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More than ever, there’s a countertop for every taste.

When it comes to countertops, you’ve got plenty of materials to choose from. Here’s a quick primer to help you sort through your options.

Twenty years ago, making a decision about countertop materials for the average home would have involved little more than a quick flip through a box of laminate samples.

Today, the selection begins with laminates and extends through an assortment of more costly composites and natural woods, right up to pricier natural stone.

Laminate love

“I probably shouldn’t admit this,” says Nova Scotia chef Peter Jackson, “but I’ve always liked laminates. They’re cheap, easy-to-clean and tough as nails. Plus they come in hundreds of colours and patterns.”

A restaurateur who was born and raised in Nova Scotia, Jackson recently gave up his landmark Edmonton restaurant to return to the Annapolis Valley with his wife, Sara, to start a vineyard. The countertop in the old farmhouse they purchased near Aylesford is a 1970s vintage faux marble laminate that’s in remarkably good condition.

For now, the Jacksons’ priority is growing grapes, but when the time eventually comes for a kitchen makeover, Peter says he will be happy with another laminate, providing he also has a small stretch of butcher block in his baking area.

As it turns out, Peter Jackson isn’t the only member of the laminate fan club. “Laminate is still the perennial favorite,” says Devin Butt, a sales associate for a New Minas, NS, kitchen cabinet manufacturer. “Its durability and lower price point make it the first choice for most people.”

Synthetics and engineered stone

John and Pat Suddons had laminate in their previous house, but when the time came to select a kitchen countertop for their new, open concept bungalow, the Wolfville, NS, couple wanted a more substantial material to complement the adjacent living space.

“The kitchen is the hub of our home,” says John. “Entertaining usually begins at the island and flows from there.”

After doing a bit of research and talking to their builder, the Suddons decided to splurge on one of the new engineered stone products composed primarily of quartz particles.

“It’s in the same price range as granite,” says Pat, “but it’s more serviceable. It comes in a greater variety of colours and edge finishes than it used to and there’s virtually no maintenance. Even wine spills clean up easily.”

Faced with a similar need for a material that would harmonize with their open concept living space, and a design that called for an integral sink, Judith Mackin and Robert Moore chose a synthetic, solid surface material for the kitchen countertop in the ultra-modern house they’re building in Saint John, NB.

Roughly the same price as natural and manufactured stone, it can mimic stone, but Mackin and Moore were in the market for a brilliant white to extend the line of their glossy white cabinets. “It has the seamless, minimal look we were after,” says Mackin, the founder of a new Saint John design studio.

Gorgeous granite

Once the only game in town for high-style kitchens, granite countertops have made some changes to keep up with the competition. The quality has gone up; the price has come down.

Granite countertops are now much easier to get in Atlantic Canada, thanks to the diversification of a longtime manufacturer of cemetery monuments.

A granite countertop is still well beyond the cost of laminates, but buying one at a monument company helps put the purchase in perspective— when it comes to buying a slab of granite, a new countertop really beats the alternative.

Counter intelligence: 8 top countertop materials

1. Laminates

Plastic-coated synthetic with a smooth surface

Pros:
  • Inexpensive
  • Easy to maintain
  • Vast selection of colours and patterns
  • Selection of finishes
  • Available as a DIY option
  • New products replicate real stone
Cons:
  • Shows seams
  • Will scratch, stain and mark
  • Difficult to repair scratches and chips
  • Will not withstand heat

2. Concrete

A mix of cement, sand, water and aggregate (pieces of crushed gravel or stone) strengthened with materials like galvanized steel mesh or fibre and poured into a rigid form

Pros:

  • Resists heat and scratches
  • Durable
  • Can be tinted in a variety of colours
  • Can be formed into various shapes

Cons:

  • Expensive, but comparable to either natural stone or manufactured quartz composites
  • Heavy
  • Can crack without proper treatment
  • Porous: requires annual sealing to resist water and stains

3. Stainless steel

Pros:

  • Resists heat and rust
  • Durable
  • Hygienic
  • Seamless
  • Easy to clean
  • Often made from recycled materials

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Can scratch and dent
  • Shows fingerprints

4. Wood

Most often maple, birch and other hardwoods

Pros:

  • Beautiful
  • Easy to clean
  • Can be sanded and resealed
  • Moderately inexpensive
  • Comes custom made or pre-cut in standard sizes

Cons:

  • Damaged by water—especially likely near a sink
  • Will stain and scratch
  • Must be oiled on a regular basis

5. Solid surface materials

Synthetic sheets made by blending a compound of minerals with resins

Pros:

  • Comes in a broad range of colours and patterns that can mimic stone
  • Resists stains, heat and bacteria
  • Long-lasting
  • Easy to maintain
  • Scratches can be removed by sanding
  • Seamless

Cons:

  • May be marked by hot pots or stained
  • Expensive
    • Look and feel of natural stone
    • Comes in dozens of colours
    • Non-porous surface that resists scratches, stains and bacteria
    • Seamless installation
    • Easy to maintain: no annual sealing
    • New eco-friendly lines
    • Expensive
    • Not a DIY option
    • Large variety of colours
    • Resists heat and water
    • Comparatively inexpensive as a DIY
    • Durable; easy to clean and maintain
  • 6. Engineered stone

    A solid slab material composed primarily of quartz particles with a dash of resin

    Pros:

    Cons:

    7. Ceramic tile

    Pros:

    Cons:

  • an crack and chip
  • rofessional installation is expensive
  • rout can discolour and accumulate dirt

8. Granite

Pros:

  • Resists heat, water, scratches and stains
  • Durable
  • Can be formed into a variety of shapes
  • Some new products are guaranteed to remain sealed for up to 15 years

Cons:

  • Expensive; price depends upon product and edge profile
  • Some products require regular maintenance and sealing
  • Can crack without proper treatment