Your comprehensive guide to today’s surface market

We look at the technical properties and pros and cons of all the common materials found across worktops, tiles, splashbacks and shower walls. We also explore how retailers can better educate and inform their customers to make the right choices for the long term… Francesca Seden reports

When it comes to the question of which surfaces are best for a kitchen or bathroom project, the choice can be overwhelming and confusing for the consumer. With so many different materials and finishes available, it can be difficult to make the right decision.

MHK’s Xeno Kitchen 3317 featuring a selection of surfaces including lacquered laminate, 124 Walnut reproduction and Xtra ceramic in black

Despite this, consumers are often uncompromising in what they think or say that they want – either going for the very cheapest imitations to meet budget constraints, or, at the other end of the spectrum, asking for difficult-to-work-with and high-maintenance materials, without necessarily being aware of the pros and cons of their chosen material for a particular application.

This can prove incredibly challenging to retailers, who likely will want to work with what they know to be reliable. So, in a market where homeowners are so steadfast, it is crucial that you are seen as an expert in this sector, and able to give solid advice as to what is suitable for the area in which it is to be used and the client’s lifestyle.

Andy Phillips is the director at Affordable Granite, a fabricator based in Surrey and one of the founders of the Worktop Fabricator’s Federation. Speaking on a recent episode of The kbbreview podcast, he noted this trend among consumers who are increasingly inflexible, and who are pushing retailers to the limits of their knowledge.

“There is a big trend for quartz as that’s what’s easy to work with,” he says. “About 75% of what we’re doing at the moment is quartz engineered stone. And because it’s engineered, it can be made to look like whatever you want and mechanically it is very stable. However, there is now also an emerging trend for ceramics and natural stone, but because retailers are so used to working with quartz, some have lost the understanding of what the differences are.

“So, when customers come in, they’re challenging designers to do something a bit different, because they don’t want to be exactly like their neighbours.”

Gareth Gilchrist is a sales designer for Scotland based The Bathroom Company, an award-winning retailer that does high-end commercial projects, as well as jobs for private clients. He says that although their typical clients are generally ‘clued-up’, their retail outlets are open to the public and generally the average visitor does not have a lot of knowledge on the suitability of products. “For example,” he adds, “the maintenance of sealing and resealing natural stone to prevent it from becoming porous over time, is not common knowledge.”

Konigstone’s quartz Athena Collection uses the latest print technology to replicate the veining of natural stone

Meanwhile, Frazer Goodwillie, a director at Billingham Kitchens, notes that customers tend to have a general awareness of different materials but varying degrees of understanding of them, “sometimes caused by misinformation by some companies”.

Russell Buckley at Stuart Henry Kitchens in the Wirral goes even further, asserting that clients are not aware of the pros and cons of the different options nor are they aware of the usability and upkeep of the products. “It doesn’t help when they come from the multiples because they have been given incorrect information and even lied to. Everybody thinks they can put hot pans straight on to the surfaces and or they think they can cut on them. (Ceramic (Dekton) is the exception to this) but that has a higher price tag and they are mostly still unaware of this product.”

This demonstrates that there is a danger that even those who are insistent – who think they are educated and know what they want, might not properly understand all of the properties and mechanics. A so-called ‘clued-up’ customer isn’t necessarily that and will likely still need a lot of guidance.

So, what are the key considerations and the main differences when it comes to all the various materials and how can retailers better guide their customers to make the right choice?

Given that engineered stone is the most popular choice for consumers and retailers nowadays, that is where we will start.

Engineered and sintered stone

Engineered stone refers to any surface that includes a high percentage of natural stone, which is then combined with a resin, giving it those properties that make it so popular – tensile strength and a completely non-porous, hard-wearing finish.

Neolith’s Arabesque is a grey veined design that mimics the look of real marble

Quartz is the main material included under the umbrella of ‘engineered stone’, as well as cast stone, such as cast marble.

