Considering white marble counter tops?

Bob Borson —  December 5, 2013 — 32 Comments

There are few things that are as stunning to me as a white marble counter top … I love them and appreciate the character and history they have as a material. Whenever the subject of white marble counter tops comes up (which in my line of work is a lot) the topic of damage (scratches) and maintenance (stains) comes up in every conversation.

Examples of White Marble

I thought I would put together some information that might help that person who loves the look of white marble but is afraid of using the material. It’s definitely a good look and a fantastic material, but you have to be prepared for a give and take relationship. Since marble is a natural product, it is going to evolve and change over time and with use no matter how much you baby it. It’s that last sentence that should be your major clue as to whether or not this is the material for you.

If you are okay with your counter top showing signs of use then by all means, white marble away! Marble is a calcium-rich stone, porous, has relatively low abrasion resistance,and is susceptible to expansion and contraction. When spills are left on a marble counter top, they seep into the pores … but seriously, who doesn’t wipe off their counters? If I spill red wine on my counter, I tend to clean it up right away. However, there have been times when I’ve had a party and I’m playing bartender, and in my haste to be a good host, I might slop a teeny-tiny bit when mixing up my cocktails. It’s important to wipe up any spills immediately, then wipe the area with a little water and dry immediately, otherwise you are going to see the evidence of that awesome party – this is caused by a permanent change in the marble’s composition and can only be removed by professional polishing.

white countertops kitchen from Michael Malone Architects

For finishes, you have a choice of polishing or honing your counters. Polishing creates a shiny reflective surface and honing produces a matte finish. I generally recommend that a person hone their white marble counter tops – polishing creates a sheen that will make it easier to see any changes in the surface created by acids (like lemon juice or tomatoes) – which isn’t really desirable. A honed matte finish is far better in my opinion.

Marica McKeel Creek House

Some people also think that a white counter top will make it easier to see just how clean the surface really is – not true! The darker the surface, the easier it is to see marks and “remnants” on the surface – which includes fingerprints. When a person wants their kitchen counter top material to look pretty much the same over time AND wants a material that will require less maintenance, they should probably look at choosing an alternative to white marble. Some very attractive and quite suitable alternatives include engineered quartz counter tops like those manufactured by CaesarstoneZodiaq or Silestone. They’re man-made, almost completely impervious, and virtually indestructible once installed.

white countertops master bathroom from Michael Malone Architects

If I haven’t scared you off yet, here are some fairly generic best-practices to consider:

  • Always seal marble prior to use. There are a lot of great products to use, your specifier, designer or installer should be able to help you choose the right one.
  • To reduce the appearance of etching, choose a honed finish.
  • To reduce the appearance of staining, always wipe up spills immediately. Oil and highly pigmented liquids (i.e. cranberry or grape) can penetrate and stain the marble and may need to be removed using a poultice.
  • Always use a neutral detergent to clean marble. I generally tell my clients to use a non-abrasive liquid dish soap (like Dawn) and water only.

To set the record straight, I love white marble counter tops a lot. They are as timeless as they are modern and there aren’t too many materials out there that can make that boast. I also don’t have a problem with the life becoming part of the story behind a material. I know that my marble counter tops are going to scratch and get etched over time and through use – and I am completely fine with that. I am also the sort of person that is okay with cracks in concrete because I expect them to be there. Is marble more maintenance than a granite or a man-made quartz counter top – absolutely. If you are okay looking at your counter and remembering that awesome Christmas party then I highly recommend taking the leap and going with white marble counters. I can guarantee that you will be talking about them every time someone new see them.

and I think that’s pretty cool.

Cheers,

Bob Borson signature

even better

  • Bffnnn

    My wife says marble looks like a tomb.

    I’m waiting for a decade from now when we’re throwing out the granite countertops like the 80’s white countertop tile.

  • Usha Digiacomo

    I am a metamorphic woman, and love white marble. In Brazil all kitchen counters were cheap white marble back in the, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. Therefore I just think it is supposed to look stained. LOL
    I have just renovated some of my place. Put carrara in one bath, and Brazilian travertine in another. I have got one little stain already, and think it is are just part of life.
    Thanks for the article.
    Usha

  • May

    Fascinating article, and the comments are very revealing.

