Countertop Buyers Guide

As with many large purchases in life, installing new counter tops is not something that a person does frequently. In addition, unlike cars, homes, or electronics, most people do not spend much time thinking about what the “next big thing” in counter tops might be. For this reason, most consumers have a limited knowledge of the products and services that are available unless they happen to work in the home-building or remodeling industry. This article is intended to educate you about the process of choosing, installing, and maintaining beautiful new counter tops in your home.

Since most people will only remodel or build a home 2-3 times in their life, the options and products have most likely changed greatly since the last time they have shopped for counter tops. Also, consumers from the more recent generations; (Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, etc.) have much different requirements for products in their homes than their grandparents or even their parents might have had. These days consumers are considering not only price and durability, but also style, tactile appeal, impact on the environment, sanitation, and the overall effect their choices have on their home's value and image. While 40 to 50 years ago the “cool thing” was to “keep up with the Joneses,” today’s consumers value individuality and the ability to do something “up-and-coming” in their homes. It is more important nowadays to be the first one on the block with the latest and greatest never-before-heard-of gadget or product than to get the same product your neighbors have had for years. Exciting features and ease of use are important factors in all consumer goods, and this fact has not been lost on counter top manufacturers.

Take a look through this section for an overview of what is available in counter tops from Standard Kitchens; what makes each type stand out, as well as it's relative cost compared to the other countertop choices.

What Products are Available?

Many customers coming to our showrooms looking for new counter tops have the idea they want anything other than laminate. However, laminate is, and will most likely remain, the most cost-effective product on the market for both replacement tops and new construction. Laminate is a high-density material that is adhered to engineered wood and heat-treated to achieve multiple edge treatments.

Laminate tops are available in post-forms; which are fabricated at the factory and installed either by the customer or the fabricator on site, or in sheet-goods form; which can be fabricated and installed on-site by a builder, fabricator, or even by the home-owner.Typically the home-owner has more options for backsplash and edge profile in the post-form variety because the fabricator can use their in-house equipment to achieve “wrapped” edges, solid-surface undermount sinks and edges, or even integrated backsplashes with very few seams. These tops can still be templated prior to installation, but they will arrive at the home already built and ready-to-assemble.

As far as color, laminate has the widest variety available with many textures and degrees of durability. There are now colors that mimic natural stone so closely that many people mistake it for another, more high-end surface at first glance. Laminate is most often used in commercial applications, apartments, condos, and homes where affordability is important. It is also still used in many higher-end homes in bathrooms, laundry rooms, game rooms and pantries.

Maintaining the look of your new laminate is rather simple as long as one is careful not to use it as a cutting surface or place especially hot items directly on the surface. It will sustain slight scratches; this characteristic being more obvious in the non-textured gloss finishes. Laminate does not require any sort of yearly upkeep such as sealing, and it is completely non-porous. A well-taken care of laminate top will last many, many years and has the benefit of being easily replaced for minimal cost.

Solid Surface
Solid surfaces are another option for counter tops. These products are made of acrylic and polyester blends, the proportions of which are different in almost every brand and level of this material. There is much debate about which proportion of the ingredients is best, however when choosing a solid surface it is best to simply choose a color, finish, and texture that most appeal to your needs rather than worry about how much acrylic or polyester it contains. This is because the true benefits of solid surfaces exist no matter what the makeup of the color or brand.

All solid surfaces have color that goes all the way through the slab. This means that if you should scratch, gouge, or even stain your top it is completely renewable simply by using an abrasive product to remove the damaged layer. Most scratches can be easily taken care of by the homeowner with a household abrasive cleaner such as Comet or Soft Scrub and a Scotch Brite pad, however for deeper gouges the top may need to be professionally refinished by the fabricator or manufacturer. (Always test the product in an inconspicuous spot before using it on the entire surface) Consumers may find that the darker the color of solid surface, the more highly visible scratches will appear on the top. Darker tops are more likely to need to be refinished. While there is a cost for refinishing, it is certainly less than purchasing a new top and refinishing can extend the life of the top long past the life-span of other products.

