NTE Podcast: Countertop Options

Countertop options. Granite or quartz? Laminate or Solid surface?  Choosing the best material for your project requires an understanding of the function, costs, aesthetic and of course, the human health impact.  In today’s podcast, Jay and Andy talk about all the most common, and some less common, countertop options for your home project.

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Countertop Options

Countertop Options

Countertop Options

Andy: Welcome to the Non Toxic Environments podcast. My name is Andrew Pace. Every week, my cohost Jay Watts I will discuss healthier home improvement ideas and options. Thank you for finding us. And please enjoy the show.

Good afternoon everybody. We are back on Non Toxic Environments. Jay, you know, this week is a little bit interesting. We wanted to sort of continue the conversation from our last discussion about bathrooms and thought did let’s open it up to surfaces all over the house.

Jay: Right, right. And, and I think importantly we were thinking countertops and certainly one of the more, how do I say it? I think there’s a lot of people put a lot of research energy into countertops cause there’s a lot of options out there. And once they figured out what countertop they want, then they come figure out how am I gonna maintain it? You know, how to take care of it over time? Do I need to seal it? Do I not seal it? What should my expectations be? You and I both know that because of the cost of counter tops, the expectations are very high with our clients. You know, if, especially if it’s a kitchen counter top and we’ll get into the different countertops. But anyway, yeah, it’s a good subject. So let’s dive in.

Andy: Yeah. I mean the expectations are high, it’s a big decision. Countertops can be a fairly expensive purchase. As we’ve talked about last week in the bathroom remodeling show, countertop for a vanity top is a nice way to add a pop of color, a little bit of style and pizazz. But if you’re looking at a kitchen countertop, there’s quite a bit of space there to cover. Let’s just kind of go down the list of things that we used to do or still do. I think the standard bearer in our industry is a laminate countertops, correct? Plastic laminate. I’ll get into that in a second. A material that is glued to a base of MDF or other types of chipboard and those are installed over your cabinets. Today’s laminate is not your grandmother’s laminate. I’ll say that. They look a lot better.

Jay: So the brand Formica, was the dominant, it’s still around. That’s the one you’re referring to. Grandma’s countertop was probably Formica, which is a very thin plastic veneer that’s adhered to your structure, plywood.

Andy: That brand is still around today.

Jay: It is. Yes, it is. Yeah.

Andy: But it’s made so much better and you know, as all things improve, the substrates, improve the manufacturing processes and the adhesives, improve… The final result is a laminate countertop is actually a still fairly inexpensive choice. And the look is beautiful. It really, they’ve done a wonderful job with the renditions of the graphics on the surface.

Jay: Yeah. It’s evolved from the old days and you’re right, from an economic standpoint, it’s one of the, it’s the one of the more affordable options.

Andy: Now from a health standpoint, here’s what we have to deal with. Plastic laminate itself does not off gas. That thin coating, that hard coat layer does not off gas. However, you have to glue it down using a typically contact cement. It gets glued down to medium density fiberboard. That material that fiberboard typically releases formaldehyde. So we have to be careful to either a) request the laminate tops with a formaldehyde free substrates or before installation, all of those exposed wood surfaces on the underside and the sides needed to be sealed properly with the AFM Safe Seal.

Jay: Right. I also tell folks that because of the laminate itself is not a polluter, the laminate in fact turns into a sealer in a way. It actually is going to seal that surface from those emissions that might be underneath it. But it’s always smart to seal that substrate or ask as we always talk about it. It’s always better to source the stuff as clean as you can so you’re not having to do some decoration to it. But if you can’t get the formaldehyde free board, then yes. And the next step is to take the boards, pre seal it and then do the adhesion to it with the laminate.

Andy: Correct. Now, one of the downsides, actually a couple of downsides with laminate tops. You can only do the surface mount or self rimming sinks. So, instead of having that nice clean line where the sink mounts underneath the countertop, the way it does with, let’s say granite or quartz, it has to have a rim that goes over and above and you have to caulk that joint. And so that’s why one of the reasons why from an aesthetic standpoint, it’s kind of gotten out of favor because it just doesn’t look as clean line is some of the newer styles.

