Your choices in flooring, cabinets, countertops and backsplashes speak volumes about your personal style.

Home Remodeling Advice: Show Some Flair with the Finishing Touches

Finishing touches are what make your kitchen feel homey.  Check in with local experts to learn how colors, textures and materials bring warmth and comfort to your kitchen.

Your choices in flooring, cabinets, countertops and backsplashes speak volumes about your personal style.

Break it down to its essence and a room is just a series of walls connected to a floor and ceiling. Their skeletons are all made of the same stuff, but it’s the outward appearance that makes a home uniquely ours. Colors, textures and materials give our homes warmth and comfort – and convey our own personalities.

Those finishing touches matter, and because a well-done kitchen can last for 20 years or longer, you want to get it right. We checked in with the experts at some of our region’s locally owned outlets to find out how colors, textures and materials tie together the best kitchens.

A Good Footing

Your flooring and cabinets are the first surfaces to consider.

“From an aesthetics standpoint, flooring is probably the most important touch you’re going to have in your kitchen, because there’s a lot of it,” says Kevin Rose, president of Carpetland USA, with locations in Sycamore and Rockford. “When you walk into a kitchen or breakfast nook, your flooring is going to consume more square feet than anything else.”

What you choose on your floors and cabinets will affect every other aesthetic choice in this room.

“If you have a lot of movement in your countertops, you may not want a lot of movement in your flooring,” says Rose. “You may want something simpler to coordinate with it.”

Rose and his sales team don’t expect the homeowner to have all the answers when they start shopping for flooring. With a combined 700 years of flooring sales experience and thousands of choices on display, this sales team knows how to narrow down the choices.

“Every person has something that’s right for them,” says Rose. “We’ll ask questions like: Do you have pets? Do you have kids? How many? Are they in sports? Do they walk into the house with their football cleats on? I even have people bring in dirt from their yards, just so they know it’ll blend in with the floors.”

Questions about durability, moisture-resistance, home humidity and scratch resistance may help a homeowner to rule out certain kinds of materials. And that’s before anybody talks about aesthetics.

Wood flooring remains a popular choice for many kitchens, but it does have its downsides. It’s not particularly moisture-resistant, which is why Rose sees lots of floors warp around ice machines and other wet spots. This time of year, you’re also likely to notice its other weakness: gapping. Dry winter conditions suck moisture from the room and from the wood, leaving hairline gaps between the floorboards. Come summer, ambient humidity causes the wood to expand.

Engineered hardwood fixes the gapping problem by layering several plies of manmade material beneath a hardwood veneer.

“With an engineered product, you might have seven layers of wood,” says Rose. “These are created so they can move and counteract each other, so you have less expansion and contraction. We sell more engineered wood than we do solid wood.”

When those choices won’t do, there still are ways to replicate wood. Several varieties of ceramic tile now come in long planks and a finish that looks strikingly similar to wood. And then there’s luxury vinyl tiles and planks, which look just like treated wood or ceramic – except that they’re made from a durable vinyl. Whereas tiles come in square sections, planks come in an elongated form.

“It’s waterproof and moisture-resistant, and it looks very realistic,” says Rose. “You can put down luxury plank that looks like wood and 90 percent of people who walk on it won’t know it isn’t real.”

Rose says he carries about 5,000 choices of ceramic tile, nearly 3,500 choices in carpeting (though it’s still not suited for kitchens), and numerous options in wood and luxury vinyl. Warm, earthy tones prevail, although lately that pallet has been skewing toward more grays.

The good news is that most flooring materials can be expected to last for the lifetime of your kitchen.

“If you put in a ceramic floor, it could be in for 50 years,” says Rose. “If you put in a wood floor, before you have to refinish it, you’re maybe looking at 15 years. A luxury vinyl plank floor can last 15 to 20 years.”

The Visual Impact of Cabinets

Just as important as flooring choices, kitchen cabinets can say a lot about your personal style and your home’s aesthetics. Dave Wegner, a designer at Blue Ribbon Millwork, in Woodstock, believes the kitchen is an important focal point in home design.

“It says, ‘This is my style,’ whether that means traditional or French provincial, country or contemporary,” he says. “It sets a tone for the whole house. You can have a rustic kitchen inside a contemporary home and your guests won’t know how the two tie together.”

Wegner recalls a kitchen he recently remodeled, where the exterior log cabin look clashed with the kitchen’s outdated honey oak cabinets. Not only were the cabinets a mismatch but they had been made of inexpensive materials.

“It was an all-particle-board cabinet,” says Wegner. “People are leaning toward better-quality cabinets.”

Wegner encourages his clients to take a close look at the cabinets they’re interested in to ensure that they’re built from quality materials, and to ensure that builders haven’t cut corners. Look at the drawer glides, look for dovetailed corners in the drawers, and look for signs of plywood veneers, he says. Ask, too, about the warranty.

