Whether you're planning a simple kitchen makeover or ripping out the entire room, the style and quality of your benchtops and vertical surfaces will have a major impact on the final result.
At its most simple you need to choose tough, resilient materials for benchtops as these will suffer the most use (and abuse). When it comes to vertical surfaces – cupboard doors, splashbacks and walls – you'll have different priorities. Here your focus will be on style and easy cleaning.
Let your lifestyle guide your choice, your cooking habits and family needs.
Another important factor in your decision making process will be the amount of time you want to spend on ongoing maintenance.
Then of course, there's budget. Kitchen renovations can be achieved on almost any budget, but it's good to remember that there is a correlation between the cost of the raw materials and their longevity.
If you are working to a tight budget, get the best possible kitchen benchtop you can afford as benchtops take a lot of punishment and, being custom designed, are difficult to replace independently. Cupboard doors and splashbacks can be replaced more easily, so if you need to skimp, do it here.
Kitchen benchtop materials
Classic, luxurious and beautiful, natural stone is an expensive option which may be more practical when used in limited spaces such as an island bench or inset area. It has timeless appeal and is heat resistant. It comes in a range of styles with different qualities and features, including marble, granite, slate, limestone, sandstone and travertine. Depending on its finish and use, natural stone absorbs stains and will require periodic sealing, which is made simple with professional sealants. Long, narrow stretches of stone (such as behind the sink) can be prone to breakages. Natural stone tiles may be a more affordable alternative perfect for certain applications.
Reconstituted stone (or engineered stone) offers the look and strength of natural stone with the uniformity and functionality of a man-made mineral product. Most brands are composed of around 90 per cent quartz particles bonded together with resin. It is nonporous, does not require sealing, stain and scratch resistant, easy to maintain, and available in a wider range of colours than natural stone. The price point is generally less than natural stone but about three times the price of high pressure laminates.
Warm, natural and beautiful, wood comes in many hues and degrees of hardness and can be installed and finished in a variety of ways. It is susceptible to damage by water, scratches and staining and is more expensive than laminate.
For smoothness, water-resistance and visual appeal choose face-grain or board surfaces sealed all around with several coats of polyurethane. Scratches can be sanded out or embraced as part of the benchtop's character.
If you prefer a rustic look and would like to use the surface directly for chopping, butcher's block installation is more suitable. Traditionally made with the end grain exposed, butcher's block surfaces are strong but porous. Use them to chop fruit and vegetables but be sure to cut meat and fish products on separate surfaces that can physically get into the kitchen sink so you can clean them properly. Maintain chopping block wood by regular applications of non-toxic oils such as tung or linseed.
Sleek and modern, stainless steel surfaces bring a contemporary look to the kitchen and are easy to clean, seamless, durable and heat resistant. The down side is that stainless steel is noisy, may dent and dull and is costly to fabricate. That said, it remains the preferred option in commercial kitchens for its resistance to heat, stains and water.
A few months after installation, stainless steel will develop a patina that hides fingerprints and minor scratches, but if you like the shiny look you can always polish it with baby oil. It is available in various thicknesses (gauges) and should be set around some kind of board to give it strength and to muffle clatter. It is suitable for both flat and vertical surfaces.
Concrete is a less common choice for benchtops but has appeal for its unique, industrial look and suitability for unusually shaped surfaces. It is generally laid on site, is resistant to heat and scratching and can be coloured and finished in gloss, satin or matte. On the downside, concrete is expensive to install and requires the expertise of an experienced tradesperson for an optimum finish. It can be prone to cracking and requires regular maintenance with wax or sealant to decrease its porosity and make it suitable for food use.
Versatile, beautiful, low maintenance and inexpensive, ceramic tiles are a practical benchtop option. Kiln-fired tiles are heat resistant, easy to clean and available in an endless array of colours, sizes and textures. On the downside, the grout lines can be a nuisance to clean and make for an uneven surface. Chipping and cracking can be a problem, although individual tiles can be replaced.
