Marble Countertops: 9 Tips for Choosing a White Marble Slab
Jan 22, 2021
Considering marble countertops? Discover everything you need to know about the popular surface before you start picking out slabs
When it comes to selecting kitchen countertops, marble remains the top choice for many homeowners. It’s no surprise that marble countertops and backsplashes are so popular—the material has been attracting fans for millennia.
“Marble is a natural material with great variety, depending on which species you select and how it’s cut,” says Russell Groves, the principal architect behind Groves & Co. “It creates a really lovely natural pattern, which you don’t get with a lot of artificial materials.”
Among marble options, white marble takes the cake. “You won’t find anything as white in nature as white marble,” adds Evan Nussbaum, a vice president at Stone Source in New York. “You just don’t get that color and kind of figuring in any other type of natural stone."
But marble is not a perfect product. While good-quality marbles, such as the world-famous products from Carrara, Italy, are dense and relatively nonporous—which makes them durable and stain-resistant—they also have weaknesses. A nonfoliated metamorphic rock, marble is generally composed of calcium carbonate (the same ingredient used in antacids such as Tums) or magnesium carbonate, which react to acids. An acidic kitchen liquid like lemon juice or vinegar can etch marble, leaving a dull, whitish mark where it has slightly eaten away the surface, even after the marble has been sealed.
But as long as you choose carefully, know what to expect, and care for white marble countertops, they can be a beautiful, functional choice for your kitchen design that lasts a lifetime.
Ahead, we've rounded up expert tips on how to choose the perfect slab of marble—so if you're on the market for marble countertops, keep reading!
1. If you're concerned about stains, stick with white marble.
Although many people automatically think of creamy, white stone when they think of marble, “there are hundreds of varieties,” says Jason Cherrington, founder and managing director of the U.K.-based stone company Lapicida, including types that are taupe, green, gold, red, and black. For marble kitchen countertops, however, Nussbaum generally recommends sticking with white marble. Because acid etching leaves a whitish mark, it is much more noticeable on colored marble than on white marble. “We put a thousand caveats on any dark marble or nonwhite marble being used for kitchen countertops,” he says, “but it’s a personal choice.”
While classic Italian white marbles like Calacatta and Statuario are generally excellent quality and a great kitchen idea, Nussbaum points out that equally high-quality marbles are available closer to home, including Vermont Danby and Colorado Yule.
2. Consider how the different marble slabs will come together.
Every stone slab is slightly different, so it’s ideal to select the exact pieces of stone that will be used for your countertops. “There’s an art to marble—selecting the slabs and understanding where the veining is going to be located on the countertop,” says Groves. “You want to artfully place the markings so that it’s almost like a painting.”
At the same time, it’s important to consider how different pieces come together. “The longer the piece you can get without any seams, the better,” says Groves. “If you do have seams, it’s always nice to book-match the marble,” so adjacent pieces have a mirrored appearance.
3. Take veining patterns into account.
Every quarry is different, but it’s possible to cut certain types of marble blocks two different ways to achieve unique veining patterns. Cross cut, or fleuri cut, results in stone slabs with “an open flowered pattern,” says Nussbaum, which looks fairly random and is ideal for book-matching. Vein cut, or striato, slices the block the other way to achieve a linear, striped appearance.
4. You can transform the look of marble with different finishes.
“The whole stone industry has been going through a massive wave of technology, and it’s transforming the product,” says Cherrington, noting that there are now more ways than ever to finish stone, including different brushing and polishing techniques. An orange-peel-like texture is possible, he notes, which “might be called a leather, brushed, or river-wash finish.”
But the most popular choices remain polished, which looks glossy, or honed, which appears matte. For homeowners concerned about acid etching, Nussbaum recommends a honed finish. “On a polished finish, etching is going to turn it dull and be more visible,” he says. “With honed, you’re dulling an already dull finish, so it disguises it.”
5. Consider curving the edges of your marble countertop.
Besides its natural beauty, there’s a reason marble has historically been so popular for sculpture: It’s easy to work with tools. Add modern computer numerical control milling machines to the equation and almost anything’s possible for kitchen decorating.
There are countless edge profiles to choose from, but Groves prefers a simple eased edge, which takes the sharpness off a straight 90-degree corner. Cherrington points out that a bull’s nose, which has the profile of a half circle, is also a timeless favorite and functional winner. “Hard stones like marble are brittle, so if you hit a 90-degree corner with something hard, it will chip,” he says. “With a curve, it’s highly unlikely that it’s going to chip.”
To give thin ¾-inch stone the look of a thicker slab, Groves says it’s possible to use a miter joint at the edge of the countertop to add a thicker face with an almost seamless appearance. “You can build up a really nice thick-looking piece without having to use a thick slab,” he says.
It’s even possible to engrave the edge of a white marble countertop with a pattern of your choosing, says Cherrington, noting that Lapicida has developed marble tables featuring a carved brogue pattern on the edge in collaboration with designer Bethan Gray.
However, the best way to live with marble countertops may simply be to accept that they will patina over time. “If you’ve been to an old bakery or pizza shop and seen how white marble patinas, and like it,” says Nussbaum, “then it could be the perfect material for you.”
6. Call the marble facility ahead of your visit.
"Call the slab marble facility in advance to inquire about whether they have marble slabs that meet the color, type, square footage, and dimensions you require," suggests Toronto-based interior designer Ferris Rafauli. "Let them know when you're coming and ask them to organize a tour [where someone] points out the various slabs of marble they have. This will also allow the supplier to pull out their various slab marbles in advance, so that when you arrive they are taking you directly to the selections that meet your needs."
7. Know the difference between cracks and fissures in your marble.
Cracks are a sign that the marble has been dropped or improperly handled. Fissures, though, are entirely different. "A fissure differs from a crack in that it’s a naturally occurring feature in the stone and does not change the plane of the marble surface," says Rafauli. "You should be able to slide your nail across a fissure without it catching. Depending on the look you are trying to achieve, fissures may be acceptable—say, if you're looking for stone that will give you a more rustic look. Fissures don’t change the integrity of the stone; they are part of the stone’s character."
8. Ask about the origin of the marble.
"These days, white marble such as Calacatta and Statuario is currently in high demand. As such, some marble suppliers will call their white marble with veins Calacatta marble. But it won’t be authentic, rather just white stone with veins that originates from China or some other part of the world," explains Rafauli. "True Calacatta originates from mountain quarries in Carrara, Italy. The same is true for Statuario: True Statuario marble originates from Italy."
9. Maintain your marble countertops by getting a sealed finish.
Finishing marble countertops with a penetrating sealer is essential for long-term performance. Acids will still etch the surface, but if the countertop has a honed finish, an etched mark can usually be removed by scrubbing with a Comet paste using a Scotch-Brite pad, he says.
If it’s a polished surface, it will require different abrasives and technical skill to clean the marble, which might best be left to a professional. If the marble does get a stain, it can often be removed with an alkaline poultice that gradually pulls the offending material out of the stone as it dries. But any of these interventions will also strip the sealer, he notes, so it needs to be reapplied after the repair.
“The good thing about marble is that you can always sand it down or polish it again,” says Groves. “With a lot of other materials, once you damage it, you can’t do that.”