Sintered stone is also engineered but under a different process, so doesn’t fall under the same umbrella term as quartz. Instead, sintered stone mimics the earth’s natural processes that produce granite – mixing minerals and applying intense heat and pressure to create a super-hard, super-durable material. Cosentino’s Dekton is an example, as is Caesarstone’s Porcelain line, as well as Neolith and some modern ceramics.


On the benefits of quartz, John Stanley, vice-president of marketing at Caesarstone, elaborates: “These surfaces require virtually no maintenance. As a result, quartz has overtaken natural stone as the number one, most desirable countertop material on the market. This is due to the vast array of designs available, along with its inherent durability and non-porousness, making it heat-resistant, stainresistant, and much easier to keep bacteria-free.”

Another plus on the side of quartz and sintered stone is that they can be made to imitate almost any natural material and, as Cosentino UK’s retail manager Charlotte Hughes notes, “a desire to feel closer to the natural world has prompted architects and designers to introduce elements of nature into building construction and interior design”. She comments that Cosentino’s Kraftizen collection fits in with this, imitating the look of marble, for example.

Roca’s Horizon range is made from cast marble and available in Calcutta White or Marquina Black cast marble

She also says that all Cosentino Dekton surfaces can be used as exterior cladding for buildings, which is something that is also true of other proprietary materials – Corian and Porcelanosa’s Krion spring to mind. Sintered stone can also be used for flooring, both outdoor and in.

So, it’s clear to see why these materials are so popular with retailers and consumers, but both of these materials have their limitations. Quartz can be more expensive than its natural stone counterparts, such as granite, and it is of course, significantly more expensive than some natural stone, other solid surfaces and budget-friendly laminate.

Key considerations

Many quartz and sintered stone surfaces will come with a 20-year to lifetime guarantee depending on the particular brand.

Both sintered stone and quartz have to be professionally fabricated and brought to site for installation, so any mistakes in cutting will be more costly than worktops that can be fabricated on-site. Finally, quartz is not completely impervious to high heat as, in some cases, the resins can melt, leaving stains that may not be able to be repaired.

Natural Stone

Lundhs says that natural stone surfaces deliver on high scratch, heat, stain, water and UV resistance

This refers to stone that remains unchanged from when it is unearthed to being cut and installed. Popular options include quartzite, the main ingredient in engineered quartz, as well as granite and marble.

Those looking for ultimate luxury and unbothered by great levels of practicality may choose to go for natural stone over the engineered counterparts. Natural stone carries with it a certain level of status because of its relative high-maintenance and because of its uniqueness, depending on the stone chosen. Granite is a particularly popular choice when it comes to worktops because of its toughness – it is one of the most hard-wearing materials on the market, and apart from the necessary postinstallation sealing products, granite is as natural a product as one can find.

Marble can be incredibly luxurious and expensive, depending on whether the customer wants Carrara, Calacatta, or Statuario. Also, as Lundhs Real Stone marketing and development director Hege Lundh notes, “the limitations very much relate to the different types of stones in question, as while some are softer and may break easily, others can withstand almost anything, even fire”.


Siematic Mondial kitchen with quartzite surfaces in a choice of finishes

Given the right treatment, and looked after properly, natural stone worktops can last a lifetime, and homeowners will have the joy of knowing that they have the only surface in the world that looks exactly like theirs.

And, natural stone, such as granite and particularly marble, offer that feeling of luxury that one just cannot replicate with their engineered counterparts. In addition, some may argue that marble and other stones offer a character that can’t be matched by engineered stone counterparts, partly because it is vulnerable to some wear and tear. Finally, as marble in particular is a cool surface, home bakers or those who regularly make pastry may prefer it.

If your customer wants some natural stone but might not want all the maintenance that comes with a large work surface, you could point them towards other options, such as a statement countertop bathroom basin in basalt or marble. These are a great way of using natural stone without committing too much, while still offering that feeling of luxury, but also texture and earthiness.

