Kitchen Benchtops

Benchtops have gone from being just the thing you rolled out the pastry, or mashed the spuds on, to a major & expensive fashion statement - as well as still being an integral part of the working space in the kitchen.

It’s probably fair to say that from a resale point of view, most people expect to see a material other than laminate on the kitchen benchtops when they are inspecting a house with a view to purchasing and it has a recently renovated kitchen. So in an ideal world, that’s probably where you would want to go, however from a practical and financial standpoint we should look at all of our options prior to choosing.

Certainly today, the laminate industry has hit back with a vengeance against the stone manufacturers and we now have in addition to the wide range of stone products available a fantastic range of photographically reproduced stone, woodgrains and designer laminates for the budget conscious client who wants the look of stone or timber, but only wants to pay for laminate.

So let’s look at the sorts of benchtops we can get?

Solid Surface (What is this? I’ve never heard of it.)

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Common brands are Du Pont’s Corian, Samsung’s Staron, LG’s Hi Macs.

The main questions most people ask are: What is it? What is it made of? What is the difference between Solid Surface and other stone benchtops?

Its genesis is that the medical profession in the USA in the early 1960’s wanted a product for hospital operating theatre surfaces that would not be porous and provide a habitat for bacteria, mould and fungus. Over a period of time DuPont developed the product we know today called Corian. The name “Solid Surface” comes from the fact that even under a powerful microscope, the surface is closed. In fact, most commercial kitchens are only permitted to use either Solid surface or stainless steel benchtops for this reason.

A quick overview of Solid Surface, (with thanks to CASF Australia), is as follows:

DuPont™ Corian® is a solid, non-porous, homogeneous surfacing material composed of ± 1/3 acrylic resin (also known as PolyMethyl MethAcrylate or PMMA) and ± 2/3 natural minerals. The main mineral is Aluminium TriHydrate (ATH) derived from bauxite, an ore from which aluminium is produced.

However, it’s not so much about the makeup of this stone, as it is about what it can do for you by way of enhancing the functionality and aesthetics of a room into which it’s installed.

Some of the attributes that make solid surface a great choice in stone:

  • It is the only truly hygienic bench top available in the world.
  • Seamless joins, (you could have a 100metre long benchtop, without seams, if you wanted to).
  • If you happen to stain or scratch it, solid surface is the only stone on the market that is easily repairable by you, the owner, with just a Scotch Brite pad.
  • It is also the only stone that is “thermoformable”, (heated and bent),which amongst other things means you can forget about ever having the grout go mouldy or crumble and come out because of spillage getting into the grout line at the back of your benchtop.
  • Solid surface is also the only benchtop surface that has seamless sinks able to be fitted, (nowhere for “muck” to accumulate).
  • The only man made material that can be used outdoors for alfresco areas, as it’s completely UV stable. Polyester based stones are not suitable for outdoor use at all.
  • Unlike polyester based engineered stone, acrylic filled solid surfaces will not burn.

Engineered Stone (e.g. CaesarStone, Quantum Quartz, EssaStone, etc.)

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These stones have been the “flavor of the decade”, as it were. Mostly thanks to the excellent marketing of the CaesarStone brand.

However, the fact is, it is only one of a number of excellent brands in the marketplace. Technically, as far as the main brands are concerned they are all similar to one another, it really comes down to: “which one do you like”?

As mentioned above, probably the major reason for the growth of these “engineered stones” as they are correctly called is due to the market demonstrating a very strong bias towards white, off white or white speckled benchtops in stone. As Granite couldn’t fill the bill, these new stone products carved out a substantial market share for themselves.

What are Engineered Stones?

Engineered stone is a composite stone manufactured from about 91-94% crushed quartz aggregate and  6-9% polyester resin. This composition creates a stronger slab than natural stone with better scratch & stain resistance properties. It is processed by a stonemason in the same way as granite.

Importantly, it is just like every other stone it has its good and bad points.

Pros:

  • Stonger than granite
  • Large range of light colors available
  • Very predictable uniformity of color
  • Does not have veins, or cracks, so is less likely to crack than stone.
  • If cleaned reasonably promptly, Stain resistant, (but not stain proof)
  • Can be machined to any shape just like granite.
  • Very cost effective as standard slab sizes keep "offcuts", to a minimum
  • Very stable product for indoor use.

Cons:

  • Visible joins are unavoidable over 3000mm
  • It will still stain if you are not vigilant
  • Is not UV stable and can't be used outside, (no Al Frescos unless no sunlight).
  • Prolonged UV exposure will also cause the stone to lost "plasticizers" & become brittle
  • Polyester is flammable and it can burn when exposed to a naked flame
  • Cannot be used behind a gas hotplate as a splashback
  • One overriding thing that should be said about all stone benchtops is that they should never be manufactured with a 20mm thick edge. Again while such edges might give a nice clean, thin, architectural look to the benchtop, stone is too brittle to be used without a substrate underneath it.

Many architects specify it, because it does look sharp. Most display homes show it and many kitchen salespersons offer it also. However, they do it because it makes the project cost cheaper, but unfortunately, so is the product's structural integrity.

