New & Traditional Countertop Choices: Part 1 Stone, Tile, Metal, Wood, Glass & Porcelain
The engineers at Consumers Union seem to test and rate just about everything in the world.
We rely on their published ratings to buy vehicles and tools, But we don't always agree with their conclusions about kitchen and bath materials and fittings, for the simple reason that they are contrary to our experience, which is fairly extensive.
For example, a recent "Kitchen Planning and Buying Guide" suggests that sinks can be undermounted only under expensive countertops like solid surfacing, stone and engineered surfaces. We know of at least one sink that can be mounted under laminates. Consumer Reports seems not to be aware of it. The testers also did not consider stain-resistant epoxy and urethane grouts.
But most of the things they say strike us as being right on the mark. We agree almost completely with their take on countertop materials. Here are their top five ranked countertops based on extensive testing of various materials. We would reverse the rankings for tile and granite, placing tile above granite. We think Consumer Reports did not take into account the new stain-resistant urethane and epoxy grouts when evaluating tile countertops.
The numbers appearing in parentheses are Consumer Reports score for the material, out of 100 possible points.
Engineered Quartz (87)
But edges and corners can chip, although rounded edges help. Stone finishes can appear too uniform and, therefore, less natural.
Price $50-$100 per square foot, installed. $2,800 to $5,600 for an average-sized kitchen.
Best For a natural stone look that can withstand heavy use. It resists stains when it's properly sealed, and also resists heat and scratches.
But granite needs sealing to protect it from stains. Color and grain can differ from samples.
Price $45 to $200 per square foot, installed. $2,500 to $11.200 for an average kitchen.
Tile (Ceramic or Porcelain) (76)
Best for use near stoves because it is heat resistant. Comes in many colors, patterns and prices.
But it chips and the grout between tiles stains even when sealed. Poor installation can increase these problems. Thinner grout lines and darker grout might help. (Editor's Note: Consumer Reports appears to be unaware of epoxy and urethane grouts that are not cement based and do not stain.)
Price $10 to $30 per square foot, installed. $550 to $1,700 for an average size kitchen.
Best for variety and budget-friendly price. It's excellent at resisting stains and heat damage and is simple to install.
But It's easily scratched and isn't reparable. Shows seams, though post-formed (seamless) options are available.
Price $10 to $30 per square foot, installed. $550 to $1,700 for an average-sized kitchen.
Solid Surfacing (49)
Best for seamless installations. Many colors and styles are available, such as those that mimic concrete, stone, and quartz. It's non-porous and stain resistant, and small nicks and scratches can be repaired.
But it scratches easily. Stone-look finishes can appear more uniform than natural.
Price $35 to $100 per square foot, installed. $1,950 to $5,600 for an average-sized kitchen.
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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.
Today's countertop materials are truly miracles of modern engineering, evolving so rapidly that even if you've replaced a kitchen countertop in the recent past, you'll probably be surprised by the many options in materials and styles now available.
Here are some of the common and uncommon materials available for 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.
Stone: Pros & Cons
Pros: Sinks can be undermounted and some stones can handle hot pans (but some cannot, so be careful) and can resist most stains if properly sealed and maintained. Many suppliers of soapstone, marble and travertine can also provide matching sinks. The material is available in a great many colors and patterns.
Cons: All natural stones except soapstone are to some degree porous and require periodic sealing, usually once a month. Stone can scratch, stain and show watermarks if spills are not immediately wiped up. The calcium-based stones, marble, travertine, and limestone, are very susceptible to damage by even mild acids such as vinegar or tomato juice. Soapstone is very easily stained, even by water. However, all but the deepest scratches and stains can be buffed out with a ScotchBrite pad. Seams between slabs can be very evident. Stone can contain natural fissures that look like cracks. These are harmless but many homeowners do not like the look.
Some stones are hard and resistant to scratches and heat, Others are more delicate and require a lot of care and maintenance. And 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. Some stones, like slate, are particularly susceptible to edge chipping and require special care in both installation and daily use.
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 had 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, eclipsed for years by granite, 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 but not 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.
Ratings: Natural Stone & Stone Tile
Durability - High: Some stones are more durable than others. The calcium-based stones, marble, travertine, and limestone, can be damaged by mild acids, and most stones will show effects from placing hot pans on them. All are susceptible to edge chipping, which can be cured in most instances by rounding the edge. However, as a rule, it takes a fairly determined effort to damage a stone countertop, and most damage can be repaired invisibly. A 100-year material.
