Some years ago, friends of Karol's renovated their kitchen. It had brown cabinets, brown floor, dark brick walls and a terrible layout. The designer reversed the positions of a door and a window, turned a bath and laundry room into pantry space, and installed a huge island in the middle of the room.
It was an amazing transformation, because where every previous surface and appliance had been old-fashioned and ugly, the new surfaces and appliances were beautiful and state of the art.
But it was the surface of the island that was the centerpiece of the room--a gleaming slab of dark granite shot through with red and gold, with a starburst design in the middle. It was stunning. And not, as you might expect, cheap.
Counter tops are usually a major design element in a kitchen, and while they can be as expensive as that specially cut island top, they don't have to be. These days there are a multitude of choices. You can use laminates (such as Formica), ceramic tile, solid surfacing (such as Corian), natural stone (such as granite), stainless steel, copper or wood.
So where do you start? Most people have some idea of what they want, but some of these options are very expensive, which is often a major factor in a decision.
High-impact laminates are the most common and inexpensive counter top. They are made by laminating (gluing) the plastic top covering to particle board in slabs, then cutting the slab to fit the kitchen. Formica is the brand most people know, but about a dozen manufacturers make laminates. From a quality standpoint, they are all about the same. The difference is in the colors and textures each offers.
In addition, you can do a number of things to give your laminate tops a unique touch. You can choose the shape of the edge: square; post-form (curved at the top of the front edge); or bull-nosed (curved at the top and bottom of the front edge).
You can also get color-core laminates in which the color goes all the way through, so you don't see a black line at the edge. Other edging choices include wood inlay (to match the cabinets) or a beveled edge of a different color.
These bells and whistles will increase the cost somewhat but still keep it under that of other systems. A basic plastic-laminate counter top will cost about $15 a linear foot, plus fabrication and installation costs.
Some people like ceramic tile counters, and you can choose from a wide variety of tiles. One thing to watch out for when you are looking for tile: You will need a bull-nose edge piece for the front edge. Not all tiles have this option available, so be sure you can get all the accent pieces you need with the tile you like.
Ceramic tops are more labor-intensive to install, partly because you need to build a plywood counter on which to place the tile. To get the thickness required, you should use 3/4-inch plywood with 1/2-inch cement board on top and on the front edge.
A drawback to ceramic is the grout joints, which are hard to keep clean. You can seal the grout with a small paint brush and grout sealer. To maintain the seal, it will have to be resealed three to four times a year, depending on use.
Among solid-surface counters, the best known is Corian, though at least six other companies make similar products. The competition among them is good for the consumer, because the cost of this type of top has fallen. The thicker material will cost three times as much as plastic laminate, and the thinner version will cost twice as much as plastic.
To be more competitive, manufacturers offer a thinner top layer. The solid surface material is typically a half-inch thick and is laminated to particle board. Using eighth-inch material on top and half-inch on the front edge reduces the cost while still allowing a front-edge detail.
Natural stone tops are elegant--and expensive. Granite starts at about $30 a square foot for the stone, plus another $30 a square foot for fabrication and installation. You can also use slate or marble, though these are more often done in tiles rather than slabs.
Metal tops, popular in commercial use, can be used residentially. Stainless tops cost about the same as granite, but installation is cheaper.
Wood tops are a specialty item. Usually you see them as butcher-block cutting boards or tables. You could, however, do a whole top, say, from butcher-block slabs, or have a mill make a custom top. Cost would depend on size and complexity, but would probably fall somewhere between solid-surface materials and granite.