Jay: No, not at all. Not at all. And that is the popular trend is to have a sink, a mounted sink. And so the counter just kind of tapers right into the sink. It much cleaner.

Andy: But in a bathroom or in a laundry room, Jay,  I would think this would still be very acceptable.

Jay: Yeah, it’s okay. It’s okay. I think it’s mostly in the kitchen where you want to see that sunken sink.

Andy: Right. And in a surface that’s going to get more abuse too. So a step up from laminate, would be what’s called solid surfacing material. Solid surfacing is better known as Corian or the Corian-like materials. This material is 100% plastic. It’s typically about a half of an inch thick, and it’s cut almost like a wood material, but it gets epoxied together. So the seams are virtually invisible. An interesting thing about solid surfacing in is that the price of this material has been going down over the years and it’s really becoming not that much more expensive to go a solid surface than it is to go to laminate. Yeah. Right? What do you get is an impervious surface that is completely free of offgassing.

Jay: Right? You don’t have to seal it. I think it’s just because more and more people are using it now. So the economies of scale are starting to play in terms of comparing it to the old fashioned laminate countertops and the color pattern, it’s all there. It’s a good choice. It’s a good choice.

Andy: I think it’s a good choice. I actually have it in one of my bathrooms at home. And here’s what I love about it. The integral sink, the sink and the countertop are literally one piece, right? No seams, no caulk joints, nowhere for something to get stuck in and become a mold spot. Keeping it clean is incredibly easy. And you know, if need be, here’s the best thing about this, Jay, in a kitchen. If you need to down the road, you can always have those countertops resurfaced.

Jay: Okay. How do you do that? I was just wondering about that. Say, I scratch it accidentally. What’s the process of fixing that?

Andy: I had a client several years ago who had a huge kitchen over 400 a hundred square feet of Corian countertops from the seventies. And she said, oh they’re just an ugly sort of yellowish color, but she was looking at a $15,000 install to put something else in new. She hired a company for about $500 to have all the services sanded. Smooth again, it looked brand new today.

Jay: So they buffed them too. They kind of sanded them and then buffed the to get the sheen where it needed to be. How did they-

Andy: That’s correct. That’s correct. Yeah. So it’s probably a two or three step system to do. That is a really nice thing about the Corian product cause it’s integral, it’s the same color and throughout the slab.

Jay: Wow. That’s a big selling point.

Andy: It is. And what my chemically sensitive clients love about it is it’s completely inert. It doesn’t off gas. So, really good choice. Above that I’m going to do next… above that, I think we’re going to talk about quartz. And the reason is, there’s a lot of others that we’re going to fill in the blanks here, but I’m kind of going good, better, best right now.

Jay: That’s the way to do it.

Andy: So quartz that we talked about this in previous episodes, it’s a 93% natural stone, that gets pulverized and mixed with polyester resins or other plastic resins. And then it gets laid out on two large sheets to cure to a very hard dense material. Never requires sealing because of that plastic that’s already in the product doesn’t off gas. It’s completely inert.

Just a very hard, durable, usable surface.

Jay: So in the production, are they layering it up to get the different thicknesses they want? Is that kind of a layering effect that they do; kind of a lay up like you do if you were doing them, but doing a boat for example, you’re keeping laying up fiberglass as a kind of a similar idea.

Andy: That’s a good question. Actually, no, it’s a solid slab, so like pouring concrete.

Jay: So it’s like a slurry and they actually pour it into a form?

Andy: Yes. Yeah, it’s a really interesting process to watch. Yeah. It’s really, really dense and for all of these things we’re talking about, it probably makes it one of the more expensive options out there. Laminate is your least expensive, Corian or solid surfaces kind of middle of the road and quartz is probably the most expensive unless you get into some really exotic natural stone surfaces.

Jay: Yeah. Well, again, it kind of boils down to life life cycle, right? I mean, if the quartz countertop is gonna last for years and years and years and years and years and years, the expense kind of gets spread out over that long life cycle. It can make a whole lot of sense. So let me ask Andy, if we’re going to have a problem with quartz, if we’ve damaged it is as similar to the Corian, can we actually buff the surface to get back to its look or is there a different approach when you’re dealing with quartz?

