A Fabricator and Installer's Guide to
by Janice Anne Costa
Surfacing can make or break the look - and function - of the kitchen or bath. Choosing the right material for the job & employing proper fabricating techniques can ensure a smoother installation.
When it comes to surfacing materials for the kitchen and bath, there's a mind boggling array of products available today, offering designers a nearly limitless variety of colors, patterns and textures with which to work. Where laminate and solid surfacing once lay nearly sole claim to this market, today's hottest surfaces include not only the old favorites, but a few new ones, as well.
Granite, marble, stainless steel, concrete and tile are all capturing consumer interest, and designers are increasingly looking toward a "mix-and-match" approach to ensure maximum function and aesthetic appeal of all surfaces in the kitchen and bath.
However, whatever the surface you choose to work with, proper installation and fabrication are key to the surface's success, as perception of the product is as much about performance characteristics as appearance.
Solid surfacing and laminate
Solid surfacing encompasses about 13-15% of the kitchen countertop market - about one fourth of the current share held by laminates - according to the International Cast Polymer Association (ICPA), with new products and a greater variety of customer choices making it the fastest growing segment of the surfacing market.
Valued for its beauty, durability, repairability and stain- and heat-resistance properties, it captures the imagination of designers and consumers alike, offering nearly limitless options for colors and designs.
And as fabricator and K&BDN columnist Jim Heaphy notes, solid surface materials also offer countertop fabricators the ability to create a wide variety of decorative edge details, too. "In this regard, solid surface materials are more versatile than other countertop materials, with the possibilities limited only by the imagination of the designer, fabricator or homeowner."
In addition, solid surfacing is non-porous, according to the International Solid Surface Fabricators Association (ISSFA), so it's unaffected by water and changes in humidity, making it perfect for the kitchen or bath. And its non-porous nature makes it resistant to the growth of bacteria and fungi, the ISSFA notes, making it (along with stainless steel) one of the only two surfaces to have received NSF 31 approval for use in food preparation areas.
Perhaps the greatest challenge with solid surfacing comes from the problems fabricating it. In fact, as the solid surfacing industry continues to grow, manufacturers note that the most significant factor limiting market growth is the number of properly skilled fabricators and installers.
New organizations, such as the ISSFA are capable of promoting education and skills training for fabricators, while the ICPA plan to expand its existing fabricator training programs in the near future.
Laminate, solid surfacing's less expensive cousin, provides a cost-effective option for countertops, making it the most widely chosen surface for kitchens, according to the National Kitchen & Bath Association. Its benefits include the wide variety of patterns, colors and finishes available, as well as its low maintenance; downsides include its susceptibility to burning, scratching and chipping, and need for replacement if damaged.
Tile, granite, marble, stainless
Tile offers numerous design options, coming in a wide variety of sizes and shapes, from 3/8" to 2' squares. Shapes may include rectangular, square, round, octagonal, hexagonal, triangular, and endless variations in between, making it ideal for creating uniquely personalized designs.
The Ceramic Tile Distributors Association (CTDA) notes that countertop ceramic tile should have a durable, scratch resistant surface, and should be stain-resistant, as well. Scratch resistance is measured by comparing mineral hardness to glaze and bisque hardness, and is measured on a scale of one to 10 (10 being diamond hardness). Industry standards suggest 6-7 as a good scratch resistance measurement of kitchen counters, according to the CTDA.
The association cautions that "no glazed material will withstand heavy abuse from abrasive surfaces, and one's expectations of the shock-proof qualities of glazed ceramic tiles should match the claims of the manufacturer."
Granite has grown increasingly popular at the high end, particularly in the Northeast and Southeast, according to the NKBA. The benefits to this surface are plentiful: It's beautiful and elegant, it adds a note of luxury to any kitchen, it's highly durable and stain resistant and can be used for baking activities without scratching. In addition, its density and non-porous nature make it a naturally "cool" surface, so it can be used to set hot pots on without scorching.
The major downside to granite is the cost; to make it more affordable for consumers, designers may choose to use it as an accent note. In addition, granite is not an ideal surface for cutting, as it can ruin the knives with its hard surface.
