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Countertop Confusion Syndrome

Updated: Feb 11

(Originally published in the Napa Valley Register)


Do your eyes gloss over, your heart palpitate and your brain lose oxygen at the thought of selecting a kitchen or bathroom countertop? This is called CCS, “Countertop Confusion Syndrome”, a condition affecting the home improvement community. The only known cure is a shot of insight with a booster each time a new countertop hits the market.


The primary cause of CCS is due to the numerous options from which to choose. To mitigate the symptoms, let’s rule out butcher blocks, poured concrete, stainless steel, and laminates. All have their place but are rarely the cause of CCS. The secondary cause is due to the interchanging of brand and generic names. For instance, Silestone, Zodiac, Cambria, Ceasarstone, and Pental are generically referred to as “quartz”. But more accurately speaking, they are the manufacturers of quartz slabs that are fabricated into countertops. These companies sell virtually the same product with their slabs being comprised of 93% quartz and 7% pigment and polymer. They differ by the colors they offer and, to a lesser degree, their price points - which depend on source locations.

CCS is further aggravated by the generic term “stone”. Just when you think you’re on the mend after distinguishing granite from marble, limestone, sandstone, soapstone, and travertine, you’re hit with a new rash of terms like Kashmir (granite), Carrara and Naxos (marbles). They are simply named after the regions from where they are quarried. Some names include color like Jerusalem Gold. Others describe their manufacturing process such as Tumbled Dore Antico.


Like other conditions, CCS can get worse before it gets better. The more you know about these materials, the more confused you can get. Let me simplify their DNA:


Quartz is a mineral that comes in different varieties including semi-precious gemstones like citrine, amethyst, onyx, tiger’s eye, and pure quartz (aka “rock crystal”). But the natural, crushed aggregate is the variety used to make countertops. These countertops are harder and more scratch-resistant than granite and practically maintenance free. The polymer binders make them non-porous and highly stain-resistant. They come in dozens of colors with some made to look like natural stone. So, for a home chef who loves citrus, red wine and tomato sauce, who also loves Carrara marble (which stains and scratches), quartz made to look like Carrara is a great alternative.


Granite is an igneous rock (think of lava) and therefore hard and durable. While quartz has become more popular than granite over the past dozen years, it cannot duplicate the colors found in the more rare and exotic granites, especially those from Africa and South America.


Quartz and granite countertops are comparable in terms of function and average price. Quartz slabs are typically consistent in size and color but granite slabs will always vary.


When quartz and granite are indicated, the CCS remedy boils down to aesthetics. As a designer, I love the clean look of quartz which allows me to be more creative with the rest of the space. However, a surface of Blue Bahia granite can take my breath away.

Soapstone is one of my favorite countertops but is not widely chosen. The reason could be that its color is medium to dark grey or green and deepens over time. It’s a metamorphic rock largely composed of mineral talc. There’s often white veining running through which creates interest without being busy. It’s luscious to the hand and feels a bit like soap – hence the name. It may not be as bulletproof as quartz and granite but soapstone is easy to maintain, needs no sealing, can handle heated pots and pans, and scratches can be buffed away. Even restaurants use soapstone in their kitchens. By the way, the outer layer of the gigantic sculpture of the Christ Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro is made of soapstone.


A less frequent symptom of CCS is confusing sandstone with soapstone. Sandstone is a sedimentary rock but not commonly (or ever) used to make countertops.


Marble, limestone and travertine are basically the same material with marble being the oldest and limestone the youngest. That is, over time limestone becomes denser, with veins being created by the pressure, and eventually morphs into marble. Travertine is also a morphed limestone but is created from artesian wells (contains lime). Travertine is the stone that sometimes looks like Swiss cheese because of its holes. It does not contain any metal and, therefore, never gets hot. Once the holes in travertine are filled with grout, it’s stronger than concrete.


Limestone, itself, is a sedimentary rock usually found in ocean beds. In fact, one of my client’s was so intrigued by the still-visible, millions-year-old fossils in her vanity countertop, that we designed the bathroom with a subtle oceanic theme.


My apologies to geologists for over-simplifying these definitions but the pressing issue here revolves around the cure for Countertop Confusion Syndrome. All three materials are more absorbent and less scratch and stain resistant than granite and quartz. All three should be sealed (as should granite but not quartz) but sealing does not provide full proof protection. People tend to choose marble solely for its unique beauty and array of colors and patterns. Limestone and travertine are usually neutral in color and have a friendly price point. None of these materials are fragile - the Empire State Building is made of limestone and much of Rome was built with travertine.


A few side notes: “Cultured marble” is not marble but a polyester resin. Slate looks a bit like soapstone but not as elegant. However, it’s virtually maintenance free and a terrific choice for homeowners with well water as mineral stains tend to dissipate into the slate. Onyx is over-the-top beautiful but should be chosen with caution as it is soft, fragile and expensive.

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