It's hard to beat the beauty of natural stone, and it shows. Granite countertops consistently top the "most wanted" list, due in part to their durability and rich composition. But it's certainly not the only stone on the block. Other natural stones commonly used for kitchen counters include marble, limestone, slate and soapstone.
Insist on seeing the stone slabs selected for your kitchen before they arrive (typically you'll have a chance to do this at the fabricator's workshop). If they were prepared from different lots, the color of the stone you saw in the showroom may not exactly match the stone set aside for you. Make sure you are comfortable with any differences.
Also, know that you can choose from a variety of finishes. Common ones include polished (for a high-gloss surface), honed (smooth with more of a matte look), flamed (a blow-torch creates a textured surface) and tumbled (the stone itself is tumbled, resulting in rounded edges appropriate for old world or farmhouse kitchens; matte, but not as smooth as honed).
As you investigate your natural stone options, consider functionality first, then this: do you want a stone that will look brand new 10 years from now, or one that will take on the patina of age? Let your answer help guide your choice.
Granite is the most durable, and is chip and scratch resistant. You can cut, roll dough, and place hot pots directly on granite. Because stone is porous, each stone requires special sealants. But granite absorbs the least and only requires resealing about once a year.
Because it's smooth and cool to the touch, marble is the traditional favorite for rolling dough and making pastries. However, it lacks the durability of granite and requires sealants to be applied more frequently to prevent stains.
Limestone is not the best choice for messy-or frequent-cooks. It offers a unique weathered look but also stains easily due to its more porous nature, so spills must be addressed immediately. But don't write it off too quickly: Jerusalem stone, a generic term for stone primarily quarried from areas around the Holy Land, is a dolomite-limestone that resembles marble but is hardier than both it and limestone.
Used for centuries to create stylish weather resistant roofs, slate's natural beauty and strength are finding their way into the kitchen. Befitting of a roofing material, slate is durable, hard and fireproof. Luckily, it's beautiful, too, making it a prime choice for homeowners seeking a countertop that will make a statement. Its low absorption rate keeps stains at bay, though you may want to seal regularly to add a further dose of protection.
Often referred to as "the original stone countertop," early settlers in New England relied on the durable material for their own countertops. Far from a high-maintenance top, soapstone's inert nature means acids won't etch the material, and stains can be rubbed out. Mineral oil treatment will bring out a darker, richer color. Make a powerful statement by combining with a soapstone sink.
Stone is a natural product, and cleaning is fairly simple, though be sure to follow specific instructions for your stone type. Monticello Granite, a national countertop company, recommends that stone surfaces be cleaned with a few drops of a neutral cleaner, stone soap or mild liquid dishwashing detergent. Always avoid products containing abrasives, lemon, vinegar or other acids, as well as scouring pads.
About $70-$100 per square foot; top-of-the-line slabs can run upward of $300 per square foot.