Whether you’re building a new home or remodeling your kitchen, one of the biggest questions you’ll face is how to choose a countertop material.
There are so many countertop options—from the manufactured choices like Corian or man-made quartz to the natural choices like marble and soapstone. It’s easy to quickly feel overwhelmed, especially because “changing countertops” is a pretty big undertaking. You’ll want something you love and can live with for a long time.
Here's how to choose a countertop material that you'll love and how to care for your countertops properly. With the proper upkeep, countertops can last a lifetime.
Photography: Jennifer Lavelle
Why Choose a Natural Countertop Material?
As I mentioned above, there are manufactured countertop options out there. You may be thinking of the old-school Formica and Corian options, but there are many others too. I want to encourage you to rethink manufactured choices.
Your kitchen counters are one of the most high-contact surface areas of your home. You will constantly touch the counters. You and your family will eat food that touches the countertops, and they will take up a large surface area of your home. Manufactured countertop products are made using plastics, resins, and harmful chemicals that you will be exposed to over and over.
What's more, many of the manufactured countertop options feature plastic finishes overlayed on engineered wood or particleboard (OSB). These woods are often comprised of adhesives and finishes that can off-gas chemical residue for years.
As you evaluate countertop options, this chemical breakdown and off-gassing is certainly something to be aware of. Countertop materials are a great place to start if you're trying to minimize toxins and chemicals in your home (and particularly in your kitchen).
What's better is that so many natural materials are gorgeous, easy to maintain, and improve over time. Naturally occurring countertop materials can be more costly at first, but it's an investment that will pay off in the long run. These natural countertops are universally flattering with almost any décor or style. They last for years with proper care and will add to the value of your home.
Natural countertop materials are more sustainable than manufactured options. In my opinion, they also have a lot more character. You might see a piece of marble or soapstone that's decades old and still looks perfectly at home in a newer space. These materials often have natural markings, interesting features and seem to tell a story—they feel "real" and timeless—adding layers of interest to a home.
Don't limit your use of natural countertop materials to just the kitchen, either. Marble makes a lovely countertop or surface in your bathroom, home bar, mudroom—just about anywhere really! If you're investing in new countertops for your home, choose something that will remain timeless for years and years to come and age gracefully.
The Different Types of Countertop Materials
If you’re wondering how to choose a countertop material, it can be helpful to get an overview of each of your natural options. So here's what I recommend and some background on each countertop choice.
Marble is naturally waterproof and heatproof. What’s more, marble is gorgeous, classic, and timeless. There's a reason why it was used in palaces and buildings thousands of years ago. There is really nothing more stunning than marble, and when the budget allows, it's my first choice in countertop materials.
Now, like many beautiful materials, marble is high maintenance. It's soft, so it scratches easily. Marble is also quite porous, so it can easily become stained. If acids or bases are spilled on marble, it can also become etched. The tradeoff is that the patina becomes beautiful over time. However, marble will need to be sealed to keep it protected.
With proper care and cleaning, marble can last decades (again, see that ancient architecture for reference). If the thought of the added character, patina, and slight imperfections bother you, then perhaps marble will not be your best countertop option.
Look for honed marble options or have your stone fabricator hone polished slabs for you. Honing will create a matte finish instead of a polished shine. Honing will hide imperfections and give the marble a softer, subtle look. You may especially prefer this option if your marble slab has dramatic veining and coloration.
My next favorite countertop option is soapstone. This countertop material is resistant to heat, acid, and even bacteria. What's better is that soapstone is nonporous and won't stain over time. Also, there's no need to have the soapstone countertops sealed, making it a little easier to work with.
Soapstone is also quite beautiful and has a milky or cloudy appearance. It’s muted and soft. Most countertop options come in shades of grey, which get darker as the soapstone ages. The veining is often more subtle than the veining in marble.
Design + Image: Studio McGee
That said, soapstone is very soft and can easily become scratched. You can remove the scratches with a bit of fine sandpaper, and because it's not sealed, the sanding blends right in. Soapstone patinas over time, and sometimes the darkening can be uneven. The surface area that you use more frequently will become darker.
To counteract the uneven darkening, many people oil their soapstone. This helps it patina more uniformly. But, of course, it all depends on the look you prefer. For some homeowners, the patina adds character, and they like to leave the soapstone unoiled.
Quartzite is similar but more natural-looking than quartz, although the two countertop options get mixed up often. It's important to note that quartz countertop material is engineered—made up of a composite of quartz, silicon dioxide, and synthetics, blended with polymers, binders, and pigment. Quartzite, on the other hand, is derivative of sandstone. The stone is mined and carved into pieces.