Andy: Different approach. Unfortunately, the downside of quartz is if you do damage it really the only way to fix it is to fill in the the hole or the crack with an epoxy product in a color that’s sort of matches the quartz.

Jay: Yuck.

Andy: It’s not resurfaceable.

Jay: Okay. What about stain resistance? So good with that?

Andy: Really good stain resistance. Really good stain resistance.

Jay: That’s usually the biggest challenge. Those other more serious damaging things don’t happen very often. It’s really someone’s spilling or they spilled oil or wine or whatever. Red wine, right? Yeah. Just, and that’s the issue. If it’s stain resistant then I think everyone’s happy with that.

Andy: I think so. And the other question we always get is, well can it resist a hot pot being put on? Now folks, you just spent $5,000 on countertops buy a $6 trivet.

Jay: Thank you. Exactly. Yeah. You never want to put anything hot on your counter right there.

Andy: There are two products that I know of that can withstand a piping hot pot being put on it and it won’t affect them. The first one will be stainless steel countertops, which we’ll talk about in a second. And the second one is a French material called Pyrolav, which is actually a porcelainized countertop material made from volcanic magma.

Jay: Wow.

Andy: And if you think quartz is expensive, Pyrolav is about three times the cost

Jay: Cause they got to crank up the volcano and that takes a lot of time and money and effort.

Andy: That’s right. And it’s a French volcano.

Jay: Very good. Have enough said.

Andy: So let’s kind of fill in some of these gaps cause we have a low, medium and high, right? What if we have a client who is looking for something that is truly completely free of any off gassing what so ever. You’ve got stainless steel, and stainless steel is very cold, very hard.

Jay: It’s clinical looking up.

Andy: It’s an industrial look to it.

Jay: Some people can go with that. I mean, if you’ve got that aesthetic and you’ve got a modern type home, it’s stainless steel. I mean, that’s what restaurants use. There’s a lot of reasons for that. It’s durable. It’s mildew, mold and germ resistant. That’s important in a in a commercial setting. And certainly it’s important at home too. But you’re right, it can be kind of clinical and kind of cold looking.

Andy: Right. And so what is a good choice beyond that? You actually mentioned restaurants and keeping it clean and so forth. You know one of the biggest downsides to stainless steel, especially in a restaurant setting or a kitchen prep setting? Is the fact that you have to use cutting boards, otherwise you’ll dull your expensive knife edges.

So a lot of kitchens now, commercial kitchens and some residential now too are going to a product called Richlite. Richlite is kind of its own genre. I’ll be honest. Richlite is many layers of paper, whether it’s recycled paper or virgin paper, many layers of paper that are soaked in a phenolic resin and allowed to harden and densify. If you remember years ago, there was a product called Bakelite.

Jay: Yeah, I do. I’m old enough.

Andy: So Bakelite was used in the electric poles to wrap wire around and Bakelite was used for handles for a coffee pots and other pots. Richlite is kind of like that. It’s actually a compressed paper soaked in a phenolic resin. Now before everybody starts hitting the Google machines: phenolic resin is a fancy word for phenol formaldehyde, but I’ll tell you this, phenol formaldehyde is over 100 times less likely to become airborne and doesn’t have that same reactive effect. There will be customers out there who just say, they’ll insist at phenol formaldehyde doesn’t matter. It still has a word formaldehyde and I’m not using it. And I completely understand that. However, because it’s a very hard, very durable material that is also impervious to water, bacteria and so forth. But it’s soft enough on the surface that you can actually cut directly on it and not dull your knife edges. It’s really becoming a kind of a nice choice in both commercial and residential kitchens.

Jay: Yeah, it has a more earthy appearance too. I’ve seen it, I actually have samples of it here in the office and I like it. I think it’s a nice material. There’s another one that’s similar to it. Maybe you’ve seen it Andy it’s called Torzo. Have you seen the Torzo product? It’s kind of a similar, similar kind of an idea.

Andy: Yup. There’s actually a couple of nice products out there that are sort of mimicking the original. And I think there’s opportunity for growth in that particular genre.

Jay: Do you mind if we step back? I know you can do this better than I. In fact I can’t, cause you sell this stuff day in and day out. Can we get this rewind just quickly, maybe at the end of the show and this kind of covered the cost. Just, roughly, I’m thinking of our listeners, maybe you’re thinking, okay, these all sound great and I like that, but what are we talking cost-wise? You can just do it by the square foot.

