Restoration Guide: Kitchen and Baths Countertops

Susanne Clemenz

Editor's Note: This is article 4 of 8 in Chapter 6: The Kitchen and Baths Guide of Old House Web Restoration Guide. This guide was developed and edited for old homes from original materials in the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Rehab Guide.


Section 1--Countertop Repairs and Upkeep

No countertop surface, from laminate to concrete, is impervious to surface damage. That creates both health and appearance problem. Bacteria colonize in seams, chips and scratches. Stop deterioration with appropriate repairs.

1.1: Types of Countertop Repairs and Replacements

  1. Laminate replacement: There are no fillers for laminates. Removal of damaged sections is possible if the substrate lacks moisture damage. Inserts of butcher block or hard surfaces make attractive, functional repairs. PROS: Inserts can improve functionality with heat or scratch-proof surfaces. CONS: Laminate is modestly priced, so repair costs may rival replacement.
  2. Cultured stone: Whether called cultured stone or cast polymer, these stone chips embedded in resin imitate veined onyx or alabaster. Polishing pads buff out surface scratches. Deeper damage requires a porcelain repair company. PROS: Can be seamless. Lots of style choices. CONS: Requires waxing. Easily scratched.
  3. Aggregate stone: Stone particles in resin resemble real stone--at a savings. See stone repair techniques--the same are used for aggregate. PROS: Looks very natural. CONS: Fewer colors than other choices.
  4. Solid surfaces: These synthetic products may have mineral fillers for fire prevention and durability. Repair scratches and burns with a scouring pad, very fine sandpaper, or steel wool. PROS: Very stain resistant. CONS: Heat cracks it. Deep flaws require manufacturer's filler.
  5. Ceramic tile: Tile resists chips or cracks. Moisture and bacteria penetrating grout and substrate are bigger concerns. Break up damaged tiles with a cold chisel, not a hammer, and replace. Damaged grout requires a grout saw and regrouting. Choose professionally-installed epoxy-based grout for stain resistance.. Don't use acid, bleach or vinegar for cleaning--use a penetrating or surface silicone cleaner. PROS: Chip and heat resistant. Easily repaired. CONS: Avoid damaging adjacent tiles by using a manual grout saw or power grinder with diamond blade. Grouts are hard to match.
  6. Stone: Slate and granite in 1-1/4-inch thickness are strong, durable, and are available in large slabs. Repair cracks or chips professionally with a mortar-like compound, to be ground and polished when cured. PROS: The mortar-like repairs hide easily. CONS: Epoxy repair matrices are stronger than polyester ones, but can yellow.
  7. Butcher block and wood: Entire countertops are available in laminated maple. Unfinished wood needs a weekly mineral oil application. Prefinished wood needs a penetrating sealer and non-toxic lacquer finish. Don't use urethane varnish on any food prep or chopping surface. Sand scratches and burns and reapply oil or sealer.
  8. Stainless steel: Keep the old house look by saving old cabinets, but update your remodeling with stainless steel countertops. Choose 8 to 10% nickel alloy for scratch, stain, and corrosion resistance. Custom fabrication permits forming sinks, drainboards, and backsplashes seamlessly. PROS: Polishing welds and joints gives a seamless look. CONS: Each project is unique--and pricier.
  9. Concrete: Stains, dyes, shapes, and patterns are possible with concrete countertops, and create a unique home restoration. Sealers, topcoats or wax prevent stains, but cracks and chips breed bacteria. Fill cracks with fabricator's filler. PROS: Countertops and fillers can be tinted. CONS: Don't cut food on surface. Reapply sealant when scrubbing wears it off.

Section 2--Indoor Air Quality Concerns

Fiberboard substrates for laminate and solid surface countertops emit hazardous gasses. Formaldehyde can cause skin irritation and asthma symptoms at least, and may be carcinogenic at worst.

2.1: Air Quality Corrections

  1. Out-gassing reduction: Plan ahead. Store boards outdoors or in unoccupied storage for three months. Then run ventilators for days after installation. PROS: Proper preparation reduces out-gassing. CONS: Storage time may be costly.
  2. Alternate methods: All surfaces should be sealed with urethane or polyurethane sealant or laminated melamine. Seal existing countertop seams. PROS: Out-gassing is limited. CONS: Supplies and labor are costly.
  3. Alternate substrates: Choose phenol formaldehyde-based particleboard or formaldehyde-free board over urea-formaldehyde products. PROS: Little or no out-gassing. CONS: Higher product cost.

