A Go-To Guide for Choosing the Right Countertop

Working on a remodel or a new build project and feeling overwhelmed with the plentiful choices you have for everything from flooring to paint color to countertops?

Look no further, this is the most comprehensive guide to countertop selection. In this guide, you will learn everything you need to know about choosing the right material for your countertop ranging from appearance, durability, cost, and even health considerations.

There are at least 13 different surfaces available with a wide range of styles, patterns, maintenance needs, and cost.  Choosing the right one depends on the anticipated traffic and desired use of the area, your style, and your budget.  Finding the right team to assist with selection, design, and installation makes all the difference in a successful project.

bianco-antico-granite-kitchen-countertop-3

Fortunately, this guide will help you select the right material and find the experts to take your vision to reality so you can enjoy your finished space for years to come.

Whether you are replacing a bathroom countertop or building an entire home, this is the guide for you.

If you are like most people, you spend a great deal of your time at home in your kitchen or bathroom. From cooking, entertaining, preparing for the day or cleaning, a great deal of our energy is spent in these rooms. In this guide, you will learn everything you need to know about selecting the countertop that is most complementary to your home and fits with your vision for the area and your budget.

CHAPTER 1

How Does The Stone Look?

Your countertop will be something you look at every day, loving the way it looks will be a must. Not only how it looks alone, but how will it look in conjunction with cabinets, flooring, and other accents in the room. With many of the countertop options being natural stone, looks can vary greatly, what is the best way to ensure you will love the finished project?

The type of stone you choose may determine whether or not you see seams, if the pattern is uniform or unique, and if the appearance could change over time. One of the key factors in appearance is natural stone vs. engineered (man-made) stone. Here are a few of the most common Natural Stones:

Here are a few of the most common Natural Stones

Other surfaces include

  • Limestone
  • Slate
  • Sandstone

Natural stone is just that, 100% organic. It is quarried from the earth in large blocks which are then sliced into slabs and polished on one side. Natural stone is unique, no two slabs are alike, which gives every project an original look. For this reason, it is very important to work with a supplier where you can see the entire slab for your project rather than making a selection from a sample stone. Seams will be visible with natural stone, especially if the stone has veins or directional movement.

The other option is Engineered Stone, you will typically hear this referred to as Quartz, Silestone, or Ceasarstone.

Engineered stone is a man-made material typically composed of quartz crystals held together with a resin binder. Engineered stone is very consistent in look and pattern. Seams can be inconspicuous with many engineered stones. Stone treated with resin may be susceptible to discoloration when exposed to direct sunlight changing the appearance of the stone over time.

Now you know that when it comes to Appearance, the biggest difference between natural and engineered stone is the originality or consistency of the pattern and the prevalence of seams in the different surfaces. To quickly recap, here are the major differences in appearance:

  • Natural stone is unique and has varying patterns in each slab.
  • Engineered Stone is man-made and more consistent in look and pattern.
  • Seams may be easier to “hide” in engineered stone.
  • Engineered stone may be more susceptible to sunlight and discolor over time.

Now that you have a good understanding of how natural and engineered stones vary in appearance, the next logical question is how will you care for this stone and how durable is it? In the next chapter, we’ll explore the basics of how you will need to care for the various stone types which may factor into your decision.

Find the perfect color for your countertop surface.

CHAPTER 2

Maintenance and Durability

You can certainly choose your countertop material based on looks, but another important factor that you will encounter each day is caring for this stone. It is important to think about how you will use your countertops and evaluate the stone that will be the best fit for you. This chapter will cover 5 important questions that will help point you in the right direction.

Question 1: Do I want to put hot pots and pans directly on my countertops?

  • Under normal conditions, granite will actually absorb heat from hot trays without being harmed.
  • Limestone, quartzite, slate, and silestone are also heat resistant.
  • Excessive heat can cause damage to marble and quartz.
  • Travertine can also be damaged by heat.

Question 2: What will happen if I spill on my countertop?

  • With any spill, a quick clean up is a good idea, but some materials will be more forgiving than others.
  • Granite and Slate are both very low porous and stain-resistant, making stains less of a concern than with some other stones.
  • Quartz and Marble are both slightly porous materials and can be subject to stains if abused. In many cases, stains can be prevented by wiping the spill.
  • Marble can be sensitive to oil and acidic based products such as juice, tomatoes, and oils.
  • Travertine is very sensitive to acids and a slight spill of juice can stain the surface.
  • Limestone and Sandstone are both porous and will stain easily.
  • Stone sealers were introduced to the market in the mid 1990’s.  Having your stone properly sealed by a professional will increase the stain resistance of the stone.  For example, if your stone is 90% stain resistant with no sealer, you may increase the resistance to 95%.
  • Depending on the stone, you may be able to apply a special paste called a poultice, made of liquid cleaner mixed with an absorbent material, to pull the stain out.

