Design expert - A lesson in natural stone

Updated: 2013/9/1

In terms of space, kitchen surfaces create the most visual impact. More than just visually engaging, though, these surfaces need to be practical, strong and resilient. After all, these are the materials you will be slicing, dicing and chopping on. Those that can take the proverbial heat will end up serving you and your kitchen well.

Americans have discovered what Europeans did centuries ago: Nothing looks as beautiful or lasts as long as natural stone countertops. While stone can be expensive, it comes out on top in terms of investment, as it keeps its value should you decide to sell. Stone is beautiful, strong and durable.

When selecting slabs consider the following:

Be sure to see the slab at the stone supplier because you might miss key elements (imperfections etc.) in a 4-inch sample. I made that mistake once, and only once. Who knew that neat little sample actually had ice flow-like markings?

Consider how prominent or subdued you want the stone to be. If you are installing stone countertops throughout the perimeter, avoid markings that are too directional or too pronounced — with a proliferation of lava flows and rivulets or chips and flakes. The overall effect will have too much movement and seem too chaos inducing. On the other hand, a heavily veined stone would be great in isolation, as on an island.

Remember that all stone counters stain to some degree. How much is determined by porosity, hardness, and surprisingly, pattern. Heavily marked stones have a built-in concealer factor. Perfection comes at a very high price.

Take home a sample of your stone. Try soy sauce and lemon. Leave it on the sample and see how it lives in your kitchen. That way you can determine if you can live with it.

There are many different kinds of natural stone. Some are more suited to countertops than others. The key point to keep in mind is that all stone has different characteristics, and therefore requires different levels of upkeep. The key is to be educated about your particular stone, so you're ultimately satisfied with the end result and its long-term performance. Granite, marble, soapstone and limestone are all common countertop choices, and each has its pros and cons.

Granite: This is a very hard surface and difficult to scratch. In fact, only a diamond can scratch granite. In my opinion, not a good use of diamonds. It's a great choice in terms of maintenance and durability. Its trademark swirls, whorls and color palette make it incredibly popular.

Marble: This one stands on its own in terms of aesthetic appeal and visual characteristics. It has veining unlike any other stone, but it is softer and therefore scratches more easily. It is also more porous, which makes it more susceptible to stain. That didn't deter Marie Antoinette at Versailles though I am not sure she was doing the cooking.

Soapstone: A very dense stone, distinguished by its smooth, soft texture, soapstone looks vintage and modern at the same time, and is impervious to chemical mishaps — even red wine and lemon. However, this stone requires monthly oiling (try daily) with a spritz of mineral oil or olive oil to keep it looking rich. For me personally, soapstone is never an option. I could not live with the constant spotting. Sure it comes out with the spritz of mineral oil, but who has time for that?

Limestone: This natural stone is generally light colored and has few markings, giving it a minimalist appeal. Unfortunately though, it is fragile and stain prone, but stains can be buffed out with a scrubbie or a bit of steel wool. I love it so much I used it in my kitchen.

Quartzite: The new kid on the block. Denser even than granite. But watchout. It's porous, meaning it absorbs water and looks spotty until it dries.

Fact: Depth counts. The deeper the stone in the earth's surface the denser it is. Sandstone, the one with the visible fossils, is shallowest. And it's a no-no. Too soft.

Engineered stone is becoming more and more popular. Composite alternatives — Silestone, Ceasar and Zodiac to name a few — are a bit cheaper than their natural counterparts. Made up mostly of quartz (93 percent),with just a little pigment and polymer (7 percent), the hybrids have many of natural stone's virtues and few of the shortcomings. They are more durable, scratch and stain resistant… even germ proof.

But they are man-made, and they lack the beauty and rhythm of natural stone's veins and idiosyncracies — the markings that give character. Hybirds just aren't as beautiful. Yes, I'm practical and who doesn't like to avoid dings, scratches etc? But without beauty, there is no point to being practical. My own kitchen island is limestone. My inherited-with-the-house kitchen has so many textures, surfaces and patterns that I wanted a clean, laboratory look. Sure it has a few battlescars—so do I, I've raised four kids — but, 20 years later, I still love the clean, smooth surface of the limestone. And it's still stain free.

Every day newer and better stones are being discovered. The quaries run dry and brand new locations are found with never-before-seen stones. A trip to a stone yard is a real education. It is sometimes impossible to believe that nature can create such whimsical dramatic beauty.

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