Man made solid surfaces
Non-porous, seamless and stain resistant, synthetic solid-surface material (such as Corian) is durable and comes in a range of colours, patterns and finishes. Made from a combination of acrylic resin and natural minerals, it is practical, long-wearing and can be moulded to form a seamless benchtop, sink and drainage unit in one piece. In plain colours it costs less than reconstituted stone; though the price goes up for patterns and inlays. Because the surface is solid, scratches can be sanded out. Having a high acrylic component, man-made stone may be vulnerable to damage from heat and stains.
High-pressure laminated surfaces are an ever popular choice for kitchen benchtops. Made of plastic-coated synthetics, laminate is easily custom fitted and is available in endless colours and textures. Laminate is versatile, inexpensive, low maintenance and waterproof. It is tough and scratch resistant but is not immune to scarring, scorching and chipping. Special edging such as a bull-nose finish will give added durability but will increase the initial cost. The carrier for the benchtop laminates is usually craftwood or chipboard. If you are installing the kitchen yourself, give under-bench surfaces a coat of sealer to help improve their longevity (over time these boards can absorb moisture).
Other kitchen surfaces: splashbacks, cupboards and walls
A relatively recent innovation in kitchen cupboards, the doors are formed, profiled and usually laminated on the back before being glued and shrink-wrapped with vinyl film to form a permanent bond. Attractive and low maintenance, vacuum wrapped vinyl has rounded, more durable edging compared to laminates, with no sharp corners or joins. Suitable for mid-range budgets.
Smooth, beautiful and seamless, polyurethane can be applied to any type of board in an endless range of colours and finishes. A layer of primer undercoat is sprayed on, followed by several applications of oil or acrylic based paint with sanding between coats. Polyurethane makes a long-wearing, easy care, durable finish.
Powder coated MDF cupboards offer the versatility of MDF (easily shaped and routered) combined with a finish similar to powder coated metal which is durable, resistant to heat, stains and scratches and easy to maintain. The coating is applied as an electrostatic spray for a moisture resistant surface with a satin, matte or textured finish. Powder coating can be used to cover all sides of the door with the same finish and is a lower cost option.
Used for splashbacks, feature tiles and inset into cupboard doors, glass is a clean, versatile material which in its many forms has a place in every kitchen, from traditional to cutting edge contemporary styles.
Tiled kitchen splashbacks offer a blank canvas for creativity and the chance to incorporate highlight colours, patterns and textures into your kitchen renovation. Add to this their ease of maintenance, economical price point and excellent durability and it's easy to see why tiles continue to hold their own in kitchens of every era and design.
Perennially popular and practical, low pressure laminates represent an attractive, versatile and low maintenance option for vertical kitchen surfaces. Less durable than high pressure benchtop-specific laminates, low pressure laminates can nonetheless withstand the rigours of most domestic kitchen usage. Extend their lifespan by choosing durable edging, as the edges and corners are the weakest point in laminated cupboard doors and vertical surfaces. For a strong, clean, rounded look, opt for bullnosed edges, or to keep the price down whilst still adding toughness to the finished cupboard doors, check out rigid PVC edging systems.
Kitchen design tips
- For a splash of colour that doesn't dominate the entire room, choose a vibrant, bold-coloured laminate for kitchen shelving and wine rack inserts, or for less prominent areas such as the sides of benches and underneath seating alcoves.
- Vary the colour, material or finish of cupboards on upper and lower levels; use lighter tones above to maximise the feeling of space and light.
- Take risks, be confident and make the design your own.
- A contemporary look may be achieved by selecting sleek, smooth lines and keeping things simple.
- Consider ease of cleaning as well as aesthetics and avoid ornate designs with crevices and complex profiles, which attract dust and demand higher maintenance.
- How about extending the kitchen bench to the outdoors? Create a seamless transition from inside to out by installing low, sliding windows facing out over the kitchen bench top, abutted onto an external timber servery close to your outside entertaining area.
- If cupboard space comes at a premium in your place, put up a metal rail (or a wooden rail with knobs) and hang your pots and pans on butcher's hooks along the wall.