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Beyond Engineered Stone: 5 Safe & Stylish Benchtop Alternatives (2024)

Bridgette Bathgate -

Sleek, engineered stone benchtops are synonymous with modern Australian kitchens, but not for much longer. As of July 1st, 2024, a ban on engineered stone will be rolling out across most of Australia. While this is a big change for renovators and the industry, a world of fantastic (and safer) alternatives awaits.

In this guide, we'll look at the reasons behind the engineered stone ban and what it means for you, then navigate safe and stylish alternatives for your next project.

What is engineered stone?

Engineered stone, also known as composite stone or quartz conglomerate, has been a staple across Australian households, including benchtops, splashbacks, cladding and flooring. Its durability, aesthetics and resemblance to natural stone have made it the go-to option for thousands of modern kitchens and bathrooms. However, there's a crucial aspect to consider: its composition.

Engineered stone is a manufactured material typically composed of crushed quartz (around 70-90%), resin binders (around 10-20%), and pigments that create the desired colour. Depending on the specific type and source of the quartz used,  engineered stone can contain varying levels of crystalline silica, a hidden danger for builders and renovators.

Why the ban? It's all about safety

The story behind the engineered stone ban is about prioritising the health and safety of workers in the construction industry. 

Silica dust is a microscopic byproduct generated during various activities in the construction industry, including cutting, grinding and installing engineered stone benchtops. It's so fine that it can't be seen by the naked eye and can easily be inhaled deep into the lungs, causing serious health problems, most notably silicosis, a debilitating and potentially fatal lung disease. 

Modelling by Curtin University predicts that over 103,000 workers will be diagnosed with silicosis cases, and 10,000 will develop lung cancer due to current exposure to respirable crystalline silica (RCS) while working. These alarming statistics highlight the potential long-term impact of silica dust inhalation.

After carefully considering and analysing the health risks posed by silica dust exposure, Safe Work Australia has decided to ban engineered stone to protect workers from these dangers.

There's no need to worry if you have an engineered stone benchtop. It is still a safe material for everyday use in homes once installed. No special precautions are needed beyond standard cleaning practices.

What does the engineered stone ban actually mean?

Now, let's get down to the nitty-gritty of the ban. Here's what you need to know:

The ban applies to new products and installations

From July 2024 onwards, you won't be able to get new engineered stone benchtops manufactured, supplied, processed or installed in most Australian jurisdictions. This means no more ordering brand-new engineered stone countertops for your kitchen or bathroom renovation or new-build.

Existing engineered stone is safe to keep 

The ban only applies to new stuff. Those engineered stone benchtops you already have at home? They're perfectly safe to keep, as the ban doesn't affect existing installations. Minor repairs and adjustments to existing engineered stone benchtops are still okay, too, as long as you follow the proper safety tips outlined by Safe Work Australia (we'll provide some resources on that later).

What about renovations? 

If you're renovating a kitchen with existing engineered stone benchtops, you generally only need to remove them if they're damaged or you specifically want to replace them for aesthetic reasons.

DIY renovations 

If your renovation involves modifications around the benchtops, like cutting or grinding the stone,  be sure to follow safety protocols to minimise silica dust exposure. This might involve using dust control measures like wet cutting or working with qualified professionals who have the proper equipment and ventilation. Refer to Safe Work Australia's silica dust guidelines for more information. 

If you decide to replace your existing engineered stone benchtops during your renovation, you'll have a variety of safe and beautiful alternatives to choose from, which we explore below. 

Professional renovations 

If you’re bringing in the experts to handle a kitchen renovation that involves modifying or removing an engineered stone benchtop, be sure to chat with your tradespeople about how it will be handled. Unlike asbestos removal, which requires specialised training and licensing, removing engineered stone doesn't pose the same level of risk.

How will the ban affect homeowners? 

While the ban might affect renovation timelines and budgets a bit, there's no need to panic. This guide is here to help you navigate the new landscape. 

