Countertops that work and countertops that don't...

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Illustration 1: Particle board and plywood form the base for the galley countertop. This one is substantial and well constructed.

Illustration 2: Swelling and warping have already occurred on this galley counter where wood trim meets the laminate surface.

Illustration 3: Ceramic tile counters are difficult to keep clean.The grout lines between the tiles can quickly build up dirt and grime, and the tiles crack easily, as seen here.

Illustration 4: Laminate counters, when well done, are just fine for vacation and weekend RVing.

Illustration 5: It's a good sign when the laminate material is also used to cover the backsplash. Laminate is much easier to clean than wood. But the seams must be expertly sealed to avoid moisture seepage and subsequent warping.

Illustration 6: Solid surfaces can either have a matte finish or shine like polished marble.

Of all the features in an RV galley, the countertop probably takes the most use and abuse. Because it's regularly subjected to banging, scraping, scratching, chopping, and heating, the material it's made from must be able to withstand these forces to a reasonable degree throughout the life of the RV.

Countertops are generally installed over particle board or chipboard, which can vary greatly in quality (Illustration 1). In some cases, when inferior materials are used, the counter in a brand-new RV may even warp before it is sold (Illustration 2).

Although a wide range of countertop choices exist for stationary homes, options for RV counters are basically limited to two: plastic laminates and solid surfaces. Occasionally you'll find ceramic tile on a galley counter. While it's attractive and economical for a fixed home, it has a tendency to chip and crack and it's difficult to clean in the grout lines, where dirt and bacteria can accumulate (Illustration 3). Tile doesn't work well for a house that travels down the road.

Plastic laminate is the material most commonly used for RV counters. It's easy to clean, comes in almost any color your heart desires, is relatively inexpensive, and — if properly installed and cared for — can be long-lasting. It's the best choice, in our opinion, for every RV type except those designed for fulltiming (Illustrations 4 and 5).

Laminate materials are manufactured in thin sheets consisting of — at most — several layers of paper that have been saturated with a synthetic resin or a combination of resins and then pressure-laminated (hence the term "laminate") with a top layer of decorative paper. The entire countertop is then covered and sealed with clear plastic. The final product bears a surface that is highly resistant to heat, stains, and abrasion. This does not mean, however, that a laminate counter is immune to abuse. Direct contact with hot pots can damage the plastic seal. Cutting, chopping, and slicing without a cutting board can cause permanent scars. Flooding with water may cause sealant to dissolve and allow moisture seepage into the seams with subsequent warping of the counter. Once a laminate surface is damaged, repairs are difficult, and the entire counter may have to be replaced.

Laminate surfaces vary in quality and durability. The most desirable are high-pressure laminates like Formica that are made up of multiple layers of paper and resin. Some simpler ones that are bonded at lower pressure and contain fewer layers are not as durable or as resistant to damage. Formica is the oldest and best-known brand of plastic laminate. Other brands of the same type and similar quality include Wilsonart, Nevamar, and Pionite. Know what you're getting before you buy.

The other type of countertop you'll often find — especially in high-end RVs — is made with solid-surface molded acrylic resin enhanced with mineral fillers. Sometimes called "cultured marble" because it is designed to resemble marble or other types of stone, it is available with either a matte finish or a shiny surface like polished marble. Although white or beige shades are the most common, solid-surface material comes in as many as 90 different colors and patterns.(Illustrations 6 and 7).

Solid-surface material generally comes out of the factory in 12-foot-long, 30-inch wide, 1/2-inch-thick sheets that are then cut and shaped as needed. The material can be cut with woodworking tools or formed and molded with the application of heat into various shapes in a process called thermoforming. (Illustration 8)

Solid-surface counters and sinks are very water and stain resistant and easy to clean, although they do stain more readily than laminates. Their nonporous nature makes them almost impervious to invasion and buildup of bacteria. Stubborn stains, as well as minor cuts and abrasions can easily be sanded away and the counter's original look restored. The manufacturer or dealer should be consulted for specific cleaning and restoration instructions.

Although Corian, made by DuPont, is the best known solid-surface material, there are many others on the market, including Avonite, Surell (a trademark of the Formica Corporation), Corinthian, Gibraltar, Earthstone, and Swanstone, to name a few (Illustration 9). Most solid-surface polymers are similar in composition and properties. They may, however, differ from each other in specific qualities, such as weight, heat resistance, and durability. (Corian, for instance, weighs 4.5 pounds per square foot, while AvoniteŽ weighs 4.0 pounds per square foot). Therefore, it's important to know which brand is being used in your RV and ask your dealer lots of questions. Ask for specifications, for instance, and what they mean. If the dealer is too vague or talks in circles, the information you need is available on the Web. If you don't understand the data, the manufacturer can help. Then you'll have a basis to compare different brands. This also applies to laminate materials.

If you're snowbirding or fulltiming, a solid-surface counter offers greater durability than laminate. However, it's often an option even in some high-end RVs advertised as fulltiming, and practically always an option in the low-to-mid-price range. It's also more expensive and heavier than laminates, adding to your overhead and adding extra weight to your RV. (Illustration 10)

A relatively new surfacing material, made from pulverized quartz combined with acrylic resin, is probably too heavy to be used for RV counters, but offers exciting possibilities as a decorative accent for edging and inlays. It can be readily combined with solid surface material. This product (for example, Zodiaq, a trademark of DuPont) is extremely scratch resistant, easy to clean, luminous (a property of quartz), and, like quartz gemstones (amethyst, citrine, jasper, carnelian, etc.), offers the consumer a broad spectrum of colors.

Regardless of the type of countertop material used, the workmanship must be good if it is to last the life of the RV with reasonable wear and tear (Illustrations 11 and 12.) Solid-surface counters must be professionally installed and are usually under warranty. Laminate counters, on the other hand, are not always installed by trained specialists (there are do-it-yourself manuals on the subject) and may or may not be warrantied. Wilsonart, for example, offers a one-year warranty on its laminate products. Again, because quality of workmanship and materials can vary wildly, it's a good idea to ask lots of questions. The more you know, the happier you'll be with your choice and the more you'll enjoy your travels.

To learn more about galley counters, countertop materials, and how to evaluate them, please refer to the downloadable publication RV Walkabout, available as a bonus when you Join RV Consumer Group.

Brands mentioned in this article are pending trademarks or registered trademarks of the respective companies.
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Illustration 7: While you'll most often encounter solid surfaces in shades of white, off-white, and beige, enough colors and surface patterns are available to suit every taste, such as this countertop that simulates the look of green marble. Of particular importance in this counter design is the splashguard protecting the furniture from spills.

Illustration 8:The use of superior materials like Corian adds value and durability to the motor home.

Illustration 9:Surell, seen here, is another brand of solid surface you'll find in RVs. Like the RV itself, not all solid surface brands are created equal.

Illustration 10:We consider Corian and other solid surfaces too heavy for RV tabletops. If the table came loose in an accident situation, it could become a flying projectile — with consequences no one wants to think about.

Illustration 11: Although solid surface counters must be professionally installed, it pays to watch out for things like this counter \ backsplash unit that was sloppily attached to the walls of this RV.

Illustration 12: Good sealant and good workmanship might have prevented a crack from forming in the galley counter of this 7-year-old motor home.