Quartzite is usually available in shades of white and gray, although some pink, orange, and red marbling are also natural. Like marble, quartzite needs regular sealing to protect the countertop material from staining.
Quartzite stands up to heat, and it's harder than some other stone materials, but it can still be etched or scratched. For the most part, it's easy to clean, though, and with proper sealing and care, it can last a very long time.
I must add the caveat here that I would probably never do an entire kitchen in butcher block, but having a small portion of the kitchen in butcher block can offer you a work surface that’s beautiful and easy to maintain. I find that butcher blocks look great in a pantry, on an island, or as a sideboard workspace.
When it comes to butcher block countertops, hard rock maple is the strongest surface, but American cherry and American black walnut are also solid options. Oak can be an eye-catching choice, but it's not as practical for food preparation because it’s got an open grain. In addition, if you're seeking an all-natural countertop material, oak will need to be lacquered, which can also present concerns.
One of the appealing aspects of butcher block is that it's affordable. Hard rock maple is the most affordable countertop material, but any wood type will be less expensive than most other countertop materials. You can choose from different looks—edge grain, end grain (the checkerboard style that's so classic), or blended.
You will need to regularly oil the wood to keep it protected, and you should keep in mind that the oil can transfer onto clothing and other items. I recommend including a butcher block area in your kitchen or as an accent and then keeping the rest of the counter in another natural material.
For a less expensive natural option, limestone has become quite popular. Limestone has gorgeous coloration and patterning. Some types have grey veining, while other types are in shades of white, blue, grey, or beige. Many limestone countertop options could fit seamlessly with almost any décor.
One thing to keep in mind is that limestone is one of the most porous countertop options. It will need to be sealed and treated regularly to keep it protected from staining and to keep the color uniform. Limestone is soft and can be scratched easily, and it's also very sensitive to acid. You can clean it with warm water (be careful not to use most commercial cleaners on limestone—they are too acidic). You can lightly buff out scratches with steel wool or fine sandpaper.
Overall, though, limestone makes an excellent countertop choice because it's heat-resistant and durable. The finish is slightly more matte as compared to marble and other stones. It's one of the most affordable stone options, making it a great choice for those who want the look of stone but are working within a budget.
Other Countertop Options
Additional options for countertops include quartz, stainless steel, manufactured products like the previously mentioned Corian, Formica, recycled glass, porcelain, slate, tile, concrete, and granite. However, if you're looking for a natural countertop material, the above are my go-to options.
As I explained, quartz is actually a manufactured product. Even though it looks similar to natural countertops, the manufacturing process is more complex, and thus, the countertops are not all-natural. Some higher-end varieties are about 93% quartz, making them a more natural option, but it’s not ideal. Quartz is, however, very durable and can stand up well to families with kids.
Stainless steel can be an appropriate choice for commercial kitchens and in some very modern kitchens. It can be very expensive, however, and it’s difficult to fabricate. Stainless steel is easy to sterilize, which is why it’s used in many restaurant kitchens, but it can look cold and out-of-place in most homes if not used correctly with a precise look in mind.
As for the manufactured products, most are created through various chemical processes. These countertop options are often less expensive than natural materials, but they also don’t last as long or bring the same level of timeless beauty to your home.
Granite is one other stone option worth mentioning. It’s become quite common in the last few years, and the main drawback of granite is that it is hard to work with. It is prone to cracking, and typically it's mined in slabs that can vary depending on the origin. Initial installation of matching slabs isn't such an issue, but it can be difficult to match if you need to replace a slab. It also has the same problems as some of the other stones (staining, scratching).
Consider Your Countertop Options Carefully
Choosing your countertops is a significant decision for your kitchen. The counter covers a large surface and really sets the tone of the room. In many cases, it's easier to replace cupboard fronts and adjust cabinetry than it is to reinstall countertops, so choose wisely.
I like to think of countertops as an investment you make in your longtime satisfaction with your home. These are work surfaces (even if, like me, you'd prefer take-out to cooking). They will be part of your home for years, so it's worthwhile to get the exact countertops you want.
Choose a timeless, natural surface that will be eye-catching and complementary to the rest of your home. We naturally flock to the kitchen as a gathering place, and if you're spending time around the counter, it should be a material that you genuinely love.
So, let me know in the comments—what countertop material are you drawn to? What would you love to have in your dream kitchen?