Andy: So I can tell you is that, for this one specifically for like a Richlite product, you’re going to be around the solid surface pricing.

Jay: Okay. Which is, which is the Corian we were talking about. And what is that a square foot? $10? $7 a square foot? Where are we?

Andy: Yeah, you’re looking at about $50 a square foot furnished and installed.

Jay: Okay. All right.

Andy: Now laminate is going to be around the 20 to 25, and quartz is going to be around the $100 range. Folks in Wisconsin, I don’t know what it’s like in your neck of the woods, whether you’re here in the US or one of our listeners up in Canada or Australia or New Zealand. Your mileage may vary, but generally speaking, this is kind of where we’re at.

Jay: I think it’s helpful if people get a kind of get an idea, especially if they’re in that stage where they’re looking to start spending money. Part of putting that program together and you know, looking at your budget and saying, okay, well, you know, we’ve got to do this and this and this and this, and how’s the money going to get spread around? So it’s helpful. So let’s go on. Yeah, we got Richlite. That’s a great material.

Andy: A couple of areas that we really didn’t touch on yet. And one would be stone granite.

Jay: Right. Which is popular. We get a lot of calls for that. Yep. But this is the one that we’re going to start talking about sealers now.

Andy: Yeah. And this is why I don’t have it really high on that list, because of the fact that in order for it to properly perform in your home, it does need to be sealed on a regular basis. So it doesn’t stain, to minimize water absorption. Water absorption is critical because if you are one of those people that puts a hot pot on a surface and you happen to put the pot directly on a surface that it maybe had a fissure in the stone, and it absorbed some water, it can actually start to steam and crack. It just requires more work, I believe. And you know, from your standpoint, Jay, it’s the sealer that, there really is no healthy version out there that we would be able to recommend.

Jay: No, there, there isn’t. And again, we kind of refer back to this notion that we want a bulletproof type finish if we can find for the maintenance side of it. And that’s pretty hard to find.

Andy: Alright, now granite is popular folks or other natural stones be it marble, or other types of specialty stone that’s out there, quartzite and so forth. We look at this, we look at all those stones very similarly in that, unless you’re using marble in a kitchen because you’re a baker and you need that cold, dense surface and that’s all you use it for, or you, you like the look of soapstone and but you have to seal soapstone with oil on a very regular basis. It’s very, very soft and porous. It’s very soft. Now we’re looking at things that would require less maintenance, therefore less materials, less chemicals. So a happy medium that we’re finding and this is an area I’m really excited to see the growth in is what’s called the large format porcelain slab industry.

Jay: You touched down that the last cast. I’m really fascinated with that. Go on. Go on.

Andy: So we all know porcelain tile: very hard, very dense, doesn’t need sealing. Well there are companies now that are making porcelain slabs and pieces up to 5 foot by 10 foot and we can fabricate it. It fabricates kind of like a cross between natural stone and glass. Cut with carbide bits or diamond blades. It’s a specialty material, but it’s becoming more and more popular. There are several brands of this now available and I’ll tell you what, in a large application you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between this and real marble if you like that look. And there’s hundreds of styles available now, but the detail is absolutely gorgeous. And the best part about it is you could pour or spill olive oil on the surface or spill lemon juice on the surface and it could sit there for an hour for a day. It doesn’t affect it whatsoever.

Jay: Oh, does it, can you get it, in terms of polished, honed, dull, I mean those are options as well?

Andy: Yes. You can even get it with texture. There’s a company called Neolithe that makes it look like rusted steel. It’s absolutely stunning. I was at a trade show in Las Vegas a couple of years ago and they were heating the underside of it with a Bunsen burner and frying eggs directly on the surface just to show that it doesn’t get affected by heat.

Jay: Doesn’t warp it, doesn’t do anything weird. It doesn’t expand and blow up, oh wow. That’s impressive. Wonderful. And have you heard any of your consulting clients actually spec it for an installation?

Andy: I have. I have. Now this is where it gets a little tricky because it requires an installer, a fabricator who knows how to work with both stone and glass. Because keep in mind when you create porcelain tile, the top surface is usually a glaze and that glaze is essentially a very thin layer of glass, right? You have to have the right people, the right tools and the technique so you’re not causing a mess.

