider a modern low-maintenance material.
We walk over to the gleaming surfaces made from engineered stone and solid surfacing. Solid surfacing like Corian was the granite of my young married life; the high-end kitchens I lusted after twenty years ago all had Corian countertops in white or eggshell.
Corian is still the high-performing product it was then. It’s nonporous, heat-resistant, and can be molded into a curved backsplash, which makes it imminently cleanable—my husband’s number one requirement in a countertop material. It can be repaired easily and it now it comes in 110 colors from Acorn to Anthracite—many of which look like, you guessed it, granite. But even with all those fancy color variations, solid surfacing
still has an artificial appearance.
Engineered stone like Silestone and Zodiac fares a little better in the “stone wannabe” category. To make engineered stone, quartz aggregate is mixed with resin and pigments to create a souped-up natural stone material. Nonporous like solid surfacing, heat resistant, and easy-to-clean, engineered stone can be found in dozens of colors, some more natural (granite-like) than others.
However, if I’m going to buy a man-made material, maybe I should choose a modern product that isn’t afraid to claim its industrial identity. Stainless steel countertops were formerly favored for commercial use but have been in vogue in residential kitchens for some time now. Fred Mork, of Walter Mork Sheet Metal in Berkeley, tells me that these counters have everything going for them; they’re durable, heat and stain-resistant, and can be custom-fabricated to any shape or size. However, they could drive excessively fussy kitchen-owners crazy.
“If you’re freaked out by scratches, stainless steel isn’t for you,” says Mork. “Go look at a coffee shop stainless steel countertop and see what it looks like after it has some real wear and tear—if you like that look, we can build anything you want.”
I do like the look; the “butlers finish” that comes after a stainless steel countertop is thoroughly scratched gives off a soft glow and it matches the commercial appearance of most modern appliances. But it also looks fairly utilitarian and somewhat severe. If I want a slightly softer industrial material I might want to consider concrete—another countertop material that’s been gaining in popularity over the last few years.
“Concrete is certainly not a new material, but in the last five years it’s really gone mainstream.” says Mark Rogero, owner of Oakland’s Concrete Works, who first experimented with concrete countertops when he was just out of architecture school and trying to inexpensively outfit his own Emeryville loft.
Rogero credits concrete’s growing popularity to its versatility. Standing in his Oakland studio where crews are working on countertops for several Pottery Barn Kids stores, and a beautiful half-ton concrete bathtub waits to be transported to a vacation home, he points out that concrete can be custom colored and finished and be embedded with objects to personalize each project.
When I ask about chipping or cracking—a common complaint with concrete countertops—Rogero says that he’s learned over the years to “anticipate” where concrete will crack and now creates seams at vulnerable junctures like sink surrounds. Chips can be patched with a custom-colored filler. And, to minimize chips, he recommends waxing your countertops every few months and resealing them every 4-5 years—“a good do-it yourself project,” says Rogero.
Another concrete material that caught my eye is the concrete/glass mix done by Berkeley’s Counter Production studio. Counter Production uses glass recycled from various sources including bottles, windshields, traffic lights, and stained glass windows and mixes it with cement, which is then molded into a countertop. The scores of samples on display in their showroom make me want to see a full-scale application.
I visit with Laurie Richards, who recently installed several Counter Production countertops in her Walnut Creek home. “When we were designing the house we were really interested in sustainable “green” products like these recycled glass countertops,” says Richards, whose husband Brian owns The Patton Group, a commercial flooring company that features green flooring materials. “We knew we didn’t want to do granite, Corian looked too fabricated, and we were concerned about concrete cracking. When we saw the Counter Production countertops featured last winter in Dwell magazine we decided to look at them more closely.”
For their kitchen, the Richards chose “Siskyou” a mix of brown and tan bottles in dark cement; for their bathroom they went with “Glacier/Blue Plate” a light concrete base mixed with aqua and blue-tinted glass that evokes sea glass. They’re hoping to put a brighter red mix in another bathroom to match a red recycled vinyl flooring material.
“Along with being environmentally friendly, it’s really a beautiful material,” says Richards. “And, there’s so much going on in the countertop that you don’t see small spills or the trails of ants that were kicked up by our new construction!”
