New & Traditional Countertop Choices: Part 2 Metal • Glass • Wood • Bamboo
Both wood and metal are traditional materials for countertops. Wood, of course, was about the first material used in countertops when humans first moved out of the stone age. It was plentiful and cheap, and while stone might be the preferred material in upscale Roman villas, wood served us ordinary folks well into the Middle Ages.
Metals such as stainless steel and nickel were in use as early as 1900 and became popular within a few decades. Stainless steel made a big impression in the 1940s, primarily in commercial kitchens where it is still king, but it also migrated into a few upscale home kitchens of the very well-to-do. Copper had been around for centuries, but making the large sheets of copper suitable for use as countertops had to await the improvements in metal-rolling technology that evolved with the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. Zinc popular for countertops in the 19th century as was the favored material for bartops in saloons and pubs of the late Victorian Era.
Bamboo is a newcomer, not because bamboo is new, but because the technology needed to turn the raw material into countertops has existed on an industrial scale only since the mid-twentieth century.
Glass is not a traditional material. Its use as a countertop in home kitchens was developed only over the past century, and its popularity in upscale kitchens is just 30 years old. Like the metals, glass had to wait for the technology needed to cast thick slabs of glass – a technology that did not emerge until 1848 when James Hartledsay pioneered an early method of making thick cast plate glass. Plates large enough for use in countertops, however, had to await further development and did not become practical until the 20th century..
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.
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 their 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. Reactive metals respond to the environment by showing all the stains, marks, and tarnish resulting from being in a kitchen environment for years on end – unlike stainless which is considered non-reactive and can stay bright and shiny nearly forever. They are not for those who like things nice, new, and shiny.
Copper and zinc, the common countertop materials, are very reactive and tarnish readily. Copper turns gray-green, a color called verdigris (which means gray-green). Zinc gets a film of a white-ish oxide which shows up as light spots on the countertop. Neither reaction reduces the value of the material as a countertop, it just changes the appearance of the metal. Both can be removed with a little Bar Kepper's Friend and some elbow grease.
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 unless regularly polished.
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 stainless steel does not have is that it is naturally anti-microbial. Copper kills bacteria, fungi, and viruses 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 using advanced electron microscopy. It is a very hygienic surface for food preparation and remains very hygienic even with layers of tarnish.
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 well into the first half of the 20th century.
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.
Plate Glass Countertops
The term "glass countertop" actually refers to two different technologies. The first is using recycled glass shards to make composite countertops in which the primary filler material is glass. This technology, first developed in 1998, produces some very interesting countertops, but it is not the type of glass countertop presented here. In this section, we are going to examine plate glass countertops, itself an interesting and relatively new technology. (Composite countertops are detailed in Part 3.)
Glass is one of the 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 glassmakers learned how to make it thick enough and sufficiently impact-resistant to be practical and safe in high-hazard environments like kitchens.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Bamboo 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 other materials, go on to the next section. (Continue).