The Imperfect Beauty of Concrete Countertops

Unique styling and durability are just a couple of the reasons that concrete countertops have become so popular. A far cry from the early versions, today’s concrete countertops are thinner and come in many more finishes, thanks to improved technology. Variations in color and texture — along with some natural imperfections —  add to the charm of concrete, but may not appeal to all homeowners. Just as with any countertop surface, before you choose concrete, it’s important to understand what the pros and cons of the material are before investing in it.

View in gallery

Here, we outline some of the major features and characteristics of concrete countertops to help you decide if this material is right for your kitchen and your lifestyle.

View in gallery
This Philippe Starck kitchen features modern concrete countertops and walls.
View in gallery
Natural looking concrete is the perfect match for sleek appliances and cabinetry.
View in gallery
Small imperfections and color variations are part of the appeal of concrete countertops.

The Nitty-Gritty of Concrete

The material used for concrete countertops is made of cement, lightweight aggregates, and a combination of additives, according to the the ConcreteNetwork.com. Manufacturers also add various additives, from fibers to acrylic or silicates. Sometimes the terms cement and concrete are confused or intended to mean the same thing, however cement is actually an ingredient used to make concrete, explains the Concrete Contractors Association. Cement consists of limestone and silicate materials ground into a very fine powder. To make concrete, the cement is mixed with water, sand and gravel or crushed stone.

View in gallery
Not all concrete countertops need to be thick, thanks to new techniques.
View in gallery
Combined with sleek cabinetry, concrete countertops are very modern.
View in gallery
A renovated warehouse kitchen in Australia, designed by Corben Architects.
View in gallery
Concrete as a dominant material is dramatic.
View in gallery
A matte concrete countertop will play down the shine of the appliances.
View in gallery
Gray concrete pairs well with all colors of cabinetry.

Inside, concrete requires structural reinforcement and this is where technology has improved the process. Steel, wire mesh, fiberglass, and fibers are used alone or in combinations for structure and stability. Finer reinforcement materials allow for thinner countertops.

After being poured, the Concrete Network explains that the countertop must be cured. Then, the surface of the countertop goes through a series of grinding and polishing steps that improve durability and enhance the look.

View in gallery
For a real focal point, concrete can be the countertop as well as the skin that covers the entire island.
View in gallery
Concrete is easily combined with other kitchen surfaces.
View in gallery
Color variations add interest.

Versatility

According to the Concrete Counter Institute, concrete is extremely versatile and can be used in any style of kitchen — French country, contemporary and traditional to industrial or modern. New techniques allow for staining, tinting and marbleizing, creating surfaces that look like like marble with more customization options than natural stone. Moreover, concrete can be cast in any shape and nearly any size. Concrete countertops are also sustainable if the manufacturer does not create excess waste or use toxic materials. In addition, concrete countertops are recyclable.

View in gallery
Contemporary kitchens are perfect for concrete countertops.

Imperfectly Gorgeous

Just as the imperfections in live edge furniture and authentic leather upholstery enhance the beauty of the object, the natural imperfections inherent in concrete are not undesirable. Because concrete is a mixture of many different ingredients, the Institute emphasizes that subtle variations in color, shade and texture are to be expected. Concrete is poured into a mold, so air bubbles and mottling can affect the surface. And concrete has to cure, which means that  temperature and humidity levels can impact final results.

In addition, all concrete is susceptible to harmless hairline cracks over time.  Those who expect perfection might not be happy with concrete countertops in the long-term.

View in gallery
Smooth concrete looks great with walls that have texture.

Easily Maintained

Concrete is strong and durable, so countertops will last a very long time. It is, however, porous and may stain, so concrete countertops must always be sealed. Using a surface sealer makes it resist water and stains. Each contractor has his or her own preferred sealant and new types of sealants last longer and require less maintenance. According to the Concrete Counter Institute, new products make the surface “stain-resistant, heat-resistant, scratch-resistant, food safe, easy to clean, easy to maintain and perfectly smooth.”

Minimalist kitchens can benefit from concrete’s long, smooth surfaces. Unsealed, concrete can handle high heat, but not stains. Consumer Reports notes that sealers can protect concrete countertops against stains but not heat. Consequently, it’s not advisable to place hot pots directly on the surface, even if it is heat resistant because the sealant can be damaged or discolored.

A definite benefit is that unlike natural stone, concrete countertops can be repaired — they typically do not need to be replaced.

View in gallery
A high gloss concrete countertop in a renovated home in Sydney, Australia, designed by Bijl Architecture.
View in gallery
Even a small countertop can be a focal point when the backsplash is also made of concrete.
View in gallery
Concrete countertops can be combined with a matching backsplash.

3 Features with Endless Design Options

Generally, a contractor will create a countertop in his or her facility, unless the design requires it to be poured in place because of odd shapes. If a large countertop is poured in place, it won’t have a seam, but the pre-cast kind might. The appearance of seams can be minimized with color-matched filler, notes the Concrete Counter Institute.

View in gallery
Coloring the concrete does not have to dramatically change the hue, but instead can enhance natural undertones.
The color possibilities for concrete are endless.
  • Color – Integral color and staining provide countless color options. Unlike concrete’s early days in the kitchen, you can now match it to your interior color scheme.
  • Edge details – Modern, minimal straight edges are far from the only option for concrete. Traditional molding styles, rope style, rough rock and other custom edges can be created specifically for your kitchen design.
  • Inlays – One of the coolest things about concrete countertops is that they can be embedded with things like pebbles, recycled glass and seashells.

