Stone countertops can turn a kitchen into an elegant place to prepare meals and entertain family and guests. Whether you’re building a dream home or renovating the love of your life, one of your most important goals is choosing materials that will create beautiful, lasting effects. In the kitchen, that means high-performance appliances, quality cabinetry and countertops that will bring beauty and high function to your space while keeping maintenance at a minimum.
Building or renovating a kitchen is guided by several overall principles: Appliances, fixtures and working surfaces need to have a lasting, classic quality of beauty. Classicism makes them anchors in changing color schemes and decorative fashions over long periods of service. Classicism is in no way dull or pedestrian; rather than being lowest-common-denominator, it reflects intelligent design principles, executed with care and craftsmanship. Materials need to be of consistent high quality, combining visual interest with reliable performance. Low maintenance is a direct outcome of exacting materials choices. Good design materials need little support to look good.
The choice of stone countertops is an excellent way to meet these design goals. For an enormous rainbow of colors and textures, a wealth of finishes, and superb durability, no other counter material offers a lifetime of high performance with such little maintenance. Within the category of materials, however, there are some further choices to be made. You have scaled the biggest boulder in the decision-path by choosing stone for your counters. Take the smaller steps needed to choose among proven varieties of stone to meet your exact needs.
THE VOICE OF EXPERIENCE
Every renovation can have its ups and downs, but the decision to renovate and the professional attraction to the craft are both based on the recognition that, overall, renovation is a positive, pleasurable process of change, stories with happy endings. When you’ve chosen to work with knowledgeable, experienced professional renovators, the stories you will tell for years contain a lot of fun as well. To insure maximum success with new ideas and costly new materials, thorough prep is the key to ultimate success. Almost anybody can be a daring superhero with a paint-brush. Luxurious, long-lasting materials like stone, however, have some qualities and conditions that need to be respected and managed by experienced professionals for best results. Seek out craftspeople who have earned their reputations. They can help you make the step-by-step decisions that work for you.
CLIMBING THE STEPS
Although experts can provide information on a wide variety of stone products, there is general agreement that three varieties of construction stone excel as choices for durable, beautiful kitchen counters: granite, quartzite and quartz. Granite and quartzite are both mined natural stones. In mineralogical terms, granite is an igneous rock; its mineral content may vary depending on where it is found. Avid hikers tend to associate the granite they encounter in mountains and hills with hues of gray. Granite can, however, range in base-color from white and subtle blues and greens to black. It can be flecked, streaked or veined with a variety of minerals present when the stone was formed far under the earth’s surface. Quartzite is a metamorphic rock, transformed by heat and pressure from sandstone. Its origins add a range of warmer tones to the color-palette, from pale gold to warm beiges and browns. Some quartz patterns mimic waves or cloud formations, adding further visual interest. Quartz is an engineered stone, composed primarily of ground natural quartzite and small amounts of polymer resins and, in some cases, color pigments. Quartz is known as an agglomerated rock or engineered stone. Its manufacturing process allows great latitude for imaginative color- and pattern-blends. At the same time, engineered stone manifests great aesthetic respect for its origins in nature. Manufacturing can also address issues of consistency. Just as fabrics come in dye-lots, natural stones display variances that may make it hard to achieve the exact level of visual unity a designer or homeowner wants. Enough-of-a-good-thing is less of an issue with engineered stone.
STEP 1: HARD AS A ROCK, RIGHT?
One of the most important qualities that assures longevity in stone countertops is hardness. Differences between a homeowner’s vision and that of an experienced designer or contractor are often based on the unexpectedly wide range of hardness-levels in stone.
The standard scale for determining the comparative hardness of rocks was developed in the 19th century by a German mineralogist, Friedrich Mohs, and to this day is called the Mohs Scale of Hardness throughout the industry. The scale was simple common-sense: varied stones were rated by their ability to scratch other kinds of stone. Talc, as the softest, is rated as 1 in hardness, while diamond merits a top score of 10. (The dastardly villain cutting a hole in the palazzo window with a diamond ring is actually applying respected scientific principles to purloining the Countess’s necklace!).
Within the scale, both natural granite and natural quartzite score in the range of 7. Individual pieces of stone may score higher or lower, depending on exact chemical content and origins. The hardness of quartz benefits from technology. Engineering lets manufacturers control the position and consistency of scores at the high-7 level.
The New World Encyclopedia contributes one more important element to understanding the Mohs hardness scale and the way it is used by designers to choose appropriate materials. As levels rise, they become exponentially harder. At the bottom of the scale, gypsum (2) is absolutely twice as hard as talc (1). In the upper levels, absolute hardness levels increase drastically, and those nonlinear increases may explain why professionals no longer favor wide use of decorative marble. Although homeowners have long associated marble with enduring beauty, its Mohs score is only a surprising 3. Quartz, quartzite and granite, at level 7, are more than 10 times harder than marble. Hardness is a major consideration in terms of whether counters are subject to staining, scratching, cracking and chipping.
The last decision-steps that need to be taken bring homeowners right into the kitchen. The most critical factor in making design-choices is creating a kitchen that fulfills the needs and desires of its occupants. Every family is different, and the closer you can look at present and future needs and activities, the longer the life of your design.
Granite, quartzite and quartz countertops all offer similar advantages over laminates, softer stones, concrete and wood. All three leading stone surfaces are highly resistant to scratches, cut-marks, chipping, and cold- and heat-shock. Daily maintenance requires no specialized cleaning products. Stone counters are best maintained by wiping them down with a damp cloth and a simple, non-corrosive kitchen cleaner. Natural granite and quartzite surfaces should be maintained with an annual reapplication of sealant. Engineered quartz counters do not require annual resealing. Their superior hardness makes them maintenance-free so long as you provide prompt daily care.
The major vulnerability that stone counters share with other surfaces is staining, and the question of staining may help you make a final choice between natural granite or quartzite and engineered quartz. First, prompt attention to spills or streaks can make all the difference between partial and complete removal. Some sources of staining are obvious: brightly-colored children’s soft drinks, the food-colorings used in baking, strongly-hued seasonings like turmeric or chili powder, and adult beverages like red wine. Less obvious are the substances that, combined with colors or on their own, have strong corrosive or penetrating powers: food acids like citrus juices, vinegar, white wine; other clear alcohols; fats, like olive oil and shortening; and penetrating marinades like soy and Worcestershire sauces. Accidents happen: baking dishes bubble over, liquids splash, mixtures drip. The faster you can act and the more you know about the properties of fallen foodstuffs, the easier it will be to keep your counters in spectacular condition.
Since any kitchen design or renovation is a long-term decision and stone counters have a potential lifetime durability, consider what could happen in your kitchen as time goes on. Which do you like better: your kitchen table or your dining room table? Do you see your home as a social magnet during your children’s teen and college years? Is your idea of a great party potluck, buffet or sit-down? Does your renovation include an indoor grill, a deep-fryer, a built-in griddle or extra space for all your small appliances? What new cuisines do you want to try in your new kitchen?
Whatever your answers, your new kitchen sounds like a wonderful place, the welcoming heart of your home. You will keep it that way with the enduring choice of stone countertops. Natural granite and quartzite bring warmth and beauty with relatively low maintenance. Engineered quartz combines natural materials and technology to maximize your enjoyment while minimizing care. High-performance stone counters will help keep your new kitchen a happy place to work and entertain for a long time.