Question 3: What if I drop a heavy object on my countertop? Will it chip or scratch easily?

  • Many of these materials are strong yet not indestructible.
  • Granite and Slate are both chip and scratch resistant.
  • Quartz is a hard surface, but it is engineered and not immune to chipping and scratching.
  • Travertine, Limestone, and Marble, on the other hand, are not as durable as granite and should be treated with care, similar to a find wood countertop.

Question 4: Do I need to seal my stone? If so, how often?

  • Quartz does not require any sealing.
  • Slate is also non-porous and doesn’t require sealing.
  • Granite is also a very low porous stone and doesn’t require sealing.  As stated in Question 2 above however, professional sealing will increase the stain resistance and prevent moisture absorption.  If you decide to seal your stone, once each 10 years by a professional is the recommended increment.
  • Travertine, Limestone, Sandstone, Quartzite countertops all need to be re-sealed on an annual basis.

Question 5: What does routine maintenance of my stone look like?

  • There are a variety of natural stone cleaners on the market that can be used for many of these countertops.
  • Another option is even easier and less expensive – mild dish soap diluted with water used with a cotton cloth or soft sponge. The final step would be drying with a soft cloth to eliminate streaks and leave the surface with a sparkling shine.
  • It is important not to use an abrasive scrubber especially on any surface that is prone to scratches.

We just reviewed 5 important questions when it comes to the care of your countertops. Since this is something that is done on a daily basis, often multiple times a day, it is definitely a factor in selecting the right surface for your home. To recap, if this is a high traffic area where you do a lot of cooking such as a busy kitchen you may opt to go for Granite, Slate, or Quartz as they are the most heat, scratch, and chip resistant, and require less ongoing maintenance. On the other hand, if you are looking to achieve a certain look, or have a lower traffic area where the risk of stains or hot objects are lower you may choose to go the route of Travertine, Limestone, Sandstone, Quartzite, or Marble.

Now that you are thinking about the maintenance of your countertop, the next logical question is what is the traffic like in the area I’m considering installing this? A high traffic kitchen may have a much different “right” stone than a low traffic guest bathroom or butler pantry. In the next chapter we’ll explore the variety of applications for countertops and how that will factor into your decision.

Have more questions? Have a look through our FAQ.

CHAPTER 3

Choosing The Stone To Fit Your Application

Considering the application of your stone is extremely important, for instance, you could choose a higher maintenance stone for a lower traffic application, where you will likely want to select something durable and low maintenance for your high traffic areas. Discussing the expected traffic and use of your space with your stone expert is a key piece of the puzzle when it comes to making a choice you can love for years to come.

Step #1: Consider the use of the area.

  1. Will you be preparing food in the area?
  2. Will you be using acidic liquids such as juice, citrus fruits, etc?
  3. Will you use cleaning liquids on the surface regularly?
  4. Will you be using hot pots and pans in the area?
  5. Will you be using beauty products and makeup in the area?
  6. Is it important to you that you can spill without worrying immediately about stains?
  7. Do you want to be able to put your hot materials right on your stone?
  8. Do you prefer to use trivets for everything?
huracan-granite-kitchen-countertop

From what we’ve learned so far, if you answered yes to the first 7 questions, you may want to consider Granite, Slate, or Quartz which are all good options for stain and heat resistance.

Step #2: Consider the traffic in the area. Will this be a heavily used room or a location that has lower use and you are aiming for high style?

In Chapter 1, we talked about the appearance of stone and the unique patterns that natural stone options offer. If you are looking for a unique pattern and aren’t overly concerned with seams, or working with a small space, you could consider a wide variety of options. Based on what we’ve learned about maintenance, if this is a low traffic area your choices are unlimited and you can go with something like Marble, Travertine, or Limestone as long as you are aware of the minor ongoing potential maintenance needs. If you are looking for pattern and uniqueness but know the area will be heavily used or want a lower maintenance solution, granite is an excellent choice.

Step #3: Consider the maintenance of the stone based on the chapter above and consider the time and budget you want to devote to cleaning and maintaining the area over time.