Maintenance - Medium: All stone, with the possible exception of soapstone, needs periodic sealing. Spills should be cleaned up right away, especially with calcium-based stones that can stain easily. Soap and warm water for daily cleanup.
Cost - High: Stone is one of the more costly materials. Only a few engineered materials cost more than natural stone.
Green - High: Stone is not renewable, we can't make any more of it. But, it is sustainable. We are not going to run out of it ever. Stone does not require much in the way of fabrication and requires little energy compared to other countertop materials.
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.
Marble & Travertine
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.
Limestone is another sedimentary rock composed mostly of calcite. Like marble, Limestone is very soft and easy to damage with acids and abrasion. The most frequently used limestone for countertops is probably Jerusalem Stone, a denser, fine-grained limestone that is known for its consistent texture and even color. Limestone is available in earth colors: brown, beige, yellow, gray, and black. Look for consistency in color and even texture throughout the stone. Some limestones can be polished to a high gleam, but the usual finish is a low luster, hewn stone look.
Limestone 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. 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.
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 very good tile.
The tile we are most familiar with files made of clay. But tile can be in almost any material. Glass tiles and metal tiles are getting a lot of attention today as alternatives to traditional tile materials in kitchens and bathrooms.
Tile: Pros & Cons
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, 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 virtually eliminate this problem. Must be installed by a professional or very skilled do-it-yourselfer. Natural stone and unglazed ceramic tiles have all the drawbacks of natural stone countertops (except the hefty price). Like stone, engineered composites and concrete, tile is very hard, so any dishware dropped on it will probably break.
Clay tiles are "fired" — heated in a kiln to a very high temperature.) High-quality tile is fired longer at a higher temperature so it is harder, denser and more impervious to water than "softer" tiles.
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. Some mild acid cleaners formulated specifically for tile and grout may be used. After a thorough cleaning (with a brush) and rinsing, re-seal the grout with a deep penetrating sealer.
- For badly stained grout, there is an alternative. After washing grout with an approved tile acid cleaner and rinsing it thoroughly, use a toothbrush to apply a grout colorant. 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.
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, remains flexible so they seldom crack or split, and do not ever need to be sealed.
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 must be treated like stone. It requires sealing and all of the same periodic maintenance. 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 on floors are more than adequate. Stone and unglazed tiles, however, must be sealed, and the sealant must be renewed every year or so. Glazed tiles are already permanently sealed with glass so this regular maintenance is not required. But the 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.
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, harbors harmful bacteria and needs to be cleaned and sealed regularly.
Ratings: Glazed Ceramic Tile
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 - High: 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 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.
All of this is true with cement-based grouts. But there are other kinds of grout. Epoxy grouts have been around for many years, and are nearly crack and stain resistant. Their problem is that they are difficult to use, and some tilers won't use them. Even more recent are urethane grouts. Urethane is flexible, very stain-resistant, will last nearly as long as your tile and, best of all, does not need to be sealed — ever.
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 possible to lay stone without grout. The edges are butted together (a process called "close-setting") and sealed when the stone is sealed. Fired tiles, however, must be grouted - even if the grout line is a very narrow 1/16" or so unless the tile has been "rectified". This means that they have been cut or ground after firing so every tile is exactly the same size.
Whether a high-end ceramic tile is called porcelain or ceramic seems to be pretty much up to its manufacturer. There are no generally accepted standards that distinguish the two. But there are some rules of thumb. To learn what these are, have a look at Porcelain or Ceramic: Is There a difference?.
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 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 slabs are not a new material. They are porcelain tile in a new format. The format makes a difference, however. The slabs are available in up to 10' lengths and as wide as 5'. And getting larger as the technology is perfected. Unlike tile, slabs can be set without seams.
Tile: Pros & Cons
Pros: Available in an increasing but still limited variety of colors and patterns. Seamless installation gets rid of the grout lines of porcelain that are troubling to some homeowners. No maintenance other than wiping up spills with a damp cloth or sponge. The surface is impervious to water and does not need to be sealed. Very durable. Essentially as durable as ceramic tile. Virtually immune to heat
Cons: The glazed 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, it is very hard, so any dishware dropped on it will probably break.
Early slabs were indeed slabs, up to 3/8" thick, heavy and very expensive. The thickness was necessary because porcelain in large dimensions tends to bow and warp when it is fired at @000° or higher in a kiln. The real art of making porcelain slabs has been to make them thinner while keeping them flat. The technology has greatly improved. Slabs are now available as thin a 3/16", which is the thickness of ordinary floor tile.
