The Ins and Outs of Marble Countertops (& Ongoing Renovation Notes)

Carrara Marble Countertop Installed!

View from the Athlete’s Kitchen long-in-coming update: countertops are in!  It’s an exciting day as the kitchen really begins to take shape when this happens.  I am looking forward to a big before and after reveal – it’s still a little too early.  That’s okay for now because in the meantime I wanted to share some of what I have learned about the process by which marble countertops come together.

There is a lot to know about marble, and I am not at all an expert.  Still, having gone through this process a few times now (I have not mentioned this here before, but we also renovated an entire apartment in NYC, from the studs of a garment factory built in 1903 to a beautiful contemporary home) I may have a few perspectives and tips that may be helpful.  Below I’ve included why I like marble, a bit about the selection process, marble care and the differences between a few popular varieties of the stone.  I hope this is as helpful for anyone contemplating a renovation as it is fun for me to reflect upon.  Settle in, there is a lot of information here!

What are some of the properties of marble and why is it so desirable?

From a sheer practicality standpoint, the popularity of marble in kitchens can be puzzling, because it is a relatively soft and porous stone.  On the mineral Measurement of Hardness Scale (Mohs), marble, aka calcite, has a measure of three out of ten.  By comparison granite varieties fall between six and seven, and diamonds are a ten.  This scale paints a grim picture, in that it means that marble scratches easily.   Plus, etching and staining caused by acidic substances – citrus, tomato sauce, red wine, berries – are common, as are glass rings left from cold drinks.  If a marble slab is accidentally dropped, it will shatter like glass, which is of course unfortunate and potentially quite dangerous.  On a less severe scale, if you place pots and pans on marble too assertively, or ding the edge of the counter, it can chip.  It might be a little gross, but think of it this way – our teeth are made of calcium (calcite) too.  As we all know, they’re vulnerable.

For all the challenges marble presents, why do I love marble countertops so?  For a few reasons.  First, I am a big proponent of using naturally occurring materials to create a warm space.  When light hits them, there is a warm glow that as far as I have seen is impossible to reproduce.  Natural materials thereby elevate a space just by being there. Have you ever noticed that some rooms just seem magical, and somehow elusive?  I am willing to bet that the space had prominent natural materials, great lighting, or both.  Natural materials also have the most beautiful patterns and imperfections.  (Quick aside, design wise: we are going for a light-colored counter surface for this kitchen to make it feel more spacious.  Granite or even certain metals would be a great choices for darker surfaces.) Two, for all the fretting I’ve come across online and i.r.l. about staining and etching, I don’t get it.  I like some patina on a marble surface, I think it looks cosy.  Inviting too, in that you can get in there and use the workspace.  (More on patinas and marble care a bit further down.)

How and where do you start?

Picking out material for the countertops is one of the most important components of a kitchen project – it makes the biggest impact in the space, anchoring the look and feel and taking the entire room in a given direction.  (With open floor plans, countertops can actually take an entire floor in a certain direction.)  As such, we picked out the marble slab first, with most other decisions flowing from there.

Since we knew we wanted to update the kitchen within days of moving in, we jumped online to research stone suppliers and landed on All Natural Stone in Burlingame, about 30 minutes South of our pocket of San Francisco.  Jon Boudreau, our salesman there, was incredibly patient, knowledgeable and helpful!

It’s an exciting and fortunate thing, to have ownership of your space to the extent of exercising control over the surfaces.  But for all the reasons above, choosing which piece to use for the countertop can also feel like a lot of pressure.   The card-catalog of stone slabs in a given showroom can be overwhelming – my first impulse is to  study each and every slab, lest we miss the ideal piece.  But there are several ways to quickly narrow down.  The first is to remember that the countertop choice is similar to  the backsplash in that most of the options will actually *not* work for a given home, and you’ll eliminate most of the inventory very quickly.  After that first pass, you can narrow down again by price point within the chosen aesthetic.  (For example various marbles with a white background can be worlds apart in terms of cost per sq foot.)  Next, keep in mind that slabs are grouped by batch, meaning that the fourth slab down in a grouping is going to be very similar to the one at the top of the stack.  Learning this last part helped relieve a lot of panic this time around as I wondered how we were going to have the time and patience to see each and every slab in the ‘possible’ contingency.

Even after a few rounds of culling, what to do in terms of staying relaxed and making a decision?  It seems the main ingredient for success when faced with choices like these to simply have confidence in your convictions.  When you find a piece you like, it’s a victory!  Don’t worry that you will be left standing on the shores of doubt as ships with better countertops set sail.  Have the showroom tag it with your name and keep going.  Flag one other favorite, and then get ready for the fun part – the showroom will move the slabs for you with a forklift or small crane with a strong clamp so you can compare your final options side by side.  I am the type to feel like I am imposing by asking someone to move an entire crane and 500 lb slab to just to set up this one comparison – this is incorrect thinking.  Ask, ask, ask,  this is how it works and moving around the slabs is a normal part of the process.

Having the finalists side by side seems to make one feel much more like the right choice then the other, and you can start to enjoy the excitement of the new counter!  But after you’ve chosen the slab, then what?

