Terry Love (425) 649-LOVE
Creative Countertops

How to choose a surface that's right for you.by Merle Henkenius,
reprinted from Popular Mechanics, August 1996

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Whether you're planning a complete kitchen overhaul or a modest facelift, the right counter, sink and faucet can make all the difference. The sink, and its support system, is the focus of most kitchens and the anchor of the work triangle. And the range of options is substantial, with something for every budget.

Preformed countertops

At the bottom of the heap is the preformed plastic-laminate top, complete with an integral backsplash and a spill-retaining molded edge. The substrate is made of particleboard. While a bit dated, these counters are still the best deals in kitchen construction. If you can live with a few light colors and simple patterns, you'll get by for less than $6 per linear foot at many home centers. That's 10 ft. for about $60, for a counter that will last as long as most others. In fact, we found 10-ft. lengths on sale for as low as $43.90.

As you might expect, the money is in the extras, such as mitered corners, sink holes and endcaps. Still, it's not a lot of money. Many dealers will make the miter cuts and install fastening clips for $20 to $30. Custom-cut sink holes cost $8 to $12, and endcaps about $10. For only a few dollars more, you can step up to a full-wrap bullnose edge. In this case, the heatformed laminate extends around the full radius of the rounded edge and the no-drip bump is eliminated. The result is a more streamlined appearance, in a few more colors.

From there, the field opens to more colors, more patterns and more edge details, including chamfered corners, contrasting colors and even ribbons of hardwood veneer sandwiched between laminates. The more striking the finished product, the more you'll pay, with most in the $12 to $20 per linear foot range. Endcaps will also cost more.

Custom laminate tops

For all their economy and convenience, preformed tops have their shortcomings, especially if you have in mind a custom shape, extra length, unusual colors or custom edge trim. If this is the case, and you're not ready to step up to solid-surface counters, then hiring a local fabricator to custom-make a counter with high-density particleboard and plastic-laminate Sheet is definitely your best option.

Prices vary, depending upon the laminate that you choose and local labor costs. Edge treatment can also make a difference. While some homeowners welcome the chance to introduce a second color in the edge band, others opt for the same color or a routed hardwood face to match the cabinets.

Solid-surface tops

Solid-surface counters found an enthusiastic audience when they first appeared some 15 years ago. The advantages were obvious at a glance. Solid-surfacing was not only stylish and durable, but apparently seamless and remarkably adaptable in the hands of trained fabricators. Steady improvements in colors and trim profiles have made them even more attractive. Sheet stock is trimmed, routed and glued to support panels, usually high-density particleboard.

What solid-surfacing has never been, however, is cheap. It starts out costly and grows more so with every step in the process. The number of buJring and distribution levels also affects pricing. Installed costs can range from $125 to $200 per foot, with matrix colors and custom details claiming the high end. If you'd like a solidsurface sink bonded seamlessly to the underside of the slab, expect to pay close to $1000. What you get in return is a high-tech appearance and impressive durability. Scratches and even burn marks can be easily sanded out.

These prices sort of slam the door on most remodeling jobs. As such, some manufacturers hope to dip into the top layers of the custom-laminate market by offering thin-sheet solidsurfacing, and to a lesser degree, topmount solid-surface sinks. The new sheet stock is roughly 1/8in. thick and is laminated to a 3/4-in. substrate, either plywood, particleboard or fiberboard. While the color selection is still limited (six to 18 colors), thin-sheet materials are actually more adaptable, in terms of profiles and contours, than full-depth materials. They also accept integral solid-surface sinks, and the finished product is virtually indistinguishable from its full-depth counterpart.

Ceramic tile and marble

Glazed ceramic tiles are tough, heatresistant, impervious to stains and attractive. By blending a few decorator tiles into a field of color, all sorts of attractive accents are possible. Some outlets even commission hand-painted tiles for a distinctly personal look. Naturally, prices will vary.

Two clear disadvantages are that grouts are susceptible to stains if not sealed regularly and the counter surface is not smooth. The latter can be annoying when trying to wipe up spills.

At the high end is marble (and other stone materials), both imported and domestic. Marble is quarried and sliced with a gang saw into 3/4-in. slabs, then trimmed and polished before being shipped to regional marble dealers. In some cases, dealers also install marble, but in others, they take orders from local custom-counter firms. A second strip of 3/4-in. marble may be glued under the front of the counter and shaped and polished into a bullnose edge. Sink and cook-top holes are also cut before shipping. The result is a beautiful counter that will outlast everyone associated with it. Expect to pay between $70 and $150 per square foot, plus shipping and installation. All told, a 10- to 12-ft. counter can run $3000 to $4000.

Sinks and faucets

The options in sinks and faucets have also expanded in recent years. Still slugging along are porcelain-steel and budget stainless-steel sinks, both in the $40 to $60 category.

The next step up is a high-quality stainless-steel sink. The difference is in the gauge of steel--with 20 ga. being thinner and 18 ga. being better --and the amount of nickel in the alloy and the surface finish. While cheap stainless steel turns a dull gray almost immediately, quality sinks stay bright for years. Standard-size stainless-steel sinks run $140 to $250.

Next on the list is a cast-iron sink, with an enamel finish. Though these sinks can be chipped, they are very durable. And while most cast-iron models these days are self-rimming-with a raised lip that rests on top of the counter--a few are available with flush-fit rims. There's a practical difference. While most prefer the look of self-rimming sinks, their raised lips can make wiping food particles from counter to sink a daily annoyance.

Prices are keyed to color, the number of compartments and the depth of the bowls. White is least expensive, followed by a few light colors, such as almond. The darker the color, however, the more you'll pay. Most cast-iron sinks range between $150 and $400.

And finally, synthetic-composition sinks, made of solid-surface acrylic or quartz acrylic, round out the options. Quartz-acrylic sinks are relatively new and offer good durability and heat tolerance up to 375" F. Both types are sleek and stylish and are made in a variety of shapes and sizes. They sell for around $300.

Beyond the confections of style, sinks need to be convenient and functional. Deep bowls and more than one compartment go a long way in making them more so. Consider that while most new kitchens have dishwashers, the largest items are still washed in the sink. Similarly, while separate half-bowl sinks may offer a stylish flourish, they won't accommodate large dishes or pots. Look for deeper compartments and more of them. At least one l0-1/2in.-deep bowl can make a big difference.

In any case, try to balance style with convenience. And, when you find a sink you really like, put yourself in front of it, and imagine it's 2 pm on Thanksgiving Day.

And finally, kitchen-faucet options are infinitely greater than they were a few years ago, and while questions of reliability are debated by plumbers, most major brands offer lifetime warranties to original owners. So as long as you don't move, your faucet is guaranteed. Good faucets range from $60 all the way up to $400. PM
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