The concrete countertops in Eleanor Zuckerman’s San Francisco kitchen are handcrafted works of art.
Custom designed by Fu-Tun Cheng of the Berkeley-based Cheng Concrete, they feature colors like brick, flowing lines and pictures of nautilus shells.
“With concrete, there is a lot of room for creativity, to say nothing of color,” says Zuckerman, a retired psychologist. “It gives you flexibility.”
Homeowners looking to spice up their kitchens can install a variety of countertops that go beyond the traditional laminate and tile. Today’s options include concrete and butcher-block-style wood, and a range of custom-designed colors and shapes. IceStone countertops use recycled glass from broken bottles.
“So many different materials are used in countertops these days,” says Tony Izzo, Curtis Lumber’s corporate kitchen and bath manager in Albany, N.Y. Until about 25 years ago, he says, roughly 90 percent of countertops in U.S. homes were laminate, and the rest tile.
Then DuPont’s Corian hit the market, followed by granite and quartz, which are current favorites, Izzo says, adding that just half of today’s countertops are laminate.
The burgeoning interest in alternative countertops is the natural extension of that trend. And they are becoming more affordable.
“Slowly, over the years, the market has really grown,” says Mike Heidebrink, president of Cheng Concrete. When the company opened in 2002, it catered mostly to well-heeled dot-comers willing to spend more to bring an artisan’s touch to their kitchens.
But today, Heidebrink says, Cheng also serves a growing number of skilled do-it-yourselfers who want to shape, mold and install countertops.
Nils Wessell in Brooklyn, N.Y., says the do-it-yourself movement is also fueling his businesses, in a different way.
“This DIY interest in cooking leads to people wanting a suitable surface to chop up meat on,” says Wessell, whose company, Brooklyn Butcher Blocks, makes wooden countertops with enough thickness and durability to be used as cutting boards. Clients range from barbecue restaurants to home cooks.
While Wessell says his handmade countertops are more expensive than factory-made ones, he can make “a sizable countertop for about a grand.”
Of course, no countertop is perfect. Concrete can stain, so it must be sealed properly. Wooden countertops take a beating from knives, although Wessell says they can be easily maintained with semiregular sanding.
Soapstone, popular for its natural look, has its quirks as well, Izzo says: It weathers over time. “Consumers generally have to accept that idea and know that they want a living finish like that,” he says.
Granite countertops can release trace amounts of the radioactive gas radon, Izzo says. (The Marble Institute of America notes that many other items in and around a home also can emit radon.) However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems most granite countertops safe, adding little to a house’s radon level. It depends on the rock that is used, the agency says, recommending that homeowners concerned about radon get their countertops tested.