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Countertops: We live in a stone age

by Steve McKee on January 28, 2007

It’s actually sort of thrilling when you enter the warehouse to pick out the stone slab that will be a part of your home. You’re not just picking a color from some chart or discussing a concept, you’re selecting the very slab that will be cut to the shape of your countertop. By the time you enter that warehouse your project is probably about halfway built, you’ve been faxed a list of the stone suppliers that are used by your contractor’s stone installer, and most of the hard work on your part is done, like the decision to do a stone countertop and deciding what type of stone, for starters.  You’ve also mapquested these various suppliers, phoned to check their hours, and have set aside a couple hours that you and your significant-other can devote to driving around doing this. You’ve even made sure that you’ve eaten recently so that you won’t be hungry and crabby.

Also, as you walk into that warehouse, you have presumably already agreed on a strategy for color-schemes and finishes throughout your design and, as a result, know pretty much what colors are acceptable for this countertop.  This preparation will be your defense against being overwhelmed by all the possibilities.  Perhaps you’ve brought a color chip of the wall paint or a sample of the cabinet finish.  Maybe you’ve simply put into words what color range or hues will work.  Here’s a nifty tip: rather than carry about all your color samples to the stone place you instead simply name in advance and in detail the colors you’ll need from this stone slab.  By putting this into words, you are taking a right-brain chore and adapting it to a left-brain convenience, one that can be turned into a sentence or two.

In our case, Melody and I knew that we wanted a slab that was mostly black but with subtle green striations within it, mint green, if possible.  The “mostly black” could also be a very dark green.  (Very dark.)  We also knew that we wanted soapstone.  That’s right, not granite or quartz, but venerable old soapstone, the stone no one chooses much anymore.  (Perhaps for good reason.  More on this later.)

It’s good to have your color strategy in place when you enter that warehouse because you are going to find a vast array of possibilities.  Every stone storeroom we saw was huge and reminded me of a museum with all the white walls, clean floors and numerous skylights.  Stone slabs were stacked vertically in lean-to racks that made the different slabs easy to see.  There were row after row of these racks.  Each stone slab was about four or five feet tall, about an inch thick and smooth on the face but with rough edges that belied its quarry origins in some distant rock mountainside.

I’m not kidding when I say there was a huge array of possibilities.  There were multi-hued slabs that brought to mind Jackson Pollock.  There were slabs that had random oval cells of color highlights, like something you saw under a microscope in high school.  Some slabs had amazing elusive crystal facets just under their surface that would glint and then disappear, depending upon the angle observed.

There were some that were so gorgeously striated with bright colors that I would be happy to mount a slab of it on my wall, shine a halogen spot on it and marvel at it for years.  But as a part of my understated kitchen color scheme, no thanks.

And, happily, there were numerous slabs of “reasonable” color, in that middle ground most of us like to inhabit. Browns, blacks, granular looking rock with hints of cream, rose or green.  After you pick a slab a warehouse guy tapes a “reserved” sign to it and notifies your stone fabricator.  You take a digital photo to remind yourself what you’ve picked and then you leave happy.

Some basics regarding different stone counters:

For a kitchen, expect to pay anywhere from $6K to $12K for a stone countertop (labor and material), or about $80 to $120 per square foot (notice that I didn’t say per linear foot.)  You get to choose if the edge is rounded or square or shaped with a curved doo-whop (known as “ogee.”)  Thickening the edge from 1” to 2” for a more substantial look will add between eight hundred or a thousand dollars to the total price.

Quartz:   Also known as “Composite” and the brand names Silestone and Zodiaq.  These are synthetic slabs manufactured in a factory.  The slabs are created from quartz stone (good hard stuff) that has been ground up and mixed with resin.  The result looks very much like a granite, but more consistent.  There are standard colors that you can choose from a chart.  As a result of this standardization you can order a second countertop years later and know it will match your first counter.

Also, with quartz you don’t have to visit a stone supplier to pick a color. (The big outing to the warehouses that I just described above is not needed for quartz.)  But the veining and subtle variations typical of natural stone are not there, and for some of you that stuff is important.  Quartz counters are resistant to scratches and don’t need to be sealed.  Truth be told, it’s probably the least risky choice of all the stone countertops.

Granite: It is safe to say that granite counters are now the standard by which others are judged.  Unlike the synthetic quartz tops, granite is real stone with all the variations within the stone that are such a big part of its look.  Some granite colors exhibit what is called “movement” or a distinctive pattern within the color.  But then, you don’t need me to tell you what granite looks like, probably about half your friends have it installed in their kitchens.

It’s resistant to scratches because granite is 7 on the Mohs hardness scale (of 1 to 10) and a steel knife is 6 on this scale.  Granite needs to be sealed about every other year.  There is a “lemon juice test” that you can perform on a sample (or an unseen corner) of your granite to see how fast it stains.  This info helps determine how frequently you should seal the granite. (Check the web or a stone installer for details on this.)

Marble: Okay for bathrooms, but too absorbent and prone to stains for use in kitchens.

Soapstone: Not granular looking like granite, more uniform and smooth-seeming.  Tends to be dark with tendencies towards green or grey.  This is the stuff that is so durable and heat-resistant that they use it on laboratory countertops.  Just one thing: it scratches easily.  (It’s only a 3 on the mohs hardness scale.  Ouch.)  The scratches can be rubbed out, but most soapstone fans will tell you to just relax and let it be (speaking words of wisdom, let it be.)  Life happens and a patina develops and that is part of the charm.  Think hundred-year-old kitchen in a Tuscan or Umbrian villa, or maybe a well-used farmhouse kitchen that we fall in love for its lived-in look.

Melody and I chose soapstone for our kitchen because it has a rich subtle color within (ours is black withgreen veins that look sort of like streams of popped bubbles), and because it is something different than all the granite you see everywhere these days.  Will we be okay with the patina of scratches that will become part of its character?  All I can say is:  I hope so.  We’re already learning to do that with our well-used dining room table.

Aside from stone, you can still get countertops in ceramic tile, plastic laminate or Corian — standards for years.  Other materials that are not as common (but have a higher degree of design dazzlement) are concrete counters, butcher block, glass, and stainless steel.  Subjects for another day.

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