    Now, y’all just go ahead, and send me your reviled and discarded coffee- and wine-stained slabs of marble, please, as I love that marble is almost alive in its reactivity (is that even a word?), and the stains will eventually ease out by themselves over time. Or not, but I don’t think it’s the end of the world as we know it to see the occasional flaw.

    It’s STONE, people, a natural material, and an incredibly beautiful one at that. I live on a hill farm, I’m surrounded by stone, copious rocky amounts of it, and a little splotch of discolour here or there really isn’t going to ruin my life! Or my kitchen…

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  • hdhensel

    First, check me out at http://www.henselgeosciences.com.au. I have been doing this for the last 35 years and have come across so many instances of where sealers don’t work or where they have caused damage to the stone. As an investigative stone scientist I have to look into these issues on a near-daily basis. I have a solid fact base on which to make informed judgements and comments. Much of my income is derived from the non-performance of sealers. But hey don’t get me wrong – there are a few scenarios where certain sealers are beneficial. But do you realize that it has become the worlds biggest after-market stone product. Can you not see the vested commercial interest that there is in these products?? And the huge marketing machine that is out there? I will send you my article on sealers separately. As for porosities – I have scientifically tested hundreds of stones in my time and continue to do so. And virtually daily I come across bad/concocted test results that are deliberate or inadvertent. The problem is that most readers – especially architects and designers – don’t know any different. A good start on porosity values is David Pivco’s summary of Marbles of the World

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I received your article via email – thank you. Pretty interesting reading and I think I will amend my article to reflect some of the data your reference. Considering that most of what I was interested in learning when I started researching this article was the porosity of the various stones – and just how hard that was for me to find – it made your article that much more interesting.

      Cheers

  • hdhensel

    Hi, I have a few issues to raise. In reading through the posts there is a common thread – etching and staining. How is that possible when every article you ever come across in a magazine or post stresses the issue (and benefits, yes benefits) of sealing. You must seal, seal and then more seal!! You Americans are blinded by marketing and don’t think much for yourselves. To be so naive as to suggest that a designer, specifier or installer can suggest the “right” sealer for you !!! Are you kidding !!! What does a specifier know about the chemistry of sealer and how that sealer behaves towards a particular stone?? C’mon, get real !! There are 13,000 stones on the world market and almost as many concoctions to put on that stone. Read my article about sealers. This leads me to your comment about marble being porous. This is another misconception perpetrated by the media. Generally marble, especially good marble, has quite a low porosity. A value of between 0.1% and 0.2% is low and lower than most granites. Yes, check it out. Especially most of the Chinese and Indian granites that have water absorption between 0.3% and 0.4%. And as for spills permanently changing the composition of the marble. Highly unlikely in a domestic environment. You might change the appearance of the surface but that is not changing the composition of the marble. The composition is what the marble is made of and unless you have some superpowers then that is unlikely to happen.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      feel free to email me some documentation on the porosity of stones, I’d love to see it. Ignoring your disparaging comment about not being able to think for ourselves, but why should we listen to you regarding sealers? I’m not sure that listening to you is that much different, what makes you something other than just another source of information? You’ll have to do better than just throw a frag into the conversation because like they say “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” and I’ve seen the etching and the staining.

      I’d love to see some information on the porosity and I would gladly read your article on sealers, this is after all a forum of sharing and educating. Email me at bob[at]lifeofanarchitect.com

      Cheers

  • Frank

    Bob, Limestone has some of the same issues. Our house is what our architects called a Texas Modern and with it comes thoughts of Limestone. So we used Limestone in our bathrooms with the promise of diligent attention to cleanliness and frequent protectant additions. Well who would have thought (everyone except us) that shaving cream, makeup, hand lotion, etc. would stain or etch. Fortunately, it is a less porous limestone, but still suffers from the character of being used.

  • MurphyJ

    I’m glad you commented on the visibly clean counter top question. We went with honed black granite counter tops and they show every smudge and crumb. Personally, I like this. We lived in a house with light counter tops and dark floors; I could never tell when the counter was clean and the floor always looked filthy.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I loved my honed black granite counters as well but they had to be spotless in order to appear clean. Not only did I have to wash them, I had to dry them …

      It was extra work but I still thought they looked terrific.