“What happens if I have a door split in two years?” he says. “What’s my recourse? Bertch, for example, has a lifetime warranty to the original owner, under normal wear and tear. Say a joint comes apart in two years and it’s in cherry. I can send them my broken door and they’ll replace it. But, cherry darkens with age. So, they might pre-age my new door to match my cabinets.”

Homeowners seeking higher-quality cabinets often turn toward the sort of American-made products found at Blue Ribbon. The company’s low, middle- and high-end lines of Bertch cabinets are produced by craftsmen in Waterloo, Iowa.

Recently, Blue Ribbon also began carrying the Wellborn Forest brand, a more affordable line that’s highly customizable and built in Alabama.

“They’ve made huge strides in quality and have a lot of options – nearly 900 colors to choose from,” he says.

No, kitchens aren’t being covered in wildly brilliant colors. But more designers are making their own play on 50 shades of gray.

“Bertch has four shades of white,” he says. “One’s rather gray, one’s slightly more creamy, one’s even creamier, and then one is stark white. A lot of people are shifting from the sterile white to something with more color, because it ties in with so much.”

Just as important as the color and style of the cabinets is the hardware that’s affixed to it. Door handles and drawer pulls come in a variety of options, so Wegner helps to narrow choices by matching them with the style of the kitchen and house.

“Look at your faucet finish,” he says. “If you’re doing brushed nickel, you’re not going to want to put an oil-rubbed bronze handle with a brushed nickel faucet. Look at your appliance colors, too. If you’re doing black stainless, you could find handles with a combination of brushed nickel, oil-rubbed bronze or pewter. And look at your tiles.”

Bertch carries about 30 or 40 styles of hardware that are included in the price of the cabinets, but Wegner carries dozens of alternate choices. As with the cabinets, Wegner encourages customers to test out plenty of handles.

“Make sure you really like that handle, because once you drill the holes, you’ve got to keep that position,” says Wegner. “You’re not going to find something that fits every handle.”

With nearly 40 years of experience in kitchen design, Wegner has seen enough to recognize potential pitfalls. He takes care to show customers exactly what they’re buying, and he’s made valuable connections with supporting professionals who work with options like lighting, countertops, flooring and appliances.

“It’s important to be able to explain to the customer what they need and what they want, and what they need to have, or don’t know about but would really like,” Wegner says.

The Rock-Hard Truth

Countertops play an important role in tying together your kitchen, and they often act as a focal point of the room. Dave Hammerl, president of Stonecrafters, in Lakemoor, believes there’s also a very pragmatic part of selecting a countertop.

“You prepare your food on it, it holds the sink, it holds the faucet, it holds the cooktop,” says Hammerl. “The countertop is the one part of the kitchen that is used over and over again.”

The most important question to ask, when selecting countertops, isn’t about color and style, he adds. It’s about your lifestyle. Consider how often you use your kitchen and how much abuse your countertops may endure. Certain materials may not be able to keep up with the scratch, stain and abrasion resistance required of a busy kitchen.

“I have clients who will make every meal – breakfast, lunch and dinner – at home,” says Hammerl. “I have clients on the other end of the spectrum who make reservations. Their kitchens are really just showpieces.”

If it’s a showpiece you’re after, marble is still a popular choice. It is, however, a softer stone that’s more prone to staining in a heavily used kitchen. A good compromise is the marbleized quartz, a manmade product that’s one of the most durable countertop surfaces available.

“The trend seems to be toward that lighter color – whites, grays, softer hues – with lots of veining and movement,” says Hammerl. “Quartz lends itself to that marble look without any of the maintenance because it’s such a hard, durable surface.”

Another in between product is quartzite, a natural stone that’s durable like manufactured quartz but recognized by its granite-like variation in color and pattern. Granite remains a popular choice, too, and it’s available at a wide variety of price points.

Budget is one of several questions Hammerl asks clients while walking them through the sales process. He finds it helpful when clients can bring along samples for cabinets, floors, backsplashes, paint – anything that helps him to visualize the new kitchen.

His goal is to help clients discover their preference by leading them through important questions, and educating them along the way. Once some choices are narrowed down, he sends them off with samples for the next stage in the journey.

If there’s one mistake Hammerl sees homeowners make repeatedly, it’s their rush toward measurement and installation. Before a counter can be measured and cut, Hammerl says, his team needs to know about ancillary details, including the sink, faucet and cooktop selections; clearances; and cabinet arrangement.

“We need to make sure all of those harmoniously fit with the countertop,” says Hammerl, who’s been in the industry for more than 20 years. “If I’m cutting a hole, I need specs on certain clearances to make sure the countertop works properly and has the structural integrity not to break.”

And unlike a big-box retailer, Hammerl and his team go out of their way to ensure the customer is happy.

“We want the customer to know what they’re doing and love the results,” he says. “From the first time they say hello until they say goodbye, we want them to know we care about them and we care about their project.”