I actually got an email from one of our listeners a few days ago who heard us talking about this on the bathroom show. And the question was being chemically sensitive, I know that there has to be a backing material that the porcelain gets laminated to before it gets installed. So she asked what do you use? Because she says I can’t use anything that off gases formaldehyde. Yeah, great question. Fabulous question folks. I usually specify a product called Kerdi Board. Kerdi Board is a lightweight, I will say structural type panel that we use behind tile in a bathroom or a shower. It can also be used to adhere this slab of porcelain to, because the porcelain is about a centimeter thick and that gets thin set down to the Kerdi Board and it’s then brought out to the job site in large pieces to install.

Jay: Okay. How does Kerdi Board compare to hardy backer board?

Andy: The difference is a Hardie Backer Board is a cementitious backer.

Jay: Correct.

Andy: Kerdi Board is not, it’s actually completely free of cement. It’s actually a more of a foam core material, with waterproof barriers on it. Doesn’t off gas, completely inert and it’s lighter weight and less likely to bend.

Jay: So it has the compressive strength to Hardie board in a way?

Andy: By itself the compressive strength is not as high as Hardie board, but when you laminate the porcelain slab to it and then do your tests, there’s no difference.

Jay: Yeah. Yeah, I was going to say that’s different that that gives it the rigidity it needs.

Andy: So if you’re looking at a new kitchen, a new bathroom, so forth, and you’re working with either a designer or a remodeling contractor, or you’re working right with one of the fabricator/installers ask about large format porcelain, I truly believe that it’s going to be taking over a good segment of our industry in the upcoming years because it’s a fabulous choice, a great look. And best of all from our standpoint, Jay, no sealing required and doesn’t off gas.

Jay: Bingo one, two. So there’s another popular trend, and it’s not new, but it is trending. It’s doing concrete countertops. And here again, folks, we’re kind of run into the same challenge. You’ve got a very porous surface. It can suffer from the aggravators oil, acid water. So there’s really nothing that in our world that we feel comfortable with concrete countertops. However, I must say this, I know someone who’s listening and maybe have seen this. But there’s a video out there on the, in the world of do it yourself, had a concrete countertop and they skim coated it with another cementitious type material and then they sealed it and they steal it with one of my products, which is my AFM Acrylacq. And they did actually a really good video on it. It was really helpful. And they’re absolutely happy, completely happy with the results now. People have called me and said, I saw the video and we want to use Acrylacq on this concrete. And I’m saying, well, I know the video is out there, but I have to say honestly, let me tell you what you should expect because I don’t want you to be unhappy if you know things don’t work out the way you expect them to. That’s the caveat I use. You tell people the same thing, we want to be up front about what to expect. I think it’s really important.

Andy: Well, yes, I think managing expectations and anytime you work with a water-based coating on a concrete or any countertop surface, you have to worry about- what about, water rings from cups and so forth. You know, if they’re happy, we’re happy, as long as they understand what they’re dealing with. If they were doing like a solid concrete countertop, which is not as popular anymore, but it’s still out there, your possibilities are really endless with color because of using integral pigments in the concrete. I have some clients that use penetrating stains, acid stains, customers that are doing even like decoupage on countertops.

Jay: Yeah. I’ve seen some beautiful and a lot of good ideas. We have some close friends of ours who did an acid stain on their concrete counter tops in their kitchen and it looks great.

Andy: Awesome. That’s fantastic. And so those are the projects folks. For those who are more do it yourselfers I think the countertop fabricators and installers, they’re going to be doing the laminate, the wood, the Corian and quartz and granite. But when it gets to these sort of oddball things, you’re going to have to find a contractor or you know, who’s really interested in that or do it yourself.

Jay: Right. I guess there’s one more that… I’m just thinking about the calls we get. The other one is people want to use wood as a countertop. I think it’s a similar idea when we’re talking about concrete. I mean, it’s the same idea. I’ve got a very poor surface. It needs to be sealed really, really well. Otherwise you face the challenges and you need to understand and expect that.

