Fabricators Prepare to Enter Solid Surface Market

There’s a perception in the countertop fabrication industry that the glory days of solid surface fabrication are in the past. I believe that this notion is wrong, and that the many advantages that solid surface materials offer the end user will ensure that this product category will remain strong in the marketplace for many years to come.

My opinion has been reinforced in recent months, as I have worked as a consultant to three different fabricators of other types of countertop materials who have decided to enter the solid surface fabrication market in 2007. However, as the stories below indicate, whatever the scope of products, proper training in the use of the material is key.

Fabricator Stories

Azteca Stone Works of Bakersfield, CA specializes in residential countertops and flooring in marble, granite and ceramic tile. According to owner Chano Arias and manager Hugo Sierra, the company has managed to grow in the tough housing market of recent years by emphasizing quality and customer service, and declining to do low-end work.

A few months ago, the firm added DuPont Zodiaq to its product line, which it was able to incorporate easily because of the product’s similarities to natural stone. However, when customers suggested that the firm add DuPont Corian to its portfolio of products, Azteca realized that its staff needed training in order to fabricate and install solid surface materials properly.

My wife, Debra, and I spent two days at Azteca’s efficient and well-organized stone fabrication shop this past July, where I conducted my seminar in the showroom area now under construction. The recently installed floor featured many colors and patterns of marble and granite for display purposes.

The four employees who will be the core of Azteca’s solid surface fabrication team were in their seats at 7:30 each morning – alert, attentive and brimming with a positive attitude. They understood that solid surface fabrication is very different from natural stone fabrication. I found them fully committed to quality and willing to learn.

During our time together, we fabricated a mock-up of a kitchen countertop, including a deck seam, a cooktop cut out, a seam-undermount sink and a coved backsplash. The Azteca employees asked many questions, all of them relevant and pertinent. At the end of our seminar, my wife and I left Bakersfield confident that the Azteca team was ready to add solid surface countertops to their product offering.

Another example of the value of training is evident in the case of a natural stone fabricator that recently completed a large Silicon Valley corporate cafeteria using solid surface materials.

This company did not have any previous experience working with solid surface materials, and did not arrange for advance training. As a result, the employees made many mistakes, and the countertops began cracking shortly after they were installed. As a result of a referral by ISSFA staff, I was retained by the construction management company to inspect the failed installation. Later on, I was hired by the fabricator to review the shop drawings and train the firm’s personnel to properly remove and replace the defective countertops.

Surfaces Mix with Music

In the case of Sausalito, CA-based Omnirax, the firm realized training was needed before adding solid surface countertops to its product offerings, and retained my services to provide that.

Omnirax is a niche business that has achieved great success in its area of specialization. Founder Alan Jewitt has owned a jewelry manufacturing company since 1974, which had a woodworking shop that fabricated point-of-purchase displays for boutiques that sold its jewelry. Jewitt is also a musician, and bought an electronic music synthesizer module for his own use about 12 years ago. Unable to find a rack to store his synthesizer properly, he designed and built two in his woodworking shop – one to house his new electronics, and another that he placed on display in a local music store. When that second unit sold within a few days, Omnirax was born.

Many famous musicians use Omnirax workstations, starting with jazz legend Herbie Hancock, and now including other luminaries such as Bob Weir, Billy Joel, Daryl Hall, Dolly Parton, Joe Walsh, Metallica, Santana, Steely Dan, Tony Bennett, System of a Down and many others. Omnirax works in close cooperation with the big names in recording electronics, such as Yamaha, Mackie, Korg and Digidesign.

In the past, Omnirax has offered its studio furniture with a choice of melamine, oak plywood or high-pressure laminate work surface finishes. However, a prestigious client in Manhattan was interested in placing a large order using DuPont Corian as the work surface. The company retained my services to help train its new solid surface fabrication crew, and to offer my opinions on the most efficient and durable fabrication procedures.

The company’s production facilities near the Sausalito waterfront appear unimpressive on the outside, as their older shop building sits in the middle of a complex of self-storage units. However, inside is a modern, clean, well-organized production facility clustered around a CNC router.

Omnirax products feature ergonomic design elements, including long, sweeping curves and few straight edges. Because the company’s products are usually shipped long distances and assembled by others, the firm has given great thought to reliable ways of assembling the various components. One of the innovations it came up with is to avoid countertop seams that run in straight lines. Instead, the countertops are fabricated with gentle “S” curved seams precisely machined on the CNC router.
Omnirax manager David Holland explained that when the seaming surfaces are drawn together, the outside edges align perfectly. Initially, I was skeptical that this technique would be appropriate for solid surface countertops. However, when I saw how well it worked on laminate countertops and inspected a mockup machined out of Corian, I couldn’t think of any reason why it wouldn’t work.

The firm also used the CNC router to prepare seam reinforcement strips that followed the “S” curve beneath the seams.

Assisted by my son, James, we assembled the Corian mockup and explained and demonstrated all of the critical elements of a successful solid surface installation. When I saw the precision of the workmanship and learned of the company’s dedication to quality, I was sure that their meticulous approach would lead to a profitable project and a new business opportunity for the Omnirax team.

As different as these companies are, I am confident that the thing they share – a commitment to training when it comes to adding a new product category – will ensure that both Omnirax and Azteca Stone Works will enjoy great success as solid surface fabricators.