5 New Surface Finishing Techniques

It used to be that all concrete countertops were gray, smooth and modern-looking. Now, finishes like mirror smoothness, stone-like textures, and hand-troweled effects are all possible, according to the Concrete Network. Special polishing techniques can highlight decorative aggregate, or other additives in the concrete, creating a surface that looks like  terrazzo. All of them start with concrete and end up looking nothing like the usual gray slab.

View in gallery
Designed by KC Design Studio, this Taipei, Taiwan kitchen island is the focal feature of the room.
Concrete can be cast in varying thicknesses.
  • Marbleized or veined finishes make make concrete countertops look like expensive granite or marble.
  • Wood-grained finishes are created by casting the concrete in forms lined with real wood or special wood grain liners.
  • A hand-troweled finish highlights textural effects and the end result often looks like natural stone because of the textural depth.
  • Polished or sanded finishes provide a flawless surface that can be lustrous or very glossy, depending upon the desired look.
  • Exposed-aggregate finishes involve grinding down concrete that was cast with decorative stones or glass inside, creating a dramatic look. “There are even special glow-in-the dark aggregates available that absorb and store natural and artificial light,” writes the Concrete Network.
View in gallery
Living Stone Concrete Design created this concrete countertop with sink and built-in drainboard.
View in gallery
A rustic bar area is the perfect place for a countertop with rough hewn edges.
View in gallery
This fanciful exposed aggregate concrete countertop is by Living Stone Concrete Design.
View in gallery
Mixing concrete and other countertop materials adds interest and versatility.
Highlight an area of your countertop with a section of concrete.

3 costs associated with concrete counters

Similar to other countertop materials, concrete has several associated costs: manufacture, installation and perhaps shipping. While estimates vary according to custom options you choose, Consumer Reports lists standard 1.5-inch thick Concrete countertops at $60 to $120 per square foot installed.  The Concrete Network breaks down costs like this:

  • Manufacturing: The standard Cost is $65-$135 per square foot for a concrete countertop of standard thickness.
  • Installation: This is a separate cost and is typically $40-$50 per hour. Contractors generally charge by the hour, per person
  • Shipping: Most contractors install their own product so there would likely be no shipping expense. Make sure to cover this with the contractor.

As a comparison, Razorbackconcrete.com notes that natural stone costs from $100 to $200 per square foot based on where it was sourced and how large the slab is.

Interested in comparing the costs of various countertop materials? The Concrete Network offers a handy comparison chart of the features and estimated costs.

View in gallery
Concrete kitchen island in a home on the Gold Coast, Australia, designed by BDA Architecture.
View in gallery
Here concrete is paired with wood as well as laminate cupboards for a modern but eclectic look.
View in gallery
Do it yourself concrete counter top

Do it Yourself?

Can you — or should you — do it yourself?  While there are loads of tutorials available on line, it’s important to know that this is not a beginner’s DIY project.  If you go it on your own, you can be rewarded with an amazing countertop, but it will be challenging. In the event you doubt your abilities, our recommendation is that you can hire a pro. If you’re determined to do it yourself, you’ll need more than just a weekend for the job and plenty of time to watch instructional videos. There are eight major steps to the construction.

  • Make the mold. This require precise measurement and planning. The countertop will only be as smooth and even as your mold, so it’s best to use melanine particle board.
  • Add sides and insert spaces into your mold. In addition to the sides of the mold, you need to have correctly sized openings for anything you want to insert in your counter, such as a sink, outlet or cooktop.
  • Create an outer frame — Concrete is heavy and your mold will need extra support to hold the weight.
  • Mix and pour the concrete — You’ll have to estimate the amount of concrete needed, mix it and pour it. Reinforcement wire or other materials have to be added at this step.
  • Cure the slab — Concrete must sit until it is dry and strong, which takes at least a week. There is no rushing this step.
  • Remove the frame and mold — This step requires extra care, especially with the mold. You’ll also need extra hands to help turn the countertop over.
  • Sand and seal the surface — Concrete naturally has imperfections and sanding the surface is a must for a smooth countertop.  New products are also available for sealing the surface of the concrete.
  • Install it — The last step is installing the countertop, for which you’ll need help carrying and setting the slab.

If you do decide to try a DIY concrete counter, it’s prudent to follow safety recommendations to protect your head and eyes, back and skin throughout the process. Read all the safety information available from the Portland Cement Association before starting your countertop project

Try an Easier, Cheaper DIY

View in gallery
DIY Concrete Kitchen Countertops: A Step-by-Step Tutorial

If you don’t have the budget for professional concrete countertops and the DIY route sounds far too difficult, there is another alternative.  You can replicate the look of concrete kitchen countertops with a concrete overlay called Ardex Feather Finish, which can be spread onto existing countertops. The coated surface is then sealed with multiple layers of sealant for a beautiful countertop at a fraction of the cost.

View in gallery
How to create a faux marble countertop using concrete

It is also possible to create a faux marble countertop with concrete using the same basic material and process. It involves laying down multiple layers of varying shades of the overlay substance. The marbleizing occurs when you sand down the different layers that you applied.

Of all the material options for your kitchen countertops, concrete offer the most customization options for almost every aspect of the project from finish to color to size and shape.  If your budget doesn’t allow for all the countertops to be concrete, consider mixing materials and using concrete just on an island or the most prominent part of your kitchen to get the most bang for your buck.