There are three basic types, Hard Surface (Stone), Solid Surface (Acrylic) and Laminate; plus a fourth that we will call Specialty. All have unique qualities and there are pros and cons to each.
Hard Surface: Granite
Granite comes in the widest variety of looks, colors and quality (Granite is rated just like diamonds). Whether or not you actually select your own slab or let your fabricator (the person who orders, measures and installs your countertop) select the piece, the same slab can look very different when sitting horizontal in your kitchen compared to looking at them vertically in a distributor showroom.
Pros – Generally considered the most beautiful, granite can be polished to a very high sheen. Granite can also be honed (a sort of dull or softer look). Most quality fabricators will make sure your countertop has a sealer on it. They may also offer optional higher grade or longer lasting sealers. Either way, proper care is always recommended.
Hard Surface: Marble
Marble is generally not recommended in kitchens but can be used in bathrooms and other rooms. If you like the look of marble for your kitchen there are some quartz and acrylic products that can look very similar.
Pros – Natural beauty is hard to match.
Cons – Despite the fact that it looks similar to granite, it is not. It is generally considered softer and its properties are different from granite. It is more prone to stains and does not hold up to most cleaners and soaps. It tends to dull over time. Like granite, it may be natural but I do not consider it green or eco-friendly. It is not NSF certified.
Hard Surface: Soapstone
Soapstone is sometimes considered the original stone counter top primarily mined in the northeastern United States.
Pros – Often a serious cook’s favorite because of its heat resistant properties. Soapstone also has a unique natural beauty. It is non-porous and will not stain. It can be rejuvenated with linseed or similar oils.
Cons - Soapstone does not polish to a high sustainable sheen. You will have to treat it periodically with oil. Before purchasing, do your homework. Soapstone’s unique properties can be both a blessing and a curse. Soapstone is mined in a similar fashion to granite or marble; hence many would not consider it green or eco-friendly.
Hard Surface: Quartz & Recycled Glass in Resins
Generally speaking, these surfaces are made by crushing quartz or glass then mixing it with resins and other materials to create a look and color consistent from one slab to another.
Pros – Color and patterns are consistent and color selection is quite varied. These surfaces are extremely hard and dense, making it very, very difficult to stain or scratch. There is also no maintenance required – just soap and water cleanup – though some countertop cleaners may enhance the look of your countertop. The recycled glass version of this type is typically only available in 2cm thickness using one third less material over all. Some colors are made with recycled materials in controlled environments making both glass and quartz versions somewhat green or Eco-friendly. Most are NSF certified.
Cons – Resins cannot be polished to the same high sheen as granite or marble. Many also lack the movement and natural beauty of many granites and marbles. Although, some of the newer colors are being made with improved technologies that produce a more of natural, granite- like look. Needless to say, they cost a little more.
Hard Surface: Recycled Glass in Concrete
Pros – Striking colors. Recycled Glass in Concrete is considered by many to be the first “green” or Eco-friendly countertop. Some recycled glass tops are only available in 2cm thickness instead of the more common 3cm using one third less material over all.
Cons -These counters are prone to staining and will require more care and sealing than the average granite or marble, though some say that the stains add to the patina of the countertop. Personally I don’t consider a permanent albeit well-placed grape juice stain or oil spot something to look forward to. Glass pieces can chip out during fabrication. Although some chips and nicks are repairable, fabrication difficulties make it an expensive option for consumers. Some brands claim a NSF certification. However, I don’t see how they can claim or imply a food safe certification with such a porous product. Think carefully and do your research before buying any concrete based counter top.
Hard Surface: Concrete
Concrete can take many forms and a variety of colors can be added. It can be prefabricated or forms can be made and the counter can be made on site. Colors, sealers and other treatments can also be added.
Pros - Concrete countertops typically have an earthy or rustic look. It also has an appealing quality for do-it-yourself types. However, it is best left to the pros, especially if you are tinting or trying to create a pattern.
Cons - Concrete counter tops are not cheap. Concrete is naturally porous and prone to staining. Even with sealers you can expect to have some staining. Again, think carefully and do your research before buying any concrete based counter top.
