New & Traditional Countertop Choices: Part 1 Natural StoneCeramic TilePorcelain Slab/Sintered StoneMetalGlass WoodBamboo

A countertop takes a lot of abuse. In the kitchen, you put hot pans on it, cut on it, scrape and scratch at it, scour it, and spill hot liquids on it. In the bathroom, it's worse – with all the various chemicals spilled on counter surfaces – the soaps, the creams, the nail polish, the model airplane glue. Yet after years of abuse, your countertop is expected to look as good as ever – and mostly they do.

Natural Stone Countertops

There are very few materials more durable than stone. Cool and long-lasting, stone offers a timeless, elegant beauty that few other materials can match.

Some stones are hard and resist scratches and heat, Others are more delicate and require a lot of care and maintenance. Even the most durable stone has drawbacks as a countertop material. It has no "give" at all so that a plate, cup, or glass dropped on it is likely to shatter rather than bounce.

The stone itself can crack, break, chip and scratch. Some stones stain easily – marble, travertine, and soapstone are notorious culprits – although many believe that the visible signs of use that accumulate over time add to the patina and charm of these upscale materials.

Slate and schist are particularly susceptible to edge chipping and require special care in both installation and daily use. But, all stones will chip if hit hard enough or at just the wrong angle.

Almost any stone can be made into a countertop but the most desirable stones are those that can take a good polish to create a smooth working countertop surface.

We are not even going to try to review all of the possible stone countertops. There are far too many. We will look at just the more common offerings in regular commercial use: granite, limestone, marble, schist, slate, and travertine.

Marble & Travertine Countertops

With the increasing availability of tougher stones, we don't see much marble or travertine in kitchens these days. But they are still widely used in period bathrooms. They are historically accurate for just about any architectural style, and virtually required for some. A Victorian bath, for example, almost demands a marble or travertine vanity top for authenticity.

Travertine is very like marble, just more porous and softer. Both materials have been popular since the early Greek and Roman years because they are beautiful and fairly soft, making them easy to cut and polish with relatively simple hand tools (and a whole lot of hard labor).

But they are not a good choice for the brutal environment of a busy kitchen. These are delicate materials that require a level of care similar to that of fine wood furniture. They are calcareous stones, like limestone, and are very acid sensitive. They readily dissolve in acid, therefore acidic products, such as lemon, vinegar, or tomato juice should not be left in prolonged contact with either stone. These will cause the stone to etch – the surface finish will dull and change texture, even crumble into powder. Both materials are heat resistant, but they can scorch, so hot pots and pans should not be set directly on a marble or travertine countertop.

Frequent cleaning and re-sealing are needed to keep the materials looking new. They can be dulled by soap scum and hard water and will show white rings if wet glasses are left on the countertop for too long.

Granite Countertops

Granite is still the stone of choice these days. It is heavy, hard, and durable, very difficult to crack or chip, and will easily outlast your house.

Many varieties are very hard to stain, but regular sealing is usually recommended. We have heard reports of granite tops that do not need sealing, but we have never actually seen one, and, frankly, don't believe it. Granite, no matter how dense, is porous and any porous material can stain.

Granite comes in a seemingly infinite range of colors and patterns, with more arriving every day. On the downside, it is just about the most expensive countertop material around, rivaled only by concrete and some engineered stone materials.

Soapstone Countertops

Soapstone, eclipsed for years by granite for most of the last two decades, is making a strong comeback as granite countertops become more and more common.

The look of soapstone is timeless and historically accurate for almost any period of American architecture. It is warmer, denser, and heavier than granite.

It is not, however, nearly as hard. The primary ingredient in soapstone is talc, about the softest mineral around. It can be scratched with a fingernail but rarely are scratches more than superficial and can be removed with an application of mineral oil. More severe scratches disappear with fine sandpaper or even a scouring pad.

Unlike granite and most of the other natural stones, soapstone is almost impervious to water penetration, unaffected by acids or other kitchen chemicals, and absolutely heat resistant.

These are some of the reasons it has been the preferred material for countertops in chemical laboratories for well over 150 years. Even the hottest pans can be set on it without harm. Since it is almost impervious to liquids, it does not need sealing. But, it does stain. Even water leaves a mark. Soapstone aficionadoes don't mind – it's all part of the patina that gives soapstone its unique look. Stains are easily removed, but it is bothersome to keep it looking new and unblemished. So, those who are not fans may want to stay away from it.

Classic soapstone from New England is light gray to almost black, often with a greenish tinge, but the material can range from light brown to terracotta depending on its source and treatment. Very little soapstone is now quarried in the U.S. Most comes from Brazil.

A soapstone surface darkens naturally with age or when exposed to water or oils. To darken it evenly, soapstone can be treated with food-grade mineral oil. The darker it gets, the more light grey or gray-green veins stand out adding to soapstone's appeal. New "dry wax" coatings have been developed that replace mineral oil and last longer, but are, of course, considerably more expensive. Many soapstone fans, however, simply let it age naturally over the years, adding a patina of wear and use. But, renewing soapstone is easy – simply sand away the old surface for a brand new look. Repeated restorations are possible over many years.

Limestone Countertops

Limestone is another sedimentary rock composed mostly of calcite. Like marble and travertine, Limestone is very soft and easy to damage with acids and abrasion. The most frequently used limestone for countertops is dense and fine-grained. Examples are Jerusalem stone that is known for its consistent texture and even color and Belgian and French bluestone.

