What Worktop? Danny Hanlon reviews alternative materials for today’s kitchen worktops.
The worktop is one of the most hardworking surfaces in the house, even if the only regular cookery action it sees is slicing bread for sandwiches, boiling water for coffee and spillage from breakfast cereals. It needs to be stain, scratch and heat resistant, easy to clean and extremely durable. Also, unless you are someone who enjoys sealing, oiling, sanding and polishing out scratches, it should also be largely maintenance-free.
To help you decide what worktop works best for you, we describe the main types of countertop material and give an assessment of their relative strengths and weaknesses.
Here are the twelve most popular worktop materials, by generic type rather than brand name:
Hardwood – made from oak, maple, cherry, walnut, iroko and other timber, these worktops impart a warm, natural feel to the kitchen and are arguably an eco-friendly option, although some environmentalists might disagree. Available in wide planks, narrow strips or end-grain butcher’s block designs, hardwood is relatively easy to clean and can be sanded and resealed. However, it is prone to stain and water damage and should be oiled or sealed on a regular basis. Naturally, it can be easily cut, burnt and scorched, as well as harbouring odours, but the ‘aged look’ often appeals.
Laminate – made by bonding together multiple layers of resin-treated material and plywood or particle board, plastic laminate is regarded as the most affordable countertop choice, although solid-core, colour-through and custom types are more expensive. There is a wide choice of colours, patterns and effects, with earlier classic designs ideal for a ‘retro’ look. Laminate worktops are relatively durable and easy to clean, although some abrasive cleaners may damage the surface. They are not usually resistant to heat, are difficult to repair and usually have visible seams, making them less suitable for undermounted sinks.
Solid Surface – solid synthetic worktops are typically made from acrylic-based materials and, as the name suggests, the colour is uniform throughout, so any scratches or damage can be professionally sanded away, albeit at a cost. These worktops are seamless, difficult to stain and available in an extensive choice of colours, patterns and finishes. Worktops are custom made and the more complex the design and shape, the more expensive the installation. You can’t cut directly onto this material or place hot pans directly on the surface, since intense heat can pop seams and cause discoloration.
Engineered Stone – also known as a quartz surface, this material is usually composed of around 93% quartz particles and a resin compound, producing a worktop that is tough, non-porous and consistent in colour and texture. It is relatively heat resistant, as well as being impervious to scratches, stains and water, and is stronger than natural stone and available in a wider range of colours. The material is heavy though, often requiring reinforcements to kitchen units and even upstairs apartment flooring, and the surface can be marked by hot pans.
Agglomerate – an updated development of engineered stone, agglomerate surfaces offer a choice of natural granite, quartz or recycled glass particles, blended with approximately 5% polymer resin compound, creating worktops that are non-porous, scratch, stain and corrosion resistant. The manufacturing process is different, so this material is a third lighter and slimmer, without sacrificing strength; this allows it to be fitted on top of existing worktops, for an instant makeover, although complete worktops are also available with a bonded substrate. There is a wide choice of colours, although there are no matt options. The material is heat resistant but hot pans should not be left unattended.
Granite – a natural stone composed of quartz, mica, feldspar and other minerals, granite is an elegant, practical worktop material and becoming more affordable, although be wary of cheaper, inferior grades. It’s more low maintenance than other natural stones, but must be sealed regularly to stop absorbing stains and odours. It has an excellent hardness rating, although it is vulnerable to cracking and can shatter if hot pans are placed directly on the surface. As well as the classic polished look, it is available in matt effects and brushed or flamed finishes.
Marble – frequently used in restaurant kitchens and bakeries because it is highly heat resistant and cool to the touch, marble is softer than granite and requires almost constant maintenance, as it is very porous and stains easily. It is a very heavy material, making reinforcement a consideration, and is somewhat soft, so can be cut and scratched. Apart from its classic rich look, marble is best known for maintaining a cool temperature when rolling dough or pastry, thus is best reserved for island units and baking stations.
Stainless Steel – widely used in catering kitchens, stainless steel is heat resistant, durable and does not absorb odours or germs, so can be wiped down easily. Worktops are made to measure, without seams and commonly including an integrated sink and splashguard, and give a streamlined, clinical look. However, they show fingerprints and scratches readily, may get dented in use, have poor noise absorption qualities, and certain acid foods will stain if left on the surface. Stainless steel is perhaps best around a sink or hob and is also ideal for outdoor living areas.
Toughened Glass – when used as kitchen worktops, glass is toughened as part of the manufacturing process, to increase its strength and durability. It is heat, water and acid resistant, hygienic and relatively easy to keep clean, although it does show smudges and finger marks. Made to measure, it comes in a variety of colours and thicknesses and is a highly reflective surface, useful in small kitchens but possibly overpowering in larger areas. It is harsh on glassware and crockery, you cannot cut on it and the edges should be rounded for safety. Glass worktops are at the premium end of the market.
Soapstone – a traditional worktop material, often seen in historic houses, soapstone is a quarried material composed of talc, chlorite and other minerals, with a surface feel like dry soap. It darkens as it ages, a process accelerated by the application of mineral oil. It is resistant to water and acid, withstands quite intense heat, but scratches and chips rather easily, although any damage can usually be sanded out. It is susceptible to cracking over time and does require regular maintenance. Colours are rich, deep and natural. Its heat retaining properties mean it is also used for stoves and pizza ovens.
Concrete – becoming a popular choice for high end projects, concrete can be colour tinted and moulded into a variety of worktop forms, with decorative additions incorporated. This material resists heat and scratching and is relatively non-porous once sealed, although this will need to be maintained regularly. Concrete is heavy and expensive to install, since worktops have to be custom-made, often cast on site. There is a problem of cracking, although new treatments tend to reduce that, and the surface will stain if not properly sealed.
Tiles – depending on material choice, size and design, tiled worktops can be inexpensive or carry a hefty price tag. Generally, tiling is moisture and heat resistant, although don’t place hot pans directly onto expensive handmade tiles. Colourful designs are possible, but installation is painstaking and, if fitted by a professional, pretty expensive. Grout can harbour dirt, spills and bacteria so should be sealed regularly. Individual tiles can chip or crack easily and the surface can be uneven. There is a pre-grouted agglomerate mosaic tile sheet, but like most tiling this is best reserved for splashbacks.
With a selection of showrooms nationwide, it’s easy to get in touch with a Granite & TREND Transformations design consultant to find out how you can transform your kitchen the hassle-free way. Call us on 0803 231 7951 or request a brochure, or arrange a home visit with one of our experts.