It is one of the hardest-working areas of the home, so it is no wonder that the humble kitchen benchtop can be a key factor in the decision-making process behind buying a new home. It is also why many vendors will invest in replacing an old benchtop with a newer, more attractive and hard-wearing material before putting their home on the market. In many cases, simply replacing the benchtop and upgrading the kitchen cupboards can be a much better option than undertaking a full kitchen renovation. An appealing work surface can not only set a new tone for an integrated kitchen and meals area, but also add perceived value to a home.
Not all benchtops are the same
The very earliest material used for preparing food would have naturally been stone thanks to its durability, ease of cleaning and ready availability. Those who lived in areas where slate and other layered stone was available would also have benefitted from having a relatively flat surface to work on as well. Thousands of years later, these impeccable qualities have not been lost on modern interior designers and home-makers and – despite a dip in popularity in the 20th century thanks to the emergence of stainless steel and hard-wearing polymers – stone benchtops remain one of the most popular and marketable kitchen finishes. But they are not alone. Modern technology has opened up a plethora of new options and a resurgence of some old favourites.
With a heritage almost as old as stone, wood has long been used in kitchens and prep areas. Primarily hardwoods with a close grain were preferred thanks to their toughness, and often oiled to resist mould. While traditionally, the kitchen was not high on the aesthetic priority, this has definitely changed, and nowadays the beautiful grains and array of natural and stain-colours available, as well as the option to choose a single piece, reclaimed wood, bonded patterns and even rustic timber slabs, means that a timber benchtop can truly set the tone for an entire kitchen. Innovations in timber dressing mean that these work spaces can be incredibly durable, however being an organic material, they need to be sealed against moisture, and can be prone to singeing and scratching. The good news is, these can often be remedied. Timber is also the warmest and most inviting of finishes and can be matched to pretty much any other material as a complement or contrast.
A popular choice for a clean, contemporary look, stainless steel was, according to the British Stainless Steel Association, first developed for domestic use in the early 1900s and remained popular thanks to its relative light-weight, its durability, rust, heat and water resistance, ease of cleaning and ability to be shaped and moulded. While bright stainless steel can be easily scratched, in a recent domain.com.au article architect and designer Clare Mengler suggests brushed finishes can minimise this unavoidable pitfall. Brushed stainless steel gained huge popularity in the early 2000s, however today this tends to be focused more on appliances than surfaces since stainless steel finishes can be notoriously susceptible to little finger prints and splash marks.
We all know of at least one kitchen from our childhood (and possibly even our adulthood) that was decked out in the ubiquitous resin-paper laminate of the 1980s. Available in a seemingly endless palette of colours, patterns, woodgrains and mineral-looks, resin-based laminates were an inexpensive, versatile, multipurpose option that was easy to DIY, maintain and keep clean. The often-derided laminate surface has come a long way since the 1980s and may be a more cost-effective solution for investment properties, however their tell-tale visible seams and tendency to chip, singe and show scratches has always been a disadvantage, despite their low cost.
Probably the successor to laminate surfaces, solid surfaces are a full-dimension blend of hardwearing acrylic resin, alumina minerals and pigments. They were developed by Du Pont in the 1960s under the brand Corian – by which they’re often referred to still. They can be shaped with virtually invisible seams and joins and can even be moulded to seamlessly integrate washing up basins, drainers into the benchtop – minimising the spaces in which germs and mould can collect. The inclusion of pigments and pigment grains can give the solid resin a granite, stone or even marble appearance without the expense of those natural materials, and while the artificial resins can be scratched or marked, it’s possible to have them professionally repaired in a way that is undetectable to the normal eye. Dan Kitchen’s Graeme Metcalf notes that solid surfaces are non-porous, waterproof and UV-proof, mouldable and can be backlit for added effect, however its relative softness means that it can suffer from cuts and scratches and, at the moment, doesn’t match the feel of the natural stone that it often tries to mimic.
Being such a broad and diverse option, its best to divide stone into sub categories.
Natural granite, marble and quartz
Sitting at the very pinnacle of benchtop materials, is natural stone. However, not all stone is the same and may hold some surprises for many. Granite is formed through ancient volcanic action. As a result, it is not only incredibly hard and durable, but it is also very dense, making it scratch, water, heat and stain resistant – and therefore ideal for busy, beautiful kitchens. Although it should always be surface sealed according to Choice Magazine. It comes in a variety of colours depending on its mineral composition, and the standard 20mm and 30mm milled thicknesses. With all these unbeatable attributes, its no wonder that granite is at the high end of the price range. Also at the top of the price list is marble, and yet, it has a completely different structure and origin from granite. It’s loose, crystal composition makes it very porous, soft and inclined to chip, stain and crack. “Marble is one of the least practical materials you can have in the kitchen,” says Graeme Metcalf. Unless you’re prepared to be constantly vigilant to drips and spills, and happy to pay for regular sealing, marble can be as nightmarish as it is initially stunning.
Combining the benefits of granite and the adaptability and lower cost of solid surface, engineered stone has become the most popular choice for elegant kitchens in recent years. Formed by mixing incredibly hard natural quartz chips and powder with polymer resin, plus the option of pigments, glass chips or metal flecks for embellishment, engineered stone is non-porous, hard-wearing and available in larger sizes than natural stone. The quartz aggregate can also be tinted and blended to resemble the much more expensive marble, granite, slate and travertine. As the pioneers in the field, the name Ceaserstone is synonymous with engineered quartz finishes and continues to dominate the market, offering a range of sizes and thicknesses. Engineered stone is easy to clean and fairly durable, however dark or acidic liquids can leave a stain – though these can often be rectified using specialist cleaning liquid.
Concrete is one of the more divisive benchtop materials – generally you either love it or hate it. This one is for the devotees of the edgy, industrial look whose kitchens are on sturdy foundations. While it can be poured into almost any shape you like, and mixed with pigments and aggregates for a unique look, concrete is also decidedly temperamental. It’s porous so it needs to be well sealed. It’s brittle, so edges can chip easily and leave rough, sharp extrusions and can crack if not handled carefully as discovered in a recent Choice survey of benchtops. It’s heavy, so it needs both internal support and a solid base to rest upon. And because of the labour involved, it can actually be surprisingly expensive. Concrete’s suitability as a work surface is dependent on the quality of the sealant, which itself is not always scratch, heat or stain resistant. It is also recommended that, unless it’s undeniably appropriate in an industrial-style home setting, homeowners do not choose to upgrade to this option before selling their home.
Finally we come to porcelain – possibly the least well known of the benchtop materials. Although porcelain tiles have been used for centuries in kitchens across the world, porcelain sheets are a relatively new addition. Like their antique and beautiful forebears, porcelain sheets are made from a careful blend of clay and pigments, which are then compressed under high heat and pressure to create porcelain sheets in a wide range of sizes. Its composition and production process means non-porous porcelain stands up to granite in terms of durability, scratch, heat and stain resistance, and colour retention. And because it is a manufactured product, the advantages of engineered stone are also there – including price. Ink-printed surfaces can brilliantly mimic the look of natural stone, timber and even rusted steel, however the drawback is that this appearance is only surface-deep, so any grooves or routing will expose the plain porcelain beneath. Porcelain slabs are also quite heavy and brittle so care needs to be taken to ensure the bench top is well supported, not only in situ, but also in its installation, and like other natural materials, it is almost impossible to create invisible joins and seams. All up though, the advantages that porcelain currently displays over similar materials and the rate of innovation in the technology, could see it become the number one choice for homeowners looking for beautiful, practical, carefree benchtops that are as attractive as they are hardwearing.
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