Fabricators Forum

September 1, 2005
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With the explosion of business in the granite kitchen countertop sector, many issues have come up with regard to fabrication techniques and methods, and they have been addressed at numerous stone fabrication forums. However, there are also many topics with regard to granite countertop installation, and these issues took center stage at a Marble Institute of America-hosted “Fabricator Forum,” during the last edition of StonExpo.

The forum featured a panel of industry veterans that included the following professionals:

• Gasper (G.K.) Naquin, Stone Interiors - Naquin has been in the stone industry for over 30 years, and owns two large-scale fabrication facilities - one in Loxley, AL, doing 50 kitchens per week, and another in South Carolina doing 35 kitchens per week. The firm uses a “high-tech” format in terms of machinery, although all work is finished by hand.

• Chuck Muehlbauer, Technical Director of MIA - Muehlbauer has been in the stone business for 25 years. He is a member of ASTM Dimension Stone Committee C-18, chairs a subcommittee on stone selection and participates in stone testing and evaluating for ASTM.

• Ken Krebs, Tennessee Granite & Marble Co. - Krebs represented the smaller shops without CNC or large-scale equipment. His operation in Nashville, TN, runs 250 to 300 kitchens per year, with $1.5 million in volume. Fabrication is a combination of automated machinery and hand work.

• Jose Rodriguez of Total Design on Marble & Granite - Rodriguez, who is based in Dallas, TX, has been in the business for 14 years. He started his own company in 1993 with four employees and now has 125 workers. His firm fabricates 3,000 jobs per year in a range of sizes.

• Lindell L. Lummer, CTC, Malibu Art Tile & Stone - Lummer started in the ceramic tile trade in 1958, and holds a masonry and tile license in California. He has been working with stone since 1961 and has supervised large-scale work. His company is doing three to five kitchens per week in Southern California, in addition to custom homebuilding. He has also established a firm called Forensic Stone & Tile Investigators.

The event was attended by a large audience of fabricators, the vast majority of whom do their own installations. Many of those in attendance were relatively new to the trade, having six or less years of experience in the stone industry. “This is a new, large emerging industry,” said Naquin, who stressed the need for education and sharing of information as well as attendance at industry trade shows and seminars. “Even if you're working in a large shop today, you likely started in a very small shop. We started with four people at my company, so even if you're in a small shop, you may have the opportunity to be a large shop as you go along.”

The format of the forum allowed members of the audience to present a range of issues, which were then addressed by the panel. The following is a look at some of the topics that were brought up by those in attendance:

We are seeing issues with cabinets not being level prior to installation. The industry standard is 1⁄8 inch within 10 feet, but we're not getting this with a lot of cabinets that we work with. We've been told the best method is to shim, but sometimes I am coming up to an end piece where I have to raise up a 1⁄4-inch gap. Has anybody ever just shaved the top of the cabinetry down a bit if it has a high spot? Is there an alternative to shimming?

Naquin: In that situation, our guys do sometimes plane the top of the cabinets. As an owner of a company, I hate to deal with $100,000 worth of cabinets. I don't like our guys doing it, but it is done on rare occasions. In our company, if it's more than a 1⁄4-inch gap, we contact the owner at the jobsite and tell them that they need to adjust their cabinets or they will have this fault. If it's under 1⁄4 inch, we set it and dry-pack it with Akemi or a polyester resin underneath. Remember, you don't want it to cantilever out where you are tight in one area, but 5 feet away you have a shim. [If that happens,] you can add silicone all day long, but it's still going to be spongy. You have to dry-pack or shim the whole way.

Rodriguez: Our standard is 1⁄4 inch as well.

Krebs: To eliminate the liability of that countertop failing - or your seams popping down the road - is to make sure you reinforce all the way across the plane. If not, you're going to get call-backs on seam failures - or in the worst case, the countertop could break. Be aware to make sure that transition is filled all the way through. Our standard is the same as G.K.'s. If you're approaching 1⁄2 inch [out of level], shut it down and call the homeowner, because ultimately if the countertop fails, it's going to be your fault. And you don't want to have to rebuild the countertop and put it back in there, because that's when you start losing money.

Naquin: Following up on that, there is something called “flat” and something called “level.” I have to try and lay flat with the cabinets. If my cabinets are high in one spot and I have to lift up to them, that means it's going to be too low in other spots. Your cabinets have to be flat; they don't always have to be perfectly level.

What about a corner where you have a Lazy Susan [and there is a resulting lack of support for the countertop]?