Other attractive environmentally friendly options I ran across in my search included Richlite paper countertops and Alkemi recycled metal shavings countertops. The Richlite material is used in commercial applications, including skate park ramps—so it’s durable but surprisingly soft to the touch. The Alkemi material is made from leftover metal shavings from military construction sites. It has an edgier feel that would work well in a contemporary setting.
And then, of course, there are several materials that are just plain beautiful. I first saw enameled, or “French, lava stone countertops in this year’s San Francisco designer showcase house and was entranced by their subtle sheen. The lava stone is quarried in France, and then coated with enamel in shades from neutral whites to brilliant reds, greens and blues. Toby Hansen, buyer for Sue Fisher King, a San Francisco shop that sells French lava stone raves about its durability and beauty.
“Its primary use has been outdoor tables and countertops so it’s impervious to the elements and is very hard to chip or ding. It’s very stain-resistant and as for scratching, I wouldn’t cut directly on it, but otherwise it’s quite durable,” says Hansen.
Of course, it’s expensive—it comes from France after all. Hansen wouldn’t quote me a price per square foot—“it’s really per job”—but says that it’s “comparable to stone or more expensive.”
Another exquisite countertop material is the cast resin produced by Marcia Steiner of San Francisco’s Fossil Faux Studios. These luminescent countertops can be custom-colored and embedded with unusual materials. Particularly lovely options include a green resin filled with grass, white resin filled with rice, and an orange resin sprinkled with bay leaves and saffron. A light amber gold resin is filled with raffia-like strings. “We officially call this gold mix “straw” says Steiner, “ but someone dubbed it our ‘shredded wheat’ mix and that stuck.”
Shredded wheat countertops? Yummy!
Let’s face it—every countertop material has pros and cons. Right now I’m leaning towards a combination of stainless steel and concrete or recycled glass. But after all my research, I still can’t make up my mind; the only countertop conclusion I can come to is that life is simpler if you’re the granite type.
Countertop manufacturers are leery of quoting prices because there are so many variables—colors, finishes, embedded materials, edging details, etc. So use these numbers as a starting point and know that every job will need to be priced individually.
Price: $15-$100 per square foot, uninstalled
Pros & Cons: Durable; natural look; porous; expensive
Maintenance: Clean with soap and water; should be sealed after installation; then resealed every 6 months to 2 years
Price:$34-$225 per square foot, uninstalled
Pros & Cons: Warm elegance; can cut on butcher-block surface; may scorch or stain; needs to be oiled frequently
Maintenance: Clean with soap and water; rub with mineral oil regularly
Price:$8t per square foot, uninstalled
Pros & Cons: Unique shapes, textures and colorations; may stain or crack; look changes over time
Maintenance: Clean with soap and water; apply wax every 3-4 months; reseal every 4-5 years
Price: $3.50-$10.00 per square foot, uninstalled
Pros & Cons: Durable; many styles and colors; grout areas may be difficult to clean; uneven surface
Maintenance: Damp sponge with soap and water or mild household cleanser
Material: Solid Surfacing
Price: $30-60/square foot, uninstalled
Pros & Cons: Retains original appearance; invisible seams; can be repaired; expensive
Maintenance: Clean with soap and water
Price: $5-30 per square foot, uninstalled
Pros & Cons: Wide palette; widely available; utilitarian look; may have visible seams; inexpensive
Maintenance: Clean with soap and water or window cleaner; avoid flooding and abrasive cleanser
Material: Stainless steel
Price: “Like granite”
Pros & Cons: Industrial look; durable; easy to clean; precise fit; will scratch; utilitarian feeling
Maintenance: Soap and water; occasional rubdown with stainless steel cleaner to take out superficial scratching
Material: Others such as French Lava Stone, Cast Resin, Richlite, Alkemi or Counter Production
Price:” Like granite”
Pros & Cons: Unusual look; longer fabrication periods
Maintenance: Depends on the material
Alpha Granite & Marble
Fossil Faux Studios
Sue Fisher King
Walter Mork, Co., Inc.