Templating and countertop installation

September 1, 2006
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Q: What templating methods are you finding to be the most effective? Does it depend on machinery in use? On production capacity? How common is the use of digital templating systems? How long is it taking to learn these systems? Are you seeing a return in actual dollars saved or increased profits?

Brian Briggs, Granite Guys, Inc., Ft. Pierce, FL: When I first started in this business in 1991, we used Denny Board for templating. It is a thick thermal sheeting made of cardboard; what a nightmare. We had to duct tape pieces together, and a day or two later [we had to] move the taped piece to where you needed to with the play from the tape stretching. This was extremely frustrating.

We then went to Luan plywood cut into 2 ½-inch strips and full sheets for radius work. This system worked well. The materials were cheap, and you could quickly and accurately template a job. We fought with several companies trying to get them to cut straight sticks for us. I wound up getting frustrated and bought a large table saw from a “Big Box” box store and built a large table around it. Finally, I was able to get straight sticks.

Six months ago, I decided to go with a digital templating system. I wound up going with the LT-55 from Laser Technologies. After templating three jobs, I was in and out of the jobsite in 35 to 40 minutes. This system has been extremely easy to learn and implement into our production. We did have a couple of pieces that had to be trimmed in the field (they were too tight) but that was somewhat intentional. I decided to hold everything tight in the beginning to keep from having pieces too short. Now things are running much smoother. I digitize the templates and create two files in the field:
  1. Raw data - the actual field conditions.
  2. “Plot-able” data - where I have added the overhangs, radii, etc.
I then take digital templates of the jobsite and store it all in one master file. I then go back to the shop and add any notes on the templates in the AllenCAD software that came with my Allen data plotter. In five simple steps, I am printing/plotting my templates.

Our shop utilizes a bridge saw, routers and some excellent employees. We are not in any way a production shop or even high tech. So why did we go with digital templates? Time costs money. I do the templating for my company, and there are not enough hours in the day to template a job or two a day and properly run my company. Today, I left my office at 2:45 in the afternoon, templated two 75-square-foot kitchens and was home before 6:00. I am definitely glad I chose digital.

Mark Lauzon, Stoneworks, Hubbard, OR: We are the opposite of Brian in a way. We run a pretty high-tech operation. We run a Northwood CNC, and soon we will have a Northwood SawJet [combination saw and waterjet]. I am sad to admit that I am somewhat of a ludite when it comes to digital templating. I have looked closely at almost every system out there. When you are running the kind of gear we are, the projects beg to have a digital solution when it comes to templating.

I cannot get past the fact that you have nothing physical to check your stuff against the digital file. We use templates for many purposes that transcend the simple recording of a shape. We use templates to control throughput, for second checks on digitization, to load plans, and finally, we take the templates to the install as a way to check what happened if there is a problem.

We make our templates out of 5/32 Luan strips cut to 3-inch widths, and it works great for us. It is all we have ever used.

I will be taking a close look again at several systems once our SawJet arrives. I currently digitize our stick templates with a 2D digitizer from Template Technologies Inc. It is simple to use and dead accurate.

Ronald Hannah, Charlotte, NC: We have used 2-mm polystyrene sheet for our templates for over 10 years. We have the sheets precut to various widths - 25 ½, 22 ½, 18 and 3 inches.

The product is easily rolled up for transportation, lies flat when placed on the cabinets and is easily trimmed with a razor knife. Using this method allows us to template with tremendous accuracy, thus reducing chance of error.

Like Mark, we like to see a “physical” template - both on the cabinets to check overhangs etc. and on the fabricated pieces for quality control.

From what we have learned, digital systems work great on CNCs, computerized saws, waterjets and SawJets. However, should you have a manual bridge saw, you still need a physical form of transferring information to the slab of stone. Therefore, it seems that unless you are totally computerized, you cannot be totally digital. We have decided to stick with our physical system for the time being.

Jeff Leun, The Stone Haus, Inc., Chattanooga, TN: We use Luan strips as well. We don't have any of the fancy gadgets; just a bridge saw, router and some polishers. Physical templates are a must for us, and unless the templater had a brain lapse, they are never wrong.

I'm not ready to jump on the technology bandwagon just yet. Electronic templates do have their place, and for the right shop, they make sense. I wouldn't call them a requirement as opposed to a bridge saw or polishers, but they do fill a need in the industry.

