By Stephani L. Miller. Engineered stone is generally less expensive and easier to work with than natural stone, and it's available in a wide array of colors, patterns, and finishes. That makes it an attractive material for designers, contractors, and home buyers. But a relatively new addition to this category offers even more features and benefits: quartz surfacing.

Whereas many other engineered stones are made with a high proportion of fillers and binders, lending them a plastic-like look and feel, quartz surfacing is made of 93% natural quartz, one of the hardest minerals on the planet. According to Monica Canales, marketing director for CosentinoUSA, maker of Silestone quartz surfacing, "the qualities and characteristics of the mineral or stone element used [to manufacture a stone surface] are carried over into the engineered product." That means quartz surfacing, like the mineral itself, is highly resistant to scratches and chipping and is impervious to many chemicals. And that, says Canales, gives it an edge over marble, limestone, and granite, which react with common acids and household cleaners. The only thing that will scratch a quartz surface, Canales promises, is another piece of quartz or a diamond.

These characteristics make the product well-suited for flooring applications, as well as for tub and shower surrounds, hearths, fireplace surrounds, wall cladding, stairways, and much more. Because it is a nonporous material, quartz surfacing does not require sealing -- again, unlike marble, limestone, and granite, which must be sealed after installation and then resealed periodically.

Those nonporous properties have earned Silestone, Caesarstone, and Cambria quartz surfaces NSF International Splash Zone and 51 Food Zone approval. Low porosity inhibits the growth of bacteria, mold, and mildew, making quartz a safe option for food-preparation areas.

Photo: Courtesy Avanza

Not only does quartz surfacing resist scratches, chipping, stains, and burns, it also inhibits the growth of bacteria, making it ideal for countertops.

While quartz surfaces are similar to solid surfacing in appearance and use, the two materials are actually quite different. "The difference between quartz surfacing and regular solid surfacing manufactured with plastics is that plastic surfaces scratch, burn, blister, and fade over time," says CaesarStone representative Lori Blair. "Quartz does not. You can lay up to 400 degrees of heat on a CaesarStone surface and it won't burn." Nevertheless, most manufacturers still recommend the use of hotpads or trivets. Like all stone surfaces, quartz can crack when exposed to extreme temperature changes.

Homeowners and remodelers interested in this versatile product can choose from a variety of brands. CaesarStone's quartz comes in 32 colors, six finishes, and thicknesses of 1/2 inch, 3/4 inch, and 11/4 inch. Cambria quartz surfacing is available in 30 colors.

CosentinoUSA recommends Silestone for flooring and for tub, shower, and fireplace surrounds, and offers the product in 35 colors and three thicknesses: 1.2 centimeters, 3/4 inch, and 11/8 inch.

DuPont Zodiaq quartz surfacing can be used to create tub decks; tub, shower, and fireplace surrounds; and backsplashes. Available in 3/4-inch and 1 1/8-inch thicknesses, Zodiaq comes in 29 colors and can be machined, inlayed, or sandblasted as desired.

Avanza Natural Quartz is available in 20 natural colors. Fifteen edge treatments and a variety of thicknesses are available for Avanza countertops.

Yet another advantage of quartz surfaces over other engineered stones is consistency of color across production lots. DuPont Zodiaq, Silestone, Cambria, Avanza, and CaesarStone all guarantee uniformity from one quartz slab to the next.