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Kitchen counters that last: Find material you want, then pick best-priced brand

Thursday, August 14, 2014 - 9:21 am

Quartz withstood almost everything in Consumer Reports’ recent tests of kitchen counter options – stains, hot pots, abrasive pads and knives – and unlike granite, it doesn’t need to be resealed. Its combination of beauty, durability and easy maintenance makes it a great choice for busy kitchens. Granite performed almost as well.

Both materials are a bit pricey. Laminate is still the ​budget-friendly choice. Its looks have improved, thanks to better printing.

But those aren’t your only countertop options. Consumer Reports stained, sliced, scratched, scorched and nicked 14 materials from leading brands and found huge differences in performance. Almost everything stained bamboo counters, and although tile itself is stain- and heat-resistant, the grout between the tiles stains even when sealed, and it can mildew. Except for recycled glass, there was little difference among competing brands of each material. That’s why Consumer Reports rates materials, not brands. So pick the material, then get the brand that offers the color or pattern you prefer at the best price.

COUNTERTOP CHOICES

Prices are for a typical kitchen with 56 square feet of counters and include installation.

• Quartz. Cost: $2,240 to $5,600. Pros: It mimics the look of stone, yet needs less maintenance. Hot pots, serrated knives, abrasive pads and most stains were no match for quartz, which is a combination of mineral, color and resin. It comes in vibrant colors in addition to patterns that look like granite and marble. Cons: Edges and corners can chip, and you’ll need a pro to repair them. Rounded edges help.

• Granite. Cost: $2,240 to $5,600. Pros: Each slab of this natural material is unique; rare colors and veining cost more. Heat, cuts and scratches didn’t harm granite in Consumer Reports’ tests. Polished and matte finishes resisted most stains when properly sealed, so pick the look you prefer. Cons: Periodic resealing is needed to fend off stains. Like quartz, edges and corners can chip and must be professionally repaired.

• Soapstone, limestone and marble. Cost: $2,800 to $5,600 (soapstone or limestone), $2,800 to $8,400 (marble). Pros: Soapstone isn’t as common as granite, and it’s superb at resisting heat damage. Small scratches can be repaired by sanding finely and applying mineral oil. Limestone and marble are classic materials. Limestone also has a natural-stone look without heavy veining or graining, and it resists heat. Cons: Soapstone nicks, cuts and scratches easily, and some stains are too tough to be washed away. Limestone and marble also have those drawbacks, and heat damaged the marble.

• Laminate. Cost: $560 to $2,240. Pros: Inexpensive, easy to install and so much better looking than you probably remember, thanks to new printing technology and decorative edges. Stains and heat didn’t damage the laminates Consumer Reports tested. Cons: Cutting directly on it easily and permanently damages laminate, so use a cutting board.

• Solid surfacing. Cost: $1,960 to $5,600. Pros: Available in a variety of colors and patterns, it can be used for counters, sinks and backsplashes, creating a seamless look because joints are almost invisible. And like quartz, its color won’t vary much from the store sample. Solid surfacing is resistant to most stains, and small nicks and scratches can be repaired. Cons: It scratches and cuts easily, so a cutting board is a must.

• Recycled glass. Cost: $3,360 to $6,720. Pros: Large shards give it a fun, contemporary look; finely ground glass makes it less busy. Most glass counters Consumer Reports tested resisted stains, cuts, scratches and heat. Cons: It’s the only material for which testers found a difference among brands. Cosentino’s Eco counters were the only ones that developed a thin crack during heat tests.

• Butcher block. Cost: $2,240 to $5,600. Pros: It adds warmth and is easy to install and repair, but the finish makes a difference. Varnish improved stain resistance, but penetrating oils diminished it. Cons: Nicks and scratches can easily happen, though they can be sanded out.