Section 3--Countertop-to-Backsplash Seams

Rear seams where countertops join backsplashes hide behind counter clutter. Contaminates build up. Humidity swings swell and shrink tops and substrates. Filling or covering these seams reduces bacteria habitats.

3.1: Types of Seams

  1. Laminate seams: Commercial laminate seam fillers bond to substrate. Mix with retardant for color matching. PROS: Seams are less visible, maintenance is reduced, countertop life is extended. CONS: Too rigid for counter-to-backsplash seams. Color may not match.
  2. Countertop-to-backsplash seams: 100% silicone caulk accommodates humidity swelling and resists water. PROS: Durable, flexible, minimal toxins. CONS: Not paintable and limited color choices.
  3. One-piece countertop and backsplash: These units of solid surface or molded laminate have chemically fused seams or no seams. PROS: Lower maintenance, improved sanitation. CONS: Make look too uniform.

Section 4--User-friendly Countertops

"Universal design" means tasks can be safe and comfortable regardless of abilities, age, or height. Home renovation is a chance to facilitate this with counter heights from 30 to 45 inches above the floor.

4.1: Accessible Countertop Design Techniques

  1. Cut corners. Literally. Round or bevel them, allowing extra material for the cut. PROS: Prevents bruises. CONS: Allow extra material for equal overhang around corner.
  2. Match functions to counter heights: Use 30-inch high cabinets for food prep and seated users. Use 34-1/2-inch high counter heights for shaving, face washing. Raise big appliances to match counter heights. Breakfast bars can be 42 inches high. PROS: Several heights facilitate simultaneous task performance. CONS: Adjustments to existing cabinets and stub walls may be needed. Continuous work surfaces may be broken up.
  3. Adjustable countertop heights: Motorized or hand-cranked raising and lowering countertops and sinks with knee space below accommodate seated and standing users. PROS: Surface can be 36 to 48 inches wide. CONS: No under-counter storage.

Section 5: Make Countertops Earn Their Keep

Kitchens need spaces to set items from the oven, dishwasher, sink, or refrigerator, etc. During a home renovation, you can do this within existing space.

5.1: Unique Options for Countertops

  1. Up and away. Mount microwaves, toaster ovens, coffee makers, phones, etc. under overhead cabinets or on blank walls. PROS: Creates countertop depth and continuity. CONS: Some users can't reach appliances.
  2. Pull-outs: Make a pull-out board from a drawer by replacing the box with a board. PROS: Stays hidden until needed. CONS: Drawer storage is lost.
  3. Heat-resistant insert: Replace stove-side countertop section with stainless steel, stone, or tile. PROS: You've created a hot spot! CONS: Insert seams require anti-bacterial cleaning.
  4. Roll 'em! Outfit an under-counter cabinet with casters and a countertop. Park it under your counter and remove for temporary island use or a table-setting cart. PROS: Use as a prep center or cart. CONS: Less storage than a built-in.

Section 6--Create a Backsplash "Wow!" Factor

Splurge on the backsplash--especially one that meets overhead cupboards--with materials too delicate or costly for the countertops. Marble, stainless, bigger tiles with glass tile trim, barnwood planks--who knows? Give that old house some flare!

6.1: Customized Backsplashes

  1. Metallic laminates: Exciting textures, patterns, and colors use adhesive and heat to bond to substrata, then are wall-mounted under overhead cupboards. PROS: More affordable than metallic tiles or metal sheets. CONS: Pricier than plastic laminates.
  2. Decorative tiles: Mix, match, or accent the endless tile choices available. PROS: Grout color can be a design element, free from countertop stains. CONS: Time-consuming installation. Grout should be sealed and maintained.
  3. Mirrors and more: Add sparkle with mirror tiles. Pick up cabinet doors' beadboard accents. Paint your own graphics. Think outside of the box. PROS: Personalizes the kitchen. CONS: Avoid stainable surfaces. Could be pricey.

About the Author
Suzanne Clemenz designed her passive solar home and interacted with the contractors every day of the 6-month project. She started drawing floor plans and making models in the early '70s after purchasing several building lots. Recently she expanded and remodelled her newly-purchased home, working with contractors on the floorplan, electrical changes, painting, installation of wood laminate flooring, flood prevention walls and stonework, major drainage issues, an irrigation system and a landscaping. Researching and keeping up on issues and products related to home design and maintenance is an ongoing avocation.

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