Granite, Marble, Soapstone Countertops - Buyers Guide
Question to Ask
How to make sure there are no surprises
First of all make sure you understand what quality of stone you are getting. It is an unregulated industry so suppliers can make up words defining their quality but here's a useful guide: First Quality contains no material defects, has quite consistent color and granularity between pieces and consistent physical properties. Second Quality will contain small visible defects or inconsistencies, some color variation and potential inconsistent physical properties. Commercial Grade will contain significant visible surface defects which may have been filled or repaired, significant inconsistencies in granularity and color and will be the weakest of all in terms of physical properties.
The problem with these definitions is that they mean different things with different stones! All Travertine will contain voids whereas Black Galaxy should almost have a mirror finish. Most customers will not be happy with anything but First Quality, so even if the terms are somewhat confusing, have the conversation with your fabricator to see if they understand the issues or just use the words without comprehending the nuances. Many raw slabs of "First Quality" granite will contain some minor defects and the experienced fabricator will cut the countertops to eliminate the flaws. Remember, though, that stone is a natural product and not as uniform as man-made products. Within any slab there are likely to be color shifts and changes in granularity. These aren't defects, they are part of the unique character and beauty of every piece of natural stone. For years Waterford Crystal informed it's buyers that differences in glass thickness and even bubbles in the glass were part of the product's unique character and part of the hand-made allure. In the case of stone, variations are the signature of the hand of mother nature or "birthmarks".
Most stones also contain natural fissures, which is a polite way of saying "cracks that haven't separated". In many cases this isn't a problem if the stone is properly installed. So long as it doesn't catch your fingernail and doesn't change over time it isn't usually a problem.
So what qualifies as defects or bad parts of a slab? Displaced cracks and filled areas are obvious faults unless the stone is one where that is normal and present on every slab quarried. Dark Emperador marble is notorious for containing "mud-veins" and cracks and breakage during manufacturing is common. Most slabs of this material have to be repaired in some fashion. But what about color variations and veins? Well, it all depends on you, the customer and what you like. One customer may regard a vein as a defect while another may regard it as the highlight feature of the slab.
When we receive slabs at Heritage Stonecraft we always do a quality inspection and if we see color variations and veins in stones which do not normally have them (Tropic Brown, or Black Galaxy for example) we call the customer to have them take a second look at the slab to make sure it is what they want before we start cutting the slab. Ask your fabricator if they do this. If not, you may be in for a surprise - one persons treasure is another's trash. A handy way to tell if the stone you are interested in is more fragile than most, is to look at the back. Fragile stones will often come from the factory with a fiberglass reinforcement applied to the back. This is not a problem in and of itself but you need to be aware that such a stone is more prone to cracking during transportation and installation and may be more likely to need repair.
Then there is granite thickness. For many years fabricators have used two centimeter (2 cm or 3/4 inch) granite and then glue-laminate the edge to give it a thicker appearance. This granite also usually requires special cabinet reinforcement to support the granite according to Marble Institute Standards – typically a layer of plywood. Also the laminated edge will contain a visible seam and depending on the skill of the fabricator, this can be quite unattractive. Even a "perfect" seam is visible because the seam cuts a straight line through the grains in the stone and the human eye can pick up these linear features. More fabricators are turning to 3 cm granite (about 1 ¼ inch thick) and this is all we work with at Heritage Stonecraft . This provides for a more harmonious appearance, is very heavy and much stronger than 2 cm so it does not require any plywood support. 3 cm stone can also overhang a cabinet up to 10" without added support compared with 6" for 2 cm stone.
Almost all kitchens will require some seams. (Here are some examples of ours) Can the supplier tell you where they are going to be? The last thing you want is a seam where you didn't expect one. Professional fabricators will be able to tell you this when they template your cabinets. Sometimes, if your job is comprised of multiple subcontractors, all doing a piece of the actual work, they can't give you this important information. At Heritage Stonecraft we do everything we can to reasonably minimize the number of seams, and for slabs with a lot of veining and variation, we invite customers to participate in the layout process. There are always alternative ways to locate seams so challenge your fabricator to be sure you are getting what you want. Very specific requests on cutting the slab to emphasize features or create very large pieces which require more labor to fabricate and install may come at an extra cost. Such special requests do create more waste for the fabricator and increased fabrication and edge polishing time. Most edge polishing machines can only polish straight edges. Counters with curves, bump-outs for sink or cooktop cabinets, single piece counters with multiple angles etc, all require more hand work and increased waste. Very special shapes may require the use of expensive CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines (like our Park Industries "Titan" machine) costing over a quarter million dollars, or the very skillful work of a qualified fabricator with many years of experience. Anyhow, the cheapest quote may also contain the most seams so make sure you understand the options.
You must ask about how the fabricator is going to re-enforce the granite around cut-outs for sinks and cooktops. For all but the strongest of stones this is a necessity. At Heritage Stonecraft we use fiberglass rods and slow-cure, high strength, epoxy which we let cure overnight. Our research has shown this to be more effective than steel and does not rust, which can lead to future cracking problems if steel not completely encased in epoxy. The “driveway” fabricator will not use anything at all or use cheap, mild steel threaded rods and a fast-cure polyester resin.
Then there is the subject of guarantees. Does the supplier offer a transferable warranty against defects in materials or installation? This is by no means uniform, and most don't, so ask. Finally, make sure you understand their schedule. How long will you have to wait for templating and how long after that before your countertop is installed? This timeframe can vary from several days to months depending on the whether the granite is in inventory, the number of contractors involved and the manufacturing processes used by the fabricator. At Heritage Stonecraft we lock-in an installation date when we book your templating date - and we stick to our schedules! What you want is a fabricator in high demand with an acceptable turnaround. See if they will show you their schedule so you can see how busy (in-demand) they are. A fabricator may be able to offer a super-rapid installation because they are having trouble finding work and maybe there's a reason for that! As is the theme of this article - question, question, question....