From a daily maintenance perspective, most natural stones do best with a mixture of mild dish detergent and water, or a specific natural stone cleaner. If you are willing to mix up your own cleaner you can do this inexpensively.

Step #4: Does the surface area get a lot of direct sunlight?

Because engineered stone is treated with resin, it is more susceptible to discoloration over time with direct sunlight. This is something to consider if all or part of your surface will be in direct sunlight.

We just reviewed 4 critical steps to considering the application and traffic in your area and how that may help lead you to the right stone for your project. To recap, the critical steps are considering the traffic in the area, the way the area will be used and by whom, how you will maintain the area on a daily and ongoing basis, and monitoring the sunlight in the area. What may be right for a butler’s pantry or guest powder room may not be the right choice for a heavily used kitchen, master or children’s bathroom. You want to choose a stone that looks beautiful now and for years to come with the appropriate maintenance.

We’ve discussed appearance, maintenance, and applications of stone as it relates to choosing the right one for your project. Now we are going to look at the cost and how factoring that into the equation will allow you to choose a beautiful stone that fits your style, needs, and your budget.

Learn how clean and care for your countertop surface.

CHAPTER 4

Choosing The Stone That Meets Your Budget

Understanding your budget may be the most critical step in choosing the right stone. Now that you are educated in the appearance, maintenance, and application aspects of choosing the right stone, you can factor your budget into the mix. Or if based on everything you’ve learned so far you are torn between two options, this chapter could be the tie-breaker.

Natural stone carries a lower cost compared to Quartz.  Most natural stone comes from India, Brazil, Spain, China, United States, and Italy and is then exported to the distributor in large slabs. For natural stone such as granite, slab prices can start at approximately $36 per square foot and rise quickly from there to about $75 per square foot. It is also important to understand the thickness of the slab you are considering, the thicker the slab the stronger and more durable it will be, but it will also be more expensive. Marble starts at closer to $40 per square foot and can go up to $80 per square foot.

For engineered stone such as quartz, pricing is approximately $50-$90 per square foot.

Regardless of the type of stone you select, the complexity of the installation job such as the number of seams, number of corners, and type of sink style you select can impact the overall project cost. As a general rule, you would want to ensure you are comparing proposals “apples to apples” with full installation.

From our previous chapters, you know that there can be an ongoing cost to maintaining your countertop, backsplash, or flooring as well. You will want to consider that ongoing cost as well as the expected life cycle of your stone in your budget considerations to get a total picture of cost.

We just reviewed the costs of different types of countertop materials, primarily comparing natural to engineered stone. If you are budget conscious but have your heart set on natural stone, you can work with an experienced project manager to select a beautiful stone that fits your budget. Working with a stone provider that has a showroom of full slabs gives you the ability to stick within a specific price range and select a slab that will fit your project needs and your budget.

Now that you understand the range in cost among natural and engineered stone, it’s time to tackle a few remaining items that may be important in your selection process. We’ll take a look at the properties of stone, the process to quarry or manufacture it, environmental impact, and health considerations in the next few chapters.

Complete a preliminary measurement of your solid surface and stone countertops and obtain an estimate of your project.

CHAPTER 5

Properties of Natural Stone

We learned in Chapter 4 that natural stone comes from the earth and is excavated in one large chunk to make the slabs. Because it is natural, it varies in pattern and color, and each piece is unique. In this Chapter, we’ll explore more about the properties of the different natural stones.

Granite

Granite is the hardest of all natural stones, only diamonds, rubies, and sapphires are harder than granite. Granite is an igneous rock that is formed when magma cools slowly beneath the earth’s surface, forming large, easily visible crystals of quartz, feldspar, and mica. Granite quarries can be found worldwide, and in the United States, most granite comes from the upper Midwest states.

Marble

Marble is also relatively hard, but not as hard as granite. Marble can be classified into four groups A, B, C, and D. These groups indicate fabrication ability, based on the level of hardness. Marble also comes from the earth, it is a metamorphic stone formed from recrystallized carbon. It is formed when limestone is subjected to intense heat, pressure, and chemical solutions, due to shifting in the earth’s crust. Marble formed from very pure limestone is white, while the presence of other minerals, such as clay, silt, and sand, can give it richly varied coloration. Marble is typically found in the mountainous regions, and there are few quarries in the United States.

Slate

Slate is also a metamorphic stone, actually a deposit that evolves from sedimentary rock made of clay or volcanic ash.