Some natural stone can be significantly cheaper than its engineered counterparts – Carrara marble, which is pretty abundant – is a case in point.

Key considerations

Hanover White Limestone from Lapicida

Hege Lundh of Lundhs Real Stone adds that, because each stone is unique, each one will vary in appearance, and that consumers should ensure they are “happy with that exact piece of stone that their worktop will be made from” before they commit.

Ensure your customer knows what is involved in looking after real stone worktops. Wine spillages should be mopped up straight away and acidic substances shouldn’t be applied directly to the surface as these could cause damage.

In terms of finishes, marble can be polished or honed and it’s important to advise your customers on the differences. Honed marble is created by sanding the surface to give a soft, matt finish. This means that it doesn’t scratch quite so easily, but because it opens up the structure slightly, it is more susceptible to staining.

Polished marble has a highly reflective, glossy surface which shows off the vibrancy of the stone and repels moisture better, so it’s less likely to stain, but will scratch more easily.

Whatever the stone, chopping boards should be used to protect it from knives.

Finally, access is a key consideration when it comes to using natural stone, as it is likely to come in large and heavy slabs, so it is important to ensure you plan ahead and discuss any potential access issues with your customer.

Porcelain and ceramic

Caesarstone 510 Impermia from its Porcelain Collection comes with 2 edge style options

Porcelain is very similar to sintered stone and uses a similar sintering process but it uses different raw materials – clay usually, so isn’t considered under the same umbrella term. Porcelain is flexible, durable and easy to maintain and can be made in much slimmer profiles than sintered stone – hence its suitability for tiles, for both the wall and floor.

It has similar properties and can be applied in nearly all the same ways as quartz and sintered stone – it is hard-wearing, completely non-porous and heat-resistant, if not to the same degree.

In terms of drawbacks, porcelain is more brittle than other options so could crack if something was dropped on it from a great height. Like quartz and sintered stone, it needs professionals to cut it and because of its brittle nature, needs to be handled with care during the installation process.

Finally, with porcelain, there are very few edge profile options, so designers may be limited in terms of where it can be used.


Luce by RAK Ceramics is a translucent porcelain surface that the brand says is easy to care for

All of the above-mentioned materials can be used for food preparation areas, as they won’t get water damaged or stain. Many of these are heat-proof, but to varying degrees. Some quartz options may not withstand very high temperatures as the resin can melt. Among consumers there is sometimes a misconception that quartz tops are totally indestructible but that isn’t always the case.

Because of the flexibility of engineered stone, it can be used in large slabs, so fewer joins are needed, which again makes these surfaces easier to keep clean and maintain. In addition, as Konigstone’s marketing manager Joanne Bull notes: “There are also a large variety of edge profiles in addition to a large variety of colours and thicknesses, plus you can have matching clad sink, splashbacks, drainer grooves or mitred end panels. You can also incorporate convenient gadgets into a stone worktop, such as bottle coolers, pop-up power sockets and wireless charging stations.”

Sintered stone can be used for flooring, tiles, splashbacks behind the hob and worktops, as being 100% mineral-based, it is impervious to high temperatures. Porcelain can also work in these applications but it can be vulnerable to heat damage.

Key considerations

As quartz and sintered stone surfaces are designed to last, it’s crucial that the homeowner will be able to live with their chosen surface for the long term, and that it’s fairly neutral, so that the kitchen can potentially be changed around it.

Cupboard surfaces in Rovere Buckskin porcelain from Sapien Stone

Konigstone’s Bull adds that retailers need to consider the life and visual impact of the surface and emphasise the quality and durability of an engineered stone worktop. “It can be the hardest-working part of a busy kitchen and visually it is a large part of a kitchen, particularly if there is an island. With easy care and maintenance, an engineered stone worktop, such as quartz, can last a lifetime so it is a worthwhile investment,” she says.

The finish will also determine how easy or difficult it is to keep looking its best – for example black, shinier finishes will show up finger marks much more easily than matt options. Ensure your customer knows this as they might be disappointed if they have to wipe it down each time it’s touched.

