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Worktop 101: How To Specify The Right Surface

Every material has its pros and cons, so here’s the lowdown on the worktops that work best for every situation
Base Build
April 4, 2022

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Words by Emily Brooks

Timber

You can’t beat real wood for adding warmth and character – but is it right for a worktop? Yes and no: firstly, make sure it’s hard enough to take the rough-and-tumble of everyday life. Secondly, try and avoid using it in areas that are likely to repeatedly get wet, such as around sinks, as water can stain over time. Timber does need some maintenance, including regular sealing, but you can always sand it down and start again if it starts to look past its prime.This is perhaps the time to get creative with multiple worktop materials used in a single scheme, with timber for the kitchen island but engineered stone in the area around the sink, for example. Timber scores highly on sustainability, but make sure it’s FSC-certified to ensure its responsibly sourced from a managed forest. Score even bigger sustainability points for reusing existing timber: old teak school laboratory tops can add instant character to a scheme, and they are usually of a quality that you just can’t find any more.

Bamboo worktops on a kitchen by Custom Fronts

Marble & Natural Stone

Marble is the diva of work surfaces: being softer and more porous than granite means it is also susceptible to staining (especially from acidic liquids such as wine, fruit juice and some cleaning products), so regular sealing is needed. It’s also heavy, and expensive. So why bother? Well, it’s a byword for luxury and is almost certainly unbeaten when it comes to natural beauty: it’s available in so many colours and patterns that there will always be an option out there to suit a scheme, with different finishes – glossy, honed or matt – adding to the choice. From an interior design perspective, take care with what you put with it: a showy, book matched-marble waterfall kitchen island needs to be balanced with a lack of ornamentation elsewhere to avoid looking completely OTT.

Real stone in a scheme in Montreal by Vives St-Laurent. Image: Alex Lesage

Granite

A heavyweight in every sense, hard, dense granite is probably the best material for luxury, durability and lack of maintenance in one complete package. Generally it’s heat- and stain-resistant (although, not completely bulletproof) and just needs wiping down with mild detergent. There are downsides nonetheless: as with any stone, it’s heavy, so cabinetry will need to withstand the weight; and it’s expensive but will last an incredibly long time. The colours and types of veining are limited compared to marble, but as a natural stone, it has that same pleasing quality where no two pieces are quite the same. Be sure to source from a company with a Modern Slavery statement, since there are ongoing issues with labour rights violations in the industry.

A wrap around granite worktop doubles up as a breakfast bar in this house in a Melbourne suburb by Dreamer Architects.

Porcelain and Sintered Stone

Relatively new to the market, both porcelain and sintered stone are made from materials bonded together under heat and pressure. With porcelain, the raw ingredients is clay, but many other companies keep their ingredients a closely guarded secret to create proprietary products, including Sapien Stone, Neolith and Dekton. No matter the brand name, these surfaces are durable, fade- and heat-resistant, and can be used outside, too, making them a great choice for outdoor kitchens. The companies that manufacture them frequently supply complementary products in the same material – from shower trays to basins and even exterior cladding – so they are also useful if you’re looking for a coherent aesthetic. The downsides? It’s a matter of conjecture, but some find faux-stone products not as convincing as engineered stone. It can also chip and cause damage on heavy impact.

Image: Dekton’s Orix, a sintered stone with the look of eroded concrete, created in collaboration with architect and designer Daniel Germani

Engineered Stone

Also known as quartz, these man-made surfaces are made from ground stone, bound together with resins and pigments: popular brands include Caesarstone and Silestone. They’re stain and scratch resistant and come in a range of price points, with some brilliantly convincing ‘faux’ materials, from marble to concrete, now on the market. Lookout for sustainable options that incorporate recycled post-industrial waste. These materials are heavy (although not as heavy as marble or granite), so supporting units need to be strong; they may also discolour and crack when subjected to extreme heat (ie, putting a hot pan down directly on them).

Image: Deep-green engineered stone worktops by Diespeker & Co in a design scheme by Space A. Image:Harry Crowder

Image: Caesarstone’s 4023 Topus Concrete is a slim, concrete-effect engineered stone worktop. Image: Hygge for Home

Solid-Surface Composites

Slick and seamless, acrylic resin composites such as Corian and HI-MACS are great for when you want to achieve a sculpted look, whether that’s a curvy kitchen island, a worktop that segues invisibly into a splashback or a bathroom vanity where the basin is integrated into the work surface. Their ability to withstand water and humidity makes them a great option for the bathroom, and even outside (they are UV-resistant, too). A rainbow of colour options makes them even more appealing. On the downside, they don’t withstand heat as well as granite, for example, and paler colours may discolour over time (for example, in a kitchen sink), but this is usually removable with bleach.

Image: HI-MACS solid-surface worktops in an Amsterdam kitchen designed by Sander van Eyck of Cocoon Living. Image: Pam Kat Photography

Metal

Zinc, copper, stainless steel, brass and bronze can all be used as worktop materials, and each have their own advantageous qualities. Create the look of a pro kitchen or an industrial aesthetic with stainless steel, which is great for heat resistance, although it can look clinical; copper and brass, meanwhile, bring a beautiful sense of warmth (and copper has the added benefit of having antibacterial qualities). If the brief is for a family-friendly home, however, metals aren’t such a great option: they show up finger-marks instantly, and, while it may be freeing to put a hot pan down on a stainless steel top, the worktop itself will heat up, too.

Image: A former school remodelled by architects McLaren Excell features brass worktops. Image: Richard Leeney

Concrete

A concrete worktop delivers an architectural look that marries well with lots of other surfaces, from marble to timber, and while greys (of all shades) may be the default, they can also be coloured. Despite its humble appearance, this is an expensive option as it needs to be cast in-situ by a professional – and it’s rarely totally perfect-looking, although this is part of the appeal for many.Concrete can also stain without regular re-application of wax, so there is a maintenance burden, too.

Image: A concrete-topped kitchen island in a project by Paul Archer Design. Image: Killian O’Sullivan

Laminate

Laminate tells a story of two aesthetics: there’s the downmarket faux-marble or faux-timber that are a feature of the cheapest kitchens; then there are beautiful laminate-fronted plywood cupboards that celebrate the joy of flat colour while giving a little nod to mid-20th-century style. It’s not surprising that laminates such as Formica are back when it comes to worktops, because they are relatively inexpensive while being as hardwearing as most kitchens require on a day to day basis. Companies such as Plykea and Pluck have introduced a new generation to the joys of laminate, celebrating joyful colour and the practicality and versatility of laminate. Any downsides? Just avoid the faux-marble and you’ll be OK…

Image: Plykea’s laminate-fronted plywood kitchens fit standard Ikea units. This north London kitchen uses colour-blocking to make a strong statement.

Terrazzo

Terrazzo s usually resin (or sometimes concrete) based: chips of stone or glass are poured into the same mould as the resin and, when set, ground down to create a smooth surface with a confetti-like finish. This pleasingly random pattern, with no two pieces the same, is all part of the appeal, and creates a playful look that’s really found its feet lately. Amp up the fun with bright colours (you can even specify your own mix) or pare it back with blacks and greys; terrazzo often uses waste or recycled materials (such as Altrock, which incorporates waste marble offcuts), so it has some sustainability benefits too. The draw backs? It’s highly fashionable right now – but will your client still like it in five years’ time?

Image: A monolithic terrazzo island and splashbacks at Bladerunner House, a project by Bradley van der Straeten Architects. Image:French + Tye

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