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14mar kitchen benchtops hero default

Kitchen benchtops

No longer just a place for cooking and washing up, the kitchen has become a key entertaining area in the family home. With all this activity, most people want their kitchen benchtops to look good, as well as being durable and easy to clean. We explain the advantages and disadvantages of the most popular materials.

Stone benchtops

There are 3 main types: granite, engineered stone, and marble.

Granite

Granite benchtops remain a favourite for those who want the elegant look of natural stone. Granite is one of the hardest materials available for benchtops and, if cared for properly, can look good for many years. It can withstand the heat from hot pans and it's very difficult to scratch with a knife, though cutting directly onto a granite benchtop will blunt your knives.

However, granite is a porous material that can absorb stains if it isn't resealed around once a year. Resealing is a relatively simple do-it-yourself process of cleaning and drying the benchtop, applying the sealant and leaving it to dry. Alternatively, a stone- or monumental mason can come and reseal it for you.

As it's a natural stone, granite can have "veins" of different colours and patterns that vary across the slab. Therefore it's advisable to go to the fabricator's workshop and choose the actual slab for your benchtop before it's installed, as it may look very different from the small sample in the showroom.

Price
Granite is usually around the same price as engineered stone and slightly cheaper than solid-surface benchtops, but much more expensive than laminate.

Pros

  • Can withstand hot pans
  • Comes in a range of colours
  • Very durable
  • Difficult to scratch
  • Works well with under-mounted sinks

Cons

  • Relatively expensive
  • Needs to be resealed regularly
  • Has joins
  • Colours and patterns can differ from the showroom sample
  • Long benchtops need to fit within sheet lengths or have joins

Engineered stone

Engineered stone’s elegant appearance and durability have made it an extremely popular choice. It's made of a composite of quartz or granite granules, marble dust or glass chips mixed with a resin or polyester base. Engineered stone (which includes the brand names CaesarStone and Quantum Quartz) has a number of advantages over its natural counterpart. It's almost totally non-porous, so it doesn't need to be sealed.

It comes in a much larger variety of colours and patterns than granite, including a range of lighter colours suited to the fashionable minimalist look. You can also be guaranteed uniformity of colour and pattern across the slab.

Like granite, it's very durable and is very difficult to scratch, but it's still worth using a chopping board on this surface to avoid blunting your knives. Engineered stone can withstand brief exposure to hot pans – up to about 200°C.

Price
Engineered stone generally costs around the same as granite, depending on the style you choose.

Pros

  • Doesn't have to be resealed
  • Large variety of colours and patterns
  • Very durable
  • Heat resistant
  • Difficult to scratch
  • Works well with under-mounted sinks
  • Available in long sheet lengths

Cons

  • More expensive than some other materials
  • Uniform look isn't for everyone

Marble

There's a reason that marble counters are generally found in bathrooms rather than kitchens. While it may look classic and beautiful, marble lacks the durability of granite and has a tendency to stain and scratch. It's also sensitive to acidic foods and some cleaners. Marble requires a lot more maintenance and resealing than granite to keep it looking good.

Even so, the smooth, cool finish of marble makes it a favourite surface for rolling dough and making pastry, so you may want to put a marble inset into a benchtop of another material. The downside is this will create joins between the materials where dirt can be trapped.

Price
Marble is usually more expensive than granite or engineered stone.

Pros

  • Good surface for rolling dough and making pastry
  • Looks good

Cons

  • Not scratch or stain-resistant
  • Not as durable as granite
  • Requires regular resealing

Synthetic surfaces

There are 2 main types: laminate, and solid-surface benchtops.

Laminate

Laminate is still a very popular option, especially for those on a budget. It's a synthetic material made up of several layers of printer paper bound with resin under high pressure and cut, shaped and glued onto medium-density fibreboard.

Laminate with a high-gloss finish can look as elegant and stylish as natural or engineered stone and while it’s not as durable, it’s only a fraction of the price. It comes in a large variety of colours, patterns and finishes, including designs that mimic the look of stone or wood.

It can be sold in long lengths so there are fewer joins in the benchtop and, and you can even opt for a "coved" design that curves slightly up the wall so there's no join at the back edge. You can also buy laminate benchtops from DIY kitchen renovation stores and install them yourself, though this can be a tricky job if it needs to go around a corner.

However, it's susceptible to burns, cuts and scratches, so you always need to use mats and chopping boards. It's difficult to repair dents and chips in the surface and abrasive cleaners can also leave marks.

A laminate benchtop can't usually support an under-mount sink, which is attached to the underside of the bench, as opposed to a regular sink, which sits on top of the bench surrounded by a raised "lip" where dirt can collect.

Price
A fraction of the price of natural or engineered stone.

