Get to grips with the complicated world of composite countertops
Natural stone products are beautiful and dramatic, but they can be tricky beasts in the kitchen. In response, manufacturers have come up with composite materials – a carefully balanced mix of stone or mineral and added elements, with specific fabrication processes that improve durability and design.
These fall into three categories: engineered stone, solid surface and sintered stone. Each offers the strength, solidity and even the appearance of a natural product, but with improvements in flexibility and usability that make them ideal for kitchens.
More in this series: How to Choose the Perfect Stone Worktop for Your Kitchen; How to Choose the Perfect Wooden Worktop for Your Kitchen
Engineered stone: for a natural look with added extras
Engineered stone, most commonly known as quartz, is the most popular choice of composite worktop. This feisty material is made up of around 93% crushed quartz mixed with a small percentage of epoxy resin and pigments.
Most manufacturers use a vibro-compression vacuum method developed by Breton SpA in Italy, a company that still holds the patent for the equipment used. This process can create uniform patterns with no unusual variations or deposits (something you can’t guarantee with natural stone) and produces joins that match better and are less obvious.
Quartz can be installed and cut in a similar way to stone, so most suppliers will offer it alongside their natural product. It tends to be less expensive, which is another benefit.
If you’re looking for specific colours and no surprises, then quartz will probably fit the bill for you. Silestone, used in this scheme, is perhaps the best-known quartz brand and is available in a spectrum of shades. There are more than 90 colours to choose from, and different textures as well – polished, suede and volcano.
Caesarstone and Cambria tend to replicate natural stone and offer fewer colours. However, Caesarstone has a couple of more adventurous ranges, setting semi-precious gems or unusual textures into the worktop material for special effect. Cambria tends to keep things simple, but puts great emphasis on a reliably high-quality polish and finish.
For a quartz worktop that reflects the light, you could go for Zodiaq or Okite – the latter offers some products with translucent elements that can be backlit for a glowing effect.
The added resin in quartz makes it non-porous and easier to maintain, and it doesn’t need to be sealed. It also increases flexibility, making it less likely to crack on installation.
All quartz tops are pretty much impervious to water and therefore resistant to stains and nasty germs. Silestone includes Microban, too – an antimicrobial product that fights bacteria.
Take a look at these pale and interesting kitchens
Solid surface: for seamless flexibility
Another form of composite material is solid surface, which uses a mix of mineral dust and acrylic to create a smooth and flowing work surface. Most solid surface designs will not try to replicate stone as they have a greater proportion of plastic in them. However they are incredibly flexible, impervious to water and joins can be glued and sanded so that the finish is seamless.
The first company to develop this product was DuPont with its brand Corian. Now it shares the market with a few other brands, including Hi-Macs, Staron and Apollo Slab Tech.
The most satisfying way to use solid surface materials is not to limit yourself to a simple worktop. Brands such as Hi-Macs and Corian specialise in 3D installations – so why not continue up the wall or down to the floor, and make the most of those seamless joins? Sinks can also be moulded out of solid surface and set into a worktop using those blended seams.
Although solid surfaces sound densely structured, in fact Corian is normally fabricated at 13mm thick, then set across MDF frameworks to create a chunkier worktop.
Take a tour of this dark kitchen transformed by a small extension
Sintered stone: for an indestructible worksurface
Newly developed and highly rated, sintered stone or porcelain worktops can take anything your kitchen might care to throw at it. Natural raw materials and minerals are put through a sintering process that replicates the way igneous rock is formed: putting them under extreme heat and pressure. The result is a product that is non-porous, heatproof and immensely strong.
With the addition of pigments in the fabrication process and the option of different textures, the design possibilities of sintered stone are endless. Neolith, for example, offers a rusted metal finish, while Dekton has some stunning marble-effect designs.
Have you used composite worktops in your kitchen? Which type did you choose? Share your thoughts and experiences in the Comments section.