Ease of fabrication and installation is another highly important consideration, as fabricators want to work with a material they can trust. As mentioned earlier, quartz is often the go-to because fabricators know what they’re doing with it, and big brands such as Caesarstone pride themselves on creating easy-to cut products, while also providing plenty of training.

Others, such as RAK Ceramics, offer direct-to-site delivery of its products so retailers don’t have to worry about storing or transportation. It can then be installed as one piece for a seamless finish.


De Terra solid wood Full Stave Oak from WEX Trade

Typically made from oak, beech, walnut or iroko (also known as African Teak), solid wood worktops are pretty durable and also naturally antibacterial. Wooden worktops are comprised of staves or blocks glued together to create the solid block. They all offer pretty much the same functionality, but price will vary depending on the type of wood and the finish.

It is considered by designers that wooden tops offer softness and warmth and so are often specified for breakfast bars and dining areas.


As well as worktops or as breakfast bars/dining area tops, wood is obviously great for the floor for its warmth, but maybe not around the wettest areas in the kitchen, where porcelain tiles are a better option. Rotpunkt head of UK operations Matt Phillips adds that renewable wood alternatives are also “proving very popular in terms of providing lightweight eco-friendly cladding which makes an attractive contemporary statement”.

He adds that surfaces are a vital part of the ergonomic kitchen and using cladding as a part of the continuous surface from a matching worktop is a great way to bring in a deluxe designer feel.

Daval says its cladding makes a characterful feature wall effect thanks to its vertical grain. It can be painted to match fitted furniture for a custom look

Key considerations

Although it lasts well, as a natural material wooden worktops do require upkeep with regular sanding and oiling to keep them looking their best. But this also means its more repairable than other materials as stains and scratches can be carefully buffed away, with the oil bringing back the patina and look of the grain. As with marble and other stone, wooden tops also offer a level of character not matched by synthetic alternatives and, depending on the wood used, it’s a really sustainable choice.

On the sustainability issue, InHouse Inspired Room Design director Stuart Dance goes on to say that, ecologically-minded consumers will check whether the wood comes from a sustainably managed forest, so retailers need to have this information to hand. “Consumers will also need to know how to treat their tops as, although they are supplied ready oiled, they will require re-oiling at regular intervals.”

Finally, Nicole Oliver, head of trade at WEX Trade, which supplies De Terra, a range of solid wood kitchen worktops, says: “When a retailer is choosing where to buy their wooden worktops, it is important they understand what specification and quality protocols are followed by the supplier to make sure that the worktop is delivered to the desired standard.

Silestone Bathroom in Cala Blue by Cosentino

“Different distributors and manufacturers have different levels of quality and product specification. One of the key benefits of the De Terra solid wood range is the level of detail the product specification covers to ensure that quality of the product is second to none.”

Solid surfaces and laminates

Solid surfaces, along with laminates, are probably the most cost-effective surface material on the market, and suppliers would argue that it’s also up there as the most versatile. Solid surfaces usually have a higher acrylic content than engineered stone and include products like Corian and Hi-Macs. They can be thermoformed into seamless, continuous shapes and are completely non-porous and therefore highly stain-resistant. Being higher in plastics, however, these solid surfaces are not always very heat-resistant as the resins can melt.

Laminates comprise many sheets of paper mixed with resin, which are pressed together around a chipboard substrate, and despite its very low cost, it is also very durable, being resistant to scratching, heat and staining. In addition, with new HD printing techniques, some brands suggest that it is
indistinguishable from the material it is imitating. However, it is important to go for a trusted brand, or direct your customers towards trusted brands, as
there are many inferior products on the market.

Zenith solid compact laminate worktop in Boston exclusively available by IDS


Solid surfaces and laminates can be used for countertops in the kitchen or bathroom, and solid surfaces like Corian and Hi-Macs can also be thermoformed into quirky furniture pieces, such as coffee tables or shower seats. Both Corian and Hi-Macs can be used as cladding on the façades of buildings too.