Pros

  • Inexpensive
  • Huge choice of colours and designs
  • Easy to maintain (no sealing or resealing required)
  • Available in long sheet lengths

Cons

  • Difficult to repair chips
  • Can't rest hot pans directly on the surface
  • Can't use abrasive cleaners
  • Can be marked and scratched by sharp objects

Solid-surface

Solid-surface benchtops are made of a solid plastic block, so the colour and pattern are consistent throughout. Each benchtop is custom made, so you can have a long or unusually-shaped benchtop without worrying about joins.

It's non-porous and while it can be scratched by knives, minor marks can be sanded out. But it isn't heat-resistant so you'll need to put mats under hot pans.

One of the best known of these surfaces is Corian, made by Du Pont. It's made from two-thirds natural minerals combined with a high-performance acrylic. It can be made to appear like marble or granite and comes in a range of colours. Generally the plainer colours will be cheaper than those with a speckled pattern.

Solid-surface benchtops don't have the natural beauty of stone and some people are put off by its uniform appearance. But it's also not as hard as stone, so your plates and glasses are less likely to smash if dropped onto it.

It's very easy to clean and has hygienic properties similar to stainless steel. It can even be moulded to include a sink and draining board, and "cover" up the wall as a splashback so there's no join at the back edge.

Price
Solid-surface is one of the pricier materials - usually more expensive than natural or engineered stone.

Pros

  • Resistant to staining
  • No visible joins
  • Hygienic
  • Large variety of colours and patterns
  • Custom-made to your specifications
  • Can be used to create integral sinks and draining boards
  • Dents, cuts and scratches can be easily repaired

Cons

  • Not heat or scratch-resistant
  • Uniform appearance not for everyone
  • More expensive than most other materials

Stainless steel, timber and concrete

Stainless steel

Stainless steel is the benchtop of choice in busy restaurants for a number of reasons - it's easy to clean, hygienic and hard-wearing. But while it can provide a contemporary, minimalist look, stainless steel benchtops may not be ideal for the average domestic kitchen.

To begin with, it isn't scratch resistant, so you'll either have to be extremely careful your knife doesn't slip off the chopping board, or get used to the marks. Fingerprints also show up on its shiny surface, although brushed and textured finishes can camouflage marks to some extent.

Stainless steel is typically applied to a plywood base to add strength and deaden its sound, but it can still be noisy.

Many people see it as a very hygienic option for their kitchen, and rightly so. It's non-porous, which limits the growth of bacteria, and the sheets of steel can be formed to include a sink, draining boards and splashback, so there are few joins.

Where joins are necessary, the two pieces of steel can be welded and polished to give an almost invisible seam, minimising the amount of food crumbs and grime that can collect in these areas. You can also put hot pans straight onto it without leaving a mark.

Price
This varies depending on the thickness of the steel, but it's generally one of the most expensive options.

Pros

  • Hygienic
  • Easy to clean
  • Can withstand hot pans
  • Can be worked to create integral sinks and draining boards

Cons

  • Shows scratches, dents and fingerprints
  • Expensive
  • Can't use abrasive cleaners

Timber

Timber benchtops can look stunning in the right setting. Many different timbers are available giving different "looks". The timber is usually laminated to make it more stable, and so benches can be custom-built to suit any setting.

There are 2 main types of timber tops: oiled, and those with specialist finishes.

Oiled
The surface is continually maintained with oils and waxes that keeps the timber waterproof and in good condition. There are many proprietary penetrating oils available for this job. Damage can be sanded out and repaired, but the finish is not heat proof, and incorporating sinks can be a problem - moisture eventually penetrates. Only hardwoods are suitable.

Specialist finishes
Proprietary resin finishes can be applied to a wide range of wood types. They may have performance guarantees for heat, water, acid and durability. A disadvantage is that they are not designed to be cut on, so chopping boards must be used.

Price
The price varies depending on the type of timber you choose, and the finish, but it can be an expensive option.

Pros

  • Strong and long-lasting
  • Can be custom made to various shapes and sizes
  • Can be refinished

Cons

  • Not particularly heat or scratch-resistant, depending on the finish
  • Relatively expensive

Concrete

Concrete lends an industrial aesthetic to a kitchen. Concrete benchtops are made from a mix of cement, aggregates and water. Coloured oxides, crushed shells and pebbles can be added to achieve different looks.

If you’re tempted by concrete, there are a few things to consider. It’s heavy, so your floors and cabinetry need to be able to carry the load. It’s porous, so sealing the benchtop and maintaining the surface is important to prevent the benchtop from absorbing water and stains. Concrete benchtops can develop hairline cracks and are more prone to doing so when a cooktop or sink is incorporated. The cracks aren’t structural and are caused by natural shrinkage of the concrete.

Price
This varies depending on the thickness of the concrete but it's generally less expensive than natural stone but more expensive than engineered stone.

Pros

  • Looks stylish
  • Can create unique finishes to suit your kitchen
  • Some resistance to heat

Cons

  • Porous so needs to be resealed regularly to avoid staining
  • Chips easily
  • Can develop small hairline cracks
  • Can be expensive
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