The other thing that people want to know is whatever I’m doing, if I’m putting something on the surface like a sealer, is it food safe? That always comes up, right? So these other more solid like the solid surface and the porcelain. They’re inherently food safe, but people you’re not…most people are not really prepping their food on their counter. They’re prepping it on another surface. Typically a cutting board, usually a large cutting board. At least that’s what I do at my house. And probably you too Andy you guys cook a lot. You and your wife, you’re working on a different surface. You’re not working directly on the counter cause you’re chopping and cutting and you’re moving stuff around.

Andy: Right, right. I think we’re where people wanna use wood would be for that, doing like a wood butcher block and that’ll always be a solid design style and in kitchens is to have maybe one small section of the countertop would be a wood butcher block. So you can cut your vegetables and so forth. But as you say, it has to be sealed. It’s gotta be sealed with a penetrating oil sealer.

Jay: Exactly right. I was just going to say, and if you seal it and it’s just a regular thing you do, you just have to work that into your schedule, every so often you’re gonna need to re-oil it.

Andy: Exactly. And good wood butcher block surfaces are not inexpensive. A lot of people have heard of a brand called Boos; they make usually the wood cutting boards, but they’ll also make large slabs that can be used as countertops and so forth.

There are other brands that do exotic wood species for wood countertops. It could be the whole kitchen. But expensive, very expensive compared to a lot of the things we’ve talked about. I still believe that of everything we’ve talked about quartz is probably, you know, quartz and granite, the more unique styles of granite will be the most expensive. And then kind of from most expensive down to the least expensive, the ones we’ve talked about, I would say you’ve got quartz, granite, porcelain slab, then a solid stainless steel, solid surface, and then your Formica and the wood, it can be all the way up at the top and maybe even higher in some spots, some species.

Jay: What a great topic, Andy.

Andy: It was good! It’s not a large part of the home, but it’s a statement piece. And every project that comes through our front door, every client with a project, inevitably the conversation comes to what about those countertops? And I wish I had a definitive, here’s what you should do for every situation. But you know, it’s so much comes down to your level of sensitivity, your style or the aesthetic, your budget, and what else is being done on the project. If you’re looking at remodeling a kitchen and your countertop, or excuse me, your cabinets are still in really good shape, changing out your countertops to something new is actually an inexpensive way to make your entire kitchen look new, right? So think of it that way.

And then always know that no matter what we’ve talked about today, there’s always healthier materials you can use to adhere the countertops down, whether it’s the AFM Almighty Adhesive or one of the Chemlink products. There are safer caulking materials, but unfortunately there’s no safe sealers for those stone products. And so that is the biggest downside that you have to kind of deal with.

Jay: You can cover most of it, but we can’t cover all of it.

Andy: And that is correct. Folks, we tried our best to tell you all about the countertop options that are out there. We may have missed one or two, but please feel free to reach out to us, either through email [email protected] Go onto the website degreeofgreen.com and leave us a SpeakPipe. Leave us a voicemail right there on the website. Otherwise, if you liked the show, please leave us a rating and review. We would be very, very grateful for that. It helps others who don’t know all about us find the show.

Jay: Our mailbag is probably getting pretty full by now, Andy. We’re probably going to have to dedicate some time and maybe our next cast or the one after it to just answering some emails.

Andy: Yeah. We’ve got a lot of emails that we have to get to folks and a Jay is right. We’re going to be getting to those very, very soon.

Jay: They’re fun. We love them because people will throw questions at us and Andy and I go, wow, that’s a good one.

Andy: In rapid fashion. Bunch of questions.

Jay: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Boom, boom, boom. So I just want to reach out to our listeners in Canada. Thank you Canada for listening. Also Australia, we’re becoming global here. We already are global. Thank you for everyone for listening and if you’re not in this country or out somewhere in the hinterlands. Thank you for listening.

Andy: Yes, thank you very much for listening. It’s really humbling to know that, I mean, we were, I think in the last couple of weeks we were the second rated podcast in all of Canada and the home and garden section. And that’s great. We love it. We just can’t say enough about it. So. All right, folks, that’s it this week. We’ll be back with you next week, probably with an entire episode dedicated to your questions and hopefully we’ll read your question on here. Jay we’ll talk to you next week.

Jay: Sounds good. Be well everyone.


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