Serving as both kitchen workhorse and showpiece, today’s countertops play a demanding role. Site of all food preparation, they’re expected to be durable (stain-proof, scratch-proof, and heat-proof), beautiful, and (best-case scenario) economical. No wonder choosing a countertop material is such a daunting decision.

But it needn’t be so tricky. Instead of getting seduced or intimidated by the endless options in the marketplace, begin by asking yourself the right questions and setting your priorities straight. As an architect who has survived and supervised several kitchen remodels, here’s my list of crucial questions you should ask yourself before you commit.

1. How will you use your countertops?

The most critical part of your countertop decision should come from an assessment of how you and your family use your kitchen. For example, I have two teenage boys and our countertops see a lot of daily active duty. Not only do we do a fair bit of family cooking but also my sons are always in the kitchen making “in-between” meals. And so it was important to me that our choice be able to withstand a variety of cooking and clean-up styles—without my having to be extra vigilant. I was less concerned about scratches and more concerned that my countertops being impervious to most food stains.

Above: I wanted a warm material for our open kitchen, so I selected 1 1/2-inch-thick solid oak countertops that have been treated with several coats of Danish oil. It’s the Danish oil (two-thirds oil and one-third varnish) that gives the countertops a hard-wearing finish. For the full story, see Rehab Diary: Sleuthing for Space in My Kitchen. Photograph by Kristin Perers for Remodelista.

2. How much maintenance can you handle?

Many materials come with a long list of upkeep demands, while others are extremely resilient. Be realistic about how much effort you’re willing to put into the care of your countertops. For example, porous materials like marble, limestone, and granite need sealing at least once a year. My own wood countertops require that I apply Danish oil into them at least twice a year. Bottom line: Before falling in love with a material, fully assess the demands of living with it.

Green soapstone countertops in a farmhouse by architect Rafe Churchill; see Architect Visit: A Renovated Farmhouse in Bedford with Scandinavian Influences. While soapstone does not require much in terms of daily maintenance, it shows signs of wear and tear and develops a patina over time. To ensure that it darkens evenly, regular applications of mineral oil are recommended. Photograp by Amanda Kirkpatrick, courtesy of Rafe Churchill; styling by Anna Molvik.
Above: Green soapstone countertops in a farmhouse by architect Rafe Churchill; see Architect Visit: A Renovated Farmhouse in Bedford with Scandinavian Influences. While soapstone does not require much in terms of daily maintenance, it shows signs of wear and tear and develops a patina over time. To ensure that it darkens evenly, regular applications of mineral oil are recommended. Photograp by Amanda Kirkpatrick, courtesy of Rafe Churchill; styling by Anna Molvik.

3. What are your kitchen requirements?

It’s extremely helpful to have an idea of how many linear feet of countertop you will need, as well as any required dimensions for your space that aren’t standard. This way, as you gather information, you can create your own ballpark figures for each material and make comparisons. For design and budgetary reasons, you might decide to use two different materials: For instance, if you have an island, it might be where you use an affordable wood top while the adjacent counters are in budget-devouring marble or granite.

A Venice, California, kitchen by Simo Design features a wood-topped island and honed black granite countertops. See Rehab Diaries: LA Living, Venice Style for more views of the project. Photograph by David Gilbert for Simo Design.
Above: A Venice, California, kitchen by Simo Design features a wood-topped island and honed black granite countertops. See Rehab Diaries: LA Living, Venice Style for more views of the project. Photograph by David Gilbert for Simo Design.
Another kitchen with mix-and-match countertops; see Kitchen of the Week: A Greatest-Hits Kitchen for a Danish-American Couple in London.
Above: Another kitchen with mix-and-match countertops; see Kitchen of the Week: A Greatest-Hits Kitchen for a Danish-American Couple in London.

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