Marble, while less popular than tile or granite, can still add a truly unique appearance to the kitchen, while offering a more subtle appearance than the high gloss of granite.
The major problem with marble is that it tends to be highly susceptible to both scratching and staining. "Marble is a porous material, making stains a nuisance, but it also makes them removable with the right techniques," notes Marble From Greece and the Hellenic Board of Foreign Trade.
Stainless steel is seeing increased momentum, with its sleek, commercial look and high heat resistance. However, the NKBA warns that the surface can be quick to scratch and dent, if not used carefully, and can be expensive.
A relatively uncommon surface, concrete is also gaining consumer interest, the NKBA notes. Its natural looking surface is durable and hard to scratch or stain, but it's still hard to come by, and the cost may be prohibitive for many consumers.
Material Advantages Disadvantages
Solid Surfacing: Beautiful, durable, stain-resistant; Relatively costly to
withstands heat; easily repaired manufacture and fabricate
Laminate: Many color/pattern options; needs Can be suspectible to chipping,
little maintenance; cost effective scratching, burning; must be replaced if damaged
Tile Durable; aesthetically pleasing; Grout can get discolored and can be
many design options available unsanitary if food gets caught in it tiles have uneven surface for cutting
Granite Has beautiful, high-end appeal; Relatively expensive, not ideal for cutting durable, scratch and stain resistant; on (can ruin knives)
able to withstand high temperatures
Wood Block Great for 'Country' look; can be High maintenance; can absorb
resanded to get rid of superficial nicks; bacteria if not cleaned properly; can be sealed to make it waterproof; can't be cut on
many choices of wood available
for different looks
Stainless Steel Sleek, high-end appearance; heat Scratches and dents if not used resistant; new technology makes carefully; relatively expensive; can require
it less sensitive to fingerprints constant upkeep
Marble Durable; provides unique, high-end Relatively expensive; can be susceptible
look; comes in many color choices; to scratching, chipping, staining,
offers good creative design potential especially from acidic fruits or wine; requires yearly maintenance
Concrete Great natural looking surface; Can be costly; not readily available
hard to stain or scratch to specifiers
- Thoroughly scuff sand all surfaces to be bonded to prevent bonding failure. Use 40/60 grit sandpaper.
- Use only clean, white, lint-free rags (paper or cloth). Do not use any products containing dyes, as dyes may contaminate seams and joints.
- Clean surfaces with alcohol before applying adhesive to prevent bonding failure.
- Avoid "stress risers," (defined as a notch, gap, offset or sharp inside corner in a solid surfacing assembly). Stress risers weaken the overall assembly, eventually causing cracks in solid surfacing.
- Radius all inside corners to a minimum of 1/2" (13 mm), including the inside corner of the counter, the inside corner of a cutout, the inside corner of a full-height backsplash cut to fit around wall cabinets, and the inside corner of an edge tab coved to fit around a post or cabinet. Rounding all inside corners prevents cracks.
- Do not place seams at inside or outside corners. Seams should be placed at least 3" (76 mm) away from inside and outside corners to prevent cracks.
- Reinforce seams where necessary to prevent cracks.
- Reinforce cooktop cutouts where necessary to prevent cracks.
- Do not use a chisel or block plane to remove cured adhesive squeeze.
- Leave 1/8" (3 mm) for every 10' (3 m) to allow for expansion of
- Use only a router to make cutouts. Do not use jig saws, circular saws or drills to make radiused corners.
- Ease top and bottom edges of cutout 1/8" (3 mm).
- Sand away router chatter.
- Apply heat tape or an appropriate combination of heat tape and
insulated tape to cooktop cutouts to prevent heat
- Install counters on level, plane (flat) surfaces.
- Put appropriate supports beneath overhangs to prevent cracking.
- Use proper supports (perimeter support plus one intermediate longitudinal support strut). Never use solid substructures under a kitchen countertop.
- Use 100% silicon adhesive to bond solid surfacing to dissimilar
materials such as wood, steel, etc.
Solid Surface Market Experiencing Major Growth, Say Experts
Baltimore, MD -
- Barbara Capella Loehr