Countertops play a critical role in the success of any kitchen or bath project. They must accentuate cabinetry, withstand daily use and reflect your family’s personal style. Whether you are remodeling or in the midst of new construction, here is a rundown of the latest trends and time-honored surfaces sure to stand up to your most stringent demands.

Soapstone counters have risen in popularity as an alternative to granite. Photo courtesy of Durado Soapstone of Texas.
Soapstone counters have risen in popularity as an alternative to granite. Photo courtesy of Durado Soapstone of Texas.

Natural Stone
For many home remodels and new construction, natural stone counters are the way to go. Stone surfaces are durable and add sophistication to kitchens and baths of any style. “People continue to upgrade their homes with stone so that resale value improves,” says Ashley Larrick, owner of Austin-based Dorado Soapstone of Texas. Stone countertops can run anywhere from $40 to $300 per square foot, although many home centers now offer prefabricated granite counters for a few hundred dollars.

Granite has long been the choice for high-end kitchen kitchens and upgrades. Available in a myriad of colors and patterns, granite coordinates with just about every interior. It is durable and scratch- and bacteria-resistant. And sealed granite stands up to food preparation and spills.

For some homeowners, however, upgrading to stone means choosing one that won’t be found in a typical builder-style kitchen, such as soapstone, slate or onyx.

Soapstone is known for its rich grey or black color. Unlike granite, soapstone is nonporous and doesn’t need to be sealed. However, it is slightly easier to scratch than granite. An occasional application of mineral oil will help the stone gain a dark grey or black patina and blend in minor scuffs brought on by daily wear and tear.

Slate is available in a variety of dark colors, including gray, black, deep purple, red and turquoise. It has a soft touch, elegant appeal and low absorption rate (lower than granite, in fact). Regular sealing will help maintain this stone’s beauty, and deep scratches can usually be buffed out with steel wool if necessary.

Onyx is one of the most trendy, and luxurious, materials in countertop and backsplash applications today. Considered a semi-precious stone, onyx has a wide color range and translucent appearance, which make it great for backlit applications. Its soft makeup makes it susceptible to scratches and stains, so it needs to be sealed regularly to maintain its lustrous appearance.

Marble and travertine countertops are traditional and chic choices for the bath. Softer and more porous, these stones work well in areas that won’t see a lot of stains, and they need regular sealing.

Engineered Stone
Also known as quartz, engineered stone imitates the look of natural stone by combining small stone chips, resins and other pigments. These surfaces have quickly become some of the most popular options in countertops because they deflect stains better than natural stone—without the use of a sealer. While quartz surfaces won’t stand up to heavy impacts like granite will, quartz is highly resistant to scratching, scorching and staining and is also easy to maintain.

Some of the key manufacturers of engineered stone are CaesarStone USA, Cambria, DuPont Zodiaq and Silestone, which recently expanded its selection of granite-look surfaces in the Mountain Series (starting at $60 per square foot installed).

Solid Surface
Made of resins and combined with mineral fillers, solid surface counters mimic the look of quartz counters, concrete or natural stone. They are non-porous, stain-resistant and provide design versatility, and countertops and backsplashes can be incorporated into the countertop seamlessly. Scratches can be filled in or buffed out if small enough. On the downside, hot pans can discolor the material if left on the counter for too long, so trivets are a must.

Well-known brands include Dupont Corian, Formica Surell, Avonite, Samsung Staron and Wilsonart Gibralter and Earthstone. Samsung recently introduced a new collection, Tempest, which features fashion-forward colors, metallic elements and minerals found in nature.

Wood counters create instant warmth in a kitchen. Photo courtesy of Grothouse Lumber Company.
Wood counters create instant warmth in a kitchen. Photo courtesy of Grothouse Lumber Company.

The warm, natural appearance of wood countertops makes them a perennial favorite in homes across the country. Maple, cherry and walnut are popular species used for these surfaces; each plank provides a unique grain and character. Ideal for cutting and chopping, butcher block counters, like those by John Boos, are simple to install and surface scratches are usually easy to repair. If left unsealed, wood counters need to be treated regularly with mineral oil (just like you would do with a cutting board) to keep them from drying out.

If you’re after a more personalized look, several companies provide options for customization. Atlanta-based Craft-Art offers exotic woods like Teak and Tigerwood, in addition to eco-friendly reclaimed woods. The Grothouse Lumber Company lets customers choose from more than 40 wood species and stains and more than 30 edge profiles to create a one-of-a-kind work surface. Bamboo countertops, such as those by Totally Bamboo in San Marcos, Calif., provide a sustainable option that is also slightly more durable than maple. The company sells countertops for $35 per square foot. "People feel good about using this renewable resource and they are surprised that they can get such beauty and strength without breaking the bank or the environment,” says Tom Sullivan, company president.

Once thought of as a basic construction and paving material, concrete has taken on a decorative focus as a countertop material in the kitchen and bath. These counters work in both contemporary and traditional spaces, depending on the color and shape of the finished product. Standard 1 1/2-inch thick countertops can run anywhere from $65 to $135 per square foot, and concrete counters can be customized by embedding stones, glass, seashells and other elements in the concrete during fabrication. Applying a sealer will help concrete resist water and stains. Find a local contractor through the Concrete Network.

Customized glass countertops can look like works of art. Photo courtesy of Think Glass.
Customized glass countertops can look like works of art. Photo courtesy of Think Glass.

For something unexpected, glass countertops introduce practicality and beauty to kitchen and bath spaces. Non-porous, hygienic and impervious to stains, they can be wiped up with common glass cleaner. Think Glass manufacturers luxury countertops, between $200 and $300 per square foot, that are 1 1/2 inches thick or more. Although glass counters can scratch, placing a texture beneath the surface allows those scratches to be less noticeable.

Vetrazzo offers countertop surfaces made of 85 percent recycled glass glued together with cement, additives, pigments and other recycled materials, such as fly ash. The company says the product is comparable in strength, scratch resistance, thermal resistance and durability to granite. Like granite, the surface can etch if exposed to acidic liquids, but chips and etches can be repaired by authorized fabricators.

For many years, homeowners chose 4×4-inch tile or 1-inch mosaic tile as a cost-effective choice for kitchen and bath countertops. Unfortunately, many found that grout lines were difficult to keep clean. Today, some Italian porcelain tile manufacturers are giving homeowners a reason to go back to tile, thanks to large-format slabs made out of porcelain. A practical alternative to natural stone, porcelain is highly heat-, scratch- and food-resistant and easy to maintain with common household cleaners.

Italian tile manufacturer Mirage now offers slabs up to 49 inches x 70 inches in size that can be fabricated into countertops, complete with cutouts for sinks and grooves for drying dishes. The slabs come in 40 colors, mimicking the look of natural granite, marble and slate, and can be produced up to 1 1/4-inch deep and with a honed or polished finish. “Porcelain is harder and more impervious than granite, so you need a good fabricator that uses stronger tools to cut the material,” said Daniele Bertacchi, area manager for Mirage.

There are a lot of countertop options available, and it’s important to carefully weigh the pros and cons of each material before choosing a surface. If you are realistic about your budget, lifestyle and the amount of time you have to devote to maintenance, you will be sure to choose the countertop material right for your home.

Credit: Renovate Your World