Kate Heyhoe

Kate's Global Kitchen

Countertops: It's a Material World
PLUS: Survival Recipes, Phase 3
Part 7 of the
FoodWine's Kitchen Remodel

by Kate Heyhoe


Along with cabinetry, countertops can be the strongest visual elements of any kitchen. In my remodel, I knew the large, dual-level custom peninsula (see photo 7A for a bigger picture and caption) I designed would dominate the kitchen, so picking the right countertop color was critical—too bland and it would wash out, too bold and it would shout. More importantly, I had to find the right type of surface material. I needed durability that was both affordable and attractive.

Preparing the countertop...

Preparing the countertop...

Consider this: A kitchen work surface takes more abuse than the average floor. It has to handle temperature extremes ranging from bags of ice to hot pots, falling objects and hefty 20-pound turkeys. Knives, rough bottomed pots and ceramics can gouge, nick or scratch. Red wine, tomato, saffron, turmeric, and other foods can stain. Countertops, especially adjacent to the sink, must withstand damage from water and liquids.

Here's what I ruled out: Tile and grout countertops—tile gets scratched, and grout can discolor. I've been surprised at the number of books that recommend tile countertops. Sure, they're one of the most affordable materials, but the tile countertops in my previous house convinced me: never again. They looked great at first, but in just a few years they became pitted, and rough-bottomed pots like my Le Creuset cookware easily scratched the ceramic surface. The grout, which apparently was never sealed, grew permanently stained near the sink and under my potted herb plants. In some areas, the grout even chipped and the tile cracked. Tile, it seems, is a lot more fragile than an active kitchen like mine can tolerate.

Granite is handsome, but it's expensive, can stain, and things dropped on it's super hard surface are sure to break. Stainless steel shows scratches and looks too similar to our black and brushed stainless appliances; I wanted a countertop with enough warmth to balance the tech look. Plastic laminate like Formica is very affordable, but not very durable—it's prone to scratching, burn marks and water damage at seams.


Solid Surface Pick: Swanstone

So I went with a solid-surfacing material, but not just any solid surface: I chose Swanstone. Solid surface material as a category consists of integrated, man-made materials (such as acrylics) that are highly durable and are to a certain extent repairable if scratched or stained. Most people think of Corian when they hear "solid surfacing," but dozens of manufacturers exist, and each product varies in its attributes.

Here's why I picked Swanstone over other solid surface products: Swanstone is compression molded under heat and pressure, whereas Corian (and others) are simply poured, or cast, into a mold. As such, Swanstone is fives times stronger and five times more impact resistant than any other solid surface material. Plus, it can cost some 40 to 50 percent less than Corian.

Swanstone has other benefits as well. You can do just about anything to Swanstone without fear of permanent damage. It's extremely heat resistant, but you want to avoid setting a hot pot straight from the stove to the countertop, especially on a seam (such as a corner where two sections are mitered together), as this may cause the seam to "pop" or become unglued. (See photo 7B.)

Clean-up is a breeze. Most of the time I simply wipe the surface clean with a damp sponge and mild detergent. It really does resist stains and scratches, and if these do appear, no worry: they're easily removed with a dab of household abrasive cleanser (such as Comet) and a Scotch-Brite pad. For a buffed up sheen, I spray on a product called Countertop Magic or Pledge to bring out a glossy finish.


From Customization to the Kitchen Sink

If your remodel involves standard size countertops, then you can save money by using Swanstone's pre-molded countertops. As with laminates, these don't require special tools or installation, but unlike laminates, they have Swanstone's remarkable durability and seamless front-edge.

My kitchen, however, required a custom countertop, mainly due to the complicated peninsula I just had to have. This peninsula cost more in both materials and fabrication labor, but it's now the hub of the whole house and worth every cent.

Dual-Level Peninsula: (See photo 7C.) The peninsula has two levels: one at standard counter height of 36 inches, and the other at standard bar height of 43 inches. Our contractor built a wooden ponywall in back of the cabinets to support the raised bar countertop. of course, I couldn't just live with a straight peninsula extension, which would have reduced the costs. I designed it with two angled sections, almost in a C-shape. The peninsula functions more efficiently this way, has more surface area than a straight extension, and seems more visually and spatially elegant.

Larger Countertop: I also designed the peninsula's lower countertop to be extra deep: standard countertops are about 24 inches deep, but the lower peninsula is a full 28 inches deep, creating more workspace and making it seem like a restaurant style kitchen. I could have made it even deeper, but I would have had difficulty reaching across it to the bar level.

Under the Counter Leg-Space: (See photo 7D.) Notice the open area under the counter. This is one of the most practical features I designed for my kitchen. I can perch here on a stool to prep and chop vegetables, with the pull-out waste baskets just to my right side, while my gas cooktop is immediately adjacent on the left. I also store both my sitting stool and a step stool in the open space when not in use. and because I sit directly across from my guests at the peninsula, I can socialize while I'm prepping and cooking. For me, this vacant area—strategically placed—is the best use of space I've ever experienced in a kitchen.