Sandstone

Sandstone is a sedimentary rock that is formed when layers of eroded sediment are compressed and cemented with minerals such as silica, calcium carbonate, or iron oxide.

Limestone

Limestone is also a sedimentary rock made of calcium carbonate plus calcium and/or magnesium. Limestone is formed when layers of minerals, fine sediment, and the skeletons and shells of marine organisms undergo lithification (a process in which sediments compact under pressure, expel connate fluids, and gradually become solid rock).

Quartzite

Quartzite is another metamorphic rock, composed almost entirely of quartz. It is formed with quartz-rich sandstone has been exposed to high pressures and temperatures. These conditions fuse the quartz grains together to form a dense, hard rock. Quartzite typically comprises more than 90% quartz. Quartzite is usually white to gray in color. Staining and impurities can cause quartzite to be yellow, orange, brown, green, blue, pink, red or purple. Quartzite is extremely strong and was used as an impact tool by throughout history.

Travertine

Travertine, on the other hand, is not metamorphic stone, it is instead formed in hot springs and/or limestone caves. One of Travertine’s key characteristics are the holes within the stone caused by carbon dioxide evasion.
Now that you’ve had a refresher in geology, you know that all natural stones are just that – coming from nature. They are excavated from the earth in large blocks or slabs that are then cut, cured, polished and buffed, and finally prepared for shipment to the suppliers. Since much of this stone comes from other parts of the world, it is typically delivered to the United States in a sea container on a vessel.

Reviewing the properties of the natural stone and understanding what goes into getting these works of art to your local granite supplier is pretty remarkable. Let’s also explore the environmental impact this process has, and compare that to the environmental impact of manufacturing engineered stone.

Learn about the pros & cons of granite vs. other surface materials.

CHAPTER 6

Environmental Impact of Natural vs. Engineered Stone

Since natural stone is just that, coming from nature, there is an environmental impact to the quarrying process. Of course, there is also an environmental impact to the process of engineering stone. In this chapter, we will explore both processes and review the pros and cons of each. Whether you are looking to build a LEED certified building or just looking to be green and eco-conscious, this chapter will give you the insight you need.

The Natural Stone Council (NSC) is a collaboration of businesses and trade associations that have come together to promote the use of Genuine Stone in commercial and residential applications. One of the goals of the NSC is to understand the consumption of these natural products. The NSC created a Sustainability Committee made up of key industry members to elevate the issue of sustainability within the industry and provide a body responsible for planning and implementing relevant initiatives. In 2007, the NSC Sustainability Committee partnered with the University of Tennessee Center for Clean Products (CCP) to assess the current industry operations related to stone production. They studied life-cycle inventories, best practices among the quarry operations for water usage, site maintenance and quarry closure, waste management, and transportation. Learn more about the NSC Sustainability Benchmark Study.
Quarrying generates a number of environmental effects throughout the process, the negative effects primary include:

  • disturbance of land and vegetation in the area
  • disturbance of river beds or coastal marine areas
  • dust
  • vibration
  • noise
  • traffic
  • discharge of contaminants into the air, water, and the coastal marine area

It is however, possible to lessen these effects by putting policies in place and using methods like the following to minimize the negative impact:

  • replace blasting with the use of wire saws and belt saws
  • use the minimum amount of explosive material
  • avoid blasting on days with high humidity and cloud cover
  • strategically place rows of trees and other tall vegetation around operations to act as a noise barrier
  • utilize dust catchment or air filtration systems with saws and drilling machines
  • cover any loose materials, especially during transport
  • replace or retain as much native vegetation as possible through the quarry’s operation

In addition, there are procedures that are recommended upon closure of a quarry to restore the area, those include:

  • clearing the area of materials not native to the ecosystem
  • replace soil, replant, and reforest the area
  • in some cases these areas can be turned into habitats or recreational areas once the quarry is closed and the site is cleaned

The positive benefits of stone extraction should also be considered. Positive effects include:

  • contribution to the economic and social development of an area through the availability of raw materials to maintain and enhance community services, facilities, and infrastructure
  • employment opportunities
  • opportunity to transform closed quarries into natural habitats or recreation areas

Let’s now explore engineered stone.

Intermezzo Quartz

Quartz is also mined in quarries all over the world, meaning many of the same positives and negatives apply. Once extracted, however, quartz is then combined with resins to create the final countertop product. It is in this process where engineered and natural stone differ in environmental impact. Quartz itself is very abundant in the earth’s crust, so availability is not a concern. However, the acrylic resins used in the process are petroleum by-products, mined under potentially toxic conditions. In addition,

Quartz is also mined in quarries all over the world, meaning many of the same positives and negatives apply. Once extracted, however, quartz is then combined with resins to create the final countertop product. It is in this process where engineered and natural stone differ in environmental impact. Quartz itself is very abundant in the earth’s crust, so availability is not a concern. However, the acrylic resins used in the process are petroleum by-products, mined under potentially toxic conditions. In addition, quartz surfacing materials may contain up to 93% crystalline silica. In contrast, the percent of crystalline silica in a slab of granite is less than 45%. (SOURCE: CDC) Prolonged exposure to crystalline silica dust materials can put workers who fabricate quartz at risk of respiratory and lung diseases.  At no time is there any risk to consumers with either product.

When comparing natural to engineered stone, based on environmental impact, it is easy to see that both require energy in the manufacturing and excavating process. However, both options are very durable and can last a lifetime when properly cared for, making them a sustainable choice that can last the lifetime of your home. The differing factor comes in the production of the quartz countertops when the natural quartz stone is combined with the acrylic resins.

We’ve looked at the impact to the environment, what about the impact to the air quality in your home? During a remodel, new build project, or home sale process things like radon emissions are routinely tested. In the next chapter, we will explore the potential health risks these surfaces can introduce in your home.

Watch a 6-minute video that will provide you with a glimpse into the sustainable attributes of natural stone.

CHAPTER 7

Health Considerations of Natural & Engineered Stone

We just finished reviewing the environmental impact of natural and engineered stone but what about once it is in your home? Whether you are looking to create a GREEN home, a LEED certified structure, or just conscientious of the materials you are putting in your home and the impact on your family, this chapter will explore these topics. We all know lead-based paint and asbestos are materials to be avoided in building, but what other risks are out there? Many articles have been published which link natural stone to radon which can be dangerous at high levels. Let’s take a closer look at this gas and how your stone selection could impact your health.

What is radon? Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas formed from the decay of radioactive elements such as uranium, which are found in soil and rock throughout the world. Radon gas can be released from the soil and rock and move into the air and into underground and surface water. Radon gas is found in outdoor air, drinking water from rivers and lakes, and in houses and other buildings.  Typically the level of radon in homes and other buildings is dependent on the characteristics of rock and soil in the area.

How does this gas enter my home?  Radon gas typically enters buildings through small cracks in floors or walls and through construction joints or gaps around pipes or wires into our homes.  Typically radon levels are highest in basements and crawl spaces and this is usually where radon levels are tested in homes and buildings. Radon exposure can also occur from some building materials. Basically, any building material made from natural substances, including concrete and drywall, may give off radon at low levels.   It has also been reported that some natural stone countertops may expose people to differing levels of radon.  According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it is unlikely that a granite countertop in a home would increase the radiation level above the normal, natural background level that comes from nearby soil and rocks.

most likely sources of indoor radon

Source: http://www.radon.com

In reviewing the site www.radon.com I learned that may materials give off what are referred to as NORMs (Naturally Occurring Radioactive Mineral), which can in turn produce measurable amounts of radiation and sometimes radon gas.  This includes things such as phosphate fertilizers used in your garden and glass made using silica (including eye glasses, wine glasses, mirrors and windows).  The key word is “measurable”, the bottom line is that you are hundreds of times more likely to be exposed to radon from the soil under and around your home, than the materials used in your home.

If you are concerned about the radon levels in and around your home, there are test kits available for home use, or you can hire a professional to test the level of radon in your home.  The EPA has a site dedicated to radon gas information, testing, and reduction suggestions.  There have been no reported or verified cases of radon gas emission exceeding legal limits with granite countertops.

When considering engineered stone such as quartz, recall from our earlier chapters that the base quartz is actually a natural stone that is combined with resin to create the quartz countertops we can purchase. Therefore, quartz would have similar properties when it comes to emitting radon gas.
Although there are still varying schools of thought related to radon and stone countertops, the EPA has declared that countertops made of natural stone pose little to no risk to health within the average home due to radon emitting from the stone.

The bottom line is to be aware of all building materials you are selecting weighing all of the positives and negatives of each.

Which Countertop is Right for You?

There you have it, the ultimate guide to choosing a countertop for your project. With 7 Chapters covering multiple topics, I think we’ve covered the topic pretty thoroughly. Happy Shopping!!

Please share your thoughts along with information on your project and which stone product you chose and why by leaving a comment below.

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