Limestone is available in the usual earth colors: brown, beige, yellow, gray, and black. The bluestones have a bluish tint, which makes them rare and sought-after. Look for consistency in color and even texture throughout the stone. Some limestones are dense enough to be polished to a high gleam, but the usual finish is a low luster, hewn stone look.

The stone is soft and porous. It retains moisture and can stain irreparably. Like marble and travertine, it can be damaged by mild household acids like lemon juice, vinegar, and tomatoes which can dissolve the calcium in the stone. It can also be easily scratched and is not usually recommended for busy working surfaces such as in food preparation areas, or any place a knife is likely to be used. But as an accent countertop or backsplash, it can be truly gorgeous.

Slate and Schist Countertops

Most true slate is used for floors, usually in the form of tiles. It is too soft for countertops.

The material used in most "slate" countertops is actually schist, a. harder, finder grained metamorphic rock quarried mostly in New England and upstate New York.

Schist is dense and like soapstone, nonporous. Liquids cannot penetrate the surface of the stone, so it will not stain. It contains little calcium, so it is unaffected by acidic liquids like wine and fruit juices. Hot pans can be placed on it without the risk of damage.

It comes in an array of earth tone colors: light gray to charcoal, various shades of purple and green, and soft red in naturally streaked and plain patterns. Stylistically it is a more subdued option for countertops. It does not have the dramatic grain and color effects of granite. For reproducing a heritage kitchen, however, it is authentic and consistent with any era from early Victorian to the present.

Maintenance is minimal. A wipe-down with a damp cloth or sponge is usually sufficient with an occasional cleaning with a mild detergent. While the material does not need sealing, some owners wax or oil the surface to give it a wet look that deepens the color and enhances any grain effect.

Glazed Ceramic Tile Countertops Pros, Cons & Ratings

Unglazed Ceramic Tile: Natural stone tile and unglazed ceramic tile have all the advantages and drawbacks of natural stone countertops (except the hefty price), and should be treated as stone ( see above).

Rating 7.0 out of 10

Pros: Comes in nearly an infinite variety of colors and styles. Can be as inexpensive as laminates.

Glazed tile is extremely durable. It resists heat and moisture, and cannot be cut. Any damaged tile can be readily replaced, provided you kept a couple of spare tiles, just in case.

Cons: Glazed tile can be scratched and chipped (especially at outside corners) but only by the truly determined.

Traditional cement-based grout can stain and may be hard to keep clean. However, narrow grout lines and new stain-resistant urethane and epoxy grouts have virtually eliminated this problem.

Must be installed by a professional or very skilled do-it-yourselfer. Like stone, engineered composites, and concrete, tile is very hard, so any dishware dropped on it will probably break.

Durability - High: Care must be taken to select the proper grade of tile for a countertop (see: Porcelain vs. Ceramic Tile, Is There a difference?), but a tile rated for countertops will last a very long time and keep its like-new appearance after a lifetime of use. Immune to household chemicals, heat, and most impact damage. It can be chipped at the edges, but it takes determination. The only material other than metal, that a hot pan cannot damage.

Maintenance - Very Low: Requires no sealing or other periodic maintenance if a modern, non-cement-based grout is used. Cleans with soap and water.

Cost - Varies: Ceramic tile is both the least costly and most costly material available. Suitable tile can be purchased on sale for one or two dollars a square foot, but hand-made artisan tile can run hundreds of dollars, some even thousands of dollars, per square foot. The labor to install the tile can be costly, and doing it yourself is not an option for any but the most experienced DIY-er.

Green - Medium: The basic materials used are clay and sand, both of which are sustainable. We are not likely to run out of either very soon. Only minimal fabrication is required. No toxic materials or possibility of out-gassing. However, a lot of electricity or natural gas is required to fire the kilns it is cooked in at up to 2,200° Fahrenheit and maintain that temperature for days on end.

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Ceramic Tile Countertops

If any countertop material is available in even more colors and patterns than laminates like Formica®, it must be fired clay tile.

Tile for countertops has an impressive history going back to the ancient Greeks and Persians, even farther. To give you an idea of the durability of tile: Tile work in the Roman city of Pompeii was complex and intricate, survived one volcanic eruption, and has lasted for 2,000 years. And, by today's standards, it is not even a very good tile.

Ceramic tile is made from a special clay called kaolin and silica (sand). Clay tiles are "fired" – heated in a kiln to a very high temperature to harden the kaolin and turn the silica into quartz glass.

High-quality water- and wear-resistant tile is fired longer at a higher temperature so it is harder, denser, and more impervious to water than "softer" tiles.

A glazed tile has been surface coated on the top side with glass which bonds to the clay when the materials are fired. Tiles may be glazed or unglazed. Unglazed tile needs to be treated like stone. It must be sealed, and the sealant must be renewed every year or so.

Glazed tile may be treated like glass – a surface that needs almost no maintenance. Unlike glass, however, tile is very difficult to break.

Not every tile is suitable for use as a countertop. Soft, thin tiles designed to use on walls are not good countertop material. Hard tiles rated for use as flooring are more than adequate.

Grout is a problem for a lot of people who otherwise think tile would make a beautiful surface for countertops. Everyone has heard the stories: grout cracks, falls out, stains, gets dirty, harbor harmful bacteria, and needs to be cleaned and sealed regularly. All of this is true with cement-based grouts. But there are other kinds of grout.

