Clients (and remodelers for that matter) can be easily overwhelmed by mountains of product selections that need to be made during the course of a project. Even for a straightforward kitchen remodel, you’re talking about selecting dozens of products from cabinetry to flooring to fixtures to appliances to tile. Select just one category – countertops, for instance – and you’ve got another dozen product types to sift through: granite, quartz, glass, wood, tile, metal, concrete…the list goes on.

Thankfully, at least when it comes to countertops, interior designer Carol Lamkins has provided a cheat sheet. In addition to founding her own design company, Design Vision, in 1980, and teaching space planning at Fullerton College in Southern California, Lamkins also holds CID, CMKBD, and ASID designations to her credit. When it comes to kitchen design, she knows what she’s talking about, and she shared some of her expertise with Remodeling Show & Conference attendees September 10 – 12.

In her Wednesday morning presentation "Over the (Counter)Top," Lamkins gave a rundown of what drives consumers’ countertop choices, and named some advantages and disadvantages of more than a dozen countertop materials.

"When people walk into our homes, we want them to see that our home is a reflection of who we are," Lamkins said. "That extension of self has always been a driver for the kitchen and bath in particular, and it compels people to look for unique materials, colors, textures, and patterns that say, 'This is me – I’m an individual.'"

To make these personal design statements, Lamkins says people are mixing and matching materials (up to three is a safe bet, she says), and are choosing products that harken back to more secure, stable eras (think farmhouse sink). Furthermore, and needless to say, environmental friendliness is at the front of every consumer’s mind, and also helps drive product selection.

Material Advantages Disadvantages CL Says
Natural Stone: Granite
  • Stain-, heat-, and scratch-resistant
  • Heat (from hot pots and pans) can create cracks in the stone.
  • Protein-based foods that seep into these cracks (e.g., spilled milk), will spoil and cause the stone to smell
  • Must be sealed at least annually
“Stone has been gracing homes for decades and may be the oldest countertop material we have. Homeowners should not place hot pots or pans on a stone countertop. The temperature fluctuation from the hot pan to the cold stone will shock the pan and cause it to warp. It could also cause glass pans to shatter.”
Natural Stone: Soapstone
  • Most durable and dense stone surface
  • Beautiful
  • Inert material, so alkali and acidic materials won’t harm it
  • Heat resistant, but users should not place hot pots or pans on it, as above
Natural Stone: Sedimentary
  • Beautiful
  • can contain fossils
  • Must be sealed up to twice a year depending on the frequency of use
"If you’re willing to take care of it, sedimentary stone can be a real conversation piece."
Natural Stone: Lavastone
  • Available in a range of bold colors applied as glazes and kiln fired
  • Enamel can be irregular in color (darker in some places, paler in others); this could be an attribut
"Lavastone is an instance of man enhancing nature. The colors are absolutely luscious and is enhanced by a crackling and irregular coloring of the finish. Clients really have to see this in person before choosing this option."
Natural Stone: Quartz (igneous rock)
  • Very hard
  • attractive
  • Up to 93% natural stone
  • meets NSF 51 standards for food safety, and some products contain Microban
  • Several styles available, including patterned quartz, veined quartz, and exotic quartz
  • Often carries a 10-year warranty.
  • Polyester binders are not UV stable and can be compromised when high heat (i.e., a hot pan) is introduced
  • The material can chip or scratch.
Solid Surface
  • Easy to shape, and works like wood for limitless design possibilities
  • NSF 51-compliant
  • Doesn’t support mold or mildew
  • Renewable surface – can be sanded if scratches occur
  • Doesn’t accept odors
  • Easy to live with
  • Often carries a 10-year warranty
  • Does scratch
  • Is NOT biodegradable
"We have a landfill issue with solid surface. If a client wants to take out their solid surfacing and replace it with something else, talk to them about reusing the material, either in a garage, a mudroom or laundry room, a kids bathroom – anywhere that will keep them from throwing it out.
  • Many design possibilties, including metal, ceramic, glass
  • Countless finishes
  • Mosaics can be more slip resistant (NOT slip-proof) because of their many grout lines
  • Great way to accent, such as with a backsplash
Grout lines can be difficult to keep clean
  • Scratched or chipped tiles can be difficult to replace
  • Expanded edging selections and tooling abilities are available from several manufacturers, as well accommodations for undermount sinks
  • Substrates have improved
  • Some laminates now use recycled content
  • Won’t accept mold or mildew
  • Impact-, design-, and chemical-resistant
  • Many design options
  • Layers can wear down over time
  • Subject to scratching and chipping
  • Not heat resistant
  • Damaged countertops must be replaced, not repaired
Wood: Teak
  • Up-and-coming surfacing material
  • Hard, water-resistant
  • Easy to repair
  • Nicks and scratches seen as giving character
  • Extra attention involved in frequent cleaning and disinfecting
Wood: Bamboo
  • 100% renewable material
  • harder and denser than most woods
  • often used for cutting boards
  • Resins used to laminate bamboo often contain formaldehyde
Wood: Exotics (sapele, wenge, bubingaco, etc.)
  • Beautiful
  • Unique design statements
  • Probably not sustainably harvested
  • often coming from Africa
  • Customers should see their wood in person before choosing this option
  • Many design options, including etching, sandblasting, carving, and tinting
  • Recycleable
  • Not great for homes with children
  • Very heavy
  • Light scratches may occur, deep scratches will attract attention
  • Unique surface
  • Can be tinted, or inlaid with anything but paper
  • Hairline cracks are considered part of the materia’s patina and charm
  • Can crack significantly if not properly installed or poured
  • Surface should be kept sealed
"Concrete is a stain waiting to happen. Have you ever tried to get grease out of your garage floor? Cutting boards are recommended, and spills should be wiped up immediately. Hot pots can also stain concrete."
Stainless Steel
  • Contemporary look
  • Chromium component gives stainless steel its stain and erosion resistance
  • Integral sinks are possible, and the metal can be turned and bent, instead of requiring seaming
  • Shiny surface is hard to keep clean and fingerprint-free

So, those are the basics. Lamkins also mentioned several other surfacing options on which she has done some research, but that she has never or rarely used. Examples include metals such as pewter, zinc, copper, and bronze, and green materials, such as recycled paper, cement, recyucled aluminum, and composite. "Green products are really a viable option for countertops," Lamkins says. "We really need to consider future generations when making these types of choices."