Another advantage of solid surfaces are their “seamless” nature. The slabs are manufactured in standard sizes and they are then pieced together into one large kitchen-shaped top. The nature of the material allows it to be sanded and joined so tightly that the seams are nearly invisible. This also allows for “integrated” sinks and back splashes of the same material which allows the entirely finished top to appear as one slab set onto the cabinetry. Sinks are always solid colors so the consumer will be able to see where the sink is joined to the top, but the seam should not be able to be felt.

Quartz surfaces are essentially man-made stone. Manufacturers of quartz slabs take the strongest element of quartz crystals and mix it with a polymer to form a new surface that has the relative appearance of natural stone but is actually stronger and requires less maintenance than natural granite or marble. Quartz as a rule is much more uniform in color and pattern than natural granite as the mix is controlled by the manufacturer. This process does give the material a more manufactured look, though one should never purchase quartz if they are looking for the depth and individuality of natural granite.

Because of the way it is manufactured, quartz is completely non-porous and never needs to be sealed. A home-owner should not have to worry if someone accidentally uses a knife or sets a hot dish off the range onto their countertop. While no manufacturer recommends neglecting to use a cutting board or trivet, quartz surfaces are capable of handling instances where this is unavoidable.

While quartz surfaces do show visible seams, a quality fabricator will make the seams as inconspicuous as possible and “hide” them in less-visible places such as around the cook top or sink. Sinks may be under mounted or self-rimming drop-ins, but consumers have plenty of choices for style, material and color. Back splashes can also be supplied but are only available in a set-on application. Many home-owners choose to use tile back splashes instead of continuing the quartz material onto the wall and opt for all different kinds of edge treatments on their perimeters.

Granite counter tops have becoming increasingly popular over the years, though we may see a decline due to the variety of new and interesting quartz surfaces on the market. However, no matter how talented the manufacturer, we have yet to see a surface with the depth and natural beauty of true stone. No two slabs of granite are alike; giving each top a personality of it's own, and allowing for truly unique kitchens. It is also for this reason that consumers will want to go to a granite supplier and choose their own slab, having it tagged to be used for their particular job. A good retailer will always recommend that a customer choose their slab so as to avoid potential problems later if there is any discrepancy in color or pattern from the sample the customer saw in the store.

Like quartz surfaces, granite also requires an under mount or drop-in sink. There are a variety of edges to choose from and back splashes can be set-on or the consumer could choose tile for the back splash. Another similarity to quartz is the strength of granite and it's ability to withstand heat and scratching much better than most other surfaces. There are many colors to choose from and they range in price depending on quality, durability, and availability.

There has been some concern about the porosity and the needing to seal granite contertops. To address this issue, the Marble Institue of America has put together an official statement:

MIA Statement of Position On Sealing Natural Stone Countertops
"Most granite countertops do not need to be sealed. Before 1995 there were very few quality penetrating sealers on the market and there were very few cases of staining. Both prior to and after the availability of penetrating sealers, no cases of food poisoning, radon, or food preparation issues associated with treated or untreated granites have been reported. If a homeowner cleans their countertops after each meal, they will rarely, if ever, have staining or cleanability issues with granite. This being said, many granite countertops receive additional benefit from being sealed. That benefit is the further reduction of moisture migration into an already moisture resistant surface.

"Should natural stone counters be sealed? In many cases it makes sense to seal marble and granite countertops with a quality sealer. The product should have a life expectancy of ten to fifteen years and be of an oliophobic (resistant to water and oil based stains) nature. Once properly sealed, the stone will be more resistant against everyday dirt and spills.

"In today's natural stone industry, many species of granite receive a resin treatment at the factory where the blocks of granite are cut into slabs and then polished. The treatment is used to fill micro-fissures, indentations and other minor characteristics that are found in many natural stones. The reason for the resin treatment is to address what most consumers consider as imperfections, but in reality are "birth marks". The consuming public gravitates to perfection, defined as no "birth marks," and so the marble and granite industry tries to fulfill the desire. Both resined as well as unresined slabs will outlast most of our lifetimes. Granite should, and in most cases will, be the last countertop surface a person will buy, providing a strong return on investment. The bottom line: Sealing resin treated countertops may increase the resistance of the already resistant nature of stone.

