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buyingguides

Countertop materials: Buying Guides

By Martha Stewart

Everything you need to know about countertop options for your kitchen.

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.)

Engineered stone Quartz

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 Caesarstone 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).

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.

Solid surfacing

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 Caesarstone 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. 

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