  • Tammie

    I love the look of a white marble counter and my favorite white marbles are from Vermont…Vermont Danby being my all time favorite. This marble is a bit denser than the Italian marbles!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks Tammie – I am looking for a chart of something that ranks the different marbles based on their porosity and densities, now I have Vermont Danby (very beautiful BTW) on my list.

  • Sheldon Wolfe

    Great advice, Bob. I wouldn’t consider it for a kitchen, but I put a white marble countertop on top of built-in bookshelves that separate our dining room from the living room. It seemed like a safe place; all it would be used for is a place to put pictures and the occasional Santa Claus. All was well until my wife and I left town for a weekend. My son took advantage of the situation to have a party, and we returned to find a circular stain in the marble. I wonder how that happened.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      kids …

      they don’t get away with 99% of what they think they get away with

  • John P.

    Great points about the countertops! I’ve had clients in the past that were INSISTENT on having them. Pain in the rear to get the right one picked… but when it was finished, turned out great. One cool thing to note, is the ability to ‘under light’ the counter! It gives the stone a sense of life and can highlight certain areas.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I think you are showing onyx in this picture – it’s beautiful when lit. Is this one of your projects?

      • John P.

        I believe you’re right on it being onyx… this unfortunately isn’t one of my projects. This just happened to the best out of a quick google search! Don’t have access to my personal work on a company machine… womp womp.

  • Steve

    I once did a condo makeover project for a bachelor in Boston, he insisted on Carrera marble counters against my warnings of maintenance issues (Let’s just say this was not a guy who valued cleanliness). It was installed and the client visited to check progress and proceeded to leave a paper coffee cup half filled in the middle of the island right before he went on vacation for a week.

    The cup eventually leaked forming a 3′ diameter pool where it sat for about a week on the island. I learned much about Poultice in the following weeks to lift the stain and most came out but it was still visible. It eventually had to be replaced!

    Love the look of marble but if you’re looking for low maintenance it’s not ideal. If you have kids just forget it unless you’re actually looking for conflict in your life for the next 15 years.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      wow – what a story. At least the client was the one who left the coffee cup behind. When you took the counter top out, did you go back and replace it with the same thing or move to a more maintenance free material?

  • Ron

    Good post on marble counters. Would like to add another item to watch for. And that is placing coffee cups on the marble. Coffee stains like wine stains are almost impossible to remove once they seep into the marble.
    Keep up the good work. Always enjoy your take on being an architect.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks Ron – coffee can be a beast to deal with AND it’s acidic which means it will etch the surface of the material. Coasters will be your best friend.

  • Courtney Price

    Great post with great advice- will be sharing. Thanks-

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks Courtney!

  • Anthony Greer

    Thanks for sharing on twitter, Bob. Are there certain regions that produce marble that is less porous than others; or are they pretty much the same across the board?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      When I was doing my research for this post, I found a lot of cut and paste advice on sites referring to the density and porosity of the different marbles – except none of them actually listed the differences. So I sent a email off to various trade representatives to see if I could get some additional information. If I get something worth sharing in response, I will come back and amend this post.

  • Anna Eisbar

    Another point that is important for me when i chose a material, is the noise it produces during use. Stone for a counter top, yes, but for a bar where people put down glasses, forks etc all the time, i would not use stone but rather wood. Same for a table : i can’t stand the noise from stone or glass tables. Maybe i’m more sensitive than others but to me the ear is as important as the eye in architecture.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I have to admit this was something that I hadn’t ever spent much time thinking about – thanks for adding it to my list of considerations

  • Robert Moore

    If you hadn’t given such an articulate explanation I would have said you lost your marbles. Beautiful material (I love the story it tells) but it’s not for everyone’s lifestyle. “Love the story it tells,” how many materials can we say that about.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      good one :)

      it is definitely a classic material, just have to make sure that the end user is aware that what makes it great is what makes it a high maintenance product. Eventually it doesn’t really matter, once you get past that first mark of history …

  • Craig

    I love reading your posts and totally agree that a material that shows its history (and grows old disgracefully) is always of benefit to a well designed room. Bob; Thanks.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks Craig – I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone not respond to seeing a kitchen in an older home that had marble counters in it. You can almost imagine the lifestyle that comes along with the material.