The residential kitchen has evolved from the standby of oak cabinets and plastic laminate countertops to a modern showpiece with exotic stone counters and commercial quality kitchen appliances.

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The kitchen is usually the hardest working space in the home.  Choosing durable yet attractive finishes is important, but that doesn’t mean you have to break the bank.  Here are some tips on choosing materials for your kitchen, including how to get a high end look without spending a ton of money.

Choosing countertops

There are so many countertop materials to choose from, many people simply just don’t know where to start.  There can also be large price variation even within a material type (such as natural stone).

The most affordable option is plastic laminate.  There are some sophisticated patterns and colors available today that when paired with a tile backsplash and nice paint colors can look great.  There are also edge details that eliminate seams which can get damaged or chipped, and make the countertop more closely resemble more high end products such as stone.

Another, unusual, alternative is using linoleum flooring such as Marmoleum as a countertop. You can either install a wood or metal edge along the front of the counter, or, for a seamless appearance, roll the flooring over a half-round bullnose lip and secure the flooring at the underside of the counter.

For middle-of-the road budgets, look into solid surface materials such as Corian.  These materials have evolved well beyond the basic white, and are now available in patterns that look more like stone and other materials. A big benefit of solid surface countertops is the ability to have a seamless integrated sink fabricated into the countertop, so wiping water into the sink and cleaning up is easier.

Another solid surface countertop option is Quartz.  Quartz countertops turn a natural material into slabs that appear stone-like.  One of the many benefits of these countertops is that they do not absorb liquids.  Many natural stones will absorb liquids and can stain very easily, even when sealed.  In quartz you will also find some pretty convincing alternatives to stones like Carrera Marble or Jerusalem Limestone which, when used in a kitchen, will get stained from wines, tomato sauces, and other liquids. Some people like the staining, and call it ‘patina’, while others can’t stand it. Fortunately, there are now solutions for both types of people.

Natural stone is perhaps the most popular material, and a visit to your local stone yard will overwhelm you with literally hundreds of choices.  To help you find a suitable stone more quickly, ask for help looking for stone only within a certain price or color range. When you find a stone you like, consider taking a sample home to see how it holds up to spilled wine, ketchup, mustard and oils.  Beware of stones with a lot of fillers- these are a sign of lower quality stone and can get damaged more easily, or even fall out.

Other new choices are countertops made with paper, glass, and concrete.  Many of these are fine for kitchen use, but some may not hold up well over time.  If you are using a material that is not ‘tried and true,’ try to inspect an installation that has been in use for several years. You may like the appearance when new, but in a few years if it looks old and damaged, you may not be so happy.

Choosing cabinets

One tip when choosing cabinets is to look at the interior door style in your home (the doors to each room, such as a bedroom).  Often, choosing a coordinating cabinet door style to match the interior doors within the home is an easy way to ensure that the new kitchen design integrates into the design of your home.

Of course, you can deviate from this!  Consider choosing a different material for an island, and maybe a more elaborate door style.  Don’t make the mistake of selecting an overly fancy door style unless your house warrants it.  You don’t want your friends to come into your kitchen and say, “wow, look at your fancy cabinets!” You want them to say, “wow, look at your amazing kitchen!”  If you have kids and pets, consider a stained wood cabinet rather than a painted cabinet.  Generally they will end up looking better for longer, and they are easier to touch up when they get nicked.  If you are consider a faux or decorative finish, keep in mind that that you should err on the side of the finish looking less distressed than you think it should, especially if you are looking at a sample painted on just one door.  It’s easy to be too heavy handed with faux or decorative finishes, and only realize it when you see it installed on all the kitchen cabinets.

Choosing flooring

Often our first choice for kitchen flooring is to continue with the same material used on the floor of adjacent spaces.  If there are wood floors in adjacent rooms, a good solution can be to extend the wood into the kitchen.  This is especially true in a small space, where continuing the same flooring material will usually make a space look larger.  If you do not want wood floors in the kitchen, then consider a tile that is a similar color value to adjacent wood floor, so the transition is softened, and does not divide the space.  A resilient material like cork can be an excellent choice for kitchen as it is slightly soft underfoot and more forgiving if you drop a dish on it.  Natural materials like Marmoleum are also great are a good ‘green’ choice since they are made from rapidly renewable materials.

Choosing a backsplash

It seems like choosing the backsplash material is often the hardest choice for people to make.  It’s usually the last material to be chosen since countertops, floors, cabinets and appliances usually offer fewer options to choose from and have more stringent functional requirements. However, the backsplash can have a huge visual impact and help tie other materials together.  If you’re having trouble choosing a material, look to the other surfaces in the kitchen for inspiration.

In a more modern kitchen, choosing a stainless steel backsplash that matches your stainless steel appliances can be a good choice.  For a less expensive alternative, look at plastic laminates that look like stainless steel that can even be installed by a do-it-yourselfer (but resist the temptation to use these on countertops as many are not rated for horizontal surface use).  Another alternative would be to use a stainless steel tile, which are now available in many shapes and sizes (and even some that stick on and don’t require grout).

Glass tile can be another good choice to tie together different color materials.  There are so many different glass tiles available today it can be challenging to pick one, but a safe place to start is by choosing a glass tile that pulls colors from your countertop and cabinets.  Other materials you may consider are sheets of glass, plastic laminate, stone tile, ceramic tile, or even wood (painted or sealed, or course).  Bead board can be an inexpensive choice for a traditional kitchen, but be sure to seal the gap between the countertop and the wood with a good sealant so that water doesn’t wick under the wood and start to rot it.

While choosing materials for the kitchen can be challenging, take it step by step and you’ll get there.  Start with the countertop and cabinet finish.  Once you have those chosen, select a flooring material.  Then choose your backsplash and paint colors.  This process will help you get everything chosen faster, so you can get through the construction a little sooner and on to enjoying your new kitchen.

Tips to help you select the right materials

  • Showrooms can be daunting. An architect or interior designer will usually be able to help you get to the right solution a lot quicker than you would on your own.
  • Get samples of all the materials you want to use. Have a cabinet door ordered or fabricated in the finish you want so that you can take it to other showrooms to choose the other materials like flooring and tile.
  • If you are using tile, don’t choose cheap tile unless you really like it. Tile is difficult to replace, so choose a long lasting quality tile. If budget is an issue, choose a less expensive field tile and dress it up with a more expensive decorative accent tile.
  • Test the durability of materials on your samples. Try to stain the countertops. See how easy paint will chip off a finish.
  • Most wood gets darker with age and exposure to light. Think about this when choosing materials to be sure it’s a look you like over the long haul.

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