At the “Countertop Fabrication Forum” during StonExpo 2005 in Las Vegas, NV, participants posed their questions to a panel of industry experts as well as the audience as a whole. The forum focused on a range of countertop fabrication and installation issues.

This lively “Countertop Fabricator Forum,” which took place at StonExpo 2005 in Las Vegas, NV, addressed a broad range of the issues facing the industry - both in the shop and in the field.

Over the past few years, education sessions at events such as StonExpo have begun to include open “Forums,” where participants can pose their questions to a panel of industry experts as well as the audience as a whole. StonExpo 2005 in Las Vegas, NV, included the “Countertop Fabrication Forum,” with speakers Kevin Padden of the Marble Institute of America, Mark Blanda of Stone Interiors and Robert Smith of Great Lakes Granite & Marble. The forum - which was a lively question-and-answer session on countertop fabrication and installation issues - was moderated by Stone World Editor Michael Reis. The following is a synopsis of that session:

When you're managing a large facility with a lot of people, how do you generate excitement in your employees every day? How do you keep them focused on wanting to do a good job every day?

Blanda:There is no simple answer to this question. I think the only way to retain your employees is to give them a decent salary and to keep them happy when they come to work. We try and do little things throughout the year. We'll have pizza parties or barbecue and fish fries or other things just to try and keep them involved. We have programs where we offer incentives or certain dollar values for just coming in on time. It seems very simple, but we were hitting a spot where people were coming in late, and so we set up a program where anyone who punched in on time would have their name go into a hat at the end of the month, and they could win a couple hundred bucks. It got to be quite a competition. Unfortunately, once someone came in late, that person wouldn't care anymore for the rest of the month, but it did work well.

I am new to the industry, and I have talked to people about overtime issues. My background was distribution, and we had zero overtime. Is overtime a necessary evil in the stone fabrication business, and if so, what is the average?

Blanda:We work overtime, but sometimes it is not just adding overtime or even extra people. Sometimes adding equipment will take the place of adding manpower. We work over a wide area, and there is a lot of time on the road, so typically our installers are getting more overtime than our production employees. But as we got to the point of increasing overtime, we went to another shift. That's another aspect to look into. But you need qualified people that you can trust. Running a night shift is very difficult to manage, and you've got to have the right personnel there.

Editor's note: Some other comments were offered by audience members, and they were as follows:

  • “The downside to working overtime is that the quality can go down, so we try to plan for everything in advance. We give a goal for the week, and we say, 'OK, the goal is X amount, and if you reach that amount in 33 hours, you still get paid for 40.' We do the same thing with our overtime. We look at the production for the week and say, for example, 'This week's production pays 54 hours, and we pay to that figure.' It has been very successful for us.”
  • “The biggest issue with overtime for us was keeping on schedule, and we ended up adding one day to our schedule every two weeks. That allowed us to bump the schedule a bit if we needed to, and it gave us a cushion. And if we ran into an installation that ran over for some reason, we still had a day available. This helped us with our overtime.

Padden:A lot of shops are also looking into forecasting tools that allow a shop to look ahead and say, “OK, we're going to have a spike next month.” Once you're up to five or 10 people in your shop, you really need a production schedule that gives you the ability to forecast what is coming next.

As far as a second shift, it really should be a skeleton crew in its first conception. You have one guy to run the saw, one guy who is responsible as an overseer, a fabricator and a gopher. That's it; four or five tops for the initial starting point of a second shift. And you need someone you can trust in the evening hours, because you as a business owner or manager don't want to have to go out there at 10 p.m. each night to make sure everything is getting locked up. But maybe a couple of times each week, you're going to have to pop in unexpectedly. The last thing you want is complacency, and you're thinking a job is being done by the second shift, but you come in the next day, and it isn't done. So you need to do these pop inspections, but never do them on a routine schedule. Pick out times that they don't expect you to show up, and they'll always know that the boss can be there at any time.

The forum's expert panel included (from left) Kevin Padden of the Marble Institute of America, Mark Blanda of Stone Interiors and Robert Smith of Great Lakes Granite & Marble. It was moderated by Stone World Editor Michael Reis.

What about resin-treated countertops? How are people dealing with the problems associated with darker colors, or with finishing the edges? They are sometimes turning out lighter than the surface. We have had problems with stones like Juparana Tobacco ending up dark on the top, but light on the sides. We have found success with a product called Tenax “Ager” on the sides, and then we just use a blowtorch to clean up the edge and add a layer of wax. This seems to work perfectly.

Padden:When you use a mix of different products from different manufacturers, you may be getting call-backs a year or a year and a half from now. Also, you need to be educating your customers that the slabs are resined. You need to tell them what they need to know about the product, and how it can make the edge lighter or affect the color.

There is also a method for matching that edge that takes a little more time. You take the edge down to a hone, pull it out of production, dry it out and then put the Ager on it. Then you put it back in production and do your finishing. For a lot of stones, this takes care of all the problems. Unfortunately, a lot of this is going to be trial and error. I want to work on a quick reference list of stones that fall into the various categories. Then you can say, “OK, this is one of the stones that you have to take to a hone, then pull it off and let it dry and put the Ager on.” That gives your estimating department the ability to account for this, and perhaps get money for the extra time that is needed.

A lot of shops are finding that they can eliminate problems after the fact by explaining the facts to the customer. They are preparing the customer for exactly what they are getting. Then the customer isn't shocked by anything. If you take the time to explain, for example, that the slab is naturally pitted and the resin treatment fixes this, they will understand better.