Luan or polystyrene are just a few of the products used to make physical templates. As far as what system is best, it really depends on the individual shop and the scope of their work.

Mark Meriaux, The Granite Shop, Smyrna, GA: Compared to the responses above, we would probably fit into the “cutting edge” category. We adopted digital templating technology over a year ago. We've been using a photogrammetry system for templating successfully for well over a year.

We started in the stone industry in mid-2002. Since that time, we have watched the machinery technology grow and evolve. We forecasted a future transition into computerized fabrication (CNCs, waterjets, CNC saws, SawJets, etc.) Our projections for growth predicted that we would be adding at least one of these machines in our future. While studying the machinery, we learned that an additional part of the technology “learning curve” would involve the translation of template data into a digital format for manipulation and ultimately, mechanical fabrication.

Our attention then turned to the digital templating. We looked at this as a logical step to adopt before making a much larger equipment purchase. Prior to digital templating, we made physical templates from 0.020-thick polystyrene sheets. We would order that raw material pre-cut to a “standard” countertop depth of 25.5 inches deep, and then we cut and taped pieces together to make the final on-site templates. That material worked well for us, but we thought that our time spent in the field making templates was too much.

When we reviewed the digital systems available in 2004, we chose the ETemplate Photo System. This technology is generically referred to as photogrammetry. It uses a series of targets placed on and around the area to be measured, and then a series of photographs is taken of the area. A software program analyzes the set of photographs and calculates distances between the “targets” in the photos. Using CAD software, a simple “connect-the-dots” style of drawing is used as the basis to create the templates. After the finish details are added (sinks, cutouts and other details), the finished template is plotted on a translucent vinyl sheet for use in the shop. This method of templating has not equated to an enormous savings in overall time, but it has moved our productivity back into the shop environment where we frequently can multitask with other shop activities.

In addition to the “targets,” any visible point in the photographs can be used as a point of measurement. Have you ever been on a template with a customer constantly talking to (distracting) you while you are trying to record all of the necessary template information? Ever forgotten a centerline, or any other critical dimension? One major advantage of the photo system is the ability to determine significant points like these solely from the photos. This feature has saved us from return trips many times over. In addition, the photos can be used to convey jobsite information to installers before they even go to the jobsite. We have found this system to be very accurate - especially on odd angles and shapes. Additionally, with ETemplate, we can “project” a finalized design back onto the photographs for customer review and/or approval of the design(s).

Michael Shane, Stockbridge, GA: We have a bridge saw, portable routers, air polishers and a CNC, which has a laser digitizing system with it. We make our stick templates and place them on the CNC, insert the laser probe and it will generate a DXF file using points. We were able to use this system for a year or so, but it then began to cost us machining time that we needed. So, we began our search for the next best way for us.

We settled on a large digitizing board, and it has been working fine for us.

Although I like the idea of the photogrammetry more than the other technologies, we still use a bridge saw that is manually operated, and our operator needs a physical template. All of the digital systems solve this by plotting the template to vinyl. I can see problems happening at this stage that won't be known until it's too late. For example, the vinyl could run out of square. Saying this, I have been able to convince myself that the digital systems out there are more than accurate enough in gathering data points.

Upfront cost is another factor in all digital templating systems currently available. All of the digital systems are more expensive short term compared to manual methods.

A digital templating system will need to be purchased with a waterjet/saw that is computer controlled. At that level of automation, a digital system makes complete sense to me.

What I asked myself is “How much volume is needed to justify those purchases?” and “Do I, as a small business owner, want to go into those waters?” Only time will tell. Until we have complete automation, we'll “stick” with it.

Donny Taylor, Albany, GA: When I first got into the business, we used full sheets of Luan. We would trace the cabinets and add overhang, then cut to size. It was a major waste of material and loss of time, and we had warpage issues. Then I joined another company, and used the strip method. That system works very well. The only down side is that if you forget to trim the strips flush at the back, the CNC guy picks the points wrong. Then the part ends up too tight.

As a new system to us, we now use Templast corrugated plastic sheet. It is less expensive than Luan, and faster to use in the field. You simply cut 4- x 8-foot sheets to 25 ¼ inches and 22 ½ inches on the bridge saw. You can cut down 10 sheets at a time and have both vanity size and kitchen counter size.

