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Countertops Buying Guide

by Don Vandervort, © HomeTips

With the exception of floors, no household surface undergoes more wear and tear than—or is as noticeable as—a kitchen countertop. Fortunately, many durable and beautiful options, in a wide array of materials, colors, and finishes, are available today.

A standard kitchen countertop is 25 inches deep and 1 1/2 inches thick; it is set 36 inches above the floor. When installed on a standard base cabinet, it will overhang in front by 1 inch.

Because most kitchen walls are slightly out of square, the safest course is to order your countertops after you’ve ordered your base cabinets. Then have a professional create a template for your countertop.

The chart below lists the most popular types of countertops, from the least to the most expensive:

Type & Advantages Drawbacks Installation Needs

Plastic Laminate

Available in a large number of colors, patterns, and textures. Very durable and easy to clean. “Color core” laminate is worth the extra expense because it resists minor scratches. “Post form” has curved edges, with an integrated backsplash and slightly curved, drip-resistant front edge.

Once damaged—plastic laminate can burn or crack—it is all but impossible to repair. Seams, especially at inside corners, can be hard to keep clean. Flush or undermounted sinks cannot be installed in it. Post-form countertops require gluing the plastic laminate onto particleboard, an exacting task requiring excellent workmanship. The backsplash can be sanded or cut to make up for out-of-square walls.
Ceramic Tile

You can let your imagination run wild with the wonderful assortment available. High- quality tile is virtually burn-proof and very difficult to scratch. If a tile cracks, it can be replaced.

Grout between tiles can be difficult to keep clean. Irregular surfaces can cause glasses or china to chip or break more easily if dropped.

Tile must be installed on a solid, water-resistant underlayment—typically 3/4-inch plywood topped with 1/2-inch cement backerboard. Order 10% more tile than needed to allow for breakage.


Wood is naturally beautiful, resilient, and easily reparable. Dropped glasses and china have a better than even chance of survival, and chips and scratches in the surface can be sanded and refinished. Maple is the most popular choice, but any hardwood will work.

Because wood is easily scratched and burned, resist the temptation to use it as a cutting board or landing pad for hot pots and pans. Wood must be sealed with bar wax or a similar product every few months to prevent water damage. Buy the lengths you need and simply have them cut to fit. If you wish to install an undermounted sink, you will need to have the hole for it cut precisely and the edges waterproofed to protect them from moisture. A self-rimming sink is an easier option.
Solid Surface

Extremely durable, almost impossible to chip or burn. Scratches can be sanded away. The easiest material to keep clean. Many colors and patterns are available. The sink can be formed right into the countertop to create an integral sink.

High priced and, with some brands, limited choices. Can be cracked by hot pots and pans. If the countertop is badly damaged, replacement is expensive because of it being one integral piece.
Most types can only be installed by a certified professional who is contracted by the manufacturer.

Granite, limestone, slate, and marble are commonly available; granite is the most popular. Hard stone is difficult to scratch, resists most stains, and does not require a surface sealer. Granite tiles can be installed in much the same way as ceramic tile and cost far less than installing a solid granite slab.

Granite slabs are very expensive. Marble easily stains but when polished is a perfect choice for a baking center. Even very hard, polished stone tends to be slightly pitted and porous. Limestone and slate may absorb stains.
Stone slabs should be installed by a professional; however, you should inspect a variety of slabs to choose the one that appeals to you. Make sure the installers polish all exposed edges.


A backsplash is the short wall area that runs along the back of a countertop. It may be a separate material or integral with the countertop.

Despite its relatively small size, a backsplash is likely to be one of the first things to catch your eye when you enter a kitchen. Because a backsplash offers big visual impact but requires only a bit of finish material, it is an ideal place to express your creativity.

A backsplash has only one practical requirement: It must be easy to clean and durable enough to scrub over and over again because it receives the bulk of spattered food from cooking.

If a backsplash is not integral to the countertop, it should be installed last because it will almost certainly require detailed work around electrical outlets, switches, and other obstacles. 

Backsplash choices include all of those for countertops: plastic laminate, ceramic tile, wood, solid surface, and stone. Plastic-laminate and solid-surface materials will likely be integral to the countertop, and with no seams they will be a joy to keep clean.

Ceramic and stone tiles are installed just the same as the countertop, but they do not need to be as thick or strong because they will not receive the same wear and tear. However, make sure they are well glazed or sealed for stain resistance and easy cleanup.

Wood is suitable only for a backsplash molding and will need to be resealed periodically. Be sure to purchase pieces that are prefinished for use in a kitchen, and have several coats of clear polyurethane finish applied directly after installation.

To get free recommendations for top-rated local contractors, call the most reliable and comprehensive referral service, HomeAdvisor, at 866-350-2983 (toll free).

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