Wood CountertopsAside from their obvious practicality (you never have to use a cutting board again), wood countertops are timeless and beautiful. "More than half the kitchens we do have a butcher block countertop," says designer Tim Scott of XTC Design Incorporated in Toronto. Look for high density woods like wenge, utile and Brazilian cherry.
Design Tip:Spekva of Denmark (www.spekva.dk) offers more than 20 types of beautiful, solid wood countertops made to specification.
Maintenance:Treat wood countertops with mineral oil every month. Sand out stains and re-oil for a new surface.
Cost:$30-$150/sq. ft., installed
Granite CountertopsOne of the most popular materials used in kitchen countertops, granite is timeless, durable and beautiful. "It's not going to date itself like some of the other materials," says Scott. One-of-a-kind slabs of blue or silver granite can make your kitchen a showplace.
Design Tip: If you want a matte look, consider absolute black granite in a honed finish. The darker the granite, the less porous and more stain resistant it is.
Maintenance: Granite countertops need to be sealed twice a year. Clean with warm water and liquid detergent.
Cost: From $100-$200/lin. ft., installed
Solid Surface CountertopsIf you like a seamless look, think solid surface. Known by its brand names — Corian, Staron, Gibraltar and Avonite — and designed to look like natural stone, this easy-to-maintain synthetic product can be molded to fit any design specification. You can even have an integral sink made to match the countertop.
Design Tip: Solid surface looks best in a contemporary kitchen, especially if you use a shade of white, says Scott.
Maintenance:Clean with liquid detergent and water. You can buff out stains with a scouring pad and abrasive cleanser.
Cost:$90-$150/lin. ft., installed
Natural Stone CountertopsMarble, soapstone and Jerusalem stone are just some of the natural stones used for kitchen countertops. Bakers love to knead dough on cold marble, but designers recommend it be used sparingly as a countertop material because it's soft, stains easily and chips. Soapstone won't crack like other stones, but it will dent if it gets hit with something hard. The dents, says Jennifer Gilmer, of Jennifer Gilmer Kitchen & Bath, Ltd. in Chevy Chase, Md., give it a used, stressed look that some people really like. It comes in many colors and gives the room a soft, warm feel. Jerusalem stone (which does come from Jerusalem) looks like limestone but is as durable as granite.
Design Tip:Create a baking center by installing a low counter (30"-33") and topping it with marble or granite. The lower height gives better leverage for kneading and rolling.
Maintenance:Clean natural stone countertops with liquid detergent and water. Seal marble annually. Apply mineral oil to soapstone every other week for the first year to help the stone oxidize evenly; apply every other month thereafter. Jerusalem stone requires annual sealing.
Cost:From $75-$200/lin. ft., installed.
Glass CountertopsGlass is known for its eye-catching, translucent beauty, and is as durable as most other countertop materials. Because of its price and distinctive look, designers suggest using it as an accent countertop, rather than throughout the kitchen. Glass countertops can be imbedded with a variety of textures and colors. Recycled glass countertops are an eco-friendly option.
Design Tip:To create a beautiful breakfast bar, cantilever a piece of glass out of a central island.
Maintenance: Clean with window cleaner.
Cost: $85-$150/sq. ft., installed
Stainless Steel CountertopsStainless steel can take abuse from just about any kitchen utensil or hot pot, and scratches and marks imbue it with a warm, lived-in patina. Like stainless steel appliances, stainless steel countertops are popular because they work well in both traditional and contemporary kitchens, says Scott.
Design Tip:Granite combined with steel gives your kitchen a fashionable look. Use the steel near cooking or wet areas, says designer Judy Adams Hunt of Eurotech Cabinetry in Sarasota, Fla. You can also put a manmade patina on steel that gives it a darker color. "Buying a piece of stainless steel is like buying a sculpture, a work of art," says Gilmer.
Maintenance:Use a cleaner with a high alcohol content that dries quickly and does not leave a film. Buff scratches with a scouring pad, following the grain of the metal.
Cost:$85-$150/sq. ft., installed
Laminate CountertopsOnce considered dowdy by designers, laminate has come a long way and is one of the best options for the budget conscious buyer. "I think it's a great product. There are some beautiful styles out now; you can't even tell they're laminate," says Gilmer. Known by its brand names — including Formica, Wilsonart and Nevamar — you can even install laminate yourself.
Design Tip:Scratches tend to be more visible with dark colors. If you love a rich color, find a pattern that will help disguise scratches. The boomerang style looks great in a retro kitchen.
Maintenance: Rinse after cleaning to avoid soap rings. Laminate is susceptible to heat and standing water. No sealing is required.
Cost:$25-$60/lin. ft., installed.
Manufactured QuartzIf low maintenance is ranked high on your criteria for choosing a countertop, consider manufactured quartz. It's highly durable, easy to clean and stain- and scratch-resistant. Composed of quartz blended with a resin binder, it imitates the look of granite, marble or limestone but still appeals to people who want a more even, balanced pattern. "It's not as busy as granite and it's warmer to the touch," says Judy Adams Hunt of Eurotech Cabinetry in Sarasota, Fla.
Design Tip: Use quartz instead of granite if you want a light-colored top. Lemon juice, red wine and vinegar will not stain quartz, says Adams Hunt.
Maintenance: Clean with warm water and non-abrasive cleanser. No sealing is required.
Cost: From $110-$250/lin. ft., installed.
Tile CountertopsTile comes in a variety of materials, including ceramic, glass and natural stone. The most common tiles used for countertops are ceramic, porcelain and granite. Most homeowners are moving away from tile countertops of smaller tile because cleaning grout is a hassle. However, countertops made from larger tiles are coming into vogue. "Using larger tiles means fewer grout lines," says Sheila Tilander, of Showplace Design and Remodeling in Redmond, Wash. They also allow you to get to get a custom look at a lower price — especially with pricier stones like granite.
Design Tip:Colorful ceramic tiles go well in Southwestern and Craftsman kitchens. Colored grouts don't show dirt as easily and can be used to accentuate the color of the tile.
Maintenance:Clean tiles and grout lines with liquid detergent.
Cost:$10-$90/sq. ft., installed