The Modern Countertop
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Proven materials and methods for the modern countertop.
Over the years we’ve experimented with many different types of countertops covering a range of materials, manufacturers and methods. The countertops that we’re using today are, for the most part, the ones that have proven themselves. We’ve rounded up a bunch of past projects and it’s a good time to share what we know and what we like about countertops. Like anything, take it with a grain of salt – this is just what experience has taught us.
Having a modern philosophy about design and construction filters down the material and method options to a select handful –and this couldn’t be truer as applied to countertops. There are a lot of fashionable, glossy products out there and there’s no lack of the term “green” being thrown around. Our advice is to skip the marketing and focus on a few key characteristics. Here’s our list of attributes for good, modern countertops:
Function: they should work well for decades; the material should have a proven track record of durability. You can always take a sample home from the showroom and spill some wine/ coffee/ baby food on it and see if it stains and how well it cleans (or doesn’t). The proof is in the pudding.
Timelessness: they should look good for decades; they shouldn’t go out of “style”. If racy phrases are used to describe the material’s abundant personality, it’s probably going to look dated in 5 to 10 years. There’s a term for this; perceived obsolescence.
Sustainability: It doesn’t matter how “green” or recycled something claims to be, if it needs to be replaced 5 years after it was installed then there’s nothing sustainable about it.
Weathering: there’s nothing wrong with materials that weather, so long as they weather in such a way that it makes them better/ more interesting/ more valuable over time. We like weathering that tells a story and provides a history and fond memories, not weathering where you are constantly fretting over spills and if your guest is going to leave a red wine ring.
Cost effectiveness: the use and look of the countertop should be proportional to the cost. A countertop that costs $750 and is replaced in 5 years is not as cost effective as a countertop that costs $3,000 and lasts for 30 years
Straight forward installation: since labor costs can often exceed the material costs, the ease of installation is a major contributor to the cost effectiveness.
With that said, here are the products that most consistently achieve these qualities on our projects:
Chroma: Made from 90% crushed natural quartz the product is non porous and impervious to water. While it comes in a ton of colors, our favorites are Oasis, Mesa and Coastal Grey –each with a honed finished for a look and texture similar to poured concrete. For a lighter palette we’re big fans of the Super White and Cascade White.
Caesarstone: Also made from 90% crushed natural quartz the product is a great solution to kitchen and bath applications. We’ve taken advantage of Caesarstone’s ambitious line of colors in the past, like the “Tequila Sunrise” used in conjunction with walnut cabinets in the image below.
Stainless steel with a “non-directional” finish: This may be the most bomb-proof countertop of all –we’ve had these in our own homes for years and they’ve performed incredibly well. There are different philosophies about the weathering of stainless steel countertops; some cooks like to cut directly on the stainless itself –subsequently nicking and scratching the surface for an intentional look. Others stick with a cutting board to keep the stainless steel relatively free of marks. In either situation the orbital finish conceals the smaller day-to-day scratches. Our favorite supplier here in the Pacific Northwest is Metal Masters Northwest Inc., they can build a one piece kitchen countertop with integral stainless steel sink, drain board and backsplash. They even mount it on plywood for easy installation. Ka-pow!
Paperstone: it’s been on our radar more and more lately. Although the material requires frequent resealing, it can be re-sanded and refinished to some degree –highly advantageous for that occasional catastrophic red wine stain.
Laminate: yup, good old fashioned laminate, just like you had in your house growing up except without the funny patterns and colors. We find that the ratio of durability to cost of laminate is hard to beat, and it’s a great application for the laundry room or drop-sort area that is going to receive considerable abuse. There’s a bounty of laminates out there, we like Nevamar.
Absolute black granite with a honed finish: this is a favorite stone product of ours. It’s an extremely durable material with just enough texture to differentiate it from the engineered products. We typically contrast it with lighter cabinets like the maple bathroom vanity below.
Custom granite: while there is some aversion to custom granite slabs out there (they got a bit overused in the 90s), under the right circumstances it can bring a very handsome look to an interior palette. Granite is a tough stone and a great application for kitchens. The drawbacks are that there are so many different types of granite that the process of sorting through all the granite slabs a stone yard has to offer can be quite time consuming. Given how unique each granite slab is, the selection typically requires a significant amount of time from the homeowner to review and approve. But with a go-getter of a home owner, it can be the centerpiece of a smashing kitchen like the one below.
You can decide on an exceptional material and still screw up the detailing, so here are a few specifications notes for a modern install:
Eased edges: with any of the stone or engineered stone products it’s very important to call out an “eased edge” rather than the radius, chamfer or <gulp> bevel that most countertop installers will try and give you. Nothing takes the glimmer off your hot modern project like a big clumsy 45 degree chamfer on that sleek countertop.
Backplashes: we typically use the same material for the countertop and the backsplash. The thickest you’ll want to go for the backsplash material is ¾” (3cm). Since the backsplash is often made from the off-cuts of the countertop, this may dictate what thickness of material is used in general. Buying a 1¼” thick slab for the countertop and an additional ¾” slab just for the backsplash pretty much blows the cost-effectiveness of the assembly -it also produces a lot of waste.
Straight edges: with laminates, don’t dry to seam or roll the edge. We like the look of a clean modern edge and we’ll often combine it with an exposed apple-ply or Europly to keep with the utilitarian aesthetic.
Undermount sinks: we recommend using undermount sinks with most of these materials. It keeps the look and function unobtrusive and clean. Overhang the countertop approximately ¼” over the sink –this hides the sealant in the shadow lines.
Honed finish: a honed (or flat) finish just about always looks better than a gloss finish. We typically like to see the material itself, not the reflection -that’s what mirrors are for.
Seams: When breaks in separate countertop panels are required, specify that the breaks occur centered on a sink or an appliance so that the composition is deliberate.
Thickened edges: for a thicker edge condition, most of the engineered materials can accommodate a deeper edge band condition at the perimeter.
There you go, happy counter-topping.