Krebs: If you have a deep Lazy Susan or a dead corner, we always bring it to the attention of the builder or homeowner. It's their responsibility to make sure that we have something to set on, because we can't let that floater hang out there without support. If it's a residential replacement job or it's hidden, we keep 2 x 4's on our installation trucks so we can set it on the wall and protect ourselves. My guys are typically not carpenters, but we try to keep enough [lumber] around so that if a situation like that presents itself unknowingly, we have the wood, a little hand saw and some drywall screws to proceed with the job. Then they don't have to stop and run out to Home Depot to buy materials for an hour and a half. Be prepared to deal with those floating corners or Lazy Susans, or the homeowner will end up screaming that their Lazy Susan doesn't spin because the granite is hanging down on the top rack. So you have to be a bit of a cabinet guy as well.

In our market in the Southeast, we're finding that with the growth rate we're seeing, [the cabinet manufacturers] don't know how to handle a lot of the issues that are coming up related to stone countertops as opposed to Formica, laminate or Corian.

Rodriguez: One thing I would like to add, is that prevention of the problem is the best solution. Our template guys go out there with a 6-foot level, and it is their responsibility to make sure that the countertops are within the standards, or they need to tell the builder or the homeowner to fix the problem. Between the time when the templates are taken and the time of the installation, there is plenty of time to fix the problem. Remember, liability is a big issue, and as soon as you start touching that cabinet, it's yours, so don't compromise yourself.

What about the seam over a dishwasher itself?

Lummer: I may be in a unique position here in California, where we work with 2-cm material. We're working over roughtop in California, which we waterproof. But much of the U.S. is working in 3-cm stone, and they are facing problems that I don't see here.

Rodriguez: One solution for that is to have our installers carry small squares or rectangle-shaped pieces of Black Absolute granite. They would be 4 x 4 or 4 x 6 inches. As you know, Black Absolute is a very strong material, and if you had a 2-cm countertop with a dropped edge, we ask our installers to place a piece of Black Absolute underneath to support the middle of the seam. Of course, we always apply a lot of sealer underneath, or a color enhancer that would have a sort of film. That will avoid [problems] moving to the surface of the countertop. But it's very important that you reinforce that seam, because otherwise there is no support there. We do the same thing with 3-cm material, and maybe we place a washer in there. Normally, there is plenty of room underneath to do this type of thing.

Krebs: We use a washer underneath as well. To do this, you take your hand saw and do an angle cut, and then you go in there and notch it. Then you take a steel washer - maybe 1 or 1 1⁄4 inches that has some mass to it - and [adhere] that washer up into the joint. That gives it some more stability. It's similar to rodding an undermount sink. The theory is the same - you're putting something in there at an angle and locking those two pieces in like a jigsaw puzzle.

Naquin: We always avoid the seams over a dishwasher. I don't always agree with what everybody says about seams over a dishwasher, because we use a poly-resin in the joint and it doesn't really fail because of the moisture that comes into it. Where you might get some failure is the vibration from a dishwasher over a period of time. I also don't like cantilevering over a dishwasher; you have to try and put some support in there. But our number one thing is to design away from the dishwasher as best we can. Sometimes with undermount sinks - where you have a long run and you still want to have some “meat” on the other side of the sink - you will actually cantilever over the dishwasher so you don't end up with a 1-inch strip somewhere. But you want to support it underneath. As long as you have it supported in the back and in the front, you should be okay, especially with 3-cm material and even with 2-cm material. In 2-cm stone, the only problem you have is carrying it to the jobsite and fabricating it. Once you install it, you are creating the substrate for it, and it's just as durable as the 3-cm material, so don't get confused. Once you install 2-cm material over a proper substrate, you don't need 1-inch-thick plywood underneath it as long as you install it properly.

We slot every joint, and when you push those pieces together, your poly-resin fills up that slot as a sort of “biscuit.” But everyone needs to use a seam leveler and seam pullers. The number one complaint in our industry is seams, and it shouldn't be that way.

Do you ever find yourself in a situation where you have to pull the seam apart [after adhering the Black Absolute granite supports]?

Rodriguez: If that was the case, you could use a torch to burn the piece of Black Absolute, and then it comes off. You have to be careful, though.

Naquin: I've used a torch for 20 years in the granite industry, but you have to make sure you don't touch the dryrock behind it, because it does inflame. Also make sure you don't have your cleanup guy with denatured alcohol standing there. The second thing is that you should NEVER use a torch around engineered stone because it catches fire. I am not knocking the product, but that's the situation.

Just recently, I used the torch method on a resin-treated piece of Baltic Brown, and we haven't had a problem. The content of resin is much less compared to an engineered stone.

Are you “hard seaming” everything with polyester resin? I worked for a company that used caulk on the joints because there was a problem with cabinets settling in new housing, and I was told that using a hard seam would actually spall the face of the granite.