Marble Fabricating

Once you’ve committed to your choice, the surface of the slab is treated for a honed or polished finish, then cut to fit your countertop template.  Both are done in a fabricating workshop, and the stone supplier will work with the fabricator to arrange the transport of the slab.  The fabricator will come to your kitchen to measure for an exact template before cutting the stone, and then return with the finished product to complete the installation.  Often fabricators do backsplash installations too – ours did in both cases.

Our friend Jon at All Natural Stone gave us a handful of recommendations for fabricators, and we choose to use the one he’d worked with to complete own kitchen, RD Granite in San Jose.  Daniel Ramirez, the proprietor there, is fantastic to work with and very responsive over e-mail.  Plus, he and his team did a great job.

Before the slab is cut, the template for the specific counter layout is laid over the stone.  A good fabricator will set it up masterfully, but it is your responsibility to approve the template.  Because it’s not always possible to cut the entire run of a countertop in a single piece, it can help to think of the total counter space as individual puzzle pieces which must all fit onto the stone surface you have to work with.  The goal is to spy a way in which you can align the variations in the stone so that even if a portion of the countertop has a seam, the patterns on either side align.  To imagine this further, study the two blue squares on the left and right in the photo below.  Those are either side of the sink.  The space just outside the squares must be similar as they will become the countertop on either side of the sink.  Once the template is approved, the slab is placed on the huge table saw and your countertop begins to take shape!  One more thing to keep in mind – fabricators will need to have your kitchen sink in their workshop so that they can cut the stone to match the rim of the sink perfectly.  Be sure to order your sink so that you have in hand when it comes time for the stone fabrication.

Honed vs Polished Marble & Marble Care

To understand marble care, it’s helpful to first have a handle on the two possible surface finishes, polished and honed.  These finishes relate directly to what happens to the marble over time and therefore the proper care.

Polished surfaces are what you’d expect – slick and shiny. I don’t love polished marble for kitchen counters because besides looking harsh, cold, and kalidescope-y (as light bounces off the glossy surface every which way), they are slippery.  And when scratched, there is a highly visible scar because there is suddenly a non-polished line crossing an otherwise glassy field.  The benefit of polished marble is that it is more resistant to staining, because the porous surface is ‘sealed’ by the polishing.  However because polished marble is guaranteed to get scratched in a high-traffic kitchen, this benefit is not significant enough to move the needle.  Heavily scratched polished surfaces can be brought back to life by having a professional sand down and re-polish the entire surface.

The photo below shows a polished slab and a honed slab.  Both are in shadow with the same amount of light hitting them.  As you can see, the honed surface is far less reflective.

Marble Slab at RD Granite Workshop, San Jose, CA

Honed marble is smooth and soft to the touch.  It has a much gentler appearance and makes a space glow but not shine.  Since the scratches on honed marble are not upsetting a polished surface, they are less apparent.  The major challenge with honed marble is that it is prone to staining and etching.  That’s why the first step in caring for honed marble is treating it with an impregnating sealer upon installation and every six months after that.  (I’ve just added ‘seal countertops’ to my calendar for April 26th, 2016 – nerd alert, but, only way.)  After sealing, the trick to keeping a honed marble surface in good shape is wiping up all spills – not just the acidy ones from wine, citrus and tomatoes – immediately.  Since I am a bit of a neatnik, this actually makes me happy since it’s a great excuse for getting right after any mess.  Regardless, even the most diligent households are eventually going to have spots and rings on a marble countertop.  To treat them, you need a mild abrasive solution like Comet or Barkeeper’s Friend.  Sprinkle the solution over a wet sponge and gently scrub the surface in small circular motions, taking care to work evenly.  Wipe off the product, then reseal with an impregnating sealer, which can be found at several hardware stores including Home Depot.

Types of Marble, Specifically Carrara and Calcatta – What’s the difference?

So the finishes are one thing, but what about the various types of marble?  There are lots.  Two really popular ones are Carrara and Calcatta, and until this particular project I had no real sense of the difference, let alone the provenance, between the two.

The major point of differentiation is in the veining.  Carrara is generally grayer, with softer, sometimes feathery veining.  (We have Carrara.)  Calcatta is generally whiter, with bolder, more delineated and dramatic veining.  Both can have green or gold color variations.

Geographically, both come from Carrara, Italy.  I have to admit, I’d always thought Calcatta marble came from Calcutta, India.  Because, hello, the Taj.  (The marble for which actually comes from the closer by Makrana, India.) And because marble typically takes the name of the area from which it’s mined.

Carrara, ItalyBut while India does produce a lot of marble, Calcatta is actually not one of the varieties.  It helps me to visualize the location of Carrara, Italy, the town where both Carrara and Calcatta marbles are mined.

Availability-wise, Carrara is more abundant.  Visualizing the small region that produces both stones is a good way to understand how one could be more prevalent than the other.  By the way, I have tried in vain for a way clever way to make a differentiation between the two marbles.  I guess one way is that Calcatta is harder to get, and India is harder to get to?  But, that is potentially even more confusing since again Calcatta does not come from India… if you have any suggestions I am all ears!

Wrapping Up

I hope the breakouts above have been helpful, and inspire you to feel excited and confidant about taking on your next kitchen counters!  I’ll post a bigger reveal as the kitchen continues to come together.  In the meantime, if you have any countertop ideas or thoughts to share, please do!

And for additional kitchen renovation tips and ideas, please click here.

Marble Countertop!

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