Here's what homeowners can expect:

  • Potential impact on renovation timelines: Since engineered stone is no longer an option, finding suitable alternative materials might require additional research and planning. This could potentially lead to slightly longer timelines for some renovation projects.
  • Budget considerations: Depending on the chosen alternative material, there might be some adjustments to project budgets. However, with a variety of options available, there are choices to suit most budgets.

Kitchen and bathroom designers

Engineered stone was a popular choice for benchtops, so designers will need to adapt their project recommendations and source alternative materials. They'll likely need to expand their knowledge of various benchtop options, like laminates, tiles, natural stones and timber, to effectively advise clients.

Beyond engineered stone: A world of beautiful benchtops

Here are some fantastic benchtop materials options to consider, each with its own unique set of advantages:

1. Natural stone benchtops

Natural stone benchtops offer timeless appeal and unmatched durability to any kitchen or bathroom. They come in a wide variety of colours, patterns and finishes to create a unique look that complements your overall design scheme. 

However, it's important to remember that some natural stones, like granite and sandstone, contain silica dust. While the risk is not as significant as with engineered stone due to less frequent cutting and grinding during everyday use, it's still a factor to consider.

Here's a closer look at some popular natural stone options:

  • Granite: Granite is a classic choice for benchtops, known for its exceptional strength and scratch resistance. It's available in a palette of stylish colours, from deep blacks and greys to earthy browns and even vibrant greens and blues. Granite requires minimal maintenance but may benefit from periodic sealing to maintain its natural beauty.
  • Marble: Marble, with its elegant veining patterns and smooth surfaces, create a visually stunning focal point. However, marble is a softer stone compared to granite and requires more care. It's susceptible to etching from acidic liquids like lemon juice or vinegar, so proper cleaning and maintenance are essential.
  • Soapstone: Soapstone offers a unique aesthetic with a naturally occurring matte finish. It's a naturally non-porous stone, resistant to staining and bacteria growth. Soapstone develops a beautiful patina over time, adding to its character. However, it requires regular oiling to maintain its dark colour and prevent it from becoming dull.
  • Quartzite: Often mistaken for engineered quartz, quartzite is a natural stone with a similar level of hardness and durability. It comes in a variety of colours and patterns, some resembling marble with a more robust surface. Quartzite requires minimal maintenance but, like other natural stones, can benefit from periodic sealing.

Pros and cons of natural stone:

Pros:

  • Stunning aesthetics with a wide variety of natural colours and patterns
  • Excellent durability and lifespan
  • Natural and eco-friendly material
  • Increases the value of your property

Cons:

  • Higher cost compared to some alternative materials
  • Requires specific maintenance routines depending on the stone type
  • Can be susceptible to etching (marble) or need regular oiling (soapstone)
  • Natural variations in colour and veining patterns (may not be suitable for everyone)

Choosing the right natural stone:

Selecting the perfect natural stone for your benchtops requires consideration of a couple of key factors:

  • Aesthetics: Consider the overall design of your kitchen or bathroom and choose a colour and pattern that complements your existing décor.
  • Functionality: Think about how you'll use your benchtops. If you're a busy cook, a highly durable option like granite might be the best choice. If you prioritise a luxurious look, marble could be a stunning option, but be prepared for its specific maintenance needs.
  • Budget: Natural stone comes in a range of price points depending on the type, rarity, and thickness of the slab.

2. Tiled benchtops

Image by Three Birds Renovations | House 13

Tiled benchtops offer a unique combination of practicality and endless design possibilities. Tiles have been used for countertops for centuries, and with advancements in technology and material choices, they're experiencing a resurgence in popularity. Here's what you need to know about using tiles for your next benchtop project:

  • A great choice for busy kitchens as they can withstand everyday wear and tear, including hot pots and pans.
  • Come in an array of styles, colours, patterns, textures, and finishes. From classic mosaics to modern large-format tiles, you can create a personalised look for your kitchen or bathroom.
  • Can be a very cost-effective option compared to some natural stones. 
  • Grout lines are a necessary part of tiled surfaces, but you can minimise this by choosing large format tiles. Opting for an epoxy grout can help minimise staining issues.