Epoxy grouts are crack- and stain-proof. They have been available for years but are seldom used outside of commercial buildings. Their problem is that they are expensive, difficult to apply, and very unforgiving of mistakes. Some tilers won't use them at all.

Of more recent vintage are urethane grouts. Urethane is a polymer, essentially a tough plastic, flexible, and very stain-resistant. It will last nearly as long as your tile and, best of all, does not need to be sealed – ever. The urethane is the seal.

Caring for Cement Grout

If your tile countertop is more than a few years old, then the grout is one of the old cement-based blends. These require a lot of maintenance. But, it's not an impossible task. Here's how to keep cement grout looking fresh for a long time.

  • Never use chlorine bleach, muriatic acid, vinegar, or other caustic chemicals unless the label indicates that it is safe for grout. These can deteriorate and etch the grout, making it more of a dirt magnet.
  • Try our proven home-made recipe,  1 or a mild acid cleaner formulated specifically for tile and grout. After a thorough cleaning (with a brush) and rinsing, re-seal the dry grout with a deep penetrating sealer.
  • For badly stained grout, there is an alternative. After washing grout with an approved grout cleaner and rinsing it thoroughly, use a toothbrush to apply a grout colorant.  2 It can be mixed to match almost any colored or white grout, and most of these products seal as they color.
  • If all else fails, call a cleaning service that specializes in tile restoration. They're in the Yellow Pages.

Care-Free Grout

If you want to avoid the grout staining problem altogether, order your tile with urethane or epoxy grout. Unlike cement-based grouts, these grout products are almost stain proof, remain flexible so they seldom crack or split, and do not ever need to be sealed.

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Its one drawback is that it has to cure for up to 72 hours before being used (7 days around a sink), which can be a nuisance. It is also more expensive than cement-based grouts. But we think the extra expense is worth the saving in maintenance over the years. You have to specify urethane, otherwise, your tile installer will probably use the older, cement-based, formulation.

It is also possible to lay tile without grout. The edges are butted together, a process called close-setting. Ordinary tile may be close in finished size but is rarely exact due to the way the firing process shrinks tile unevenly. So, a grout line between tiles is normally required even if the grout line is a very narrow 1/16" or so. Close-setting requires a special "rectified" tile that has been cut or ground so that each tile is exactly the same size.

Glazed tiles are already permanently sealed with glass so sealing is not required. Urethane and epoxy grout does not need to be sealed. But, cement-based grout lines must be re-sealed periodically even in glazed tile. Grout and tile sealant is nothing more than a special coating containing a high percentage of silicon. It is usually applied with a brush or sponge and wiped off with a soft cloth. Nothing to it, really. It's not the sealing that is burdensome, it's the cleaning and de-staining before the sealing that people do not like.

The cost of tile ranges so widely that it is both the least expensive and most expensive countertop material. Some specialized imported tiles cost hundreds of dollars per square foot. Yet you can buy a perfectly acceptable tile on sale from time to time for $1.50 s/f. So it is possible for a customer on a budget to use tile -- just stay away from anything made in France or Italy.

Porcelain slab and sintered stone are not new materials. In fact, they are very old materials in a new guise – nothing more than exotic than ceramic tile in a new, larger format. Porcelain slabs are typically sold by their makers as super-sized tile. Sintered stone manufacturers are more likely to describe their material as an artificial stone and are less likely to glaze the material. It is not stone, however. It is a ceramic made from clay, more akin to a brick than it is to rock.

Porcelain Slab Countertops

Tile makers have been experimenting with larger format tiles for decades.

Tile in larger sizes is hard to manufacture because the material tends to cup, curl, and twist when heated to temperatures of up to 2,500°. The larger the format, the more risk of deformation.

Tile makers perfected a flat 24" x 24" tile in the 1990s by adjusting the tile mix, using less water and special additives, and varying firing temperature and times. The larger format tiles generated a renewed interest in tile countertops since grout lines could be minimized using the larger format tile.

In the early 21st century even larger tiles were created – up to 48" formats. These made possible the faux wood strips popular as replacements for strip wood flooring in kitchens, baths, and mudrooms with more durable ceramic tile without sacrificing the wood look.

Now ceramic tile has gotten so large that a single tile can cover an entire countertop, eliminating grout lines altogether. In the industry, very large format tiles are no longer called tiles, they are called slabs, sheets, or veneers depending on the thickness of the material.

Slab vs. Sheet vs. Veneer: At what point a slab becomes a sheet and a sheet becomes a veneer is not all that clear. At 3/16ths inch or thinner, the material is probably a veneer. Above 3/16" to about 3/8" it is likely a sheet. Over 1/2" the material is structurally rigid and more properly a slab. Between 3/8" and 1/2" is anybody's guess, but thin slab seems appropriate.

Nomenclature varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, however, and somewhat according to location. So my thin slab may be the other guy's sheet and my sheet another's veneer.

Early slabs were indeed slabs, up to 3/4" thick, heavy, and very expensive. As the technology of firing large formats improved, the material got thinner. Veneers are now available as thin as 1/8" (3mm).

More typical, however, are 1/4" (5.6mm) slabs – the thickness of ordinary floor tile. They are called "thin slabs" or "sheets."

