In this post, I want to talk about countertops and bar tops. You need a place to work and a place to serve in your bar. In simple designs, they will be one and the same; in more complex bars, you will have a featured bar top and one or more counters on which to mix and prepare.
I’ll get into dimensions and construction in detail in other posts, but I’ll throw out a few rules of thumb here to define the terms I’m using. Your
Bar Top is the long counter where drinks sit in between sips. The standard height for most bar tops, in both home and commercial bars, is approximately 42″. This is the rule of thumb because it is a comfortable height for most adults to stand beside and lean against. And even if all your friends look like Shaquille O’Neil or Billy Barty, you probably should stick with this height, since virtually every barstool you can buy is made to work with a 42″ bar top. Also, a bar top that is counter height just looks silly.
But a 42″ high surface, while a great place to set your finished drink, it is uncomfortably high as a working surface. If you have the space and budget therefore, you should also put in a second
Countertop behind the bar, at regular kitchen counter height (36″). This height is most comfortable for prep work, and the difference in height lets you make your working mess less obtrusive. As it happens, this is the height you will get if you put a standard counter atop standard cabinets.
But to get to the meat of this post, out of what do you make these surfaces? You have a lot of choices, and I’m going to spend the rest of this post running down a bunch of them. As we go through them, keep in mind the hard realities of what they will have to put up with. You and your guests will be leaning, banging, moving, eating, drinking, and in some cases smoking, on and around them. There may even be cases where you may even be slightly intoxicated while doing so, shocking as that is to contemplate. There will be spills, sprays, and spots. And lots of the ingredients in a well-stocked bar, like Angustora Bitters or pomegranate juice, will stain very quickly and easily. You need to choose surfaces that not only look good when you first install them, but will still look good years later.
Let’s start with plastic laminate counters, such as Wilsonart, Formica, and others. This is a tough but thin material that is glued to a strong plywood or other wooden foundation. Why I bother to say this is beyond me, as every human being who reads this post will already be familiar with this stuff. In fact, the odds are pretty good that your keyboard and mouse are sitting on laminate right now.
Laminate makes a great choice for a lot of reasons. As I said, it is durable; with minimal respect and proper installation, laminate can last indefinitely. It comes in a nearly infinite variety of colors, patterns, and textures. The edges of the counter can be finished with curves, bevels, or corners, and/or trimmed with more laminate, wood trim, and even more exotic materials. This design flexibility is very handy when it comes to making sure your bar is both functional and awesome in appearance. Finally, laminate is very inexpensive, especially if you decide to construct your counters yourself. Count on less than $50 a square foot—much less if you install it yourself—much much less if you fabricate the top yourself.
Careful if you do it yourself! The glue is powerful. You don’t want to end up stuck to your half-finished bar in the basement like a bug on flypaper for six hours until your wife comes home from the Mall!
There are problems or drawbacks with laminate as well. While tough, it is less tough than many alternatives. And gouges and scratches, when they do inevitably occur, will be fairly notable. If water (or Gin, or Vodka, or Rum, Or Bourbon, or Creme de Violette, or Chartreuse, or….) gets in the seams, the stuff can delaminate from the wooden structure supporting it. And it is very vulnerable to heat. If you smoke or allow smoking, or like to whip up the odd Blue Blazer and its ilk, laminate will have a dramatically shorter life. Finally, laminate is inexpensive, and just a bit feels like it. You will get exactly zero snob points for using laminate.
If you use laminate for your Bar Top, you should use it for your prep counters (if any) as well. But if you use one of the more complex or expensive options for your serving surface, laminate can still be a good option for the countertop work area.
Another traditional countertop surface is tile. Like laminate, it is cheap (usually), and durable, and affords ample options for design magic. Of course, the more complex your pattern or magnificent the tiles you employ, the less inexpensive tile gets. Tile counters can cost as little as ten dollars a square foot, or as much as a hundred, but for most applications like this you are probably looking at the low end of that range. And ceramic tile is likely to be the cheapest and perhaps most attractive way to embed the team logo of your beloved East Southern Appalachia State University War Mules into your bar top. Furthermore, it is easy and even a little fun to put down tile.
But unlike laminate, I don’t recommend a tile counter for your bar. There are several problems with tile, and they all stem from grout. Remember spills? Your grout will. Every one of them. And on that subject, tile is an uneven surface. Your inebriated friends are going to be picking up, putting down and sliding around your expensive, fragile cocktail glasses on that uneven surface. Does that sound like a really good idea?
So, why do I even mention tile? Well, partly in the interests of completeness, and partly… wait and see.
Solid surface counters, such as Corian and others, are another great choice for both bar tops and countertops. Like laminates, they come in an incredible array of colors. You can finish the edges of solid surface counters in even more intricate and attractive ways than you can laminate. These counters feel rich, smooth, and luxurious. They are easy to clean, and are impervious to water damage. They are much harder to stain than laminate, and many surface scratches, and light stains can be sanded and buffed out. (Avoid this if you can! Trust me.)
But Corian and the boys are more expensive than laminates. The cheapest solid surface installations run as much as the most expensive laminate, and go up from there. Your range will be $50-$100 per square, and most times you’ll be in the middle of that range. And you cannot save money by doing it yourself. You should never try to install solid surface counters on your own. All solid surfaces are “fabricator sensitive”, which means that if you don’t know what you are doing when you put it in, it will break or look like hell. Make sure you have an iron-clad reference on your chosen contractor. You can still burn solid surface counters, and you should never climb on them to get something overhead. They will crack under heavy weight.
I used white Corian for the prep counters behind my bar, and I am very glad. I sadly neglect them. I don’t clean up my spills, sometimes for days. And I never need more than a spray bottle of cleanser and a paper towel to make them look like new. And while my bar top isn’t Corian, solid surface materials make a good choice. Be careful using solid surface materials as a bar top if you want to have an overhang to give knees and stools a place underneath the bar. As I mentioned, solid surface counters will crack and you need to put a lot more into supporting them evenly with any significant cantilever.
I love granite. My kitchen counters are (with one Corian exception) all granite. You can get it in many colors and patterns, many of which are larger and more intricate than any offered by the synthetic alternatives, but all of which are natural. It can be fun just going to your local granite supplier and walking though their warehouse, looking for just the right slab. Just putting your hand on the cold, hard surface of granite is a joy. Glass makes a satisfying clink when set upon it. It is very durab… it’s hard as a rock. It can take any heat you want to hit it with. Cigarettes, coffee pots, and even trays of hors d’oeuvres straight from the oven won’t faze it. And it is very low maintenance. Most of all though, granite is rich. It just looks and feels rich. You will look and feel rich with a granite bar.
But you won’t be rich. Because granite ain’t cheap, my friends. It costs even more than the best solid surfaces (usually about $100 per square, up to $300 for specialty stone), and it also must be professionally installed in most applications. If you choose a light color, or a porous variety, it can stain. But even these kinds of granite, if you seal them well, maintain them well, and clean them occasionally, will be pretty safe. There are other minor objections about granite (some of them pretty silly, like background radiation from your countertops), but to me the only real objection is cost or design choice. If you can afford granite, and can find a slab that will look great in your design and color scheme, go for the stone.
I did say that granite has to be professionally installed, but there is one way around this. You could buy a rectangular slab or two and inset them in your bar top, with wood trim around the edges. You lose a lot of the low-maintenance angle here, but you still get some of the feel and caché for a lot less cash.
Don’t. Just don’t.
Marble is natural stone, like granite, and has perhaps even more varied and beautiful looks. It feels great too. But marble has all granite’s drawbacks, with a few killer ones added on top. Marble is fragile. In general you are far more at risk for cracks and chips with marble than granite. Most importantly, and this is the real, killer, don’t-go-there drawback, it is universally porous. Marble stains indelibly at the mere sight of a bottle of grenadine. Nuff said.
Stainless Steel counter and bar tops are kind of a love ’em or hate ’em deal. They are extremely durable. In most installations, they convey a very modern or industrial design sensibility. This is either a pro or a con, depending on your own desires. Steel is very heat and scratch resistant. It is also virtually impossible to stain. When properly installed, it is cool and very solid to the touch. When subjected to the relatively light use of a home bar, it will last basically forever if it is fabricated and installed properly to begin with.
But steel will show fingerprints and water spots. It is easy to keep clean, but hard to keep looking good. (This is the opposite of most surfaces) If you want to see what I mean, go look at virtually any stainless steel sink. Those water spots don’t really look that bad in a sink, but imagine them on the wide, shining, flat expanse of your bar top. It is also very expensive, as expensive as all but the priciest granite (about $100-$200/sq. ft.).
I tend to think that stainless steel is not a great solution for bar tops, but it makes a lot of sense for prep counters. If your prep counter is narrow, it won’t cost too much. Water spots also won’t matter as much here either. And stainless in your counter area will look less industrial. If your want steel for some reason, but need a less industrial look, you can embed it in a wood-trimmed bar top, as I discussed above in the granite section. Of course, if you have the budget and want an industrial look, then go wild with the steel! And as a side note, copper is another beautiful metal for counters, but it costs about 50% more, and is less durable.
Wood is of course the classic bar top material. Charles Baker referred over and over again (in 1939) to bartenders as working
behind mahogany. These days, real mahogany costs so much that it would probably be more affordable to finance a coup to take over wherever it grows than to buy it on the open market, but there are other woods. Teak, walnut, cherry, even oak can make an attractive bar top. If you are a woodworker, or just play one on the weekend, you can probably design and install one yourself. If you seal it properly and renovate it over the years, wood is still a great-looking design choice. Wood is very flexible, in a design sense. You will have a lot of choices and options in color, shape, and style.
But it is probably the most vulnerable to water (and other liquid) damage. Putting a sink in a wooden countertop is a step I would try to avoid. The hardest woods are still soft, compared to most of the other options, so you will see dents, scratches and gouges. You need to understand that wood is far and away your highest maintenance option.
There are so many choices in materials, design, finish, engraving, etc. that I won’t hazard a price range. But know that if you have the tools and talent, then a wooden bar top will be pretty affordable, even with the most expensive of materials, like teak. But if you want it custom made and installed, wood is a high-skill craft item, and you can look for the high-end of the prices we are discussing here.
All in all, I think wood is a great choice for bar tops, especially for the determined do-it-yourselfers out there. And it is a lousy choice for a prep surface. A great choice might be a big, luxurious wooden bar top, with laminate prep countertops, trimmed in the same wood as the bar top.
Epoxy and Resins
There are a number of cool applications for epoxy and other clear resin products in making home bar tops. Most of them are highly and/or distinctively decorative, so in most cases I talking bar tops here, rather than prep surfaces. In a few words, what I am discussing is a thick, clear material that is poured over something else. When it hardens, you are left with a hard, smooth surface that acts a lot like solid surface counters, except that you can see through it to whatever you have underneath, like a fly in amber.
This works great for a sports themed bar, just lay out your trading cards, pictures, pennants, etc., and seal them in forever. Maggi and I spent years collecting every cork from every bottle of wine we drank. Our plan was to glue them down to completely cover our bar top, then seal them in with epoxy resin for a great look. We went with a (much) different style of decor when we eventually built the Lounge, but it was actually fun to collect all those corks.
Another great use for epoxy resin coating is with tile surfaces. Way back at the top, I dumped on tile as an option, because it was an uneven surface and the accompanying grout was super porous. A clear, deep coat of resin will make those drawbacks disappear. So if you want all those fancy tiles or patterns of tiles, be sure to consider sealing the whole thing with epoxy.
You haven’t told us what you have on your bar.
Mine is a bit special. I’ll describe it as part of my last section:
Depending on what your design wishes, and of course that pesky budget I keep talking about, you might want to consider having an sculptor make your bar top. Especially one who makes outdoor pieces. They know how to make strong, beautiful items that can hold up to the elements and some environmental abuse. You are not so harsh as Mother Nature, I assure you! And a commissioned piece of artwork is not so much more than some of the other options here in many circumstances. If you have an artist, or run across one at an arts festival, etc., whose works tingles something in your mind about your Basement Bar project, it is worth your time (and his or hers) to have a talk.
My bar top is a gorgeous piece of aluminum, with a wavy front edge and a sea of lovely ground patterns, sealed with many coats of lacquer. The artist who did it for me is named Mac Worthington, and you really should visit his website to see some really great stuff. The best of his bar stuff is toward the bottom of the page I’m linking. I have six of his pieces, if you count the bar top, backsplash and cabinet panels as one. The Pegu Lounge pieces made up the first bar Mac did and he has expanded and enriched the idea since.
Now, art pieces blur pretty heavily with the other categories above. Many handcrafted bar tops made from the materials I’ve already discussed can be considered works of art as well, if not
Fine Art (whatever the hell that means). And true artists work in these mediums too. Finally, many of things you might do yourself, especially with the epoxy resin category, should also be considered art. Whatever you do, give yourself some permission to jazz it up. Or don’t. Your overall design idea should make the decision.
Of course, I haven’t covered everything you can use. Artists have an infinity of media beyond aluminum that they can use. And on a broader note, there are many commercial materials that I didn’t touch on. but most of the other commercial materials are simply alternatives to the main one’s I’ve gone over here. Just remember the main points when deciding how to go:
- The Bar Top is the showpiece. If can’t quite afford the material you really want for your design, try looking at using it only for the top.
- The prep surfaces will take a lot more liquid abuse. Make sure they can take it.
- Many of the expensive materials are wasted on your prep counters.
- Be creative.
- If you aren’t creative, hire someone to be creative for you… Budget permitting.
And the last piece of advice:
- Get a bigger budget!
If you want to follow this specific series of posts on the Pegu Blog, you can subscribe to our Basement Bar feed here. Or you can just subscribe to the entire blog, with all its brilliant content, here!
Here’s a list of the other articles in this series that have been posted so far:
[catlist id=47 orderby=title order=ASC numberposts=-1]