Remodeling the Kitchen in Your Split-Level Home: Focus on the Countertop

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Pros and Cons of Various Countertops…

Countertops can essentially be divided into five basic types:

  1. Metal
  2. Stone
  3. Synthetic (Solid Surface)
  4. Laminate
  5. Tile/Wood/Other

We’ll list them, as well as pros and cons, in what is generally the descending order in terms of cost immediately below. Keep in mind that there are numerous exceptions where costs are concerned.

After discussing pros and cons, we’ll discuss cleanability.

1. Metals This is generally stainless steel. For some unusual kitchens, “tin” or copper might be used, but these are extremely unusual and generally only offered by specialty restoration companies and not something you’re likely to pursue for the average split level home. Today’s stainless steel is also likely to be rather extravagent for the average split; it’s unlikely that it would ever provide enough extra resale value to make it pay. The upside to stainless is that it never goes out of style. If you do select stainless, you are telling the world you are serious about cooking…so confident in your culinary skills, in fact, that the clean utility of stainless is more important to you than any stylish stone countertop your neighbor might have. Very few of your friends and acquaintances will have stainless. They may not think you have the most beautiful kitchen, but they will take your kitchen seriously. Make sure your cooking is up to par before you head in this direction.

2. Natural Stone If you think the world of kitchen cabinetry is confusing and cloudy, just wait until you shop for granite. Or perhaps in your part of the country, marble is the “in” countertop. In other parts of the country, marble is dismissed as being unsuitable for kitchen use. Go figure. Here we go…Granite is the most popular; it resists stains and is extremely durable. To maintain its luster, granite must be sealed and polished regularly. There are some “levels” of granite that will cost less than even some high-end laminates. The downside to granite is that unless you select a very expressive piece, you can achieve more or less the same look with synthetic stone or laminates. The highest priced granite is that which looks more like marble than granite. So why not marble? Well, it stains easily, it is softer and requires more maintenance. The advantage to marble is that you will likely have a unique, expressive countertop. The least common is soapstone, which doesn’t generally stain and resists heat well, but must be sealed periodically with mineral oil. The downside is that it is very soft, so it’s prone to scratches and chips. It’s also a rather uniform look, which means you might as well opt for synthetics or laminates.

Anyway, the upside to natural stone is that it enjoys good resale value. In fact it enjoys the best resale value. It’s a “no-brainer” to use the same material as a backsplash; if you order it and fabricate it when you order your counter, it’s downright inexpensive. When fabricated properly, natural stone lies drop-dead flat. The downside to natural stone is that if you do break it, chip it, or crack it, it’s nearly impossible to repair without replacing. At that point, you may have a hard time matching the original stone.

3. Solid Surface, also known as Solid Resin or Engineered Stone are made from polyester or acrylic, sometimes mixed with natural stone. Some of the better known name brands are Corian (plastic) and Silestone (94% stone with a plastic binder). Synthetics are made to look like natural stone, but have the advantage in being less brittle and more abrasion and generally damage resistant. Unlike natural stone, you aren’t limited to what God has made and man has found…if you want a certain color or look, chances are some manufacturer has molded it. Another upside is that scratches, cuts, marks, stains and even burn marks can often be repaired with simple sandpaper. In the event of wholesale damage, the replacement countertop will readily match existing countertop.

The downside to solid surface is that the pricing is crazy. Installation is difficult and costly as well. Another downside is that the “look” is very uniform — although that isn’t necessarily a downside — it is much easier to shop for synthetics than natural stone. The really odd thing is that the manufacturers and resellers use the same pricing tactics as natural stone…”group 1, group 2″ etc. which, when you think about it, is absurd…this is plastic, folks, they simply change additives or re-formulate the resin to change color and pattern. But if you want synthetic, be prepared to deal with it. The other downside is that it is really impossible to have a unique countertop.