Very large format ceramics are available in up to 12' lengths and as wide as 5' – and getting still larger as the technology continues to be perfected. Five feet wide is about the limit right now, however, until kilns are built that can handle wider sheets.

Veneers and sheets have no structural strength and need to be supported by a plywood substrate just like laminate materials such as Formica®. The sheets are bonded to the substrate with a modified thin-set adhesive like the stuff used to set ceramic tile. The strength of the assembly is provided by the substrate under the slabs. The thin sheets and veneers are merely the surface finish.

Some manufacturers back their sheets and veneers with fiberglass to make them less likely to crack in handling, and some sheets are made with additives that leave them somewhat flexible. A few can even be bent around gentle curves without cracking, which increases their design potential.

Porcelain Slab & Sintered Stone Countertops Pros, Cons & Ratings

Rating 6.25 out of 10

Pros: Available in an increasing but still limited variety of colors and patterns. Seamless installation gets rid of the grout lines in smaller format tiles that are troubling to some homeowners. No maintenance is required other than wiping up spills with a damp cloth or sponge.

Very durable. If glazed, it is as durable as glazed ceramic tile. The surface is impervious to water and does not need sealing. Virtually immune to heat.

If unglazed, it is not stain- or heat-resistant and may show a color change if a hot pan is placed on it. Unglazed material is normally sealed at the factory and (according to the manufacturers) does not need to be sealed again. However, the seal coat is not as stain-resistant as glazing.

Cons: The surface can be scratched but only with a determined effort. Must be installed by a professional experienced with installing por­ce­lain slabs. DIY installation is not recommended for even a very skilled do-it-yourselfer.

Will chip or crack if hit hard enough but damage is unlikely in ordinary use. Like stone, engineered composites, and concrete, tile has no "give", so any dishware dropped on it will probably break.

Both materials are costly, about $100 per s/f for a thin slab and about twice that for the 3/4" slab. Labor to install the material is also expensive, generally higher than the cost of installing ceramic tile or a stone countertop. However, the price is coming down as more installers get familiar with the materials.

Durability - High: A por­ce­lain slab will last a very long time and keep its like-new appearance after a lifetime of use. It is immune to household chemicals, heat, and most impact damage. It can be chipped at the edges but it takes determination. The only material other than metal and ceramic tile, that a hot pan cannot damage.

Maintenance - Very Low: Requires no sealing or other routine maintenance. Spills wipe p with a sponge, cloth or paper towel. Cleans with soap and water.

Cost - Very High: The material costs more than a premium stone countertop. The cost of installation is usually higher than for tile or a stone countertop installation, and doing it yourself is not an option.

Green - Medium: The basic materials used are clay and sand, both of which are sustainable. We are not likely to run out of either very soon. Only minimal fabrication is required. No toxic materials or possibility of out-gassing. However, a lot of electricity or natural gas is required to fire the kilns it is cooked in at up to 2,200° Fahrenheit and sustain the temperature for several days.

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Like glazed ceramic tile, por­ce­lain slabs can be top-coated with a glaze composed primarily of glass. The glaze bonds to the underlying ceramic as the materials are fired.

Glaze is impervious to liquids and unfazed by even the hottest pan (although every manufacturer recommends against putting hot pans on their por­ce­lain slabs). It needs almost no maintenance. The glaze is difficult to scratch or mar, chip, or crack, but if damaged, it cannot be repaired.

Unglazed slabs are somewhat porous and are sealed at the factory to resist staining. All slab manufacturers claim that once factory-sealed, the slabs never need re-sealing, but we take that with a fair-sized grain of salt. The material is very dense and minimally porous, but it is not entirely pore-free.

Any porous material can stain, and "never" is a long, long time. The material has no track record that proves it will not eventually need to be re-sealed from time to time. Check back in about 30 years. We'll know for sure by then.

Slabs can be made in almost any pattern and color. Some even emulate metal. But, patternless solid colors and simulated stone seem to be the most popular looks. Patterns in thicker slabs can go all the way through the material. So, any veining or stone pattern continues around the edge, making it look more like real stone.

In thinner sheets, the pattern is applied only to the surface. The material requires some sort of edge treatment, of which there are many.

A por­ce­lain slab can be an excellent choice to get the look of a fragile stone like marble, travertine, or limestone without the maintenance these stones require. In addition, unlike these calcareous stones, slabs shrug off acids, even strong acids, without damage and cannot be scratched except with a determined effort. The natural calcareous stones scratch easily.

Sintered Stone Countertops

The difference between sintered stone and por­ce­lain slabs is that there is almost no difference between sintered stone and porcelain slabs.

Sintered stone, like por­ce­lain slabs, is nothing more innovative or exotic than large-format ceramic tile. It is, in reality, just por­ce­lain slab by another name.

But, that has not stopped sintered stone manufacturers from hyping the material as "new and innovative" and the latest and greatest technological advancement in countertop surfaces – a step up from por­ce­lain slabs.

According to one manufacturer, what makes sintered stone better than por­ce­lain slabs is the careful choice of "natural materials" that go into sintered stone:

First are granite minerals such as quartz and feldspars, which provide hardness and strength. Second are silica and glass minerals, which add chemical stability. Third are clay minerals, which contribute adhesive properties and whiteness. Fourth, natural mineral pigments of different types can be added to create different colors or chromatic properties in the final product. Note 1

Another adherent suggests that it is the manufacturing process that distinguishes sintered stone from por­ce­lain slabs.