Pros and cons of tiled benchtops: 

Pros

  • Durability and heat resistance when properly installed and sealed
  • Endless design options
  • Easy Maintenance
  • Cost-effective, depending on the type of tile chosen
  • Customisable and repairable 

Cons 

  • Grout lines
  • Susceptibility to cracking if not installed correctly

Choosing the right tiles for benchtops:

When selecting tiles for your benchtops, consider these factors:

  • Material: Ceramic, porcelain and glass tiles are popular choices for benchtops due to their durability and ease of maintenance.
  • Size and shape: Larger tiles can create a more modern and seamless look, while smaller mosaic tiles offer endless design possibilities.
  • Texture: Textured tiles can add a unique visual element but might be more challenging to clean. Opting for a smooth or semi-gloss finish could be more practical.
  • Grout colour: Select a grout colour that complements your chosen tiles and overall design scheme. Darker grouts can hide stains better, but lighter grouts can create a more open and airy feel.

3. Laminate benchtops 

Modern laminates have come a long way in terms of aesthetics and functionality. They no longer resemble the countertops from your grandparents’ kitchen. Today's high-quality laminates offer a surprising level of style and practicality, making them a great option for budget-conscious homeowners. Here's what you need to know about modern laminates:

  • Durable and easy to maintain: Modern laminates are resistant to scratches, heat and stains. They're also incredibly easy to clean, requiring minimal upkeep.
  • Wide range of design options: Laminates come in a great selection of colours, patterns and textures, mimicking the look of natural stone, wood, or even concrete. This allows you to achieve a variety of design aesthetics within your budget.
  • Cost-effective: Laminates are one of the most affordable options for benchtops. This makes them a great choice for budget-conscious renovations or for larger projects where you might need to cover a significant amount of countertop space.

Pros and cons of modern laminates:

Pros:

  • Affordable
  • Durable and easy to maintain
  • Wide variety of design options
  • Easy to clean

Cons:

  • May not look as stylish as some other natural stone options 
  • Can be susceptible to damage from extreme heat if not properly manufactured

Choosing the right laminate:

When selecting laminate benchtops, consider these factors:

  • Quality: Look for laminates with optimal durability and heat resistance.
  • Thickness: Opt for thicker laminates for a more substantial and high-quality look and feel.
  • Design: Choose a colour, pattern and texture that complements your overall design scheme.

4. Timber benchtops

If you’re looking for a touch of natural warmth, timber benchtops are an interesting option. Crafted from various wood species, timber benchtops add a unique character and an organic vibe to your space, but they do require regular maintenance. Here’s what you need to know.  

  • Timber requires more maintenance compared to some other countertop materials. Regular cleaning, oiling and occasional sanding are necessary to maintain their optimal condition.
  • Wood can be susceptible to water damage if not properly sealed. Spills should be cleaned promptly, and regular oiling helps create a moisture barrier.
  • While durable, timber can be susceptible to scratches and dents, especially with heavy use.

Pros and cons of timber benchtops:

Pros:

  • Natural beauty
  • Warm and inviting
  • Durable and long-lasting when properly cared for
  • Sustainable choice if using timber from sustainably managed forests

Cons 

  • Intensive maintenance required 
  • Susceptible to water damage, denting and scratching 

Choosing the right timber for your benchtops:

  • Species: Popular choices include native Australian like Tasmanian Oak, Victorian Aish and Jarrah, as well as imported species like European and American Oak. 
  • Durability: Opt for harder wood species like oak or maple for areas with high traffic and potential for scratches or dents.
  • Finish: Choose a finish that complements your overall design scheme and desired level of shine.

5. Concrete benchtops

 

 

Concrete benchtops offer a modern, industrial aesthetic, incredible durability and the potential for unique customisation. With proper sealing, maintenance and professional installation, concrete can be a stunning and long-lasting addition to your kitchen or bathroom.

