This kitchen, while small, is livened up by the ceramic tile countertop.

Kitchen Countertops

About 11 percent of your kitchen remodeling budget will be used for countertops. Counters offer a great opportunity to create a fashion statement, and the price ranges are as varied as the styles. Whatever your preferences, rounded corners on countertops are a smart move for safety's sake.

For the sake of your budget as well as for specific performance needs, feel free to mix several different kitchen countertop materials in different areas of the kitchen. Mixing countertop materials is a practical and attractive option. Marble works great for pastry-making, but you don't need a glossy stone surface on which to unload grocery bags or pile up dirty dinner dishes. Butcher block is warm, but you don't want it next to the sink, where it might get water damaged. You like the elegant look of granite, but it's a bit out of your price range for a whole kitchen.

So why not mix and match? Today's kitchen design trends favor the warmth and character created by mixing stone (or faux stone) and wood counters in different areas. You might choose butcher block or marble for the counter on which you plan to prep vegetables or roll out pastry, while solid surfacing is used for other countertops.

And you might want to use real granite on a high-visibility kitchen island with coordinating faux granite laminate on perimeter counters. Most natural materials now have attractive synthetic alternatives that incorporate photographic reproductions of "the real thing," so countertops at every price point look better than ever. Take a look at your options:

Laminate Kitchen Countertops

Economical and good-looking, laminates consist of layers of decorative paper sandwiched together and laminated with a patterned paper on top, all bonded to a particle-board countertop surface. From elegant faux-marble and granite looks to fun and funky, '50s boomerang designs, laminates respond to every fashion look.

Laminates have good stain, abrasion, and moisture resistance, but scratches and nicks do show and can't be repaired. (An all-over pattern on the dark side minimizes visible marks, and color-through laminates show less evidence of wear.) You'll also need to protect laminate counters from hot pots, which can cause irreparable scorches and even melting. Specify a rolled edge or another color of laminate trim on the counter's edge to eliminate the black edging line between the two planes.

Solid Surfacing Kitchen Countertops

Nonporous, seamless surfaces are made of a blend of acrylic and/or polyester resins with mineral fillers for a smooth feel that's similar to natural stone, but not as cool to the touch. Available in solid colors and in faux-stone patterns, solid surfacing is easy to clean and maintain; burns or stains often can be repaired or buffed away.

This material is also more workable than stone: Contrasting colors and shapes can be pieced together for a custom design; the material can be routed for elegant edge designs. An integral solid-surfacing sink is an appealing and practical option. Solid-surfacing material comes with impressive warranties when installed by a professional fabricator.

Ceramic Tile Kitchen Countertops

Made of high-fired clay with a baked-on colored surface, ceramic tile resists stains, water, and heat and will last a lifetime with normal care. It also offers endless custom-colored options, including luxurious hand-painted designs to coordinate with any motif.

As with any surface cut into tiles rather than in slabs, you'll have to contend with cleaning grout, but today's cleaners make short work of that task. Some grouts have been treated with mildewcides, and the current trend toward midtone grout means less visible staining.

You can also ask that tiles be laid close together to reduce grout line maintenance. Like natural stone surfacing materials, tile is not resilient, so it's tough on dropped glassware.

Wood Kitchen Countertops

Practical, naturally warm, and handsome, wood can be finished, left unfinished, or periodically refinished. Because wood is susceptible to warping and cracking from moisture, wood countertops are most often made of butcher block (many small, thick pieces of wood glued together).

Granite is both an opulent and durable countertop material.

Wood is also susceptible to stains and burns and, because it's porous, should be regularly cleaned with an antibacterial cleaner. (Many people feel more comfortable cutting raw meats on a nonporous cutting board.) For a low-sheen surface, you should order your wood countertop without a gloss sealant, and plan on preserving it with an occasional mineral oil application, rubbed in well. For a glossier look, specify a polyurethane-finished surface.

Marble and Granite Kitchen Countertops

Marble and granite are the luxury choices of surfacing material and can easily last a lifetime or longer. Highly polished, smooth-edged stone costs more than unpolished surfaces and rough-hewn edges, but the smoother the countertop is, the easier it is to keep clean. Marble's cool, smooth surface is perfect for making pastry, but it is porous and can be stained, so regular care and sealing (with salad oil in food prep area, commercial sealer elsewhere) is important.

Granite is much less porous than marble but can be stained by grease. Granite doesn't scratch, and chips on the corners can be repaired. Thickness of the countertop greatly affects the price. If it's in your budget, specify your slab stone 11/4-inch deep, so it's strong enough to survive shipment and fabrication and sturdy enough to be used as an unsupported 1/2-inch counter overhang. Usually installed in counter-length slabs, natural stone is also available in somewhat less durable tile form for easier installation and lower cost.

Since the quarrying and finishing of many running feet in a single slab is what makes stone countertops so expensive, smaller pieces can help make stone more affordable. As with ceramic tile, have your marble or granite tiles laid close together to eliminate grout line maintenance.

To make your new countertops really shine, you'll want to choose the right type of lighting. In the next section, we'll show you the best ways to light up your kitchen.