I find that system to be the fastest I've used yet. The templates can then go out in the field and be used as protection for the counters.

Steven Hauser, CIRCA, Inc., Greenville, SC: If we switch to a fully programmable shop format again, we will use the digitizing template system. We resist that change right now, and we do not have new people templating for us. We have the same guys in the shop as well. We don't hire new people to do this work; they only start after being around a few years. Thus, for us, it's a matter of what's quick and easy.

We use a two-part system.
  1. Shop drawings executed by the template crews.
  2. ECT 25.5 x 96 cardboard. (For complicated lamination jobs, we use marine grade or AC plywood.)
That's it; a pretty cheap system, but, as a lot of my friends know, I won't spend it if I don't have to.

Matt Lansing, Stone Innovations, Inc., Plover, WI: When we first started out, we did the majority of our templating using ¼-inch Luan sheets cut to 24-inch strips. We would cut the seams to size, write on the templates what to add for the overhangs, and jot any other notes down on the solid sheets. This was fine for templating a job here and there.

But when we starting doing a higher volume, we switched to using 3-inch strips of Luan and hot glue. We got much more yield from a sheet of Luan, which was getting more and more expensive, plus it is much easier and faster. The only problem is experimenting with different hot glues - trying to find one that bonds well, won't come apart laying in the back of a pickup in the sun, and doesn't smoke too much or run all over the cabinet. Also getting the sticks cut straight has been a challenge for some of my templaters.

About a year and a half ago, we purchased a digital templating system to coincide with our purchase of a CNC saw. We figured that it would be an easy transition from the house straight to the shop, with minimal work in the production planning office.

What we found out was that it actually shifted too much of the work being done in the field into the office. Now don't get me wrong; I am sure that if we stuck with it and used it for more than the month that we ran with it, we may have gotten the time to equal out. But, when you were talking about templating four to six kitchens a day, it was taking my production supervisor too many hours to determine what point it was that the templater shot, add overhangs, input sinks and all the other jazz that goes with it.

The templaters were coming back from their days very early and my high-cost production supervisor was having to put in too much overtime. It didn't make sense for us. We can digitize in stick templates in a matter of minutes, use the templates in the shop as a reference, and send the templates back to the install when needed.

Now on large commercial jobs, the digital templating has been a godsend. I have used it on a number of projects that would have taken forever to stick template - curved walls, curved countertops, long runs that aren't perfectly straight, etc.

I have also used it to shoot areas that I then sent to the cabinet companies to help do their layouts. Then they send me back what they are going to make for cabinets, and we make countertops to fit. There is very little change over time for a customer and guaranteed accurate countertops.

I have talked to other fabrication companies that had come up with the same conclusion that we did regarding digital templating. Once I am able to spend more time training my templaters on running AutoCAD, I can send them out in the field with a laptop where they can do a complete and finished drawing, adding in the corner radiuses, detailing the drawing to reflect that cabinet style that requires the ¼-inch notch and 5/8-inch drywall radius so that it comes back to the shop ready for production. Until I get to that point, though, we will stick with sticks.

Q: What about out-of-level cabinets? What is acceptable? How do you offset this problem? Is it OK to be out of level as long as the cabinets are flat?

Steven Hauser, CIRCA, Inc., Greenville, SC: Let me first say that with an old house, it would be unwise to work to level. Working to flat will keep whatever settlement the whole structure has seen from being viewed as a flaw. Now with regard to the cabinets, sometimes the template people will miss this. Or as in our case, they will not get the paperwork they carry signed by the homeowners.

Here is our story: We recently worked in a house that was built in 1900. The cabinets were out of level; the room was out of square; and the template individual explained to the owner what needed to be done, but he did not create any paperwork.

When we got there to install, nothing had changed and the consumer stated that he knew the problems, but thought we were going to fix them as a part of our services. We did that, but it turned a three-hour install into a 12-hour install. We, as a company, would have normally charged over $500 for this, but did not only because I felt like our lines of communications failed, even though I also feel we got taken advantage of.

Donny Taylor, Albany, GA: I agree with Steven. We rarely use a level. In my opinion, the best installation is flat, on one plane - not necessarily level. If you have backsplashes, use them for straight edges. Lay the splashes in place, and shim to adjust for no gap between the splash and deck. Also, an extra splash can be used on L shapes to check the plane of the opposing (perpendicular) run of cabinets.