Islands and Peninsulas in the Stream: Why not install a freestanding kitchen island instead of a peninsula? For some kitchens, an island may be preferable. But I wanted maximum counterspace. with an island, I would have lost about 3 feet of countertop to a traffic passageway. with a peninsula I get more countertop, and there's no need to walk all the way around the peninsula at all times: I simply pass dishes and foods across the upper peninsula, much like a restaurant kitchen passes plates to its serving staff.

Higher Backsplash: Most backsplashes are 4 inches high. Mine are over 5 inches high to maintain the visual flow of the peninsula's raised counter all the way around the kitchen. As a bonus, they help prevent splatters on the wall. If it's an affordable option, consider installing wider backsplashes to help protect the walls and ease clean-up.

Lower Countertop in Butler's Pantry: (See photo 7E.) Standard countertops (36 inches high) can be too tall for shorter persons (including most women). and some tasks like kneading dough are more easily performed at lower levels. At 5'4" I'm fairly comfortable with the standard countertop height for most tasks. But for rolling dough and making pastries, I lowered the countertop height in the butler's pantry. I now have 5 feet of counterspace that sits at 34 inches high, and the smooth Swanstone material lends itself well to rolling out and kneading dough. Note that to lower the countertop level, I had to shave off 2 inches from the toe-kick supports of the base cabinets, and in order for the toe-kick on the adjacent tall pantry to line up, it too had to be cut down by 2 inches. But try to leave about 2-inches of toe-kick intact, otherwise your shoes will be knocking the cabinets.

Integrated Kitchen Sink: (See photo 7F.) One of the best features of a solid surface material like Swanstone is the integrated kitchen sink. My sink, made of the same material as the countertops, is seamlessly molded and undermounted to the countertop. There are no grooves for food to collect in or water to seep under. I chose to keep the sink color the same as the countertop, so that the sink blended in, but you can also opt for a different color and/or pattern to contrast your countertop. Also, Swanstone offers drop-in sinks, and their total line includes single bowls, double bowls, bar sinks and bathroom vanity top sinks.

Colors and Patterns: Swanstone's color line emphasizes warm, muted tones, such as dusty rose, desert tans, dusky granite and pale blue hues, among others. The patterns include granites, solids, and galaxy or speckled styles. I stuck with neutral tones in our bathrooms (Swanstone makes vanity tops, bathroom sinks, and shower and bath panels as well). But in the kitchen I needed a bolder color to stand out against Thomasville's Sandalwood Maple cabinetry and the handsome but neutral colored Armstrong flooring. I choose Swanstone's "Tahiti Evergreen," which is somewhere between a celadon, a wintergreen and a pale aquamarine, randomly flecked with tiny white and gray specks. It's an unusual color and it makes an elegant statement, without being harsh or overbearing. In fact, it's a perfect color for the Global Gourmet kitchen, as it complements everything from Mediterranean to Asian to Southwestern motifs.


Survival Recipes: Phase 3

At some point, you'll be left with only a skeleton kitchen. No sink, no stove. Just a fridge, perhaps a microwave, and maybe an outdoor grill.

Here's a tip: Consider grilling—indoors. Indeed, an indoor electric grill can be a remodeler's best friend: It's not weather dependent, cooks everything from meats to veggies to breads, and cleans up quickly (some models are even dishwasher proof). For great advice on the A to Z of indoor grills and complete menus and recipes, check out Holly Rudin-Braschi's Grill Power—it's the bible of indoor grilling. Her "Kitchen Sink Caesar Salad" recipe below is the ideal remodeler's meal—especially when you're "kitchen sink-less."

Not all of these recipes are totally without kitchen elements, but they're pretty minimal. Some are ones that you can make a couple days ahead and serve during the most radial remodeling period. Also, consider your neighborhood deli as your "kitchen away from home"—it's a great resource for pre-cooked roast beef, turkey, rotisserie chickens, sliced cheeses and breads—everything you need to whip up a toothsome sandwich, fancy salad, microwaved soup or even a grilled pizza.

Kitchen Sink Chicken Caesar Salad
Turkish Fennel Salad
Citrus Salad with Black Pepper
Cold Avocado-Tequila Soup
Chilled Southern Spiced Shrimp
Chile Rubbed, Grilled Rib Eye Steak
Microwaved Mooshoo Turkey
Turkey in Saffron-Cream Sauce


Part 8: From Floor to Finish
A durable floor—and more!

Kate Heyhoe


FoodWine's Kitchen Remodel Series
(with Survival Recipes)


Copyright © 2001, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.


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This page created March 2001