Sintered stone is manufactured using recent technological advancements which mimic the processes which form natural stone… Minerals … are … subject[ed] to extreme heat and pressure, just like they would be deep in the earth's crust where granite is formed. When the process is finished, the particles are bonded together permanently, without the need for resins or bonding agents. Note 2

In fact, there nothing here that is new or could be considered any sort of "technological advancement."

The fabulous "natural" materials used in sintered stone are nothing more exotic than the same old clay, sand, quartz, and feldspars that have been used to make ceramic tiles since the Stone Age – more than 5,000 years and possibly as long as 10,000 years ago. So, again, absolutely nothing new here.

The manufacturing process that mimics the extreme heat and pressure that form natural stone is the well-established dust-press (or dry-press) method of making ceramic tile. It has been around for the better part of two centuries, first patented in 1853 by British engineer, inventor, and patent law reformer, Richard Prosser.


Read the very interesting Prosser biography: Prosser The Engineer: A Forgotten Birmingham Genius by Susan Darby which can be downloaded in .pdf format, free of charge.

In the dust-press method, tile starts out as a slurry of kaolin clay, feldspar, silica (sand), quartz, and any additives the manufacturer believes will make a better tile. The slurry is about 30% water. The mixture is called the "slip" or "body slip".

Once the materials are well mixed, the slip is placed in a dryer to remove most of the water leaving a slightly moist powder that can be stored until needed.

To make tile, a porcelain slab, or a sintered stone panel, the damp powder is pressed in a mold at a very high pressure to compact the material and form what is called a bisque. The pressing removes almost all remaining water and any air or gas trapped in the material. The bisque is now very dense and compacted.

Next, it is dried again to remove all but a trace of moisture. The water has done its job, helping the particles stick together. It is no longer needed.

The bisque or "green tile" is fired for as long as 72 hours in a kiln that reaches 2,500°F (1,371°C). At this temperature, the clay and feldspar in the bisque soften and begin to bond together to produce a material called mullite.

Sintering: The process of softening a material to a point at which it begins to bond without turning it into a liquid state is called "sintering." The resulting bond is at a molecular level and very strong. It is also the source of thw word "sintered" used to describe the material.

At about the same time that sintering begins, the silica in the mix bonds with oxygen to turn into cristobalite, a form of quartz (silicon dioxide) that flows into the gaps in the mullite, sealing the material so water and other liquids cannot penetrate. This process is called vitrification.

Vitrification: from Latin vitreum, "glass" via French vitrifier, is the process of transforming a substance into a glass.

Mullite gives ceramic material its strength. Vitrification makes it stain- and water-resistant. How resistant depends on how much vitrification occurs. If vitrification is almost complete, the material is dubbed impervious to liquids using a rating system common in the tile industry.

So, when all the hype is stripped away, despite the word "stone" in its name, sintered stone turns out to be not a stone at all – not even a stone composite. It is nothing more innovative than a high-quality, very large format ceramic tile.

A more accurate description would be "sintered clay." But, who would buy sintered clay? Sintered stone is much sexier.

What is actually new to the process of manufacturing sintered stone (and porcelain slabs) is the chemistry of preparing the materials which has gotten more precise, the presses that have gotten larger and more powerful, and kilns that have gotten hotter. But, as far as an actual technological revolution, there is none.

Sintered stone is available in widths up to 5' and lengths up to 12', just like por­ce­lain slabs.

Also, like por­ce­lain slabs, sintered stone is available in several thicknesses down to about 1/4". A variety of colors is available, some without a pattern but many that simulate stone, especially marble. In fact, if you are thinking natural marble for your kitchen or bath, take a good look at porcelain slab or sintered stone. For about the same cost you will get a material that is much more durable and virtually maintenance-free.

One difference between porcelain slabs and sintered stone is that makers of porcelain slabs are more likely to use a glaze to protect the material while sintered stone-makers seem to prefer an unglazed ceramic – more in keeping with the illusion that the material is actual stone.

Porcelain and Ceramic Tile: Is there any real difference? For more information about por­ce­lain and other ceramic tile, and details of how tile (including por­ce­lain slabs and sintered stone) is made, see Porcelain vs. Ceramic. Is There a Difference? and How to Choose Ceramic Tile.

Metal Countertops

The common use of metal sheets for countertops dates back almost to the middle of the 19th century when zinc and later porcelainized steel began to replace wood and stone as work surface materials in bars and restaurants and later in private homes.

Porcelainized steel (a steel sheet enameled with a glazing) was popular as a table-top material right up to the 1960s and is one of the icons of Post-war mid-century modern kitchens. (See Post-war Housing Styles: Cape Cod, Colonial, and Ranch for more information.)

Metal Countertops Pros, Cons & Ratings

Rating 6.0 out of 10

Pros: Water-proof, seamless, resists staining, nearly indestructible. Cannot be burned.

Copper is timeless and fits almost any decor. Zinc fits any decor from Victorian through Post-War modern. Stainless is most suitable for very contemporary decors.

Cons: Very costly – starting at about $150.00 per square foot, not including installation. Stainless is very industrial and suitable primarily for ultra-modern and Euro-style decor.

Copper is maintenance intensive unless it is just allowed to succumb to its natural tarnished state. Zinc will oxidize, and eventually turn a pewter color but it will take a few years. Various methods are available to artificially "age" either metal giving it the patina of a countertop that has seen decades of use.