Bathroom Specific Countertop options
In addition to the many surfaces that are used in the kitchen, there are a few surfaces that are specific only to the bathroom. Cultured Marble is the most common top in this category, it is a man-made material that can come in many different colors with completely integrated sinks. These sinks are actually made of the same material in the same color as the rest of the tops. This is unique to cultured marble as all other surfaces that offer integrated sinks offer them mainly in solid colors. While cultured marble does not have the ease of repair that solid surface has, the color often goes through the top and can be professionally refinished.

The other bathroom-specific option is ready-to-install tops. While these tops are made of the same surfaces we examined before (laminates and solid surfaces) the customer is actually encouraged to install them themselves. Quite often these RTI tops are less costly than the same material because the fabricator is able to buy the product and produce the tops in bulk. These tops are usually available in most of the colors the manufacturer makes, but often they offer limited configurations and options for edges or bowls.

Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How long does it take to get my new countertops installed?
This, of course, depends on many factors. If you are installing your own laminate countertop, you can typically get the laminate sheet goods the next day at a local dealer. If the color you choose is not in stock it could take a week or two for the color to come in. You can probably fabricate and install a laminate countertop yourself in a weekend.

If you are using a fabricator, you will need to place the order and schedule a template. This can take a week or so depending on how hard it is for you and the fabricator to find a time that works for both of you. After template the fabricator must order the material and fabricate the tops. This time period is typically about two weeks, but can take up to three. Installation can be finished in a couple of hours, but you will want to keep in mind that between template and installation you may have to spend a couple of weeks without a counter top.

Q: Is there any particular product that is best for the resale of my home?
The first thing to think about is the value of your home. You don't want to invest more in the counter tops than you can feasibly get back in resale, but if putting in a slightly more expensive top can bring real value to your home you don't want to overlook this option either. While for many buyers seeing Granite, Quartz, or even Solid Surface is a huge selling point, a nice-looking laminate in an updated color is not a bad investment if you are on a budget. This gives the buyer the benefit of replacing the top guilt-free if they do not like the color or style.

Always keep in mind when designing for resale that though you may love bright colors and lots of fancy detail, the next buyer may not. Just because it is granite or solid surface does not mean that the future buyer will automatically love the tops.

Q: Why are your prices sometimes higher for the same product at a Big Box store?
Most often when you see a significant price difference between Standard Kitchens and another store, there is a good reason. We keep our prices as competitive as possible so typically big differences should raise some questions. One thing you always want to ask is how many seams will be in the top and where they will be positioned. It is usually less expensive to fabricate a top with a lot of seams rather than one or two. So you want to be sure that your less-expensive quote does not use a lot of seams. Some stores cut costs by using remnants to create the top rather than fabricating from a larger slab that will give a better look. When comparing prices, you also always want to check each quote to make sure that the edge profile, back splash, sink cutouts, and other accessories are included. Always make sure you are comparing “apples to apples.”

Q: Can you get other types of surfaces besides the ones listed here?
Yes! Ask us for what you are looking for specifically. With the vast number of surface options, we don’t have the space to show them all. But with the number of manufacturers, fabricators and suppliers we deal with we can special order many of these specialty products such as exotic wood tops, soapstone or concrete tops. We’d be happy to find exactly what you need.

Q: Can I reuse my existing sink and back splash with a new top?
This really depends on the situation. Tile is easily broken and no installer will guarantee that they can save your existing back splash. It is often best to have a few extra tiles handy in case one or two break and you should prepared for this possibility when replacing a top. Sinks are typically not a problem unless yours has warped with age or use.

Q: How should I prepare for my template and installation?
Most fabricators do not include tear out and removal of your old counter top unless you specify this in your request for a quote. Make sure you let your salesperson know if you need help with tear out and removal.

It is also important to have picked out your plumbing fixtures and to have them on site at the time of template so that your installer can take measurements. Some fabricators may want to take the sink or faucet(s) back to the shop with them to be fitted with your top. If you have a cooktop or drop-in range you will also need to have those on-site.

Keep in mind that it is a messy job removing a counter top. Plan accordingly and remove any valuable or breakable items from the area.

Remember that fabricators and installers are not plumbers. They may or may not actually install the sink, and they will not hook up plumbing. You will need to hire a plumber to hook up your new faucet, disposal, and possibly your new sink.

By Krista Heemstra, Kitchen Designer - Grand Rapids showroom