- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Zodiaq, Silestone, Cambria, Celador, Corian, Ceaserstone, Richlite. The words sound like catchy names for airlines or soft drinks but actually are brand names for hardy materials at least partially manufactured in chemists’ labs and used mainly for kitchen and bathroom countertops.

Slate, stone, marble, limestone, butcher block, stainless steel, concrete and glass are other, somewhat more “natural” options, each with its own advantages and drawbacks.

The choices available in today’s market serve nearly every aesthetic and functional requirement. Innovations are constant, involving new textures and new finishes. What about a “leather” or matte finish, concrete that feels as smooth as marble, or a surface imbedded with fossillike patterns and other decorative bits?

The range of colors can be dazzling, too. DuPont advertises that its Corian product comes in no fewer than 100 colors. Silestone, a so-called engineered stone, is produced in 38 colors, one of them a bright red surface shot through with sparkling silver.

Then there are edge options to consider. Silestone’s brochure shows 11 shapes, none a totally squared edge. (Squared edges are more prone to chipping.)

The current issue of Consumer Reports offers results of tests done in nine generic categories of surfaces and lists a number of brand names for each where applicable. Each category has been judged for its ability to withstand stains, scratches, impact and heat.

The magazine’s chart also gives prices. Laminate, which is a molded paper-and-vinyl acrylic product often called by the brand name Formica, is by far the least expensive at $15 to $30 per square foot, while stainless steel, at $120 to $160 per square foot, is most costly. A solid-surface product such as Corian is in the middle range: between $40 and $85 per square foot, as is ceramic tile at $10 to $80 per square foot, and engineered stone at $50 to $85. Granite is slightly more expensive than engineered stone.

Engineered stone, a nonporous quartz compound set with resin, was rated best for overall performance; limestone was last.

Such ratings are a method of helping people decide what is best for their particular needs. Another time-tested way is relying on the advice of professional interior designers accustomed to working with a range of materials and suppliers.

“People think they will find the perfect countertop — like finding the perfect spouse,” says Donna Ralston-Latham of DRL Total Environments Inc. in Alexandria. The sentiment is echoed by Ann Unal, president of the local chapter of the National Kitchen & Bath Association who is associated with Tunis Kitchens and Baths in Chevy Chase.

Both women — experienced designers well-versed in trends in the kitchen and bath world — say there is no such thing as the ideal pick. The choice of a countertop depends on multiple factors, such as the size and style of the room and the kitchen’s function within the house.

To help clients decide among a bewildering variety of colors and materials, designers suggest collecting attractive images of finished rooms pictured in magazines and books in the belief that favorites eventually will emerge.

“Quartz is easiest to take care of — much more than granite,” Ms. Ralston-Latham says. “Granite, too, is a hard product, but it can be porous, and it does have to be sealed more than once and is subject to stains and cracking.” Marble, too, is porous, she notes. Concrete she calls “a nice product” but one requiring a lot of time because it can take experts five to 20 weeks to install because it must be poured and set several times.

Quartz “leads the pack at the moment,” she says, in part because of its hygienic qualities and resistance to mold and germs. Granite, too, is popular but, to ensure all the counter matches, must be bought at a wholesaler such as Marble Systems in Fairfax, which imports stone of all kinds in great quantities.

“We have 120 colors of granite alone,” says Leslie Allen, a sales associate at Marble Systems. “It is like having a work of art around. Realtors tell me a real upgrade in a home that somebody is hoping to sell requires having granite countertops.”

As many as 12 engineered-stone products are available in the Washington area, according to Dick DeChant of Counter Intelligence Inc., a Silestone distributor in Silver Spring that imports its supply from Spain. (Cambria claims it is the only American producer of quartz surfaces.) “The wildest colors are designed with Europeans in mind,” he says, explaining samples that include turquoise.

Quartz is one of the hardest natural substances known, but neither Silestone nor Zodiaq, a quartz product from DuPont, normally can withstand extreme abrasive action or extremely high temperatures without damage. However, opinions vary on the durability of engineered stone surfaces versus granite.

Ms. Unal doesn’t dismiss laminate, in spite of its less exalted status. She calls it “an excellent material of modest price. It’s hard and not easily scratched.”

Corian has been around for several decades and was the best-known of so-called solid-surface materials, often chosen for its color. “But a lot of things scratch or stain,” Ms. Unal cautions. Marble, being porous, needs care. A cut tomato left face down on white marble most likely will leave a red stain. Certain shades of granite, too, she warns, can show an oil stain.

Limestone or stainless steel may be chosen for aesthetic appeal, but neither is without problems. Limestone stains; steel shows fingerprints and dents. Slate, Ms. Unal warns, tends to scratch, and butcher block will both scratch and stain. Soapstone, too, scratches and needs oiling. Concrete, which can cost as much as granite, can chip if someone is careless, and it’s difficult to repair.

“People always look for something different,” Ms. Unal says. “The proper choice depends on context.” She even has used glass on occasion, to add an elegant note and provide lightness for an accent shelf above a counter.

“If you can imagine it, you can make it happen,” says Miss Allen, standing amid hundreds of stone slabs from all parts of the world in Marble Systems’ warehouse. Standard 9-by-6-foot slabs, weighing as much as 1,500 pounds each, come in nearly every pattern and hue.

“You can easily spend $50,000 on a kitchen countertop,” she notes, looking at an expensive blue-veined piece from Brazil that might pass for an unframed painting or piece of sculpture.

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