Pros and cons of concrete benchtops:

Pros:

  • Durability and Heat resistance
  • Unique and customisable
  • Sustainable choice if locally sourced recycled materials are used in its production

Cons:

  • Susceptible to staining
  • Cold and hard surfaces may not appeal to everyone 
  • Prone to cracking if not installed correctly or subjected to excessive weight

Choosing the right concrete benchtop:

When considering concrete benchtops, keep these factors in mind:

  • Sealing: Opt for a high-quality penetrating sealer to protect the concrete from stains and moisture.
  • Thickness: Choose a thicker concrete slab (around 3cm or more) for better durability and a more substantial look.
  • Finish: Concrete can be polished to a smooth finish or left with a more natural, textured look. Choose a finish that complements your overall design scheme.
  • Professional installation: Due to the weight and potential for cracking, ensure a professional with experience in concrete countertops handles the installation.

The future of Australian benchtops: A world of possibilities awaits 

At TileCloud, we understand the impact of the engineered stone ban, and we're here to support you on your renovation journey. As a company founded by renovators for renovators, we've witnessed the growing popularity of tile benchtops first-hand.

Whether you're drawn to the elegance of marble-look porcelain or the warmth and character of natural stone tiles, our extensive collection of shapes, sizes, colours and styles caters to every taste and budget.  

We believe tile benchtops offer a perfect blend of style, durability and safety. With proper care and maintenance, they can last a lifetime, adding enduring beauty and value to your home.

Let us help you transform your dream kitchen or bathroom into a reality that's stunning and safe. Visit our website today to browse our tile collection and get inspired for your next renovation project!

Tile Benchtop FAQs 

Are tiled benchtops durable for kitchens and bathrooms?

Absolutely! Tiles, particularly porcelain or ceramic tiles, are known for their exceptional durability. They're resistant to scratches, stains and heat, making them ideal for busy kitchens and bathrooms.

What are the advantages of using tiles for benchtops?

Tile benchtops offer a multitude of advantages:

  • Durability and longevity: As mentioned earlier, tiles are incredibly resistant to everyday wear and tear.
  • Style and design versatility: With a vast array of colours, patterns, finishes and textures, tiles allow you to create a unique aesthetic that complements your design vision.
  • Easy maintenance: Regular cleaning with a mild detergent keeps your tiled benchtop looking its best.
  • Heat resistance: Unlike some materials, tiles can withstand hot pots and pans without damage.
  • Stain resistance: Spills are easily cleaned up, minimising the risk of permanent staining.

Are there any disadvantages to consider with tiled benchtops?

While a fantastic choice, it's important to consider a few things:

  • Grout maintenance: Grout lines require regular cleaning to prevent mildew or staining. Sealing the grout periodically helps with easier maintenance.
  • Potential for chipping: While generally strong, tiles can chip if a heavy object falls on them.

What type of tiles are best suited for benchtops?

For optimal performance, choose dense, non-porous tiles like porcelain or ceramic. These are highly resistant to moisture, scratches and stains. Consider opting for larger tiles to minimise grout lines, reducing maintenance needs.

How do I care for my tiled benchtop?

Maintaining your tiled benchtop is simple! Here's a quick guide:

  • Daily cleaning with a damp cloth and mild detergent is sufficient for most spills.
  • For tougher messes, a gentle tile cleaner can be used.
  • Regularly seal the grout lines (frequency depends on the type of sealer) to prevent staining and moisture absorption.
  • Wipe up spills promptly to minimise the risk of staining.

Can I install tiled benchtops myself, or should I hire a professional?

While DIY is possible for experienced tilers, proper installation is crucial for a beautiful and functional result.  Uneven tiles or improper grouting can lead to issues down the line. Consider consulting a professional tiler with experience in benchtop installations.

I'm interested in using tiles for my benchtop renovation. Where can I find inspiration and guidance?

TileCloud is here to help! Explore our extensive collection of tiles online and browse our inspirational project galleries to spark your creativity.  Our team of experts is also readily available to answer any questions and guide you through the selection process. Visit our website or contact us today!

Bridgette Bathgate
Bridgette is a creative problem-solver with a knack for storytelling and holds a Bachelor of Design. She's obsessed with all things digital, design and social (and has a mild addiction to TikTok). At TileCloud, Bridgette leads the content team as Content Strategy Lead. Her background has predominantly been in the media industry, formerly working at Mamamia and Are Media.