The concrete countertops in Eleanor Zuckerman's San Francisco kitchen are handcrafted works of art.
Custom-designed by Fu-Tun Cheng of the Berkeley, California-based Cheng Concrete, they feature colors like brick, flowing lines and pictures of nautilus shells.
"With concrete there is a lot of room for creativity, to say nothing of color," says Zuckerman, a retired psychologist. "It gives you flexibility."
Homeowners looking to spice up their kitchens can install a variety of countertops that go beyond the traditional laminate and tile. Today's options include concrete and butcher-block-style wood, and a range of custom-designed colors and shapes. IceStone countertops use recycled glass from broken bottles.
"So many different materials are used in countertops these days," says Tony Izzo, Curtis Lumber's corporate kitchen and bath manager in Albany, New York. Until about 25 years ago, he says, roughly 90 percent of countertops in U.S. homes were laminate, and the rest tile.
Then DuPont's Corian hit the market, followed by granite and quartz, which are current favorites, he says. Today, just half of countertops are laminate, Izzo says.
The burgeoning interest in alternative countertops is the natural extension of that trend. And they are becoming more affordable.
"Slowly, over the years, the market has really grown," says Mike Heidebrink, president of Cheng Concrete. When the company opened in 2002, it catered mostly to well-heeled dot-commers willing to spend more to bring an artisan's touch to their kitchens.
Today, Heidebrink says, Cheng also serves a growing number of skilled do-it-yourselfers who want to shape, mold and install countertops themselves. They can choose the color and lines of their countertops, he says. Once installed and sealed, he says, concrete countertops are as durable as limestone and marble.
"They can have that for $10 a square foot," he says.
Nils Wessell in Brooklyn, New York, says the do-it-yourself movement is also fueling his businesses, in a different way.
"This DIY interest in cooking leads to people wanting a suitable surface to chop up meat on," says Wessell, whose company, Brooklyn Butcher Blocks, makes wooden countertops with enough thickness and durability to be used as cutting boards. Clients include barbecue restaurants as well as home cooks.
While Wessell says his handmade countertops are more expensive than factory-made ones, he can make "a sizable countertop for about a grand," he says.
Of course, no countertop is perfect. Concrete can stain, so it must be sealed properly. Wooden countertops take a beating from knives, although Wessell says they can be easily maintained with semiregular sanding.
Soapstone, popular for its natural look, has its quirks as well, Izzo says: It weathers over time. "Consumers generally have to accept that idea and know that they want a living finish like that," he says.
Even granite countertops have drawbacks. Some granite releases trace amounts of radon, the radioactive gas.
Izzo instead is a fan of quartz. Although it's about as expensive as granite, it doesn't have the radon issue and it's less porous, therefore less likely to harbor bacteria, he says.