Ratings: Porcelain Slab
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 periodic. 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 - High: 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 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.
The thinner slabs are, in fact, more like veneers installed over a plywood substrate just like laminates or solid surface material. The strength of the assembly is provided by the substrate. The porcelain slabs are merely the finish material. The installation is similar to setting tile. The slabs are bonded to the substrate with a modified thinset adhesive like that used to set porcelain tile.
Like glazed porcelain tile, it has been surface coated on the top side with glass which bonds to the clay when the materials are fired. It is impervious to liquids and unfazed by even the hottest pan. The glazed surface needs almost no maintenance. The surface is very hard to scratch or mar. It is very difficult to chip or crack, but if damaged, it cannot be repaired.
Slabs can be made in almost any pattern and color. Some even emulate metal. But, simulated stone seems to be the most popular look, particularly simulated marble. A porcelain slab is 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 the calcareous stones, slabs shrug off acids, even strong acids, without damage, and cannot be scratched except with a determined effort. The calcareous stones can hardly avoid being scratched.
Porcelain slabs are made in Europe, mostly Spain and Italy, although Turkey has now started exporting slabs to the U.S. The material is 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 costly, generally higher than the cost of installing ceramic tile or a stone countertop.
For the quintessential industrial look, nothing surpasses stainless steel countertops.
The Metals: Pros & Cons
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.
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.
For a look that is a little more traditional, some of the old 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 show all the stains, marks, and color changes of living in a kitchen environment over time.
Durability - Very High Virtually indestructible. Will scratch but the scratches can be polished out periodically if desired. Cannot be burned. 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 tarnish, 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 actually 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.
Stainless steel is what is called a non-reactive material. It does not react to its environment, which is why it is so nearly stain- and corrosion-proof. All of the other metals commonly used for countertops are reactive or "living" metals, they react to their environment: changing color and texture over time.
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. Typically it is expensive — sometimes more expensive than steel. It shows every fingerprint, watermark and juice spill, and will tarnish to a greenish brown color 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 inevitable marks, blemishes, and stains are not just tolerated but sought after. One great advantage of copper is that it is naturally anti-microbial. No one is quite certain how, but copper kills bacteria and fungi on contact, so it is a very hygienic surface for food preparation.
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.
Most owners don't bother. The increasingly complex patina of the material as it ages and reacts to its environment is part of the charm of zinc countertops.
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 wiping down.
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 finish. Zic 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 become more popular for upscale bars and restaurants.
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 together 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 or actually using it. 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. Like copper it is naturally anti-microbial, making it a great surface for food preparation.
Glass: Pros & Cons
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.
To view how zinc reacts to various foods, beverages and kitchen products, check out this video by Mio Metals.
Both zinc and copper dent easily. One way of reducing the effect is to hammer the material so it is already, in effect, pre-dented. Any additional dents, then are invisible against the hammered surface pattern.
Glass is one of the traditional materials that you rarely think of when contemplating a new countertop. It has been used for decades as a covering for tables and desks. But, it is now becoming popular as a countertop surface in both baths and kitchens 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 be used to create visual drama.
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 - - 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 to make glass.
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. But if it does chip or crack, the only solution is to replace it. There is no effective repair, so be careful with those cast-iron pots.
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: Pros & Cons
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. Considered by some to be the least sanitary of countertop materials, and some localities do not allow it in commercial kitchens for health reasons, but more recent research has shown that the sanitary issues may have been exaggerated.
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 antimicrobial qualities that help keep bacteria in check, while man-made 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 great 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, the usual finish is a mineral oil approved for food preparation which is called USP-grade mineral oil. It has to be renewed about every month.
Durability - Low: 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.
Some wood countertop owners mix beeswax with food-safe mineral oil. Simply 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 dry 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.
Modern technology has improved on mineral oil a bit, providing a more durable coating that need be renewed less often, sometimes as little as every three months or so. Many major coatings (paint) manufacturers sell an oil preparation just for wood cutting surfaces. For example, Butcher Block Oil and Finish from Rustoleum. 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.
Still, no matter what the finish, acids, such as vinegar, and standing water can stain a wood countertop, but with re-sanding and re-oiling, the countertop can be renewed over and over, almost indefinitely.
Even More Countertops
We cannot get all of the many varieties of countertop material on one page, so this article continues.