So what is the difference between Corian and Silestone? Click here and we’ll take you to a page that explains solid surface countertops.

Be warned that generally speaking, the average synthetic or solid-surface countertop costs more than the average natural stone countertop. The reason we list natural stone higher is because there is really no upper limit to the cost of natural stone, and there is really no “one-of-a-kind” synthetic countertop.

4. Laminates This is the stuff we commonly refer to as “Formica,” which of course is a brand name. It is sheet plastic adhered to a base material, usually very thick particle board. Back in the day, the handy home owner purchased his own plywood, cut it in the shape of a countertop, nailed it in place, then covered it with vinyl, thin linoleum, vinyl coated paper, or other synthetic sheet material. The vinyl was simply unrolled, cut into shape, then glued down. Metal banding or wood molding was used to finish the front and sides of the countertop. This evolved into “ready made” laminated countertops, which can be cut to size and finished with laminated fronts and sides. This has been perfected over the years, and it is now the most commonly found and universally successful and affordable way to fabricate kitchen countertops.

The laminated countertop has numerous advantages. It is affordable, easy to maintain, resist staining, resist damage, and easier to install than any other type of countertop. It’s also easiest to clean, and maintenance-free. Selecting an appropriate color or pattern is seldom a problem; if you can dream of it, somebody probably offers it. And in the event you need to remove or repair base cabinets, laminated countertops are the easiest to remove and replace.

The main downside to a laminated countertop is that it has very little cachet, and contributes the least toward resale. It contributes zero in terms of “individuality” toward your kitchen design. Surface damage cannot be repaired as easily as its solid surface cousin. Last but not least, laminates have a few design limitations. Undermount sinks, for example, are impractical if not ridiculous with a laminated countertop.

The technology has improved, the look has improved, but laminate can’t seem to escape the fact that it was trendy and state-of-the-art during the Johnson administration. But again, don’t let this deter you…laminate has been around for half a century because it works, it looks good, it’s affordable, and it lasts and lasts. Laminates are without question the most sensible choice for kitchen countertops.

5. Tile/Wood/Other In this category, you might save a fortune, you might spend a fortune. One of the nice aspects of Tile is that you can use it to create a reasonable facsimile of a much more costly countertop if you are willing to do-it-yourself. If you can’t afford granite, but you know how to space tile, glue, grout, and seal, you can use any of a variety of stone tiles to construct your own granite countertop. Another benefit of tile is that you can use it to create a variety of looks, with virtually no limit on color and color combinations. The downside to tile is that it requires effort to keep clean, and if you don’t install it properly, it looks amateurish.

Wood is another possibility; the most common application is to use butcher block on very active work surfaces, often in combination with other countertop materials. Butcher block is great in a busy, vibrant kitchen where you might roll out pizza dough, and later cut the pizza on the same counter. If you ever wanted a giant cutting board — and the cut marks don’t trouble you — butcher block could be a great choice for part of your countertop. It’s particularly nice if the counter doubles as an eating area. The downside to butcher block is that it is tough to keep clean, and requires constant attention to eliminate bacteria, etc. You can’t pick up and put a butcher block counter in the sink the way you can with a cutting board. Another downside is the aforementioned cut marks; you can either live with ’em or you shouldn’t opt for butcher block.

Butcher block is really the only actively marketed wood surface for kitchen counters, however, you may stumble upon some other application of wood in an older kitchen. Many homes had painted wood countertops, but most were replaced or simply covered with a laminate of some sort. As difficult as butcher block is to maintain, almost any other type of wood surface is worse. (At this point, some people always bring up bar counters…”hey my neighborhood bar is wood, why can’t a kitchen counter be made of wood?” The answer is simply that a bar isn’t subject to the same abuses, temperature fluctuations, etc., and if you ever turn up the lights in your favorite pub, you’ll notice that the top has countless stains and marks despite the thick lacquer.)

