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A custom double sink, counter, and backsplash with shelf, fabricated by Green Mountain Soapstone.

Countertop, Sink & Backsplash

by Patricia Poore on July 23, 2012

in Kitchens & Bathrooms

ABOVE: A custom double sink, counter, and backsplash with shelf, fabricated by Green Mountain Soapstone.

Look to the past for great ideas for multiple surfaces, sinks that are both beautiful and practical, and an explosion of materials for the backsplash. You’ll find butcher block and zinc, German silver as well as porcelain, and not only tile but also embossed tin.

When it comes to the countertop, consider multiple surfaces for different uses. That’s also indicative of the unfitted kitchens of the 19th and early 20th centuries. First identify one or two task areas that are candidates for use-specific surfaces: chopping, pastry making, integral drainboards, bars and pantries, or non-food-related activities such as desk areas. Once you’ve blocked out these spaces, choose an all-purpose surfacing material for the rest of the kitchen, something durable in the face of exposure to water, heat, and acids, something easy to care for. Materials that fall into this category include granite, soapstone, North American slate, laminates like Formica, and composite materials with high glass or quartz content, like Vetrazzo or Okite.

Both granite and soapstone are all but indestructible provided the surface is treated with a sealer. In the case of granite, that’s a penetrating sealer; for soapstone, it’s mineral oil. Both are impervious to heat, so you can set hot pots directly on them. Both can be grooved to create an integrated drainboard. (Many soapstone dealers will also precision-cut a sink basin.)

Manmade materials may be excellent alternatives to natural stone, because they are engineered for ease of care. Provided you don’t cut vegetables or set hot pots on the surface, laminates are now old enough to be considered historical, and last practically forever. Composites, on the market for more than 25 years, offer many of the aesthetic advantages of natural materials with few of the compromises. The latest wave of composites made with glass or quartz bridge are nonporous, exceptionally easy to care for, scratch resistant, and usually don’t require sealers. Some are even considered “green,” as they are made mostly from recycled materials.

Concrete is emerging as another all-purpose material, especially in new formulations that incorporate steel to make the heat-resistant material stain- and etch-proof. Interestingly, stainless concrete, which doesn’t require a sealer, can develop a patina. Concrete can be molded or sculpted, so it’s ideal if you want an S-shaped divider in your sink or an integrated drainboard.

Use-specific materials include marble and other porous stones, wood and butcher block, and metals like copper and zinc. Marble and most limestones should be used with discretion in the kitchen because the stone stains easily and does not take well to water. Still, the dedicated home pastry chef needn’t live without a stone slab for rolling out dough. You can pick up an orphaned piece of honed or polished marble, granite, or limestone for far less than the going price; architectural antiques dealers often sell salvaged marble counters with period edge detailing.

Wood and butcher block are ideal for serious prep cooks. The surface is easy on knives, and wood has antibacterial properties. It’s easy to sand out nicks and burns, too. Wood also makes a beautiful top for a central island. Unless you’ve intentionally chosen wood as your primary surfacing material, though, keep wood and butcher block away from water sources.

Metals including copper and zinc are beautiful and functional as surfaces in wet areas like bars or pantries, in part because they react chemically to water, acids, and wine, developing a patina over time. Both are softer than stainless steel, the most all-purpose of metals. Stainless steel is resistant to heat, bacteria, water, and rust. It’s also an affordable way to have a sink and counter made of the same material. On the downside, all metals scratch easily and can be dented.

The big, apron-front sink is an attractive stand-in for old-fashioned enameled sinks. Photo by Jaimee Itagaki.

The big, apron-front sink is an attractive stand-in for old-fashioned enameled sinks. Photo by Jaimee Itagaki.

Kitchen sinks have varied by era, material, and region. Consider that soapstone and slate have been popular for sinks since the 18th century in New England, but not so much in areas without quarries—the stone was simply too difficult and expensive to ship. In more upscale homes, Victorian butler’s pantries had fine copper or German-silver sinks, often with marble counters. These are models for sinks and countertop arrangements today, because Victorian Revival kitchens are more akin to large butler’s pantries than they are to 19th-century cook-rooms and sculleries.

Porcelain-on-cast-iron sinks became popular in the 1890s with new firing technology, and became the most common sink type by the 1920s. The first generation of porcelain kitchen sinks had furniture-like legs. Wall–mounted sinks followed and, in the ’30s, so did porcelain in colors such as sand and green; white has always been the most popular color, however. Then came the porcelain basin, mounted in a wood or metal base.

Monel, a lightweight metal alloy, was introduced to great acclaim in the 1920s but was replaced by stainless steel during the 1940s, when copper and other metals were needed for the war effort. In the late ’40s and 1950s, steel was used for countertops as well as sinks.

Contemporary fashion, too, has its place even in old houses, where bathrooms and kitchens have always been updated regularly. The clay, porcelain, or wood “vessel” sink bowl, pronounced hard to clean by some early adaptors, can be an artistic allusion to the old washbowl.. The very popular, deep “farmhouse” sink with a finished front apron is practical and conjures up big old one-piece sinks.

Green tiles by Mercury Mosaics make a backsplash with unique character.

Green tiles by Mercury Mosaics make a backsplash with unique character.

Backsplashes give a kitchen a lot of decorative bang for the buck. In a small kitchen with a backsplash area of about 30 square feet, for instance, a pretty and functional splash can be had for under $100 in pressed metal. On the high end, you could easily spend $1,500 or more for custom art tile, a tile mural, or stone. Let’s start with one of the most affordable choices: pressed “tin”—embossed steel, copper, or aluminum. Dozens of patterns from the late 19th and early 20th century are available. Designs range from Victorian to Streamlined. Pressed metal is usually sold in 2′ x 4′ sheets at prices that begin at about $3 per square foot. On the high end, you can have a metal backsplash fabricated out of materials that include copper, zinc, and stainless steel. Metal sheeting is a traditional screen behind a commercial-style stove. If you are ordering a custom range hood, consider asking your fabricator to create a coordinating one.

Ponderosa pines set in narrow field tiles, all by Motawi, create a focal point in this treatment over a wood countertop. Photo by Tim Fuller.

Ponderosa pines set in narrow field tiles, all by Motawi, create a focal point in this treatment over a wood countertop. Photo by Tim Fuller.

Tile is probably the most versatile of all backsplash options. But if you are already installing a stone countertop, you can solve part of the backsplash equation by simply adding a run of baseboard-like trim in the same material against the wall. Or choose a stone in a contrasting color to brighten, cool down, or warm up the effect of the countertop. Depending on the source, granite, marble, soapstone, and slate cost about $50 per square foot and up.

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