Protecting stone countertops

In the early 2000s, granite countertop popularity skyrocketed, replacing longtime tile tops in kitchens whose owners battled broken tiles and stained grout. The durability and ease of maintenance won customers over, and they were willing to pay a premium for the convenience and naturally appealing look.

Since then, granite tops have moderated in pricing and there are less expensive prefabricated options in addition to actual slabs carved out to the needs of your kitchen or bathroom. But there are plenty more materials in the stone countertop arena such as marble, quartz, onyx, travertine and even concrete that are now coming into style.

Whether you are remodeling a kitchen or bathroom or purchasing a new home, once a stone counter material is chosen, you’ll need to know how to maintain it. Here are a few tips for understanding how to work with different types of stone counters seen on the market today.

Granite

Granite countertops were once a premium but now often come standard in new home builds today. And there’s a very good reason. Granite is silica-based natural stone that gains its polished look in the countertop manufacturing process.

It stands up well to anything acidic such as lemon or other juices, wine and certain cleaners. Granite is extremely durable and does not require a lot of maintenance.

However, overlooking the minimal maintenance required can pose problems with clouding and a hazy surface. Hard water can also take a toll on granite’s look.

“Hard water will certainly impact granite, and it’ll stain stones in general,” said Julie Porter, owner of IDS, a local interior design firm. “You need to polish and seal it, I recommend, once or twice a year.”

Frank Friedlander, owner of TuffSkin Surface Protection, a product used on marble, onyx and travertine, said cleaning and polishing granite twice a year can usually be done in about a half hour in most standard-sized kitchens. But he also recommends, as a general rule, that all cleaners used on any stone surface should be pH neutral.

“That’s the basis of all good stone care products,” he added.

Beyond cleaners and polishes, which are actually solvent-based, Friedlander says it’s good practice for homeowners to use only pH-balanced personal care and other cleaning products as well.

“The biggest mistake people often make is putting a dish soap on their bathroom counter and they don’t realize that some are acidic,” he said. “Others will use lemon cleaners and soaps that may be acidic, too. Some don’t believe it, but what you’re washing your hands with can destroy the countertop. You should always have neutral soaps near a natural stone.”

Quartz

In a bit of a trend shift, Porter says quartz is one of the most popular counters requested today. Like granite, it is extremely durable.

Quartz is an engineered stone, not a solid natural one. Quartz is found in abundance in the earth’s crust and, for counters, it is ground up and mixed with binders and resins to achieve a unique speckled look. Unlike granite, it does not have the natural stone veining that some homeowners like, but it does offer a natural look of its own.

“Quartz can withstand any type of red wine, lemon juice, any of those things that will destroy counters,” Porter said. “About 15 years ago it was really expensive — about twice as much as granite — but the price has come down quite a bit.”

Quartz requires no sealing, so it is probably the easiest to maintain. However, extensive sun exposure can cause some fading or cracking, and it is not as heat resistant as granite.

Soft stones

Marble is an extremely popular counter in the casino industry, and it can also be found in many high-end homes. Marble is soft and porous, and each counter has its own unique, deep-veined look, offering a classy, elegant appeal that is attractive to many homeowners.

Unique minerals found in each type of marble give each counter a specific regional color. No stone selection is really the same. You can find Carrara white from Italy, Purbeck brown from the United Kingdom, Swedish Green, the pink salmon color Etowah from Georgia, and the list goes on.

Marble, however, requires considerable maintenance. Because the stone is so soft, it requires restoration, periodically, where workers use a rotating grinder with diamonds to grind down the surface and polish it.

“These companies do a great job, but the stone is susceptible to etching the next time you put a glass of OJ on the counter,” Friedlander noted.

“We see marble in some high-end homes. It’s a beautiful product, but this is really a case where I tell people, ‘Don’t mess with Mother Nature.’ You have to take care of it,” Porter added.

For marble counters, Porter has used TuffSkin, a polyester-based film that comes in a peel-and-stick format to cover the counter and guarantee against etching for up to two years. Many installations last three to five years, but Friedlander’s longest installation has lasted 12, he said.

The only drawback to the film is that it can be compromised by doing any cutting directly on the counter with a knife, and sometimes children may try to peel it off, Porter added.

“It’s like a laminate cellphone screen,” Friedlander said. “I’d say it’s installed in about every casino in Las Vegas. … It’s made to be replaceable. It’s easily removed and replaced.”

The product is also used for onyx, an extremely soft stone that requires regular sealing and resealing, and travertine, a smoother, less veiny limestone that is combined with cement. Travertine, too, requires resealing every two to three years and needs to be disinfected regularly.

Concrete, soapstone

Concrete counters are becoming increasingly popular, but they are very porous and prone to cracking. Because of its calcium base, TuffSkin also can be used on concrete counters. Concrete counters are coated with industrial sealers, but these coatings can be damaged by heat.

Soapstone counters are a popular inexpensive stone counter option. They are made from a metamorphic rock that contains quartz, talc and other minerals. Soapstone is usually found in blues, greens or gray colors. It will, however, naturally darken as it ages.

Like marble, no counter’s look is the same. It is prone to cracking and scratches quite a bit. Scratches can, however, be sanded out, and cracking can be prevented with regular oiling.

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