Tile Countertops: A Consumer's Perspective
By Kimberly Rielly
“Come over and see this," Anne said, “you’ll change your mind. It’s not like Sue’s kitchen, and it’s different than our old countertop."
Our mutual friend Sue has a tiled countertop in her kitchen. The tile itself is a nice 4"-square glossy white tile. She has a top-set stainless steel sink and a strip of oak at the front edge of the counter. The wooden trim is well worn, especially in front of the sink. The backsplash is comprised of the same tile, one row high, and the transition to the backsplash tile is a messy-looking line of either caulk or silicone that was surely harboring bacteria.
Because of its resistance to heat, abrasion, and staining, the arguments for the installation of ceramic tile are valid. In fact, Sue told me that she liked the durability of the tile, and the fact that she could place a hot pan directly on the countertop and not worry that there would be damage. Though this was appealing, I was still going to look into a custom one-piece natural stone surface for our house. A granite countertop would require regular maintenance, but it would be worth it to have such a beautiful product in our kitchen.
To placate Anne, however, I drove to her house that week. She was right: I changed my mind.
First of all, she had installed large tiles on the counter to match her floor. They were beautiful 12" x 12" porcelain tiles in a dramatic black color. Using such large-format tiles decreased the frequency of grout lines, and she informed me that the new epoxy-based grout they used was especially durable and stain-proof.
The front edge was comprised of the same black field tile, with two stainless steel profiles at the top and bottom edges. The effect was stunning, and obviously durable. “It’s called a double-rail apron," she proudly informed me.
The pièce de resistance, the countertop/wall transition, determined my new kitchen’s fate. This was a curved, easily maintained stainless steel cove-base profile that connected to more of the same beautiful field tile, installed from that junction all the way up to the bottom of the wall cabinets. The result was an easily cleanable surface from the lower cabinets to those above. This is especially important adjacent to the stove, where grease is likely to splatter.
In my fascination over the elegant stainless steel cove-base transition and the double-rail apron, I hadn’t even noticed what was, to Anne, the most important feature of her new kitchen: her new tiled-under sink. The stainless steel tiled-under sink was surrounded by the same stainless steel profile, which created a neat appearance, and was easy to clean since there was no lip to trap debris. The profile, Schluter-RONDEC, also had matching inside and outside corners to create clean, smooth transitions at the corners.
Anne’s previous countertop, now replaced with this spectacular installation, was also tiled, and the sink was tiled-under. “Our old sink was surrounded with special ceramic quarter-round trim", she said, “and the trim was severely chipped after years of washing pots and pans. Incorporating the Schluter-RONDEC trim allowed us to use any tile we wanted, and now I don’t have to worry about damaging the edges." I remembered that when I had purchased the floor tile for our bathroom a year earlier, the only tile that had special trim pieces available for countertops were 4" x 4" and 6" x 6" tiles in basic colors. She was right; with these Schluter trim pieces and the cove-base profile, the design possibilities were endless. I started to daydream about a dark blue, polished porcelain deck coordinated with glass mosaic on the apron.
In addition to the stainless steel trim pieces used to protect and finish this tile project, Schluter-Systems manufactures, as their name implies, complete installation systems for countertops. Though the finished result is durable and beautiful, the success of this system begins below the tile.
Plywood is a common substrate for countertops. If the tile were directly adhered to the plywood, however, damage would be inevitable, as the wood expands and contracts at a different rate than that of ceramic tile. To allow the two surfaces to move independently, it is necessary to install an uncoupling membrane, Schluter-DITRA, between the two layers. DITRA also provides waterproofing and vapor pressure equalization functions, which are crucial in a kitchen environment where steam from dishwashers and water from sinks would otherwise be problematic on a plywood substrate. The Schluter-KERDI-BAND waterproofing strip is used to seal butt joints and countertop/backsplash connections.
The rest of the system is visible. The double-rail apron on the front edge of the counter is created using two Schluter-RONDEC profiles. The RONDEC profiles also allow the installation of a tiled-under sink. The Schluter-DILEX-EHK cove-base profile provides the maintenance-free, curved transition to the backsplash. Profiles are available in a variety of colors and materials to accentuate the tile, including stainless steel, which is ideal for applications with strict hygienic requirements, such as commercial kitchens, and my friend Anne’s house.
Countertops represent an important opportunity for increased revenue in an application that has been largely overlooked. The result of this system is a functional and maintenance-free tile covering with design possibilities that are limited only by your imagination.