If you have a kitchen, you have counter tops. If you are starting from scratch, you have a wide variety of choices, and if you are remodeling you have a couple more choices based on the size of your bank account or limit on your credit card. You see the remodeling shows on TV creating really nice kitchens with high end appliances and super counters. Is that your dream?
Some people see this and believe that such things are beyond their reach. Sometimes they are right, but often this is just an assumption and not based on research. We aren't going to look at the six burner commercial gas ranges they put in some of the kitchens but we will look at the counter tops. The range of prices and materials range from squeaking by on a low end rental to really nice dream kitchens. But keep in mind that except for the very low end and rich folks mansion high end, many of the choices are grouped in the middle. The point of this is consider the wide range rather than settle for something because you don't think you can afford what you really want.
If your kitchen has been around a while, most likely it has laminate (or Formica) counter tops. They by be stained or show marks where a hot pan was improperly placed. If they are solid and in otherwise good shape, you have several options if you have neither the budget nor inclination to pull them up and replace them.
The least expensive approach is to clean them up really well and use either counter top paint or self sticking laminate to cover them. If you have a drop in sink you will have to take it up to install the laminate properly. With the paint you can get a variety of colors to match pretty much any taste. The laminate can have a marble or granite pattern and can look quite nice. If you don't feel comfortable, or you just can't get the front edge done to your satisfaction a piece of wood trim can be used along the visible edge. This trim can be painted or stained to match or contrast with the cabinets.
If you are replacing counter tops, unless you have a woodworking shop to make them from scratch, the next step up is the preformed laminate tops available in various sizes and configurations at the blue store and the orange store... and other home improvement stores around the country. They can be used in most applications and give a professional, finished look. They come in a limited range of colors, but are great for the do-it-yourselfer or budget remodeler.
If these don't meet your needs, the same stores and remodeling contractors can get you laminate counters in a mind boggling array of colors and styles custom made for your particular needs. There is very little you cannot get in the custom laminate tops, and they have improved over the years, but still are subject to hot pans and sharp blades. If you are settling for this choice because you because you think one piece tops are beyond your budget, these are getting mighty close to the low end of granite.
You can also look at butcher block materials for all or a portion of your kitchen. They are attractive and sturdy, but subject wear and scratches. Especially if used as a cutting board and food preparation surface.
When you get into one piece tops there are several choices and granite is usually the first one that comes to mind. It is about as durable as you can get. As the installer told my wife when they were putting it in my kitchen, the house could burn down and they could just clean up the tops and use them again. They are almost indestructible.
Corian is a similar looking material and makes very nice tops. However, it has issues with scratching and staining as well as cracking when exposed to excessive heat.. I once bought a new range for a very good price at the blue store that had been returned because it had a rear vent and the Corian installer said that was a no-no... that it would damage the counter top.
Engineered quartz makes very nice counter tops as well, and while it and Corian are priced close to granite, they do not go into the stratospheric prices of granite at the upper end. The quartz is usually a thinner material and is slightly more destructible than granite. When you rehab houses, it is amazing what you find sometimes. I bought a fixer house with quartz tops where the seam at the kitchen sink had come apart and behind the sink it was broken out where the faucet came through. I have no idea what the tenant had done to the thing, but I learned that tops like this could be broken. Fortunately my granite supplier could send a repairman over and got everything looking like new. So for about the price of preformed laminate counters I was able to keep my quartz tops. What a bargain!
If you want the granite look without the granite expense, it is possible to build a solid counter top of at least ¾ inch plywood and cover it with granite tiles. This has a good part of the durability of the one piece with a much smaller price tag. Just make sure the joints are really tight. This is not a tutorial on how to do this, but between YouTube and various DIY sites, the information is available.
For the high end, industrial look, concrete is a good choice that can be formed into pretty much anything you want. Since it is a porous material it needs to be sealed to prevent it from absorbing water and materials that will stain. It can be chipped and make sure your cabinets can handle the weight.
You can also get stainless steel tops if you are a serious gourmet type cook or if you just like the clean, sleek look of the material. Some use ceramic tile rather than granite tile – it can look nice but it can chip and you have to use a good sealer on the grout lines.
As you can see there are choices for most any budget and taste so you don't have to settle for plain old Formica – even though it is used in some pretty nice kitchens.