The most used surface in your kitchen is your bench top so it’s fair to say that it’s these surfaces that require the most attention and budget when planing your kitchen. The perfect bench top needs to be heat and stain resistant, non-porous and easy to keep clean and of course capable of withstanding a lot of wear. Aside from all these factors we want the top to look good as well!
The main governing factor can be budget, and the bench top can easily represent 30% of the cost of the kitchen. So setting a budget at an early stage will help your designer in specifying bench top materials that fall within it.
Perhaps the most common bench top material used in the New Zealand market is high-pressure laminates (HPL) or most commonly known by the brand name, ‘Formica’.
When HPL’s were introduced onto the market as bench tops back in the 1940’s the product was more hard wearing than HPL’s produced today. The main reason was that in the 60’s manufactures had to make the product more pliable in order to meet the demand for rolled edges and up stands. The ‘softening’ of the product to allow it to bend also reduced its resistant to abrasion and therefore its life expectancy.
Why this small history lesson? Well a lot of clients will say that “their Formica bench is 25 years old and still looks as good as the day it was put in”. This expectation is the reason they may specify it again but it’s highly unlikely the new bench will give them even half the life of their original one.
With their limited life expectancy what are the attractions of HPL’s? Well their colour range is huge and regularly updated, and it’s not just colours. Patterns, textures and gloss levels are also consistently being introduced. This provides an opportunity to keep a contemporary kitchen current with a simple bench top change.
The biggest attraction is the price. Value for money it’s very hard to beat HPL’s. If they are manufactured correctly they are water resistant, reasonably heat resistant and easy to keep clean.
Granite and Engineered stone share equal place for the second most specified bench surface.
Granite has a long successful history as bench top material but shouldn’t be confused with marble. Granite is a dense natural product that has good impact and wear characteristics. It can tolerate a reasonable amount of heat although red hot pans can crack the stone. It relies on a sealer to make it completely non-absorbent and it is important to maintain them correctly. With Granite you need to be very careful when selecting a stone from samples, being a natural product every single piece is unique, so if it’s possible choose the actual slab that your top will be cut from. Joins in granite tops are obvious as the stonemasons cannot allow the slabs to touch.
Engineered stone is a man made product and consists of approximately 95% quartz chip and 5% bonding agent. It has similar characteristics to granite when it comes to fabricating and installation but it also has some completely unique features. Engineered stone can be selected off a sample as the colour and pattern is usually very consistent. There is a good selection of light colours, something natural granite struggles to offer. It can be used in a solid 20mm or 30mm thickness or as a 6mm veneer system over a substrate. This product has grown in popularity over the past 10 years and is now as popular as granite; I wouldn’t be surprised to see it surpass granite in the near future.
Stainless steel has been affected recently by rising metal prices, but it still proves to be very price competitive. It's a very robust and practical top and its popularity for commercial kitchens is unparalleled . The original polished or brushed finish soon gives way to a myriad of scratches to create it’s final look, and it’s this transition stage that a lot of home owners don’t like. Architectural finishes are available which provide patterns that can hide the scratching but these can add to the complication of fabricating and price.
Timber tops have long been a favourite and are used to provide a natural personalised feel to a kitchen. As with granite choosing from a sample can result in major variations with the final top so select carefully. Timber tops need to be manufactured by specialised professionals. The two things that timber hate is water and heat and both of these are evident in a kitchen. Special care needs to be taken to protect the timber from these to reduce movement to a minimum.
There has been a recent rejuvenation of Acrylic tops mainly due to more suppliers offering a 100% acrylic material at competitive pricing . These tops cover most of the desired requirements listed at the beginning of the article and are priced accordingly. They can be formed to any shape or thickness you want and the joins are invisible. Although they will scratch repairs and maintenance are effective and easy. Pure colours and softness that few other surfaces can equal makes acrylic tops a favourite for designers.
Other bench top options include tiles, glass and marble. Most of these have some major limitations and need careful investigation before specifying.
The bench top is not only the major work surface but it’s also a major visual element in the design. Finding a top that meets your practical and visual requirements can sometimes be frustrating especially if your budget doesn’t allow the full range.
Seek out the help of a qualified and reputed designer. They will be able to eliminate those materials that don’t meet your requirements and suggest some you may never have been aware of.