Thursday, February 11, 2016

Renovation files: choosing a countertop

Over the last two weeks, I've been facing a colour and pattern dilemma not unlike what you deal with when choosing a new knitting project, except that knitting projects tend not to range into the thousands of dollars, thank goodness.  Basically, Andy gave us a sample of our kitchen door in our semi-custom white paint colour (Benjamin Moore's Chantilly Lace) so we could use it to choose a countertop, and we didn't need to be told twice.

Here we have our sample door and our sample floor and four lovely choices from Cambria, a producer of quartz countertops.

There's a pretty wide range of countertop options today, all of which impact the allure of a real estate listing.  Here's a quick rundown of the options that are typical in our neighbourhood:

Granite - expensive, luxurious, and gorgeous, granite is very hard, usually patterned, and is porous (which means it needs to be sealed every year or so.)

Marble - expensive, luxurious, and in my opinion the most gorgeous and ethereal and desirable of all, marble is softly patterned, totally porous, and needs to be treated with loving respect and care or it will get etches that can't be repaired but may fade with time.

Quartzite - see above, for price and luxury.  It's harder than granite and maybe because it's harder to find, it's more expensive and not as common a choice, but my friend Monique has it and it's incredibly beautiful.  Don't quote me but I think that like marble, it is porous and can get etched.

Quartz - after Granite this is the expensive-category gold standard in our area at the moment, because it is non porous and therefore doesn't need to be sealed, and it doesn't scratch or etch or stain, and comes in lots of colour and pattern options.  There are many makers of quartz for countertops including Silestone, Caesarstone, and Cambria, but Cambria's showroom is a ten minute walk from the condo and they cost less than the others so we are their friend.

Solid Surface - this is what Corian is and although Quartz offers everything it does without the likelihood of scratching, it's easy to sand out scratches in a Solid Surface counter.  I know because we put a Corian knockoff into our kitchen at the house. It scratched like CRAZY and I didn't care, I still loved it and the way it felt under my hand.

Laminate - although this is a death knell for resale value where I live, I love laminate. It's incredibly affordable - a few hundred dollars versus a few thousand - and you can get any colour or pattern you can possibly imagine.  At the condo we have faux granite laminate in black and brown, which is a big reason we could afford to buy the place (it's real granite or bust where we are, and people didn't even want to make an offer without it.)  But it looks pretty convincing and you can also get faux marble, yum.  Better than the faux stuff though is the retro pattern range from Wilsonart...

and even a gorgeous linen look from Formica's Jonathan Adler collection

Bonus: Ray says it's possible to do an undermount sink with laminate now, which wasn't true the last time we did a kitchen.  I sure do love an undermount sink.

Other popular options include butcher's block, bamboo, tile, cement, recycled glass, and of course, stainless steel.  I won't go into those here because none of you are looking to me for interior design advice and none of them are in the running for our house.  Actually I think we should be considering stainless steel but Pete says No, and I say Yikes to butcher's block even though it's so attractive because I'm just germophobic enough to be in a perpetual state of panic about 'Porous countertops, meet raw meat!'

Then of course, there's the question of how all my vintage dishes and glassware will look with the counter we choose, since you're going to be able to see all of it from the living room. These heavily patterned quartz designs look stunning in the giant showroom sizes, even though the seams do kind of show if your counter is too long for their maximum range (and our main counter is definitely too long) - but oh dear.

So hard to know!

You may and probably do find this the most boring subject in the world but I find it fascinating to discover the different priorities people have in their kitchens.

When reading countertop recommendations the two most common things I come across are related either to the of wine or indeed condensation-producing wine bottles on the surface (Pete and I don't drink, so this isn't an issue for us, although I suppose it could be once we have space to entertain at home) or cutting directly on the counter (I can't even imagine wanting to do this - I've only ever used a cutting board and I love them and the fact that they go straight into the dishwasher.)  Similarly, people get really excited about being able to put a hot pan directly from the oven onto the counter without damaging it.  Isn't that what adorable woven or felted wool trivets are for?  When I pull a hot pan out of the oven my dilemma is far more likely to be related to the lack of space to put it down on, not the damage it might do once there.

That said, we do have priorities of our own for this kitchen.  For example:

I want the cleaning convenience of an undermount sink, which rules out a few choices.

I don't mind looking after a counter for cosmetic reasons, but I do mind if my efforts are designed to protect us from food poisoning, and that rules out a few more.

I want to be able to tell when then counter isn't clean, so a dark and heavily patterned design is a no-go.

