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Choosing the countertop for your old house remodel

By: Shannon Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Historic Preservation, Home Improvement Tips

An old house remodel or renovation comes with many challenges, and the toughest one might be in the kitchen. Depending on how old your house is, you might face the question of just how far you want to go with your countertops. Though things like tile or concrete or even a nice laminate might be tempting, a true restoration of a very old house might call for something a little more appropriate to the time period.

A history of countertops

The earliest countertop materials were stone and wood. Think back to those who cooked over a fireplace or other open flame -- the fieldstone hearth was all the countertop they needed. Wood wasn't far behind in the timeline of countertops, and was likely used just as early as the stone hearth was. As cooks began to move away from the fireplace and into a dedicated kitchen area, the earliest countertops were still made of the most available products: stone and wood.

But when the 19th century rolled around, things began to change. Now there were the occasional countertops made of lush materials, such as marble, fine woods and occasional metals. These were often found in the most upscale of kitchen areas, and were usually used only in the pantry or in serving areas, not in the kitchen itself. That remained the domain of wood.

Throughout the 1800s, countertops began to take on a whole new look. Soapstone and slate were very plentiful in Northeast quarries, and that led to numerous uses for them, including countertop duty in the kitchen. Marble came into more widespread use, especially among pastry chefs who loved to roll doughs out on the cool surface. Soon after that, granite made a splash.

The traditional wood look eventually transformed into the common butcher block we are familiar with today. But other products made inroads as well, changing the landscape of kitchen design forever. In the late 19th century, tile became the product of choice. Metals such as stainless steel and nickel were in use as early as 1900, and became popular within a few decades after that. Stainless steel made a big impression in the 1940s, about the same time that laminate countertops burst onto the scene. After World War II, the laminate craze reached a fever pitch. Now homeowners could have kitchens every color of the rainbow, and they rushed to embrace it.

In recent years other materials have made a good impression -- it is common to see countertops made of concrete, glass, and even pressed paper. These can be great materials for an old house, but if you are looking for a countertop that suits the spirit of the year in which the house was built, these might not be the ideal choice.

Which countertop suits your home?

If you want to restore your home to the way it looked when it was first built, you might be looking very far back on the countertop timeline. Figure out exactly when your kitchen was first in use, and then plan the restoration around what countertop materials were common at the time.

However, keep in mind that many of today's more modern materials, such as concrete, can be molded to look exactly like the materials of yesteryear. This comes in very handy for those who want the old-fashioned look but have a budget that just doesn't allow for the original materials.

Still not sure? The bottom line is that you can never go wrong with wood. Very common in much older houses and still common today, it is a popular countertop material that spans the centuries.

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