There was nothing quite so angsty in my kitchen renovation as the countertops. Maybe it's because I was coming from a rental kitchen with truly awful laminate countertops, countertops that were not only dirty cream in color but textured with deep wrinkles, like rhinoceros skin, never clean and never smooth; but I was convinced that the countertop choice would make the kitchen. Countertops are the difference between easy cleaning and dread. Countertop material changes the light in a kitchen, and is the surface under your hands and food. For me, kitchen renovation meant finally having countertops that were beautiful, bright white, and easy to clean. And not too expensive, my husband added.
Marble was the natural choice. Right? Right! Here's the story of how we overcame our fears, and found our honed marble countertops.
The Calculus of White Kitchen Countertops
Kitchen countertop choices are wide and — as befits the rest of kitchen renovation — frustrating. There are many choices (see our guide to kitchen countertop materials here). The less expensive include butcher block and laminate, and the most expensive are the exotic stones and highest-end marbles and granites.
Every countertop surface has its own pros and cons. My main requirement was that the countertop be white. I grew up with white countertops and I love the way a white countertop looks and feels really clean when wiped down.
But white countertops are tricky. What are the options? First, laminate. That was out because I wanted something more luxe and durable. Second, manmade solid materials like Corian and quartz. Both of these can be expensive, and while I like Corian's look, I felt it was a little too plasticky for this kitchen. Quartz was my initial pick, but it's very expensive, especially in the white varieties, and I was concerned having a manmade stone would make the kitchen look too modern and cold with all the straight lines we had going already. And third, natural stone. This was my ultimate preference, but finding white natural stone was challenging. The most durable, impregnable stones like granite and quartzite sometimes show up in white, but all the ones I saw were had pink or violet veining, or were too busy. And, in the case of quartzite, massively expensive. I needed something at the lower end of the budget spectrum, which meant marble.
Yes, Carrara marble is (and should!) be one of the most economical solid or stone countertop choices. Other marbles escalate rapidly in price.
So, what was the problem? Carrara it was, right? Except that people think you're crazy for wanting marble.
Is Marble the Destroyer of Happiness?
Because marble is soft and easily etches and stains, that's why. My husband is a professor in a geology department, and I've had more than one geologist say over cocktails, "Ohhhh marble. Yeah, that's soft stone." (Thanks guys.)
Marble, while beautiful, has a reputation for being easily etched and stained. "Etching" in marble isn't staining; it happens when acid meets the marble and literally eats a tiny bit of it away, leaving a dull spot. You can see an example of this on my own countertops above.
Marble can also be more susceptible to staining, partly because it is white, and partly because of its softness.
Sealing the marble can reduce the staining, and there are ways to lift certain stains from marble. But etching is unavoidable, and to those who want glossy, pristine countertops, this fact strikes them with dread.
My husband and I went back and forth over marble countertops for months, pricing out other options and visiting the local stone warehouses every weekend. I asked people for opinions and trawled message boards. I even asked you about it here: Would I be crazy to choose marble countertops?
Should we? Shouldn't we? I am an intense, full-contact daily cook who loves lemons and limes and vinegar. We plan on having kids. We entertain every week and drink scads of red wine. Were marble countertops for us? Would we regret it? Were we laid-back enough to shrug off etching as patina and character, and yet disciplined enough to put the margarita glasses in the sink before going to bed? Would marble's quick descent into imperfection ("dingy" as one commenter put it) destroy our marital happiness and leave us with a lifetime of regrets?
I hyperbolize, but only a little.
How Shopping for Stone Countertops Works
It didn't help that stone is an intensely local purchasing process. Unless you are willing to drive to another city, you are more or less stuck with the options in your local warehouse.
So, for instance, while I had read many glowing online reviews of quartzite (a stone as hard as granite) in varieties that looked "just like marble!" (varieties, I may add, that I believe lie somewhere between unicorns and Bigfoot in the pantheon of rumored myth), there was nothing of the sort in our Midwest warehouses. There was one quartzite I saw that was vaguely white (but still too busy for me) but the price was stratospheric.
Also? Stock shifts frequently. Who knows; the perfect Calacatta-look-alike quartzite may be sitting in a Columbus warehouse right now. Too late!