Solid Surfaces: Acrylic
This material has been in use for over 35 years and until recently has only been available through one manufacturer, Du Pont, the maker of Corian. However, in recent years competition has come to this market segment due to patent expiration and the introduction of affordable granite and quartz offerings. This competition has been good for consumers in two ways, pricing and product selection. If you haven’t taken a look at these offerings yet, you should as “This is not your mother’s Corian!”
Pros – Acrylic surfaces are NSF certified. Acrylic surfaces are also repairable. Acrylic surfaces do not stain. If your fabricator has the right equipment, acrylic can be formed into many shapes and configurations from shower bases and sinks to more unusual items such as dog dishes. Most solid surface manufacturers are working hard to be more green or eco-friendly both in their manufacturing processes and product offerings. Both Corian and Hi-Macs from LG Corporation (to name just two) have offerings with recycled content.
In the last few years many manufacturers have been adding larger particulates and, in some cases, developed methods to create movement emulating some of the features that make granite and marble so appealing. Another great feature to solid surfaces is they can be bonded in the field creating a virtually seamless appearance and feel.
Cons – Cons – Acrylic surfaces can scratch and burn, but not easily. The good news is they are repairable. I have heard complaints over the years about staining. They do not stain. Virtually every time I have investigated complaints of staining it was due to the homeowner using abrasives to clean the counter which results in small scratches in the surface. These scratches can catch dirt, giving the appearance of a stain, but, in fact, it is just dirt or liquids in the scratch lying just below the surface.
The original counter top material has been making a comeback in recent years. Over the last few years many laminate manufacturers have been introducing vibrant colors and patterns, creating a low cost alternative to other more popular materials. Laminates can also be used to create colorful panels and decorative accents.
Pros – They are still considered one of the more cost effective counter top options. Updated colors and patterns provide a vast array of color options. “This is not your grandmothers Formica!”
Cons – They can scratch and do not hold up to heat. For the most part, laminates are not repairable. Moreover, if you have an “L” or “U” shaped counter top, you will have to deal with seams.
Specialty: Butcher Block Wood
Pros – Butcher Block is usually made from maple and is treated with “food safe” oils and conditioners. It is not usually used for an entire counter top, but it can be very functional in a food prep area. These tops will scratch when cutting on them which helps building character over time. They are considered food safe.
Cons – Butcher Block must be treated on a regular basis for sanitary reasons. They must be treated regularly with the “food safe” oils or conditioners. Do not substitute a “non-food safe” oil or conditioner. These tops may or may not be considered green or eco-friendly depending on the manufacturer’s forestry management and harvesting policies and manufacturing procedures. These tops should be treated every two to three weeks depending on use.
Specialty: Exotic Wood
Pro – Exotic Woods coated with Tung oil is not recommended as a cutting surface. It is not usually used for an entire kitchen but typically used for islands and table tops. Tops treated with several coats of Tung oil are waterproof, low maintenance, and stain, heat and scratch resistant. They are also considered food safe when dry. Typically a vinegar/water solution keeps the top bacteria-free. They only need to be re-oiled ever 12-48 months depending on use.
Cons – Exotic Woods are generally not used for cutting because they can scratch and are not considered food safe when wet. These tops may or may not be considered green or eco-friendly depending on the manufacturer’s forestry management, harvesting policies and manufacturing procedures.
Specialty: Recycled Paper Products
Pros – They are eco-friendly, unique and durable. In fact, I have been using an Epicurean brand cutting board made from recycled paper at home for over three years and it has held up extremely well. These materials have even been used to make skating surfaces.
Cons – The color pallet tends to be made of rather flat solid colors. Without a discernible pattern, seams can be more noticeable. The cost can vary widely based on availability in your market area. Although durable, a patina or shiny spot can develop in the more frequently used areas of your counter top. Additionally, the lack of general acceptance or use in the market place can be problematic when it comes time to sell.
Special Note: Not all recycled paper or wood products may be NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) certified