Now with that being said, I try to look for major problems at the time of template. If the cabinets are out of plane by more than 1/4 inch, then they must be adjusted prior to installation of the tops.

Kevin Padden, AZ Stone Consulting, Pinal County, AZ: In many states (and most courts of law) the rule of “you installed on it - you bought it” is the norm. Just because we install on something that's “flat” does not mean that we are “off the hook.”

Unfortunately, these days - unless we get three angle photos, three signatures from the owner, owner's wife and owner's favorite dog, we still aren't sure if we are covered for possible future repercussions from installing a top that's “flat” but not “level.”

If you're not sure, don't stick the tops. Get a waiver signed by everyone involved on the job. Don't be afraid to stand your ground, because in the end, if you don't CYA (cover your assets), you're the one that's going to pay.

In my opinion, I think it's better to go “level.” This way, you're not having to defend a top that you set “flat” - but everything rolls off the edges because it's out of level.

Donny Taylor, Albany, GA: When I say flat and not necessarily level, I mean within a ¼ inch in 10 feet.

Joe Percoco, Percoco Marble and Tile, Denver, CO: I agree with Kevin; it is our job to install every piece of stone as flat, level or plumb as we can. If the foundation of the house is off, that is not an excuse for our finished plane to be off. If the cabinets are that far off and are new, we insist the cabinet installer correct them. This costs us for lost time, and it is in our contract that there is a $250 return trip charge, but we rarely enforce it. If it is old, existing cabinets that are whacked out, we shim to level and flat and sometimes need to use plaster for solid spots. The gap can then be covered with scribe mold.

Steven Hauser, CIRCA, Inc., Greenville, SC: Joe and Kevin, I think you misconstrue what I advise. In all the homes we work in, we do get the counters flat. There won't be anything sliding off the counters.

The reality is this: Nothing is perfectly level. You try and debate that on the jobsite, and I'll buy popcorn and watch. You'll see several different types of levels, different sizes and different starting points. You can get it within a tolerance.

If someone doesn't get the counters flat, they have poor seams. We don't ever have poor seams…period.

Some guys only work with shims. We don't; we will belt sand, sawzall and shim. We take cabinets loose and reset them, we shim from the floor and add quarter round. Trust me, the counter is flat, but part of the art is not making it look askew with the surrounding walls and cabinets. It usually will involve more than what a consumer's $500 will buy.

Jeff Leun, The Stone Haus, Inc., Chattanooga, TN: If the cabinets are newly installed, we require them to be within 1/4 inch in 10 feet for us to set, and we will shim to level. If it's beyond what we're willing to do, we leave and return when they are fixed. All issues with cabinets are dealt with at time of templating. If it's over existing cabinets and tops need to be removed, there is a discussion with the homeowner on what to expect. What if the cabinets need adjusting? Is it major? How much will it cost them?

We do a ton of remodeling in my area in homes from the 1920s and 30s. Quite a few of these homes have built-in cabinets. In other words, they were built in place, on the fly. There is no way to shim the cabinets to fix. You have to completely dismantle it, and you'd be building a new set on site, which is not going to happen. Jacking a rock ¾ to 1 inch in the air to make it level is also not happening. I refuse to do it, and they can hire a cabinet guy if they wish. Some have gotten quotes for over $1,000 just to get them right. If you adjust the bottoms, you'll most certainly be working the upper nine out of 10. Quite often, they refuse and will settle for flat and close. We always make sure the top is level front to back; lengthwise is the issue.

The reality is this: Do I as a fabricator refuse the job, or as a businessman, do I offer an option to the consumer? I'm in no way advocating throwing tops in out of level, but I am saying that some situations demand it.

We've become accustomed to dealing with this and make all parties aware of what's wrong, whether it can be fixed, and most importantly, if it is worth it. We strive for level, but sometimes “perfection” is a concept and not a reality. In these situations, we'll shim to what we feel comfortable doing with that particular stone. Does that make me a hack? Does it mean I didn't give it my best? No, in my humble opinion. Sometimes we're stuck with what we have to work with.

