Today’s luxury countertops are easy to sell – they are beautiful and durable. Materials such as granite, solid surfaces, and ceramic tiles are making a statement not only about home fashion, but about easy maintenance. But beauty lasts only as long as proper care. Good fabricators will tell you how to clean and maintain your surfaces, but even then, there may be some suggestions that might have slipped through the cracks.
Today’s consumer has a delightful array of choices for countertop surfaces. The rules are being broken with materials crossing design boundaries every day. Concrete is now being formed for countertops instead of floors and Formica(R), the leader in laminate countertops, has entered the flooring arena. Ceramic tiles have come out of the bath and kitchen and are used for decorative as well as surface applications throughout living areas, indoors and out. And marble and granite, once found only in bank buildings, fabulous hotels and ultra residences are being fabricated into floors and countertops for an increasing number of executive homes.
If you are en”counter”ing a luxury surface for the first time, you want to know what kind of cleaning and maintenance products to use so you don’t accidentally etch the stone, strip color or cause any toxic penetrations. This is particularly important on surfaces in which many hands come into contact or food is prepared. So what kind of care do these luxury surfaces require?
Let’s begin by grouping the materials into two groups, natural and man-made.
Natural stone is the earth’s formation of minerals and gases that have slowly cooled and condensed over millions of years into a solid core, forming rock beds of various colors, patterns and degrees of porousness. They include marble, granite, slate, terra cotta, and terrazzo. Thousands of types of stones have been quarried throughout the centuries from all over the world and are finding their way to modern luxury kitchens. Because natural stone is porous, including the most dense stone – granite, it must be sealed to protect the stone from penetrating water or oils. Sealants, known in the industry as impregnators, do not protect the surface as such, but protect moisture from accummulating within the stone itself.
According to Andrew Levine, president of Stone Care International, nothing is maintenance-free, but understanding the nature of your surface will help you provide better maintenance. Stone Care makes specialized products for cleaning and sealing all surfaces, from laminates to solid surfaces to natual stone. “You still have to clean, and cleaning with the right product is important, because choosing the wrong product can cause a problem. Household cleansers are not for all surfaces. Tilex is fine for ceramic tile, but it can actually etch marble. Fantastic and 409 will attack the color and fade stone. Some stones won’t react, but you don’t want to take a chance. You have to choose the right product for the surface.”
“Stone has a PH balance due to its high moisture content. It is a chemical in a solid form, so it has different cleaning requirements. Granite comes from magma – it is a natural acid so it won’t react to acids, but marble is an alkalai, recrystallized limestone. It is vulnerable to acids like orange juice and colas.”
Solid surface, ceramic tile, concrete
Unlike natural stone, solid surfaces and ceramic tile are man-made
materials that are produced in factories. Solid surfaces, better known by name brands such as Avonite and Corian, are pressure/heat treated products in which the pigment of the surface design is consistent all the way through the countertop. As with natural stone, solid surface materials are custom fabricated for each kitchen. They are most in danger from burning, but should the worst happen, those without high gloss finishes can be sanded to restore the countertop.
Most complaints about solid surfaces center on their tendency to streak. Newspaper and fingerprints are particularly difficult to clean, along with any greasy residues. A cleanser that cuts grease, doesn’t streak, and doesn’t eat through the material is required. “Again, what you find in the supermarket may not be adequate. Windex is often used, because it won’t hurt solid surfaces and it doesn’t streak, but it doesn’t really clean either,” advises Levine.
Concrete is mixed, poured, stained, sanded and fabricated for a variety of looks including old world or very urban contemporary. Like natural stone, it requires a sealant to protect it from stains, moisture penetration and accompanying bacteria.
Ceramic tile receives a permanent glaze right in the kiln, making it fairly maintenance-free. The grout, which is porous, can have stain and sealer added to blend with the tile, and most tile can be laid so closely that the grout is not a problem. Although tile is the most vulnerable surface to chipping, it cleans easily with most over-the-counter products. Levine adds, “Ceramic tile makes a good surface. It comes from mudstone, and it is pretty safe, but watch out for products like drain openers.”
For a complete list of cleansers and sealants for a wide variety of countertops, visit Stone Care International.