The new kitchen countertop

December 1, 2011

What is the most important criterion in choosing a kitchen countertop? For most homeowners, it’s looks. If they’re going to see it everyday, it has to look good. Then they’ll consider maintenance, cost and “greenness.”

By this reckoning, natural materials, such as granite, and man-made materials such as Silestone and Corian have become enormously popular. But natural materials such as wood and crop wastes that have been recycled into something entirely new and different have been overlooked.

Here are three “bio-based” countertops that merit attention.

TorZo’s “Tiikeri” is most aptly described as “a playful look that could be a kid’s version of a street map” or “a cross-section of raw amber.” Its humble origins are as unusual as its look — it’s made from shredded sorghum stalks. To produce the look, the stalks are mixed with a resin, carefully placed in a press and heated to produce a board, which is then infused with an acrylic polymer to increase its hardness and durability.

TorZo’s “Orient,” with its “depth and iridescence,” is equally unusual and definitely a case of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. In this case the sow is one that home builders and remodelers know well. TorZo’s Orient countertop is a jazzed-up, color-and-acrylic impregnated version of the same oriented strand board, commonly called OSB, that is used as a framing material throughout the United States. TorZo’s OSB boards are made with recycled wood waste from the manufacture of other construction materials that are made with wood.

Because of the unusual hardness and durability of TorZo’s countertops, the firm initially marketed them to restaurants as tabletops. Now, it is available for residential applications through distributors. Tiikeri was designed to resist the bumps and banging of boisterous diners and not the hurried movements of a restaurant’s kitchen crew. It’s more suited to a kitchen serving island than a high-use food prep area, but the Orient could be used anywhere in a kitchen, said Max Letsz, a TorZo distributor with Stone Source in Washington, D.C.

With a polyurethane finish, no maintenance is required. Depending on the size and counter configuration, the installed cost would range from about $30 to $80 a square foot, Letsz said.

Teragren’s “Chestnut Strand Bamboo” could be mistaken for a great-looking, unidentifiable tropical hardwood. It has proved to be popular with homeowners for this reason, winning over many who claim a strong dislike for bamboo until they see it, said Mark Melonas, a countertop fabricator with Lukeworks in Baltimore, who works with Teragren products.

The manufacture of this countertop is as unusual as its look. The bamboo is shredded and then boiled. The darker “Chestnut” color is cooked until the strands turn brown, just as you would caramelize onions, explained Paola Rutledge, Teragren’s national sales manager.

The millions of tiny dots on the surface of Teragren’s “Bamboo Parquet Butcher Block” that make it appear to be three dimensional are a natural phenomenon; they originally formed part of the bamboo’s vascular system, Rutledge said. For most homeowners, however, the most unusual aspect of this countertop is that it can be used as a cutting surface. In describing the one he uses in his own home everyday, Melonas said, “It has a good knife feel, it feels good to cut on, and it doesn’t dull my knives.”

Bamboo tends to dry out and needs to be oiled about every three months, using mineral or tung oil, Melonas said. Areas with heavy use, including his own butcher block parquet, should be oiled about once a month. This may sound onerous, but most kitchen butcher block installations are small and most households with bamboo countertops only install them in one or two areas, not their entire kitchen, Melonas said. The installed price of Teragren’s countertops varies; Melonas said his ranges from about $45 to $60 a square foot.

Proteak’s “Edge Grain” material has a wide color range that will appeal to homeowners who want the warmth of wood and an unusual look. Made with laminated teak strips that range in hue from soft gray to light yellow and a rich red, the coloration is not what homeowners who are familiar with Ikea-type, teak-veneered furniture expect. That’s because the teak used in most furniture is sourced in Southeast Asia; Proteak’s is cultivated in Central and South America, where the firm has several teak plantations, explained Taylor Guess, Proteak’s national sales manager.

Proteak also offers a darker “End Grain” butcher block counter with a distinctive grain pattern. The 1-1/2 inch by 1-1/2 inch by 2 to 4-inch thick pieces of wood are huge compared with Teragren’s tiny pieces of bamboo. Like that one, however, homeowners can cut directly on it.

Because teak has a natural resistance to rot and water damage, it will work well in any kitchen application. It does require some maintenance. Initially, it may need oiling with mineral oil as often as twice a month, but after six months it may go for a year or more between oiling, Guess said. The per-square-foot cost is about $53 for the Edge Grain and $93 for the End Grain; installation adds an additional $20 to $30 a square foot, Guess said.

What makes these products environmentally friendly as well as great-looking?

All of them are made with renewable materials and “no added urea formaldehyde” glue. Urea formaldehyde can release chemicals into the air, causing a reaction in sensitive individuals, and the World Health Organization has declared it a carcinogen.

The Proteak and Teragren products carry the Forest Stewardship Council’s certification, meaning the product was made with wood that can be traced back through its entire chain of custody to a forest where sustainable forestry practices were followed. Teragren’s FSC certification is highly unusual, given that bamboo is a grass, not a wood.

TorZo’s Orient material is made with pre-consumer, recycled wood material.

Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Michigan. If you have questions or would like to suggest topics for coverage, contact her by e-mail at salanthousewatch@gmail.com or at katherinesalant.com.

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