Brian Briggs, Granite Guys, Inc., Ft. Pierce, FL: We try to set as level as possible. If the cabinets are out 1/4 inch from end to end, we will set them level and caulk the cabinets using a caulk that matches the cabinets. If they are out more than that, we give the homeowner or contractor an option. We will either properly set their cabinets shimming from the floor, or we will make a return trip. Neither option is free.

Many times we deal with drop-in cooktops. If that countertop run is not set level, the homeowner is sure to call when they go to cook a couple of eggs. We had an install a few years back where the cabinet installer (term used rather loosely) had to re-install the cabinets three times and still did not get it right. I finally got fed up, unscrewed the boxes, and set the cabinets for them.

As many of the people reading this will agree, we do not have the time in our schedules to come back. So if it means we can get it done by grabbing the screw gun and some shims, so be it. But, someone is going to see a back charge.

Ronald Hannah, Charlotte, NC: Just this past week we had this situation with a 117-inch cooktop run out of level 1 inch from left to right. (Yes, that is 1 inch.) Typically, during templating, we throw a level on the cabinets to verify level and also flatness. If there is a variance of more than 1/4 inch, we ask for the cabinet installation to be adjusted. As has been said by others, we install “to the house” - meaning as level as possible while achieving dead flat. Believe it or not, if you install the countertops dead level, on out-of-level cabinets, the countertops can look tremendously out of whack.

You have to achieve the happy medium where it all looks right. Although, as Mr. Briggs pointed out, the cooktop area is one that must be level.

We, as fabricators/installers, are responsible for ensuring that the cabinets we install upon are stable and structurally sound. That does not necessarily mean we are responsible for the work, but we are responsible for verifying that the surface is capable of supporting the load and is adjusted within our needs. Again, as Brian said, it is usually quicker and less expensive for us to rectify problem situations ourselves.

Our mantra is this: “Get in, get out, get paid.” Return once=break even; Return twice=lose money.

Q: How do you make your seams look good? What products are you using? Are you roughing up the edges before applying adhesive? How much effort does it take to learn how to surface polish the finished seam?

Brian Briggs, Granite Guys, Inc., Ft. Pierce, FL: We back cut our seams up to the first inch, and then we cut a groove in both pieces. We install the tops and level the seams out using Gorilla Grip [pneumatic clamps]. We spread them apart and butter the pieces with a color-matched polyester resin, and we try to keep the glue towards the bottom of the seam so that it does not squeeze out to the top. We then pull the pieces together. Once the glue has kicked, we remove the Gorilla Grips and top coat the seam. If the customer has paid for the upgrade, we top polish the seams.

Ronald Hannah, Charlotte, NC: This is a great question, as consumers generally differentiate a good fabrication/install from a bad one based upon the seams. We are constantly trying to find better and faster ways to improve our seams. There are two developments that have really helped us evolve in this area in the last year; the acquisition of a Gorilla Grip seam setter, and joining up with the Stone Fabricators Alliance.

We now carry out our seams using a “hybrid” procedure created from information gathered through conversations and posts on www.stoneadvice.com with several SFA members. We back cut our seams about 2 degrees and cut “biscuit” pockets into the opposing faces in three places. We level the countertops as best possible and then use the Integra Adhesive system to fill the pockets and lower half of the stone. The Gorilla Grip is then used to fine tune the level, take out any bowing and create flat/tight seams. Once the Integra has kicked off, we remove the Gorilla Grips, trim off any excess adhesive and top dress the seam with CA Glue.

Like Granite Guys, we offer an optional premium seam using the SFA top polishing procedure.

Donny Taylor, Albany, GA: We run our seams on the CNC with “Z” diamonds for true, chip-free cuts. Then at install, we back-bevel a small amount to ensure a tight fit at the top. The Gorilla Grips are used in conjunction with the color-matched Integra acrylic adhesives as Ron stated above. Then, we clean off the excess and apply a top-coat of CA or polyester, tinted to a perfect match.

The most common seam in our shop is the Euro-miter, or lock joint (sometimes referred to as a check joint.) The Euro-miter is done on the CNC as well. The idea behind this seam is to distract the eye from following a straight line at a corner. It starts as a 45-degree miter, then runs back at 90 degrees. The eye wants to see either a miter or a straight butt seam. This is both, so it confuses the eye, and the seam disappears.

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