Should it stay or should it go? How to keep your kitchen looking tops

Burn rings? Damp patches round the sink? Few things turn buyers off quicker than a neglected wooden work surface. But, says Sonia Purnell, there is hope
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The Independent Online

REMEMBER KITCHENS before minimalism, when the natural, Shaker look was all the rage? And lots of us paid hundreds to have solid beechwood worktops installed. Well, despite their best efforts, many proud owners have been unable to prevent ugly black staining around the sink from water penetrating the protective surface. The beauty of wood seems remarkably short-lived, at least if you plan to use your kitchen for cooking.

Remember kitchens before minimalism, when the natural, Shaker look was all the rage? And lots of us paid hundreds to have solid beechwood worktops installed. Well, despite their best efforts, many proud owners have been unable to prevent ugly black staining around the sink from water penetrating the protective surface. The beauty of wood seems remarkably short-lived, at least if you plan to use your kitchen for cooking.

Estate agents say nothing makes a more neglectful impression that the sight of rotting wood in the kitchen, or black rings on the worktop where a hot or greasy pan has been left.

"Everyone bought wood kitchens at one time but no one wants it now," says Nick Clark, director of Kitchen Clinic in Shepherds Bush, west London. "We sell 300 kitchens a year here and only 1 or 2 per cent have beech worktops.

"Wooden ones now tend to be iroko or walnut which are harder, and more stain-resistant but they cost £400 a square metre. Yet they still need to be treated like furniture and cared for."

With the average cost of a good kitchen reaching £20,000, many beechtop-owners are unsurprisingly reluctant to rip out everything and start again.

As we are frequently reminded by the DIY and interiors magazines, kitchen cupboard doors can be re-painted and fitted with new handles for a fresher look, but is there a simple solution for an aging worktop?

"Funnily enough, a couple has just been in, wanting to replace a wood worktop with man-made granite to make their kitchen look newer and more contemporary," Mr Clark says. "It can be done but you need to do a survey of the sub-structure to make sure it's strong enough, particularly if you are going to replace wood with granite which is much heavier. The cupboards may need reinforcing or may simply be unsuitable."

There are other specialists, such as the Yorkshire-based Facades, who will replace worktops normally as part of a general kitchen revamp that includes new doors and possibly appliances. But far more suppliers refuse to replace worktops, warning that it can be a huge, difficult and expensive job.

"A face lift on a kitchen is a very risky exercise, and can prove very poor value for money," David Langford, of Fulham Kitchens, says. "We would never do it. You will have to disconnect the sink and cooker, and possibly rip off the tiles. Some appliances may need replacing because they do not fit or because they get damaged. You can easily spend twice the normal cost of a worktop because of the problems of fitting it to an old kitchen."

Andrew Macintosh, owner of the kitchen supplier of the same name that has specialised in the beech Shaker look, also warns against replacement. "Under our fitting system, wooden worktops have to be fitted on expansion brackets, before the units are fitted underneath. To replace them would normally mean having to take all bottom units out."

Mr Macintosh remains a defiant fan of beech, and has only beech worktops in his own kitchen. "We're still selling a lot of beech, and used to sell nothing else. It should be very long-lasting. It's all about maintenance around the sink. If you're reasonably careful and use lots and lots of Danish oil, like the stuff used on cricket bats, it should be OK.

"But the beauty about beech is that even if it does get stained, you can bring it back with a flat-pad sander, particularly if you pop the sink and hob out to reach the edges. Because it is a hardwood, the stain shouldn't sink in and nine times out of 10 you can get it out. If you also add new upstands at the back, then it will look good as new."

Andrew Macintosh offers a beech worktop refurbishment service, including a home consultation for £75, money offset against the costs of the job. Yet refurbishment could cost hundreds of pounds on an hourly rate if the damage is very bad.

"The biggest problem is if you have a Belfast sink, and the water has gone into the end-grain from the side and the wood swells and starts to split," Mr Macintosh says. "Over-mounted sinks where the sides of the wood are not exposed give far more protection."

But, like many kitchen suppliers, he now often recommends using harder-wearing granite round wet and cooking areas, with "wood round the island units where it looks much warmer and softer than stone".

Andrew MacIntosh, on 020 7371 7288;

Kitchen Clinic, on 020 7348 0877;

Fulham Kitchens, on 020 7736 6458)

Facades, on 0800-511234.

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