The final type is what we’ll call all other for lack of a more descriptive term. This includes “retro” countertops, special custom countertops, concrete countertops, brick, stone, glass-on-wood, and other creations.

Concrete is becoming increasingly popular in upscale kitchens. Although extremely durable and versatile, the smaller size of most split level kitchens do not lend themselves to the cost of concrete. If you have a good supplier, or a kitchen contractor familiar with this, it is certainly worth checking into. It will last and last, and is usually “formulated” to resist stains and thermal damage. The “feel” of concrete, of course, is not for everybody — but again, it is not to be confused with a parking lot surface. Concrete should be given very strong consideration if you can afford it.

“Retro” countertops are gaining momentum in some older split-level homes. Often these are found in “homewrecker” or “vintage fixtures” stores — glorified junkyards. Others are re-creations of these 1950s era countertops. Typical of the look is a flat laminated plywood with tin banding (metal edges). Done right, it’s a great way to “restore” a vintage kitchen.

Finally, you may wish to design (or have it done for you) a unique, custom countertop. This could be anything from slate to custom cut stained glass to a myriad of other materials. Like anything else in home design, your imagination — and your good taste — is your only limitation. The upside to this type of countertop is that nobody else will have it, and if it’s done right, your guests will “ooh” and “ahh” at your creativity. The downside is that maintenace can be tough, and you may not always wind up with the most convenient surface for food preparation and other kitchen chores.

Cleanability of Various Countertops

The most widely circulated study of which surfaces harbor bacteria is The Hospitality Institute of Technology & Management’s Reduction of E. Coli on Various Countertop Surfaces, prepared by O. Peter Snyder, Jr., Ph.D.

The test was done on most of the popular countertop surfaces, and appears to have been done using the scientific method, and presents the data in a rather dry summary.

In a nutshell, Dr. Snyder, Jr. swabbed cultured E. coli on 9″ x 9″ squares of each material. It was then cleaned with detergent, rinsed, and tested. After that test, the squares were wiped with a 10% solution of common white vinegar and allowed to dry.

The vinegar had a significant effect beyond the detergent on all but wood and concrete, which you might suspect because they are the most porous of the materials tested.

The Materials, best to worst performing, using detergent alone:

  1. Granite
  2. Stainless Steel
  3. Concrete
  4. Tile
  5. Wood
  6. Laminate (plastic)

Surprising, as plastics are generally regarded as one of the easiest to clean, and generally harbor less bacteria than stainless steel in piping systems, etc. Also note that “solid surface” plastics were not part of the test, and that bacteria retention varies widely among different resins. But if the solid surface “resin” were the same as the Wilson Art laminate “resin” used in the test, the results would be largely similar.

The Materials, best to worst performing, using a solution of vinegar to kill bacteria:

  1. Stainless Steel
  2. Granite
  3. Laminate
  4. Tile
  5. Concrete
  6. Wood

Obviously by this study, stainless steel or granite can be cleaned most effectively. But before jumping to conclusions, consider this information with a few caveats…

First of all, the test was commissioned by a stainless steel group. We’re not saying that Dr. Snyder’s results are in any way tainted, but you should realize that this was a controlled test. Perhaps a different type of tile might outperform the granite, or perhaps another type of granite might outperform stainless in both aspects. Or perhaps another brand of cleanser would be more effective on concrete, and less effective on laminate. Maybe a chlorine-based cleanser would be much more effective on laminate, and would damage stone or stainless…the possibilities are endless.

The second thing to consider, is “how much” cleaning is needed? Do most people use a cleanser and then use a solution of vinegar? I daresay if you clean your concrete twice as often as your neighbor cleans her stainless, your concrete will be less likely to harbor and transfer harmful bacteria.

And finally, remember that whomever you speak with, they will promote what they are selling, and will go to great lengths to badmouth the competitor’s material. There was a time when solid surface people claimed that granite countertops emitted radon gas — and nothing could be further from the truth.

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