Durability - Very High Virtually indestructible. Will scratch but the scratches can be polished out periodically if desired. Cannot be burned. It can dent but it takes work. One-hundred-year (plus) materials.

Copper, if not polished, will tarnish to a gray-green color called Verdigris. Zinc will oxidize to a mottled gray patina. Trying to stop or retard these natural processes is a maintenance nightmare, and not recommended. Stainless will not rust or tarnish (actually it does rust but very, very slowly).

Maintenance - Very Low: Requires no sealing or other periodic maintenance. Cleans with soap and water.

Cost - Very High: Some of the most expensive countertop materials. Probably not for the budget-minded.

Green - High: Metals require smelting, which is an energy-intensive process. On the other hand, a countertop does not require much metal. Most of it is the wood-product backing which is itself a relatively eco-friendly material consisting of wood chips and fibers that would otherwise be discarded. All of these metals are very reusable and recyclable.

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Zinc is still used today but has been largely replaced in restaurants and commercial kitchens by stainless steel. Copper is a popular metal for countertops in home kitchens, although it is can be a maintenance-intensive material and a high-dollar investment.

Stainless Steel Countertops

For the quintessential industrial look, nothing surpasses stainless steel countertops.

Stainless is widely used in commercial and industrial applications because it just may be the almost perfect countertop material.

It is impervious to moisture; seamless so there are no cracks for dirt and bacteria to hide in; very resistant to staining and discoloration; unbreakable (in fact, it is nearly indestructible).

It cannot be burned or cut. It takes a serious effort to dent the thick sheet of stainless used in most installations. It never fades, molds, or rusts. So why doesn't everyone use it?

Many people (especially those with less-than-fond memories of the high school cafeteria) think it's just plain ugly. It is the epitome of the institutional food service look. In fact, the companies that install stainless in your home are also likely to be the ones that did your employee cafeteria, the local Arby's, and the state prison. And, it is very expensive.

But, if you like the super-industrial, high-tech look, it is a material that merits your consideration. One thing for certain, there is little likelihood there will be another kitchen like it in your neighborhood.

Reactive Metal Countertops

For a look that is a little more traditional, some of the old high-reactive or "living" metals are back as upscale countertop materials. These metals, unlike stainless which can stay bright and shiny nearly forever, react with the environment and will show all the stains, marks, and tarnish resulting from being in a kitchen environment for years on end.

Copper Countertops

Copper, which has been a traditional work surface material for centuries is once again available. For a traditional or colonial kitchen, it is an excellent fit. It has a few drawbacks, however.

It is expensive – sometimes more expensive than stainless. It shows every fingerprint, watermark, and juice spill, and will tarnish to a greenish-brown color called verdigris unless regularly polished.

On the other hand, those who like things neat and shiny seldom specify a copper countertop. They are happier with stainless.

The inevitable patina that covers a copper countertop is the look most copper owners are looking for. The marks, blemishes, and stains are not just tolerated but sought after.

One great advantage of copper that other metals do not have is that it is naturally anti-microbial. Copper kills bacteria and fungi on contact, a fact that has been known for at least two centuries although the precise mechanism by which it is done has only recently been uncovered. It is a very hygienic surface for food preparation.

Zinc Countertops

Zinc is the barkeeper's friend and has been since zinc bartops were introduced in the middle of the 19th century.

New zinc has a silvery-gray appearance similar to aluminum sheets. It develops a darker blue-gray patina over time as it oxidizes. If you prefer to keep the new look, periodic applications of beeswax will low down oxidation but nothing will stop it entirely.

If it gets too dark, it can be polished back to new but it is a lot of work. Few zinc owners go to the bother. The increasingly complex patina of the material as it ages and reacts to its environment is part of the charm of zinc countertops.

It is not a material for those who like things shiny and bright, or for those who are driven crazy by errant water rings and food stains. It will, like copper, show a mark from just about anything that touches it: water, food, fingerprints, juice. But, eventually, all these marks and stains will blend to form a beautiful dark-gray patina that looks right at home in any heritage kitchen. If you don't want to wait for nature to take its course, treatment with mild acids will bring about that well-used zinc look without the bother of actually using it.

Like copper it is naturally anti-microbial, making it a great surface for food preparation.

Before stainless steel was perfected, zinc was the preferred material for bar tops and restaurant tables because of its longevity and resistance to acids. It was the upscale countertop material of choice through most of the Victorian period and into the first half of the 20th century.

A zinc-top table is almost required in a Victorian kitchen. And, zinc is right at home in any Arts & Crafts reproduction. It requires virtually no care at all other than an occasional wipedown. There is a reason that zinc bartops in pubs, saloons, and alehouses were the standard for nearly 100 years.

To examine how zinc reacts to various foods, beverages and kitchen products, check out this video by Mio Metals.

Most zinc countertops are formed by bending thin sheets of the material over a plywood substrate. The plywood gives the countertop its shape and strength, and the zinc provides its protective finish.

Zinc can, however also be cast to form more formal and elaborate shapes. Casting zinc is a fairly old craft that has been revived in the last 15 years as cast zinc countertops have once again become popular in upscale bars and restaurants.

Glass Countertops Pros, Cons & Ratings

Rating 6.0 out of 10

Pros: Water-proof, seamless, non-staining, very sanitary. Cannot be burned, very scratch resistant.