Shower wall surfaces have also become a popular alternative to tiles over the past decade or so, with companies like Showerwall offering “100 decors to suit all tastes”.

According to Wharf, overlays are gaining popularity with fitters and retailers as a way to reduce the time and expense of ripping out existing worktops

As product manager for Showerwall, Steph Harris, notes, Showerwall’s wall panel systems, which come in either laminate, acrylic and Compact ranges, provide a “completely watertight surface, which is hard-wearing and low-maintenance”.

Key considerations

When it comes to solid surfaces and laminates, there are loads of options available on the market and if your customer has a tighter budget, this might be the best option – provided they buy from a trusted brand.

Utopia offers a range of both solid surfaces and laminates – as well as tiles – to suit all budgets. To help demystify the process, the West-Midlands-based brand dedicates a whole page in its brochure to explain the composition of its 20mm and 22mm solid surface ranges, and also its 22mm laminate and 12mm compact laminate collections. So, education on the actual products is key.

Showerwall’s Acrylic range offers over 40 bold designs and offers customers the chance to personalise panels by providing colour references

In addition, Jason Neve, national business development manager for worktops at IDS, asserts that compact laminate offers some of the same benefits for under-mounting sinks, drainer grooves, water-resistance, seamless aesthetics and on-point design as ceramics, but at around one sixth of the price. “That’s an enormous saving for a consumer, without sacrificing the look they wanted.”

In terms of fabrication and fitting, laminate, compact laminate, solid surfaces and timber are all big sellers for IDS as they are self-fit. “They give the retailer full control of the kitchen installation. because their own fitters can install them without having to subcontract to a third party. The skills shortage is widely acknowledged across our sector and being able to have full control of the entire fit has probably never been more important to retailers than it is now.”

So, in summary, there are pros and cons to every material and the key is to ensure you’re properly informed so that you can educate and inform the customer, taking into the account their desires, their budget and their lifestyle.

Imperial White is one of six 20mm solid surface worktops from Utopia

Some customers may not really understand that they can also have a combination of different materials to suit various applications, so it might be worth discussing this. If you don’t feel so qualified talking about the pros and cons of certain worktops, you can refer them to the Worktop Fabricator’s Federation Guide to Engineered and Natural Stone.

Other important considerations include how easy or difficult the material is likely to be to source, access, the lead times and the fabrication/fitting process. It’s crucial to be transparent about these steps as that could potentially impact the customer’s choice significantly.

In addition to a skills shortage, some supply chains remain affected by global events currently, so customers might be more inclined towards purchasing a product made, or available, closer to home. From a sustainability perspective, which is also increasingly important to some consumers, a UK-made product might be preferable.


Many designers and retailers don’t look at how the layout can affect how many sheets of material are required. For example, if a designer were to switch from a 1,000mm cabinet to a 900mm cabinet, this can save the customer a full sheet of material 
which can be as much as £1,500, depending on the material used. - Scott Wharton, operations and technical director, Roann Limited

When selecting surfaces, retailers and designers need to strike a balance between offering a variety of options while ensuring profitability. By specifying a range of surfaces with different price points, and offering customers good/better/best, you can cater to varying budgets while maximising margins on higher-end materials. By offering too wide of a range, you may end up with niche product that you aren’t able to sell. Understanding market demand and staying up to date with current trends is essential. Conducting market research to identify popular surface materials, finishes, and styles will help you align what you are offering with customer preferences and increase any sales potential. - David Morris, sales manager, MHK UK

You have to know what you are selecting, what your customer’s budget is and the likelihood of them wanting to take red hot pans off the hob and rest them straight on the work surface. Understanding what is possible and what materials are available is a great opportunity to up-sell customers into added-value 
ideas they’d never have thought of. - Chris Pateman, general secretary, The Worktop Fabricators Federation
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