Naquin: Personally, I have been using a poly-resin for 15 years. We don't use caulk at all. In fact, we consider that to be an inferior job and use it against every one of our competitors that try to do that. I never heard [of a hard seam spalling the face of the granite], and I've been in areas where cabinets are subjected to 98% humidity and 98-degree weather. Then the air conditioning suddenly makes it 40% humidity, and we've had no problems.

Rodriguez: If we know we're doing a joint where there is a possible problem, we may use less hardener, so it will take a longer time to set. When we are installing countertops, our goal is that we [essentially] have one solid piece of granite. After it is installed, it should last forever.

A lot of times, with a dark stone like Ubatuba, you'll get a seam that doesn't look quite right. Is there a proper way to get the nice shine you want?

Rodriguez: If we have that potential problem, we grind the pieces at an angle, and then we grind them straight to make the joints very thin, and on top of that, we don't use steel wool after we're finished. We use marble polishing powder with a rag, and sometimes we add a little bit of wax. Then the luster comes out.

Naquin: Jose is talking about putting a miter there and trimming the back, and you can get a tighter joint with the right look. I've also used a torch to heat it back up, and it will come back to a shine.

We're using a seam puller, and when I am done epoxying, sometimes I can still feel a little bit of the roughness. It's a real tight seam, but you can almost feel what's left of the saw cut. Has anyone taken that edge prior to installation and tried to manipulate it?

Naquin: We call that “blocking” the seam, and we do that with all of our seams. You can take a pad and lightly pass over it. When the saw grinds or cuts through the granite, some materials have more quartz that will fragment off. It has been my experience that when you block a joint, you really are not opening up the seam. If you don't block the joint with a “flaky” stone like Ubatuba, a flowing product will follow the [pattern] of the crystal. So if you block it, you tend to lose that and then you come back and skim the top, and you will have a perfectly straight line. It has been more important to our customers to have a straight seam than to have a much tighter seam. Even though the stone is touching with a tight seam, you might have those fragments. Now, the only time you see that is when you're getting the reflection and glare, but that's the style of homes today.

Rodriguez: Seams have three purposes that have to be considered. Number one has to do with the layout of the kitchen, and you want seams that [restrict] the length of a piece. We don't install pieces over 110 inches, so in case of some drastic movement, the seams will be the only thing that come apart. The second reason has to do with the size of the slabs themselves, and the third reason is aesthetics. We recommend seams where we know the customer is going to be happy. You don't want a customer to come in every morning and stare at [what they feel is] an ugly seam. You know it will be exaggerated in their mind, so you need to put it on the side or in a corner.

Naquin: There is another point here. In our business, we never turn a 90-degree corner, whether we're using a CNC machine, a [portable] router or whatever. We always put a seam there, and we instruct our dealers to sell it that way. The reason for this is that many times, cabinets are going to come off level and shrink. And if you have a 90-degree corner in a single piece - and it goes 50 inches one way and 110 inches another way - it's going to crack in the corner when those cabinets start to shrink even 1⁄4 inch. I can't patch a crack, but I can go back and re-do a seam where it separated from the poly-resin.

Say it's six months after the installation, and the customer says, “All my seams are cracking at the corner.” We can go out there and re-do the seams, and the customer loves us and we go home. But if I go out there and it's cracked in the corner, and I say it's $4,200 to fix, they say we failed.

If the return is only 12 inches, that would be the point where we would typically stop. Anything more would get a seam.

Do you find that your customers prefer to see two seams at the edges of the sink rather than one in the middle?

Naquin: All the time. If there is a seam in the middle of the sink, they're going to be staring down at it every day. You need to explain to the customer that it's not simply the number of seams, or getting the least amount of seams.

The breakage factor in a center seam is much greater than using the two wings. [The countertop] becomes a “tuning fork,” and as you're carrying it, there is much more breakage. Secondly, aesthetically looking at a kitchen, the last thing you want to see is a seam right in the middle. If you put two seams on the outside, they are in your peripheral vision as you look down.

Rodriguez: It is important that you educate your clients to the point that they can say, “OK, you're the professional.”

Naquin: That's a very important point, and this is why you cannot let your client dictate where the seams should be. Because then if a problem occurs, your client is going to be the one who says, “What happened? You're the professional. I didn't know that was going to happen.” So as a professional, you need to sell the granite, but you must also inform the marketplace on what they can expect in a job that will have the least possibility of failing. That is what the MIA is trying to address in different ways, and it can depend on the particulars of a location.

Lummer: None of these homeowners would be arguing with a neurosurgeon, so set yourself up as the professional and say, “This is the way it's done.”

