Tips for picking the right counter for your kitchen or bathroom space

The good news is that materials exist for every style and budget.

The range of countertop materials for kitchens and baths has widened so much in recent years that “if you can dream it, someone out there makes it,” says kitchen and interior designer Alyssia Zevos of Not Just Kitchens in Bedford.    

“Products exist for every taste and function,” she adds.

Materials range from natural stone—such as granite, marble and soapstone—to engineered quartz, to solid surface, recycled glass, wood, decorative concrete and more. Once a homeowner chooses a material, there are choices in polishes and finishes as well as edge design. “There are so many choices these days, our job as designers is to help our clients narrow down their selections based on what will work for their style and budget, and how they use their kitchens and bathrooms,” Zevos says.

“I think clients are fortunate to have many wonderful options available to them for kitchen and bath countertops,” says designer Sue Booth of Vintage Kitchens in Concord. “Stone—granite, soapstone, slate are all great, and, with caution, marble and limestone, engineered stone (quartz products), solid surface products (Corian) and wood. 

“Each choice has benefits and cautions or limits when it comes to care and maintenance, as well as finish options and varying aesthetics,” Booth says. “So the key is to truly understand both the performance needs for the countertop and the customer’s tolerance for the less-than-ideal qualities a counter surface might bring. Then there will be a happy marriage of material and user!”

Rock stars

Photography courtesy of Scott Bulgar
Granite counters, which are now available in a variety of finishes including matte and antique, are popular in kitchens and bathrooms alike. This bathroom was designed by 3w Design in Concord.

Designers say granite is still very popular with homeowners due to its durability, natural beauty, and wide variations in color and pattern. Kitchen designer Don Smith of Dream Kitchens in Nashua notes that the price of granite has come down greatly since it hit the market about fifteen years ago. Smith credits the migration of stone fabricators to southern New Hampshire with reducing the cost of all but the most exotic, imported granite countertops. 

Maintenance concerns have also diminished, as Smith says that while granite is porous and once required frequent sealing, a new product on the market called Dry-Treat permanently seals the granite. The treatment also protects granite against staining even with the low-sheen finishes gaining popularity among his clients. The low sheen, satin finish adds warmth to a kitchen, especially when coupled with low-sheen surfacing on the cabinetry as well.

While granite remains high on many homeowners’ wish lists, designers note that quartz, most notably made by the Minnesota-based Cambria brand, is gaining or surpassing granite or other materials, in spite of its higher price tag.

“I think granite has a strong hold in the market,” Zevos says. “So many people know about it, it comes from the earth and is available in so many variations, but what’s coming more into the market is quartz. It’s giving granite a run for the money.” Zevos adds that Cambria counters are 93 percent quartz and 7 percent manmade resin. “Essentially, you don’t have to seal it. It’s strong and heat resistant, and you don’t have to worry about it.”

Another feature of quartz is that it comes in an enormous variety of patterns and colors, from those replicating granite and marble to solid colors.

At 3w Design in Concord, owner and designer Cheryl Tufts reports that quartz counters are her top sellers, with Cambria providing the highest quality, durability and selection.

“Quartz, by far, is our number-one countertop product,” Tufts says. “It requires so little maintenance, and never loses its polish or shine.”

Decorative concrete

Lenny Cushing, owner of Zenstoneworks in Portsmouth, has been in the tile and stone works business since 1999. After he became interested in decorative concrete about nine years ago, he attended a trade school to learn more about this versatile material.

Photography courtesy of scott sherman

The imported Boss Blue granite from central Europe is a sophisticated and elegant choice for this bar and entertainment area designed by Dream Kitchens. A fireplace is mounted above the wet bar.

“Decorative concrete is the most versatile, customizable solid surface available today,” he says. “Color, shape and size are limitless. You can incorporate virtually anything in the material as well—seashells, tiles, recycled glass, metals and more. To define its possibilities would be truly to limit it. With all this in mind, we pride ourselves on working with our client’s vision to create a one-of-a-kind product that is the ultimate combination of form and function.”

Some samples of concrete counters include those with integrated sinks, stainless-steel trivets and drain boards, as well as counters embedded with colorful glass, earthy pebbles, small tiles or flecks of seashells.

Cushing said decorative concrete counters can be seamless—his most recent example is of a nearly sixteen-foot, solid concrete countertop slab at a North Hampton brewery. His products use locally mined sand and cement from Lewiston, Maine. Once the product is cured, a topical sealer is applied to protect the concrete from staining. Concrete counters can be scratched with a knife—Cushing says you wouldn’t want to cut cheese on the counter—but any nicks can be easily buffed out. The surface is rated to withstand temperatures of up to 450 degrees, he adds, but then again, with an embedded stainless-steel trivet as an added feature, a hot pot gets its own counter parking spot.

Another feature of concrete is that it can be formed into dramatic, four-inch thicknesses for a much lower cost than an equally thick slab of solid stone, Cushing says. Pricewise, the product costs less than stone, running about $95 per square foot for a custom counter.

Also, concrete and tile work as well for a bathroom as for a kitchen.

Wood. Why not?

Wooden countertops continue to be an attractive option, and not only for accessory areas, such as desks and kitchen islands. Eport Wood Products in Portsmouth has outfitted kitchens and baths—even those with under-mounted sinks—with high-quality finished woods.

Photography courtesy of Eport Wood Products
High-end wood counters by Eport Wood Products in Portsmouth add warmth to a kitchen.

“Wooden countertops are making a comeback because of the natural warmth and beauty of wood,” says Eport’s owner Cory Erikson who runs the company with his father Ken and brother Christopher. “Wood has been used in pubs and on most commercial bar tops for years. People feel comfortable around wood, particularly in New England where wood has been the dominant building material,” Cory says.

He explains how wooden countertops fall into two categories: functional and aesthetic. Functional wooden countertops are either end-grain or edge-grain construction, commonly called butcher block, and are designed to be cut upon. This surface is finished with food-safe mineral oil and should be periodically oiled to maintain proper wood

Aesthetic wooden countertops are generally durable and are built to show the face grain of the wood. One wouldn’t want to cut directly on a portion of aesthetic countertop. Some of Eport’s customers have chosen to install a portion of butcher block for cutting or work area, and the remainder of the countertop uses another material, such as aesthetic wood or a stone product, Cory says.

“Most people will do a combination of granite and wood, installing granite beside the stove and a wooden chopping surface on the center island to break up the monotony of the stone,” Cory says.

Photography courtesy of not just kitchens

Not Just Kitchens in Bedford used Cambria quartz for the island and counters, and cherry for the cabinets.

He adds that there was a time when wooden countertops were prone to warping and cracking because of the humidity and temperature changes of the Northeast. Eport mitigated this problem by using steel stiffeners in its construction techniques, and maintaining a midlevel humidity and temperature range it its factory in Waterboro, Maine. Cory adds that there have been significant advances in the durability of wood coatings in the past few years.

Decisions, decisions

Choosing countertop materials can be difficult, but not impossible. Designers recommend making choices that allow the kitchen or bath to fit with the rest of the house, and consider the color of existing or new cabinetry. Family, lifestyle and budget are factors as well.

Once those decisions are made, most homeowners want a style and products that are classic, clean and transitional.

“Homeowners want something that is timeless and will last throughout the years,” Zevos says. “They want that kitchen remodel to count and withstand the test of time.” 

Photography courtesy of Zenstoneworks
Embedded tiles embellish this concrete counter and sink by Zenstoneworks in Portsmouth.
Categories: Architecture and Interiors, Kitchen Designs