All of these considerations are what led me to laminate counters, which Pete has turned down emphatically, and Cambria quartz, which we will certainly choose for our bathrooms.  It's very practical in a wet room, it should hold its value, and Cambria is especially good at producing variations on white, which is what timeless kitchens are made of at the moment.  White cabinets, white counters, white subway tile backsplash.  The ultimate safe and classic kitchen.

But - oh dear, no matter how many times we look at these samples, I can't get my head around quartz in the kitchen.

I definitely want it for the powder room on the main floor.  I mean, check out how perfectly this steely blue-grey sample blends with our living room fabrics.  Plus: it's got sparkles in it!

I've had this sample since the summer and I never get tired of looking at it, so I know I'll be happy with it in that hardworking little room.

But the kitchen?  The kitchen counter is going to require some serious mileage and even at Cambria prices, it's going to cost a lot of renovation money, which is not ideal given how expensive all the other practical choices we've made have turned out to be (steel roof, spray insulation, entirely brick exterior, triple glaze fiberglass windows, and the list goes on.)  I can't see using my beloved blue option there, and the whites are so... not marble.

There, I said it.  I want marble countertops!!!  Marble is just so beautiful and calming and peaceful.  It's stone, and I love stone.  It's not shiny like quartz or granite (you can get a matte granite but the maintenance on it is crazypants) and I realize now that while I like shiny, I don't like it on my kitchen counters.  I want those counters to be friendly and welcoming and not overly processed-looking.  Marble is what I have dreamed of ever since we put in our first kitchen and chose a light brown flecked solid surface instead because marble is just too expensive and impractical.

The fact is, I love marble, and I know I can't be trusted with it. I don't want to spend $7,000 to install something I don't adore (thank you poor exchange rate on the Canadian dollar), and like I said, Pete is not enamoured of the idea of laminate even for the sake of this gorgeous yet simple linen pattern which I am totally chasing down for my laundry room if I can fit a counter in there.  And maybe for my custom desk too?


Finally I remembered there was one countertop option I put aside the minute I read about it, because it fell into the 'expensive' category and I assumed I'd have to rule it out.  When I investigated further though, I discovered that it costs about the same as a higher-end quartz, which is to say, not a lot more than a white counter from Cambria.  So I read on.

This material is stone, and nonporous, and has a matte finish.  You can let it weather to an ethereal grey, or wax it to a grey-green so deep it looks black.  And the way it feels under your hand is amazing.

I told Pete about it and I showed him some pictures and he said he liked it. I guess he meant it because the next day he sent me a text to say he'd made us an appointment at the showroom for later in the week - which kind of blew me away because the showroom is a 90 minute drive away from his office and even though he does have a flexible schedule he can almost never spare that much time from work on short notice.

And went we got there, we both fell in love with this slab:

It's soapstone.  The big vein in the middle kind of bothers me but it's probably where our sink will land, so it won't be a constant focal point.  And the visual texture is just Wow! Very subtle, but definitely there.

The physical texture is very slight, and the stone feels soothing under your hand.  This particular slab is one of the hardest varieties so it's least likely to scratch if I drop something on it - like I said, we're cutting board fans so we won't be scarring it with a knife.  And if I have a hot pan and enough free counter space to set it down, I won't need to put out a trivet first, because soapstone isn't affected by hot objects.

Best of all worlds, basically.

There are other patterns in soapstone too, depending on where it's found.  This one is kind of a polka dot:

And this one has a huge quartz deposit that glistens with a soft green sparkle, like jewelry:

Oh, let's have a closeup:

This one is pretty crazy with the veining!

Here's the difference in colour between waxed and natural (don't worry, the darkening stuff air-dries in about 90 seconds):

In the past people treated their soapstone with mineral oil to get the darker colour but now you can use a wax that reduces the number of seasonings to two or three from seven or more.  Because, you know, it's such a hardship to touch this stuff.  (although actually, the wax is much healthier in every way, and is what I'll be using.)

If you want to know more about how soapstone wears you should read this wonderful post from For The Love Of A House - and you can also see how gorgeous it looks with white Shaker cabinets too!

Of course, if you read that post you'll also see the link to another post on how marble wears, with photographs that show how gorgeous marble and soapstone look together.  Or how gorgeous marble looks on its own.  le sigh.  Reading that lifted my hopes for a moment, until Pete admitted he doesn't like marble at all!  So soapstone it is.  (and maybe a marble board for rolling out pastry.  Ha!)

Thanks so much for indulging me today and I hope you're back again soon because tomorrow, I'll have a little present for you.  See you later!

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