Look inside restaurant kitchens and you'll notice an abundance of stainless steel worktops. Impervious to heat and virtually indestructible, stainless steel is a countertop material designed for serious cooks. (And, in recent years, stainless has infiltrated just about every surface in the home kitchen.) Does this translate into the ideal work surface for you? Read our primer to fully understand stainless.
Above: Stainless steel counters are paired with wood cabinetry in a Brooklyn townhouse kitchen remodel by architects Fernlund + Logan (who have since opened their own offices: Solveig Fernlund Design and Neil Logan Architecture). See a Scandi Kitchen in Brooklyn for a detailed look at the project. Image by Matthew Williams for Remodelista.
What is stainless steel?
Stainless is a steel that contains a minimum of 10.5 percent chromium, which makes it resistant to rust and corrosion. It comes in various grades that depend on the additional metal alloys that are mixed in. Type 304, or austenitic steel, is known as food-grade stainless because food and hot cooking tools can be safely placed directly on its surface. The most commonly used stainless for countertops, Type 304 contains a high level of chromium and nickel, which increases its stain and heat resistance.
Another important detail to know: stainless steel is manufactured in a variety of gauges (14 to 20 are the typical gauges and represent the thickness of the sheet—14 gauge is 1.4 millimeters thick—and subsequently its strength). The lower the gauge, the thicker the steel; the thicker the steel, the stronger your counter will be for handling weighty equipment and heavy use without denting: 16- and 18-gauge steel are the most commonly used thicknesses for residential applications, while 14 gauge is found in many commercial settings.
Should stainless steel be on your countertop shortlist?
Stainless steel has all the qualities needed for an indestructible kitchen worktop. Heat resistant? Check. Non-staining? Check. Hygienic and easy to clean? Check. It's a nonporous material that unlike butcher block, concrete, and many natural stones, will not absorb even the toughest of cooking ingredients—which means that stainless doesn't stain or harbor bacteria. Hot pots and pans can be placed directly on its surface without worry. That said, stainless steel, like many materials, shows scratches, especially if sharp knives and other tools are used directly on it. (And stainless itself will damage knives, so it's wise to cut on a cutting board.) Most stainless used for countertop applications is brushed which serves to camouflage small scratches, but, even so, it will patina over time.
Concerned about the cool industrial feel of stainless? It can be paired with other warm countertop materials to soften the look. When I lived in London 10 years ago, my kitchen had hardworking stainless countertops around the stove mixed with butcher block and stone countertops in the prep areas.
Above: A stainless-steel-appointed kitchen with a rustic wood floor at the Brücke 49 Hotel Pension in the alpine spa town of Vals, Switzerland.
What are the installation guidelines?
Stainless steel countertops are typically custom fabricated. Sheets of stainless are cut to size specifications and placed on top of a wooden substructure. The sheet is typically wrapped over the edge to achieve the look of a standard countertop or can be cut flush with the wood base. The stainless steel can also be folded and run up the wall to create a backsplash.
What kind of edge profiles are available?
Because stainless countertops are typically custom fabricated, the sheet can be wrapped over the edge in a variety of thicknesses. To get the look of standard countertop thickness, a 1.5 inch side drop is specified, but many variations, from thick to thin, are possible.
Different edge shapes, or profiles, are also available. The most common is an eased square edge; other options include a beveled edge, bullnosed (rounded) edge, or no wrapped edge at all.
Above: The thin flat top stainless steel countertops in a kitchen by architect Jerome Buttrick have an appealing modern look and offer a cost savings over the traditional practice of wrapping the counter edges.
Above: Favored in some restaurant settings, the marine edge profile is an option that keeps liquids from running off the counter. Image via General Hotel and Restaurant Supply Corp.
Above: A detail of the stainless steel countertop of the Fernlund + Logan kitchen shown at the top of the post. A signature of the architects is to leave the striped plywood exposed and have the stainless counter rest on top with no edge wrap. See a Scandi Kitchen in Brooklyn for a tour of the project. Image by Matthew Williams for Remodelista.
What are the finish options?
Stainless steel counters are available in several finishes: brushed, satin polish, mirror polish, and antique matte to name a few. Brushed finish is the most popular because it looks smooth and soft, and doesn't show as many fingerprints or scratches as the polished options.
How do you clean and maintain stainless counters?
Cleaning stainless steel is easy: the non-porous nature of the material means that foods and liquids sit on top of it and are best removed with mild soap and a soft cloth. Fingerprints, too, accumulate on the surface until cleaned. You can use special stainless steel cleaners and polishes to minimize fingerprints, but over time there's no avoiding some signs of use and abuse. Mirrored polish stainless typically requires periodic polishing to maintain its high luster. Specialty Stainless offers a useful Re-Polishing Stainless Steel Primer.
Above: In a kitchen by Murphy Burnham & Buttrick, the architects used a very fine brush-finished stainless. While pleasing to the eye, the finish requires regular maintenance—the owners apply an aerosol stainless steel cleaner with a cotton cloth—to keep it fingerprint-free and polished. Take a tour and hear from the architects about the Twice-Designed Loft. Image by Ty Cole.
How much do stainless steel countertops cost?
Not a budget choice, stainless steel countertops run between $75 and $150 per square foot installed. Prices vary depending on site-specific needs, the level of customization, your location, and the gauge of the stainless sheeting used. This is comparable to quality natural stone counters and more expensive than butcher block.
One way to cut costs dramatically is to use pre-fabricated restaurant stainless steel work tables and counters available through restaurant supply companies, such as the Web Restaurant Store. There are fewer options in terms of sizing, but it can be an appealing way to integrate a stainless work surface into an existing kitchen or replace counters with a non-built-in alternative.
Above: For an affordable compact kitchen in her own guest quarters in Brooklyn, architect Elizabeth Roberts sourced a stainless countertop from a Bowery restaurant supply store and paired it with Ikea Applad Cabinets. See the full project on pages 76-91 of the Remodelista Book. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Remodelista.
Stainless Steel Countertop Recap
- Heat resistant—a great choice next to stoves.
- Hygienic and easy to clean.
- Non-porous and won't stain or rust.
- Practically indestructible.
- Can get dents and scratches, particularly lower gauge stainless steel.
- Shows fingerprints (though they clean off easily).
- Can be loud when setting pots and pans and other equipment on the counter.
- Aesthetically cold.
- Not for the budget-minded—unless you go with prefabricated stainless steel tables and counters.
Researching new countertops? Read Questions to Ask When Choosing Your Kitchen Countertops. And for more specifics on the subject, see our Remodeling 101 posts: