No building material speaks of permanence like natural stone. Even when it is used in small ways in a home, stone signals quality and longevity. Accordingly, choosing the right slabs -- or tiny tiles -- to incorporate into your interior deserves careful consideration.
On the following pages, we introduce eight options, including the familiar marble and granite, as well as more unusual materials, such as onyx and travertine. This roundup will give you a glimpse of what you may find in a stone yard or home-design center. Once you start shopping, you'll see just how vast the world of natural stone is.
Regardless of the stone you settle on, a few basic rules will apply to its upkeep: Wipe up spills immediately, especially alcohol or citrus juices, which will corrode the surface, and don't place hot, wet, or abrasive objects directly on the stone -- employ trivets, doormats, or self-adhesive felt tabs as needed. With proper maintenance, stone surfaces will last for generations.
Before You Buy
Here are a few things to consider as you commence your search.
Think locally when selecting materials. Showrooms and home-design centers have lots of samples and can order similar stone for you. But if you go to a stone yard, you'll have your choice of native materials, which can add character to a custom home. Plus, you can pick out the pieces that will actually be used in your home, which is an advantage since no two are the same.
Ask an expert if the stone you're interested in is right for your needs. Your first consideration will be how it looks, of course. But while most types of stone are durable and stand up to a variety of uses, each has its own distinct qualities.
Select a finish for your stone that suits how you plan to use it. A highly polished finish, for example, is perfect for a countertop but too slippery for a bathroom floor.
Weigh the price of stone against its longevity. The material will last a lifetime, so it's worth the investment. Plus, it will likely add to the value of your home.
Honed stones (1 and 5) have the most natural-looking finish. After the stones are cut, they are sanded with a coarse abrasive to create a smooth, matte surface.
Buffed and distressed stones (2) are first burnished to remove imperfections. Their surfaces are then weathered to create an aged look. The latter process involves tumbling the cut pieces of stone in a cement-mixer-like machine together with smaller stones and water.
Brushed and hammered stones (3 and 4) are first treated with stiff bristles, which give them a moderately rough finish. Hammers similar to pick axes are then used to create a pocked effect.
Satin brushed stones (6 and 7) are treated as brushed ones are, but with softer bristles. This method results in a smoother finish.
Highly polished stones (like onyx) have a glassy look. Fine abrasives smooth the surface in the same manner sandpaper is used on wood.
Marble starts life as limestone. But under certain conditions, the components of limestone crystallize, creating veins and changing its texture.
What to Know: Marble is softer and more absorbent than granite, but it's still tough enough for any application in your home. All marble can be polished, though green shades -- often called serpentines --can be difficult to polish to a high gloss.
Best For: backsplashes, floors, pastry surfaces, tub surrounds, vanity tops
Care: Clean marble surfaces with water. If necessary, use a mild detergent, and thoroughly rinse afterward. Rust stains are fast to set and hard to remove, so act quickly. Use a poultice (available at flooring stores) to absorb stains. Sealing is an option, but some sealants may darken white pieces, so test a discreet area first.
Granite, which is available in a broad spectrum of colors, is often flecked with bits of minerals that produce a salt-and-pepper look. In some instances, the minerals form veins.
What to Know: With unmatched durability, granite is hard to scratch and even harder to stain. Domestically mined granite comes from many parts of the country, including Georgia, New Hampshire (the Granite State), and South Dakota.
Best For: kitchen countertops, pastry surfaces, fireplace surrounds
Care: With proper precautions, granite's luster will not fade over time. Use coasters, cutting boards, and trivets on countertops. Avoid ammonia-based cleaners, which can damage the surface.
Limestone, which comes in an array of textures, is frequently formed from the shells of marine animals.
What to Know: The quality and color of limestone vary widely. Hard, dense pieces take a polish; softer ones do not.
Best For: bathroom surfaces, kitchen floors, entryways
Care: Seal as needed; as with most stones, the frequency will depend on how and where it's used and how it wears.
Onyx is distinguished by its translucency. The layered stone often comes from caves.
What to Know: Although we use onyx to describe items that are jet-black, the stone is commonly white or pastel. It can be polished to a very high gloss.
Best For: bathtub surrounds, shower tiles, vanity tops
Care: Be careful; onyx is more prone to scratches than other stones. Seal often.
Slate is formed from the clay of ancient seabeds.
What to Know: Slate, which often comes in deep greens, blues, grays, and purples, has a matte surface and a distinctive cleft pattern.
Best For: floors, kitchen countertops
Care: Use only neutral, mild alkaline, or specialty cleaners. A low-luster finish, such as honed or distressed, will preserve slate's matte surface; seal as needed.
Travertine has a porous surface, the result of the stone's forming near hot, mineral-rich bubbling springs.
What to Know: Holes give this stone a spongelike appearance. It can be ordered with them filled for an even surface.
Best For: bathtub surrounds, countertops, shower tiles, floors
Care: If holes are unfilled, be vigilant about wiping up spills, to keep them from pooling in the holes; seal as needed.
Sandstone comprises dense layers of sand for earthy tones.
What to Know: Hardness varies, depending on where the stone is quarried.
Best For: bathtub surrounds, shower tiles and walls, kitchen floors
Care: Seal as needed.
Soapstone gets its soap-like feel from the element talc.
What to Know: It resists high heat.
Best For: kitchen countertops, vanity tops, sinks, fireplace surrounds
Care: Do not seal; rub out scratches with mineral oil or by lightly sanding them.