You can't go wrong with a granite countertop. It's durable, low-maintenance and attractive. But, with dramatic slabs of heavily veined marble and other, more exotic natural stones popping up in high-gloss designer kitchens and baths, those familiar tightly-speckled surfaces don't always bring out the oohs and aahs the way they used to. If you're seeking to set your kitchen or bathroom apart, other stone options are catching on that could one day bring America's decades-long infatuation with granite to a grinding halt.
In fact Bo Barkley, co-owner of Dorado Soapstone of Texas , is counting on it. When he and his business partner became soapstone wholesalers a few years ago, it was admittedly a gamble to specialize in a single stone, particularly one whose last heyday was more than a century ago. "Soapstone was a popular material for counter and sinks in the early 1900s. It fell out of favor after a while but we believed it was going to revive itself when we got into the business." And their efforts have proved correct. In their first year in business, their Austin-Texas-based business was lucky to get four or five kitchen contracts a month. Even in this dodgy economy, they average 30 each month, which is even more impressive as this high-end finished product can cost up to $85 a square foot, equivalent to a high-end granite installation.
Still soapstone has something of an image problem which Barkley and his colleagues are working hard to correct though blogging, education forums with builders and other outreach efforts. It "sounds" like it wouldn't be tough. Like soap, the name suggests it could flake off or easily stain. Barkley notes that's not true. "It's non-porous and doesn't need to be sealed with a chemical agent.." As for aesthetics, it's a great alternative to the familiar high gloss look of granite and marble [which do need sealants]. It has a matte finish and is available in a range of colors from grays and black to dark green. "Its long wispy veins resemble marble more than granite," Barley said. And it is strong. "Before it became popular in kitchens, it was best known as a counter or work bench material in science labs. "Soapstone is also excellent as a trim product, where its used in window sills or for backsplash tiles.
Another high-end stone that is turning heads used to be best known for its use in altars and houses of worship. Onyx, considered a semi-precious stone, is a strictly high end product (at least $100 per square foot). It can be used in countertops or more discrete applications such as sinks, or backsplashes. Available in a wide color range from white to green, its translucent appearance gives it an alluring appeal.
Quartz offerings which nearly always include resins or other non-stone components are gaining in popularity as the brand options increase. A quartz product called Cambria is the top choice of StoneTrends, a fabricating company in Chesterfield, Mo. About a quarter of the quartz sold in the U.S. is under the Cambria brand, said StoneTrends owner Ted Liebig. Cambria is touted as being virtually maintenance-free, with no sealing or polishing necessary. It is now available in more than 80 colors from Bala Blue to Cardigan Red with the company adding 21 new hues in the past few months alone. Quartz appeals to people who want a consistent look as opposed to the random patterns of granite or marble.
Limestone is also gaining fans, particularly in bathrooms or around fireplaces, or as tiled backsplashes. "As an accent, limestone is great. It can provide a nice rustic feel if you're interested in that look," said Lynley Serratt, a designer with Palmer Todd Kitchen Interiors in San Antonio, Texas. "Because its edges are often thick, you don't want to use it as a countertop in a small kitchen. It would dwarf the room," she said.
If you remain partial to granite, however, there's more to discover than when you first encountered it 10 or 20 years ago. No longer strictly a luxury item, it's available at every price point with much more variety in styles and textures than in the past. Damar Natural Stone Imports, a wholesaler in Northbrook, Illinois, sells a popular mid-rage granite known as Nordic Black Antique that looks and feels like suede. Though durable as ever, "it feels soft like a puppy's belly," said salesperson Carol Kegel. And the colors are far more varied with more cool tones in the taupey-gray family and warmer ones like honey . "The last five years have really exploded with options in granite," added Kegel.
Whatever stone you choose, don't overlook details like edging in the pursuit of something distinctive. From double bullnose to beveled, edging options are also expanding with more consumers opting for mitered edges up to four inches thick, though the fancier the edge the higher the price. And the edging possibilities go beyond design complexity. One of the hottest phenomenon is mixing mediums in a single room. "Some people are choosing quartz countertops with the edges made from glass," said Serratt. "Or granite can share space with quartz or wood with limestone." Any combination is possible for those who choose to leave no stone unturned.
A Stone for Every Budget
$20-$40 sq. ft.( installed)
Slate-good for backsplashes, fire places and other accents
granites (familiar tightly speckled, prefabricated counters)
$40-$80 sq. ft. (installed)
Limestone (undulating surface can make it expensive to fabricate for large pieces like countertops)
Quartz products such as Cambria
More exotic granite (design has vivid movement and flow)
$80-$250 sq. ft. (installed)
Glass (Recycled such as Vetrazzo or non-recycled)
Rare granite with highly unusual veiningCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun