One of the most important decisions that a home buyer or a home remodeler has to make is the kitchen and bathroom countertops and the sinks that go in them. There are lots of different types of countertops and sinks. So before you go shopping to buy one, you should know and recognize the differences in the materials.
Countertops come in a wide variety of manufactured and natural materials. The tried and true countertop materials include plastic laminates, tile, stone and solid surface. The newest innovation is an engineered stone (quartz) which produces countertops with the advantages of solid surface and stone, but it is also highest in cost.
Laminates: The least expensive choice, sometimes called “Formica”, is a thin hard plastic sheet glued to a piece of backing material, usually particleboard, for strength and mountability. They are not as hard as stone or tile and are easier to scratch, cut or burn. One advantage is that dishes or glasses dropped on them are not as likely to break.
Neither tile-in or undermount sinks can be used with laminates. They are easy to clean but can’t be repaired if burned or scorched. They just have to be replaced. One piece countertops have no seam where the top meets the backsplash and have a lip to keep spills from running on the floor. A three piece countertop has separate pieces for the backsplash, top and edge and has no front lip.
Ceramic tile: These come is a wide variety of sizes, shapes, colors and grades. Matte finishes will stain and pot marks more easily than glossy surfaces. Glossy surfaces show scratches more than matte surfaces. Light colors show less scratching than dark colors.
The biggest factor in using ceramic tile is making sure it is built right. Careful design and installation is crucial to avoid a non-professional looking result. Tile can be installed in a variety of distinctive patterns and shapes and also allows you to incorporate decorative tiles for the backsplash to enhance the beauty and aesthetics of the kitchen. Tile itself is reasonable easy to repair. Poor workmanship is not. It is a good investment to have the installation done right by a professional.
Engineered Stone: There is a new material with the advantages of granite called "engineered stone" or simply "quartz”. The material uses real quartz crushed into very small grains and mixed with a polyester or acrylic resin and colors. It can then be molded into a slab or any shape that is desired. When it hardens, it has the hardness of real quartz, which as harder than granite. It is non-porous, does not stain and is highly heat resistant. It is nearly impervious to everything. Other stone granules can be added to it to give the appearance of granite of various shades or textures. Its drawback is that it generally prices out at the top of the hierarchy of countertop materials.
Real Stone: Granite is the usual stone selected for kitchen countertops because of its hardness. Since the material is rock, the coloration is consistent all the way through so it is possible to work out surface scratches and even shallow chips. But granite is not maintenance free. Granite is available between 3 1/4 inch and 1 ½ inch in thickness in either tiles or slabs for the entire countertop. Square tiles are less expensive than slabs. An expanse of granite may look handsome, but some granites have a gloss which you may not care for. Granite backsplashes, and customized ledges can add elegance and cost.
Solid-surface materials: There are a number of solid surface material options. Dupont’s Corian is one of the best known. These surfaces are two to three times the cost of granite tile. They are made of cast resin that may be polyester or acrylic or a mix of both. The all-acrylic counters like Corian, tend to be more durable and more expensive. They are non-porous, do not stain and are highly heat resistant – also nearly impervious to everything. Glossy surfaces will show minor scratches. But these and worse damage, even burns, can be polished and buffed out. The primary drawback is price.
Solid Surfacing Veneer: This innovative product was created in the mid-1990’s to achieve a countertop with the best of solid surface materials at a lower price. A one eighth inch thick layer of solid-surfacing materials is laminated on top of a less expensive piece of backing material. While it has most of the benefits, it still carries a price that is a little more expensive than ceramic tile. One drawback is that they cannot handle the weight of cast iron undermounted sinks. They have no trouble with lighter-weight stainless steel or composite sinks.
There are five basic types of sink materials:
Cast iron with an enamel coating: This is the most common. Over time the surface becomes abraded with use and it becomes harder to clean. Items dropped into the sink can chip away the enamel and leave an unattractive black spot. The weight can also be a problem with some countertops.
Porcelain: While pretty and elegant depending on the design and shape, the major problem is that this material is fragile. They can even shatter if something is dropped on them.
Stainless Steel: While protected from chips or stains, it can become scratched or dented and becomes less attractive with age.
Solid surface: The advantages of solid surface countertops apply to sinks. The major consideration is cost.
Quartz resin composites: These beautiful sinks are available in a wide range of designs which range from plain to exotic. They have all the characteristics of the solid surface material countertops and are lighter in weight than cast iron. They are competitively priced to other materials as well.
The three ways a sink can be mounted are: drop-in, tile-in, or under-mount.
Drop-in or top mount: The sinks are installed by cutting a hole in the countertop and dropping the sink in from above. The edge or rim of the sink sits on top of the counter. Cast iron can therefore be up to one-half an inch high while stainless steel may be thin. Drop-in is the only way to mount on laminate and is the least expensive way to go.
Tile-in: This technique is used only with tile counters (ceramic or stone). The sink is made with a special rim which is rectangular and not rounded at the edges. The top surface of the sink is level with the tile and separated by a line of grout. The result is a countertop and sink combination that is easy to clean. The counter can be wiped directly into the sink without hitting a rim.
Undermount: Undermounted sinks are positioned so that the countertop sits atop the sink and there is no edge or seam that is difficult to clean. There is no rim or lip to get in the way and the countertop is usually cut to match the shape of the top of the sink.
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Article courtesy of Myron Ferguson, Author of Better Houses, Better Living