When it comes to selecting kitchen countertops, classic white marble remains the top choice for many home owners. It’s no surprise—the surface has been attracting fans for millennia. “It’s a natural material with great variety, depending on which species you select and how it’s cut,” says AD100 architect S. Russell Groves. “It creates a really lovely natural pattern, which you don’t get with a lot of artificial materials.”
“You won’t find anything as white in nature as white marble,” adds Evan Nussbaum, a vice president at Stone Source in New York. “You just don’t get that color and kind of figuring in any other type of natural stone.”
But it’s not a perfect product. While good-quality marbles, such as the world-famous products from Carrara, Italy, are dense and relatively nonporous—which makes them durable and stain-resistant—they also have weaknesses. A nonfoliated metamorphic rock, marble is generally composed of calcium carbonate (the same ingredient used in antacids such as Tums) or magnesium carbonate, which react to acids. An acidic kitchen liquid like lemon juice or vinegar will etch marble, leaving a dull, whitish mark where it has slightly eaten away the surface, even after the marble has been sealed. But as long as you choose carefully, know what to expect, and care for marble countertops, they can be a beautiful, functional choice that lasts a lifetime.
Although many people automatically think of creamy, white stone when they think of marble, “there are hundreds of varieties,” says Jason Cherrington, founder and managing director of the U.K.-based stone company Lapicida, including types that are taupe, green, gold, red, and black. For kitchen countertops, however, Nussbaum generally recommends sticking with white. Because acid etching leaves a whitish mark, it is much more noticeable on colored marble than on white marble. “We put a thousand caveats on any dark marble or nonwhite marble being used for kitchen countertops,” he says, “but it’s a personal choice.”
While classic Italian white marbles like Calacatta and Statuario are generally excellent quality, Nussbaum points out that equally high-quality marbles are available closer to home, including Vermont Danby and Colorado Yule.
Every stone slab is slightly different, so it’s ideal to select the exact pieces of stone that will be used for your countertops. “There’s an art to marble—selecting the slabs and understanding where the veining is going to be located on the countertop,” says Groves. “You want to artfully place the markings so that it’s almost like a painting.”
At the same time, it’s important to consider how different pieces come together. “The longer the piece you can get without any seams, the better,” says Groves. “If you do have seams, it’s always nice to book-match the marble,” so adjacent pieces have a mirrored appearance.
Every quarry is different, but it’s possible to cut certain types of marble blocks two different ways to achieve unique veining patterns. Cross cut, or fleuri cut, results in stone slabs with “an open flowered pattern,” says Nussbaum, which looks fairly random and is ideal for book-matching. Vein cut, or striato, slices the block the other way to achieve a linear, striped appearance.
“Designers have used both cuts to create some fantastic looks,” says Cherrington. “They may use vein cut on the wall and cross cut on the floor.”
“The whole stone industry has been going through a massive wave of technology, and it’s transforming the product,” says Cherrington, noting that there are now more ways than ever to finish stone, including different brushing and polishing techniques. An orange-peel-like texture is possible, he notes, which “might be called a leather, brushed, or river-wash finish.”
But the most popular choices remain polished, which looks glossy, or honed, which appears matte. For homeowners concerned about acid etching, Nussbaum recommends a honed finish. “On a polished finish, etching is going to turn it dull and be more visible,” he says. “With honed, you’re dulling an already dull finish, so it disguises it.”
Besides its natural beauty, there’s a reason marble has historically been so popular for sculpture: It’s easy to work with tools. Add modern computer numerical control (CNC) milling machines to the equation and almost anything’s possible.
There are countless edge profiles to choose from, but Groves prefers a simple eased edge, which takes the sharpness off a straight 90-degree corner. Cherrington points out that a bull’s nose, which has the profile of a half circle, is also a timeless favorite and functional winner. “Hard stones like marble are brittle, so if you hit a 90-degree corner with something hard, it will chip,” he says. “With a curve, it’s highly unlikely that it’s going to chip.”
To give thin ¾-inch stone the look of a thicker slab, Groves says it’s possible to use a miter joint at the edge of the countertop to add a thicker face with an almost seamless appearance. “You can build up a really nice thick-looking piece without having to use a thick slab,” he says.
It’s even possible to engrave the edge of a marble countertop with a pattern of your choosing, says Cherrington, noting that Lapicida has developed marble tables featuring a carved brogue pattern on the edge in collaboration with designer Bethan Gray.
Finishing marble countertops with a penetrating sealer is essential for long-term performance, says Nussbaum, “but not a magic bullet.” Acids will still etch the surface. Fortunately, if the countertop has a honed finish, an etched mark can usually be removed by scrubbing with a Comet paste using a Scotch-Brite pad, he says. If it’s a polished surface, it will require different abrasives and technical skill, which might best be left to a professional. If the marble does get a stain, it can often be removed with an alkaline poultice that gradually pulls the offending material out of the stone as it dries. But any of these interventions will also strip the sealer, he notes, so it needs to be reapplied after the repair.
“The good thing about marble is that you can always sand it down or polish it again,” says Groves. “With a lot of other materials, once you damage it, you can’t do that.”
However, the best way to live with marble countertops may simply be to accept that they will patina over time. “If you’ve been to an old bakery or pizza shop and seen how white marble patinas, and like it,” says Nussbaum, “then it could be the perfect material for you.”