If you're planning a kitchen remodel, then the time will come to select a new countertop surface. For some, the decision is simple - something that's been envisioned for a long time. For others, the choice is more difficult when trying to compare how materials will hold up and how they'll look with the rest of the kitchen.

Joan McCloskey, editorial marketing director of Better Homes and Gardens magazine, said homeowners don't want shiny surfaces anymore. Instead, they opt for soft looks.

"A typical upscale kitchen remodeling includes granite counters - honed granite preferably - stainless appliances, a hardwood or porcelain tile floor, and cherry or maple cabinets," she said at the International Builders Show held earlier this year. "If a countertop isn't honed granite, it's probably soapstone, another soft material that, so far, has met with high approval by the person that does the cooking and cleaning."

McCloskey said homeowners are turning away from polished granite because scratches dull the finish.

But for many, the countertop is a challenge - and regret often lingers once it's installed.

"Each year we ask several homeowners if they're happy with their material selection after a full year of use and we find that it's always the countertop that's held in disfavor," McCloskey said. "We still need to work on developing or discovering a counter surface that functions well and looks great."

In the meantime, you'll want to find the best material to meet your needs. Kitchens.com, a web site devoted to consumer kitchen information, lays out the pros and cons of today's popular countertop materials:

  • Laminate. The most common kitchen countertop is a synthetic material made up of several layers: multiple sheets of kraft paper (like that used in grocery bags), a decorative paper, and a melamine plastic coating. Laminate costs about $5 to $20 per square foot. It's produced in hundreds of colors, patterns, and finishes, and is easy to keep up. However, you'll need to use cutting boards, and it's difficult to repair chips.
  • Wood. Wood countertops, or butcher block, are laminated strips of hardwood. It costs $10 to $40 a square foot. It won't dull knife blades, but it requires sealants and shows knife marks.
  • Tile. There are three main types of tiles - porcelain, ceramic, and quarry. The spaces between the tiles are filled in by grout. An epoxy grout is recommended to help resist stains. A palette of grout colors looks like a palette of paint colors-there are that many to choose from. One that is similar in color to the tile is recommended for a more unified look. You can put hot pots on tile and it resists moisture. Plus, you can embellish with hand-painted designs. On the down side, the grout may stain, and you won't have a perfectly smooth finish.
  • Concrete. Concrete has moved from the sidewalk to the kitchen with the countertop. Counters can be pre-cast to fit a mold or poured on site. Because it begins in liquid form, it can be worked into any shape, including integral sinks, and comes in a wide range of colors and textures. However, it can stain (although many concrete countertop manufacturers provide sealants) and will run you about $55 to $100 per square foot.
  • Solid surfaces. Solid counter surfaces, which cost about $70 to $80 a square foot, are synthetic sheets formed by mixing a mineral compound with polyester and/or acrylic resins. Chips, dents and scratches are easily repaired and it comes in a variety of colors and surfaces. However, it may crack and stain.
  • Stone. Granite, marble, limestone, and quartz are some of the most popular stones used in countertops. Stone runs about $70 to $100 a square foot. Granite is the most durable. Because stone is porous, each stone requires special sealants. But granite absorbs the least and only requires resealing about once a year. You can cut, roll dough, and place hot pots directly on granite.
  • Stainless steel. Typically attached to plywood to strengthen it and deaden sound, stainless steel provides a clean, industrial look. It won't stain and is easy to keep clean. However, it shows scratches and fingerprints. It runs about $85 to $110 a square foot.

    But you don't have to be limited to just one material.

    "We're also encouraging the use of a variety of countertop materials in the same kitchen," Anthony McGillvrey, vice president of marketing for Valley Countertop Industries in British Columbia, told Kitchens.com. "With the different materials out there, there are many opportunities to use more than one. One kitchen we did had a maple butcher-block area for cutting, a granite island for serving, and solid-surface countertops in the heavy food preparation areas."

    Your surface choices should be based on what that particular countertop will be used for.

    Said McGillvrey,"There are ideal spots where solid-surface features are extremely valuable and perhaps other areas where all you require are a base for your toaster."

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