Also, it is difficult in most places to get quick pricing on stone. The whole process is somewhat obfuscated by the vendors. It begins by going to a warehouse to look at aisles and aisles of stone slabs. But they aren't priced; there is usually a scale that lets you know where it falls in relative pricing (Carrara, zone 2; Calacatta, zone 18 of 20, etc.)
Then you contact a fabricator (who may or may not work with that particular warehouse; stone yards don't like to recommend one fabricator over another). You tell the fabricator what you want, and then a few days later they get you a quote. It's maddeningly time-consuming and involved.
After many visits to the warehouses in our area, my husband and I looked each other in the eye and said: "Marble." Actually, I think we were eating ice cream as we said this, since we were also on a quest to look at marble in every Columbus location we could find. We squinted down the polished length of Rigsby's bar, comparing etches, and we cocked our heads this way and that over the marble tables in Jeni's Ice Cream, looking for tell-tale splotches. Could we live with this kind of use and wear, we asked each other.
And the answer was yes. After all that searching, we had to admit that we were idealists and romantics. There is nothing to compare to marble's natural beauty, and the soft dulling and splotching of etches, only seen in certain lights, did nothing to diminish its beauty. Also, the veining of marble disguised some of this, unlike in pure white quartz, my other pick. (I was worried by this time that pure white quartz, once scratched or stained a little really would look bad.)
In fact, while the party line of most stone professionals was to try and talk me out of marble, because of unhappy past clients, privately several experienced stone fabricators and merchants told me that, "Next kitchen, I'm doing marble. It's the best." I heard this over and over, that marble is so cool and beautiful, so lovely and good to work on, that, knowing its limitations, this was the pro's choice too.
But there is a huge caveat to getting marble: Honing. We decided that we would only get marble if it was honed, or dulled to take off all the shiny polish. I liked that soft look much better, and the etches would show dramatically less on a honed surface than on a polished.
This turned out to be unexpectedly challenging. In the Midwest, which still loves its granite countertops, honed marble was hard to find. There were some extremely expensive, pre-honed slabs from Vermont, but we were trying to do all this for about $3000 (for about 60 square feet of countertop — a lot!), and Danby marble broke that budget in pieces. None of the fabricators or warehouses honed marble; in one case they could send it back to the distributor to be honed, but there was no guarantee, you had to pay for the stone up-front and accept it as it came back, and it added a significant amount to the price.
I was about to tear my hair out. If I lived in the Northeast this would be easy, but in Columbus, you say "honed marble" and everyone says, "huh?"
We finally got lucky and tried one last warehouse, a relatively new one, Atlas, where the excellent manager took pity on us and referred the lone fabricator who had the equipment to hone. He had a small, two-man team and was doing fabricating very casually and on the side. Honing was no problem. And to top it off, Atlas had the most beautiful Carrara I had seen yet; it was pure white under the veining, not gray like a lot of Carrara.
After our long search, installing the marble turned out to be easy and not a big deal. We installed the cabinets, called Ron, and a few days later he brought the slabs and placed them. Then a few days after that he sealed them, and cut the hole for the faucet. Easy-peasy.
So, after all of that, how do I like my countertops? I love them. They are beautiful, cool, delightful to clean. My heart seized up the first few times they etched, and there are more stains than I expected. (Watch for another post later this spring on living with marble — I'll talk more about our experiences there.) But would I do it again? Yes.
Marble Countertop Costs
→ Oh, and on cost? We came in pretty much on budget. The countertops, including honing and installation, cost $3000 ($50/square foot). We paid an additional $600 for the sink cut-out, an 8-inch backsplash, and quite a few marble windowsills for other parts of the house. After bids of up to $5000, bids that didn't even include the backsplash, we were pretty happy with this.
So, that's the story of how our marble countertops came to be. They were the most emotional and time-consuming choice in our reno, but I can't imagine having anything else now. They look beautiful and luxurious, but came in at budget.
- Marble Source & Fabrication: Atlas Stone Distribution - Columbus, Ohio. We worked with Wayne at Atlas, who gave us the contact for Ron, who honed and installed our marble. Highly recommend them!
(Images: Faith Durand)