Cons: Costly – about the same as the metals. May not be suited for every style. Can chip or break for which there is no repair except to replace the glass.

Durability - Medium: Immune to household chemicals, stains, and heat. But, it can chip and crack, and there is no possibility of repair. It can only be replaced.

Maintenance - Very Low: Requires no sealing or other periodic maintenance. Cleans with soap and water or Windex®.

Cost - Very High: One of the most expensive materials. Prices start at about $150 sq/ft and go up rapidly.

Green - Medium/High: Made of sand, its basic materials make little impact on the environment. We are not likely to run or of sand before the Sun explodes, and it is completely recyclable. Old glass is used to make new glass. But, it does take a lot of electricity or natural gas, which adds to climate-change gasses.

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Glass Countertops

Glass is one of the traditional materials that you rarely think of when considering a new countertop.

It has been used for decades as a covering for tables and desks. But, it has now migrated to the kitchen and bathroom, seeing increased popularity as a countertop surface as fabricators have learned how to make it work in high-hazard environments.

Glass offers an incredible range of design possibilities. It can be cast to create many different shapes, colors, and textures. It can also be combined with other design elements for added effect, such as glass over metal or tile. Lighting under the counter can create visual drama.

Glass is non-porous and extremely sanitary, which makes it an excellent countertop and kitchen backsplash choice. It requires very little maintenance and is exceptionally easy to clean.

In the kitchen, it can endure hot pans without cracking or scorching. The thick, usually tempered, glass used to create countertops is exceptionally chip- and break-resistant.

Wood Countertops

Despite the frequent warnings about the sanitation issues of wood countertops for food preparation, serious cooks often prefer butcher block countertops.

But, as it turns out, the danger of wood countertops may have been exaggerated somewhat.

Wood Countertops Pros, Cons & Ratings

Rating 5.5 out of 10

Pros: "Warmest" of all materials. Most minor damage can be easily repaired. Huge variety of woods, stains and finishes can complement any decor.

Cons: Generally not suitable around water. Can be treated to make it more water-resistant, but long-term exposure to water will cause damage no matter the treatment. Vulnerable to heat damage, scratches, gouges, and nicks. If improperly installed, expansion cracking may occur. Must be maintained regularly and refinished every few years.

Durability - Medium: Only as durable as the finish which can be damaged by many household chemicals, can be scratched, cut, and certainly can be burned by hot pans. Any water that penetrates the finish can damage the wood, usually requiring a major repair. Figure on refinishing every few years, a fairly costly process.

Maintenance - High: Requires re-sealing at least monthly and refinishing every few years. Normal maintenance with soap and water but not much water.

Cost - High: A lot of labor is required to build and finish a wood top. Figure about $100 per square foot for standard wood species. Exotic woods can drive the price up rapidly.

Green - Very High: Wood from certified sustainable sources is grown as a crop and managed so as to not harm the environment. Wood is renewable and recyclable, and reasonably green if it is not on the endangered list and not a tropical wood from other than managed forests.

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Recent studies, such as the one by Deal Oliver at UC, Davis, have found that while bacteria tend to accumulate on both wood and plastic surfaces, wood has natural anti-microbial qualities that help keep bacteria in check. Plastics do not. As a result, wood actually harbors much less live bacterial than most other kitchen countertop materials.

As with other materials, there have been significant improvements in the past few years.

For one thing, the variety of woods available is no longer limited to just the traditional rock maple. Mahogany, ash, cherry, oak, mesquite, walnut, beech, and alder are all available as butcher block from a variety of manufacturers, and any one of these can be manufactured locally by a well-equipped cabinet shop.

For kitchen use, any finish on a wood countertop must be food safe. The usual finish is a mineral oil approved for food preparation that is called USP-grade mineral oil. Renew about every month or two.

Some wood countertop owners mix beeswax with food-safe mineral oil. Shave about 1/2 teaspoon beeswax into a microwave-safe dish with a cupful of mineral oil; microwave on high for about 45 seconds. Apply to the countertop while still warm.

Once the finish has had some time to penetrate the wood, it can be buffed to a shine with a dry, soft cloth.

Beeswax helps keep moisture, bacteria, and other contaminants from getting into the wood surface, gives the countertop a nice smooth feel to the touch; and leaves a subtle honey-like fragrance. An alternative to mineral oil is coconut butter.

Many coatings (paint) manufacturers sell an oil preparation made just for wood cutting surfaces. Butcher Block Oil and Finish from Rustoleum, for example. Specialty kitchen suppliers also sell cutting block or butcher block oils. One we like is John Boos' Butcher Block Mystery Oil – a formulation of mineral and linseed oils – so, actually, not much of a mystery.

Dan Meyers of Meyer's Woodworks favors a product called OSMO Polyx-Oil to finish the wood over an epoxy sealer.

Bamboo Countertops

Raw bamboo in its natural state is one of the world's most environmentally friendly materials, used in Asia for many thousands of years as a building material.

Although often classed with wood and frequently treated like wood, bamboo is not wood. It is the stalk of a grass, specifically Phyllostachys heterocycla var. Pubescens (commonly known as Moso bamboo). It grows very fast, about 1" each hour, so fast that the human eye can actually watch it grow. It also grows very tall, as tall as a three-story building.