Krebs: It's also okay not to sell a job. As a business owner, I have instructed my salespeople that there are certain jobs and customers you don't want. If you go through the process, and the customer says, “I have a large kitchen and I want granite, but I don't want seams,” you know it can't be that way, and you say, “Maybe granite is not for you.” Otherwise, they're going to have to understand that seams are a part of the job, and if they are adamant to the contrary, it is best to just pack your bags, thank the customer for their time, and walk away from the job. Nine times out of 10, the customer will then realize that you are dead serious about providing them with the best product and quality that can be done - and they'll see it your way. But it's okay to not sell a job rather than get burned on the back end.

I am sometimes finding some inconsistencies in what is happening in the field and what has been documented as the proper way to install a countertop.

Muehlbauer: There are often inconsistencies with what is actually done in the industry versus what has been documented. An industry association looks at what is done in the industry, and we look for proven and reliable methods, and we document them. As the industry changes, and as practices change, the association is one step behind those changes because we wait for things to be proven. Then we make the appropriate revisions. It's no different than Webster's Dictionary. Every year, they take a number of words that come into our language, and they apply definitions to them. Webster doesn't create the words; they look for what is being used and document that usage. Associations do the same thing for means and methods and practices.

Naquin: I am very pleased with the way the MIA is handling everything now, taking into account the practices being used by us as fabricators in the field as the instructional manuals are updated.

Krebs: If you're not an MIA member, you really need to make the investment and join. When I got into the stone business 10 years ago, I didn't even know what a granite countertop was. I came into the industry because of my management ability to turn around a failing company, which I had done three times before. I needed to get up to speed on the stone industry, and I started going to the MIA seminars and learning about the trade.

With the way this industry is changing - with new materials coming into the marketplace and new fabrication and installation techniques - if you want to keep on the cutting edge and protect yourself and your business, you need to get involved and get the documentation you need. The association has a great deal of information that will prevent mistakes in the field. If you save one failed countertop because of something you picked up in the manuals or newsletters - or because you had the ability to consult with Chuck for free as a member - you've gotten your dues back many times over.

When rodding, we started out using 1⁄4-inch stainless steel threaded rods. What should the depth and width of my trench be?

Muehlbauer: From a theoretical standpoint, the epoxy capsulation of the rod should be as small as possible. The more volume of epoxy you have in there, the less effectiveness of that rod. It's not possible in a practical sense, but the ideal would be to put a rectangular rod in that kerf that would have a 10⁄1,000- to 15⁄1,000-inch void all the way around to keep the shear stress out of that epoxy. A threaded rod gives us a lot of advantage in bond because of the threads, but the effective area of that rod is a lot smaller than a smooth rod. So you may not actually see a higher performance. The use of a mildly deformed rod in theory would be the best; something with enough of a matte finish or an abraded finish to give you an epoxy bond. But in the real world, everyone is going to use round rods because they are cheaper. But the kerf you install should fit as tight as practically possible.

Krebs: There is a fairly large steel distributor in our market, and I found my best value to be 1⁄4- x 1⁄4-inch key stock. This is a harder type of steel, and it is very economical to buy in our market. If you find a metal wholesaler in your town, this is something that most metal distributors keep on hand. I am paying around $1.20 per foot. Remember, though, that when you're using a metal product, your guys need to take denatured alcohol and clean all of the oils off it before you get anywhere near the stone. And we haven't had a failure yet.

Naquin: Personally, I use fiberglass in my rodding, and it works. It really is a matter of preference, but as Chuck said, you really need to use as little epoxy as you can.

Regarding transportation, we're using a trailer with an A-frame on it to haul our products to the jobsite. Some of our competition is using a pick-up truck with a frame. What's the best method?

Naquin: A total of 99% of what we bring to the jobsite is out of a pickup truck with an A-frame. Make sure you block your A-frame down in the truck, because I have had some installers come back to our facility with an empty A-frame in the back of the truck and it “happened to fly out.” For large islands in 3-cm jobs, we usually put the A-frame on a trailer because it is more difficult to get that out of a pickup truck than a low trailer, where you can roll it off.

Lummer: We shrink-wrap the material to the A-frame and then strap it to a pickup truck.

Rodriguez: We use pickup trucks, vans and also a truck with a crane, but we try to avoid trailers because they don't have the [stability], especially if you go over railroad tracks or something like that.

Krebs: I've seen a lot of trucks with wooden A-frames, but it's better to spend a few bucks and have steel A-frames built. I had a local steel fabricator make us A-frames out of 2 x 12 pressure-treated material, and it was mounted to wood so we could clamp it off. But in the trailers and pick-ups, your A-frame is exposed to the elements, so they really should be done out of metal and painted so you don't worry about warping. The same applies to the frames in your shop or in your yard.

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