Learning About Natural Stone for Countertops

Some 24 years ago, I became general manager of a countertop fabrication shop, Western Plastics in San Francisco. At that time, I had only a couple of years’ experience as a project manager for a cabinet and millwork shop, and my knowledge of countertop fabrication was somewhat limited. I was fortunate to be able to spend several weeks working with the previous manager, who was generous in sharing his knowledge with me at the time.

The company had been a plastic laminate countertop fabricator for decades, and had begun fabricating DuPont Corian a few years before I came on board. I learned about plastic laminate and solid surface fabrication by supervising, managing and selling countertops, and by asking a lot of questions. I got involved in the Decorative Laminate Products Association (DLPA), a trade group that no longer exists. I also made a point of attending as many fabrication training seminars as I could. Over time, my understanding of plastic laminate and solid surface fabrication deepened. Later, I joined the International Solid Surface Fabricator’s Association (ISSFA), and learned even more.

However, I learned very little about marble and granite fabrication early in my career, as the company I worked for did not sell such countertops. Whenever we were asked about natural stone, we referred the customer to another firm that handled these types of materials.

Fifteen years ago, when I started my own business, I chose to specialize in repairing and renovating solid surface countertops. However, in recent years, my business has received more requests to provide service on natural stone countertops, and when we decided to take that plunge, we were faced with the challenge of learning about the remarkably complex and rapidly changing stone business. In particular, we needed resources to learn about the physical characteristics of various stones, so that we could provide truly professional service to stone consumers.

What I’ve found to be the greatest difference between understanding solid surface and understanding natural stone is the incredible variations in the types of stones that are sometimes used for countertops. Solid surface materials are consistent and predicable, whereas natural stones exhibit wide variations in performance characteristics. Before I delved into the subject, I thought most kitchen countertops were made of “granite,” that marble was less durable and suitable only for vanity tops, and that there were a few other stones used occasionally. I assumed that various granites differed mostly in color and pattern, but that otherwise they performed pretty much alike.

My initial impression was vastly oversimplified. What I didn’t realize is that “granite” as a marketing term has very little to do with granite as a geological term. The science of analyzing the composition of stones is called petrography and experts in that field note that a large majority of stones sold as “granite” on the commercial countertop market are actually not granite at all. What I’ve now come to know is that mercantile “granite” encompasses many different types of stones.

In the opinion of a prominent stone industry critic Maurizio Bertoli, many of these other stones are as good as granite, several are better, but some are, put quite bluntly, a disgrace.

When learning about a new subject, I like to be able to consult Web sites that offer an abundance of in-depth information. I especially like Web sites that offer open and free discussion forums, inside information and a frank critique of industry practices in regard to the subject matter.

My current favorite site, FindStone.com, shows the true potential of the Internet. FindStone.com is based in Bombay, India, and has over 30,000 members worldwide. The primary purpose of this site is to act as a neutral platform for buyers and sellers to interact. It is a marketplace where international trade deals are made.

In addition, the site offers a wealth of reference information about all aspects of the natural stone business. One highlight is a library of approximately 2,800 photos of commercially available stones from at least 58 countries. Dozens of articles on all aspects of the stone business are also readily available through the site.

As a relative newcomer to the stone industry, I find that the most valuable feature of FindStone.com is the Advice Forum with its massive archive of questions and answers about every type of stone imaginable.

For instance, when I needed detailed information about soapstone for a recent project, this is where I turned to first. The forum has a panel of 56 experts from every facet of the natural stone business who answer questions from both professionals and consumers.

What is really striking is the no-holds-barred character of the advice offered. Many stone industry Web sites convey an attitude that all natural stone is great, but engineered stone [quartz] and solid surface materials are lousy. In contrast, the experts on FindStone.com are not afraid to say that certain stones are simply not suitable for kitchen countertop applications, even if those stones are being widely sold for that purpose.

They’re also not afraid to say that the most important factor for a consumer is to do business with a reputable stone fabricator, and that there are way too many unethical fabricators doing business out there these days.

The most prolific writer among these experts is Bertoli, who is a native of Italy, currently residing in New Jersey. Bertoli is a stone industry trainer and consultant, and his company, MB Stone Restoration and Supply, sells a complete line of stone care products. A true mark of Bertoli’s integrity is that he rejects the common misconception that all granite countertops need regular annual resealing. He says it‘s entirely dependent on the absorbency of the specific stone in question, and that less absorbent stones rarely need to have sealers applied. As you might imagine, I think it is tough to question such an opinion when it is expressed by an expert who makes his money selling stone sealers.

MBStoneCare.com describes itself as “a self-appointed watch-dog of the stone industry,” and Maurizio is definitely not afraid to blow the whistle on unfair or dishonest practices in the stone industry. One example is his crusade against the practice of “doctoring” lower quality grades of dark grey stone by applying dyes that Bertoli calls “shoe shine.” This allows these lower quality stones to be sold as “black granite” at inflated prices, though the appearance of these stones may well degrade over time.

After reading his frank opinions, I’ve definitely become a fan. You can pick up lots of useful information from reading his work, or visiting MarbleCleaning.org to learn more about his personal campaign for integrity, ethics and consumer protection in the natural stone industry.