Bamboo Countertops Pros, Cons & Ratings

Rating 5.5 out of 10

Pros: A "warm" material. Harder than wood and less porous.

Cons: Vulnerable to heat damage, scratches, gouges, and nicks. Must be maintained regularly and refinished every few years.

Durability - Medium: Only as durable as its sealant which can be affected by many household chemicals, can be scratched, cut, and certainly can be burned by hot pans. Any water that penetrates the finish can damage the bamboo, which may result in a major repair. Refinishing will be needed every few years.

Maintenance - High: Requires re-sealing ever two months or more often and refinishing every few years. Normal maintenance with soap and and a damp sponge or cloth.

Cost - Medium: A lot of labor is required to build and finish a wood top. Figure about $40-70 per square foot for a pre-fabricated 24" deep countertop not more than 10' in length. Any variation from the standard dimensions requires a custom countertop made up of individual board on site. These can cost up to $200 per square food.

Green - High: Bamboo from certified sustainable sources is grown as a crop and managed to minimize harm to the environment. Bamboo is highly renewable and recyclable. However, it requires some rather extensive processing to turn it into a useful countertop material. The processing uses energy and may involve chemical adhesives that are unfriendly to the environment.

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There is little danger of exhausting the material. Its harvest cycle is 4-6 years compared to a harvest cycle of 80-100 years in managed timber forests. It is harvested without the need to replant because the root system remains intact, so the plant simply regrows, very much like the grass in your lawn. In a certified sustainable forest, only 20% of the bamboo is harvested annually.

Countertops are not made of bamboo in its natural state, however. Countertops are a manufactured material. Fabrication requires a lot of heat and pressure and typically uses unfriendly chemicals such as urea-formaldehyde as a binder. There are two basic methods in use.

The "solid board" method of turning bamboo into rectangular planks starts with ripping the stalks into strands. The waxy outer skin and any nodes are removed and the strands are soaked in boric acid or a lime solution to dissolve starches and sugars. After drying in a kiln, the strands are glued and pressed together to form a board.

The pattern in which the bamboo strands are glued together affects the appearance of the countertop. The two common patterns are horizontal and vertical. Vertical grain countertops have more figure and can be given interesting variety by using different colored strips to simulate strongly grained material. Horizontal grain bamboo looks more like low-figured wood such as birch or maple.

In a second method called the "woven strand process," the bamboo is sliced into thin strips. After soaking in boric acid or a lime solution, multiple layers or plies of the strips are laid criss-cross until the desired thickness is reached, then glued under heat and pressure to form a block of bamboo "lumber" about the size of a railroad tie. The block is sliced into bamboo boards of the desired thickness.

The resulting boards are typically then glued up into slabs used to make countertops. Solid bamboo has a more traditional wood look and is the more popular countertop material. Stranded bamboo looks more like plywood, but has the advantage of being the stronger of the two materials, up to 2-1/2 times harder than red oak.

Pre-formed countertops are available from Lowes and specialty retailers such as Green Building Supply. These can be cut and fit by a DIY'er with average skills using ordinary wood-working tools. No special equipment is needed.

If you are not that handy or just don't want to bother, any number of countertop fabricators have added bamboo countertops to their inventory of materials, and just about any finish carpenter can whip up a countertop in a day or two.

Bamboo in its natural state has a waxy external coating that repels water. It does not need sealing. In the process of turning bamboo into boards, however, this waxy coating is removed. In consequence, bamboo countertops will stain if not sealed.

Any sealant that works on wood will also work on bamboo. Specialized bamboo sealants are becoming available such as Clark's Bamboo Oil. We have experimented with some of these sealers and are not convinced that they do a better job of sealing than the old standard: food-grade mineral oil. They are, however, considerably more expensive.

Bamboo can be damaged by hot pans. It is relatively hard compared to most wood species but can be scratched and dented, although it would take some effort. It should not be used as a cutting board unless specifically sold as cutting board material due to the potentially unhealthy adhesives used to bind the bamboo strands into boards or mats.

Originally an exotic material with a price to match, the material is now becoming more commonplace and the price has dropped significantly. Depending on the cost of the bamboo material, which can vary considerably, an installed pre-made countertop is between $40 - $70 per square foot. Countertops that are custom-fabricated, however, will be more costly due to the labor involved, up to $200 per square foot.

The majority of bamboo countertops are made in China where Moso bamboo grows in abundance. Most of the countertops imported into the U.S. and Canada are from managed bamboo forests certified sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council® or by the Sustainable Agriculture Network. By "most", we mean that some uncertified bamboo still is being imported, so look specifically for the appropriate certification when you buy a countertop.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can be a problem with the product. Since most bamboo flooring is sold in North America and Europe, and both continents are increasingly concerned with VOCs, manufacturers have started switching to low- and zero-VOC adhesives. Look for certification by the Underwriters Laboratory (UL) under its Greenguard program or certification under a similar standard.

Even More Countertops

We cannot get all of the many varieties of countertop material on one page, so to learn about laminate, engineered composite, solid surfaces, and concrete countertops, (Continue).

1. Arsenault, Peter J., "Stunning Facades with Sintered Stone", Architectural Record, May 2018. The article was sponsored by TheSize Surfaces SL, the Spanish manufacturer of Neolith sintered stone.

2. The statement appears at many places on the internet, but is believed to have originated with Dekton, a Spanish manufacturer of sintered stone.

Rev. 12/01/20