When using a fragile, 20mm thick edge, there is a greatly increased chance of fracturing the stone. This is particularly so, in front of, and behind the sink & hotplate cutouts. It should be remembered that in these areas, especially at the front edge, the strip of stone might only be 50 or 60mm wide, front to back. One only has to lean hard on the edge and it can and will snap. It is cheaper, and many kitchen firms advertise "stone for the price of Laminate", but this is what you usually get.

Never forget you always get what you paid for!

As the saying goes, "there is no such thing as a free lunch".

Having an edge like this probably saves the fabricator as much as $1000, so he is not really doing you any favors here.

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Laminate

There are many very good brands available, such as Laminex, Duropal, Polytec, Wilsonart, Halifax Vogel, Formica, to name some of the best known.

Most of the best quality laminates are around 1mm thick, and have the capability of being “postformed” or rolled on the edge with a very tight radius.  Currently, the two best are probably:

  • Duropal’s 3mm radius, Quadra profile with a range of 9 colors
  • Laminex® Squareform® benchtops with a range of 20 colours

Both of these products, while not the only ones we recommend, are at the cutting edge of modern laminate technology and well worth your serious consideration.

Laminates can be had with rolled edges as described above, but these benchtops do have their limitations. They have to be made in straight lines.  You can't roll an edge around a corner, so the minute you require curves, you are best to look at "ABS" edging. This is a modern version of the "old fashioned" square edge your mum or Nana, used to have on her benchtop in the 60's & 70's. These can be used to create any free flowing shape you wish.

The range of edging colors has not yet really caught up with the range of laminates, but there are more than enough to satisfy most people.

Also keep in mind every time you turn a corner with laminate you will require a visible joint.

Pros:

  • Economical
  • Hardwearing
  • Huge range of colours, textures, woodgrains and styles
  • Is installed with the cabinets…….no waiting as with stone
  • Kitchen is operational at least 2 weeks faster

Cons:

  • Can’t be so easily shaped
  • No fancy edge profiling
  • At risk of water damage
  • Can be scratched, stained marked more easily than stone.
  • Very difficult to remove scratches & stains.
  • Doesn’t help resale in the same way stone does.

 Overall, when the budget is tight it's a great choice and can give a good WOW factor without the WOW cost.

Natural Stone (e.g. Marble and Granite)

These two were the stone of choice for decades, (Centuries???), by everyone, but in many cases that was because there wasn’t anything else on the market. Today we have many different types of stone available.

There are many “species” of granite & marble out there. They range from the economical Rosa Beta granite at one end to say, Calacatta Marble at the other end. In between there are maybe 100 or more different Natural stones to choose from.

What are the things to look out for?

Marble

Well, first and foremost, let's deal with Marble, (and other soft stones such as Travertine), it is generally held that Marble is not a suitable material for a kitchen benchtop. It is too soft, too easily stained & marked and too soluble in a wide range of food acids, (vinegar, lemon juice, grape juice, wine, beetroot juice, and so on. Beautiful though it is, it is often specified by architects and Interior Designers for its looks, but they don't have to cope with the maintenance and repair requirements when it's 2 or 3 years old and that's if you're lucky with it.

As mentioned above, Marble is very beautiful, there is nothing as classical as a new Calacatta Marble benchtop elegantly folding down to meet the floor as a "waterfall end" to a kitchen, but that's when it's brand new. Go back and have a look over it in a couple of years and you'll find yourself saying, Oh what a pity, look at all the marks!"

So buy marble by all means, but remember the old adage, "Caveat Emptor"….. Let the Buyer beware!

Granite

As much as Marble is not very suitable, granite has proven to be an excellent stone for a kitchen.

It is extremely hard, won’t scratch or stain easily, can be machined to any shape, comes in a wide range of colours, and types, and there is one to suit almost every budget.

In recent years, as there has been a move to lighter & whiter benchtops, so there has been a move away from granite, as overall, most granites have a darker colour rather than a light one. Certainly there is no such thing as a white granite.

Pros:

  • Very hard to mark or stain
  • Completely machineable to whatever shape you desire.
  • Allows the use of undermount sinks
  • Can be used as a splashback behind a gas hotplate
  • There is pretty much a stone to suit most budgets.
  • Usually great depth of colour & texture, unobtainable in manmade stone.
  •  Classic beauty of natural stone lasts forever

Cons:

  • When stained or scratched, expensive & very messy to rectify.
  • To keep it stain resistant, it needs resealing at least yearly, by the stonemason.
  • If cracked, can’t be repaired effectively.
  • Very few light colors available.

Timber

Timber is used less these days as the sole material in a kitchen. However, as a feature material it is making a resurgence. Natural, beautiful and full of character, timber gives a warmth and inviting feel to any kitchen.  With numerous species of timber available plus your choice of stain, a bespoke benchtop is easily accessible; alternatively, you can try to compliment existing timber in your home.

Not as durable as other finishes available, at least when nicks and scratches do occur they give a timber benchtop character, rather than make it look damaged.