Blanda: Educating the customer gives them enough information that you can meet their expectations. But if you don't know, you'll never meet their expectations. As far as the top of resin slabs goes, you need to know how and why it is done. It is also useful to know what the original resin treatment was. There may be a program in place for the original slab producers to use stickers that list Tenax or the other resin products being used. This gives you a starting point in solving potential problems.

For darkening the edge, people have reported success with Tenax Ager or Aqua Mix Enrich & Seal.

Padden: I predict that within the next five to 10 years, that kind of information will be available for all slabs. Maybe it will be sooner if we place more pressure on the slab producers. As a fabricator, I certainly would want to know what type of product was used on the stone. Was it polyester or epoxy? We're seeing people who have always used epoxy for their laminates have problems with the epoxy not sticking. This is happening because the slab was originally resined with polyester, and this doesn't mix with the epoxy.

Wouldn't it be easier to just stand the slab up on its edge and resin the finished edge?

Padden:The problem with that is that you don't know what type of resin was used. There are little or no slab suppliers saying, “This stone has this particular resin with this particular pigment?” I am hoping that will happen some day. Tenax has done some of that.

Blanda: Also, you might be able to do that with a flat polished edge, but you're not going to be able to soak a bullnosed edge. The problem is that you'll never get the level of absorption of the resin that they got at the factory. They use a vacuum system to penetrate the resin.

Is it right to tell the customer that the water absorption rate would be less with a resined slab?

Smith:I think that would be OK.

Padden: Still, I think you want to always prepare your customer for the worst case scenario. So it would be conscientious of you as a fabricator to say to your customer, “Even though this has been resined, and it is dense and resistant to staining as much as possible, you shouldn't take a piece of pepperoni pizza and throw it upside down on the countertop and leave it overnight.”

Blanda: A recommendation [at another StonExpo seminar on resin-treated slabs] was that it still needed to be sealed. It definitely does reduce the absorptive properties, but there will always be pinholes. During the [resin application] process, the slab producers first hone the material, and then they apply the resin. Then they do the final polish. So there are some small pinholes that remain.

What do you do with lippage at the seams? Do you ever polish the seam in place?

Blanda:You need to use a seam puller or a seam leveler to get it as tight as you possibly can. Some countertops are obviously more difficult to deal with than others. We will try to get it as level as we can, and maybe clamp it in the back to get it together and then pull the seam puller to the front to make it work.

Our company does not polish the seams in place. I know there are companies out there that do this, though. That is a tremendous undertaking on the jobsite.

What are the advantages of silicone versus epoxy at the seams?

Padden:In 1985, all I did was silicone seams because I didn't have the polyester and epoxy glues available to me as an installer. But as times progressed, I don't think I've done a seam in silicone since 1990. Polyester sets up fast; it's easy to work with; and you can color it like an epoxy. The epoxy is going to give you a lot more grab, but it's going to take a lot longer to set up on the install. Just by a show of hands here, we see that there are only a dozen or so people here using silicone, and the rest is using polyester. Polyester clearly wins.

As for laminations, if you're laminating granite, you use epoxy. Anything else, like marble and limestone, is polyester. That's the rule that I was taught, and it has always worked for me.

As for application, you need to prepare properly. If you simply take two pieces of stone and slather polyester or epoxy into the seam, you're going to get lateral or vertical movement because you didn't provide any type of mechanical anchoring. A lot of shops grind in biscuit holes on either side, and they fill that biscuit with polyester. Or they will literally take a metal washer and slot that in. For me, I'd rather just let the polyester become the mechanical anchoring once it dries. When you take that extra time, it eliminates call-backs because you have some type of mechanical anchor that is holding the two stones down.

Blanda: We haven't had a silicone seam in quite awhile. The only footnote to that is if you truly believe you're going to get a lot of movement, we'll use silicone.

We traditionally only do biscuits when we have smaller pieces. We do around 2,000 jobs a year, and occasionally there is a lot of flex and we need that additional support, but we have not run into big problems with seam failure.

Padden: As a professional, when you get called out to look at jobs where the seam failed, take a note and examine if the [stone at the] seam is smooth or roughed up. Are X's cut into them? Are slots cut into them to create mechanical adhesion?

Do you “bed” the seams? I mean, do you also include some adhesive underneath the stone?

Smith:No, we make sure the epoxy goes the entire depth of the stone, but there is no epoxy underneath.

Padden: The thickness of the stone also comes into play here. If it is a 3-cm application with no underlayment, obviously you're not going to have anyplace to glue underneath. But for those of you working in 2-cm stone with laminated edges and a plywood subtop, that gives you perfect opportunity to give your seam a third reason not to fail. If you also biscuit and rough up your seams, you've got the mechanical anchor, you've got the chemical anchor, and you've also got it anchored to the plywood. And in those cases, I've very rarely seen seam failures. And in Arizona, where I'm from, the majority of what we do is 2-cm with laminated edges and plywood subtops.

The problems come when people barely do anything with the seams, and maybe they mix the glue “hot” - where they use extra hardener so it sets up faster, like they would on a Friday afternoon when they want to get out of there. The trade-off to that is that using more hardener in the glue hurts the bond strength. If you ask anyone who sells glues, they would agree with me. The more hardener; the lower the bond strength is.

But if you biscuit and you rough up the edges and do it right, you'll have a lot more happy customers that will turn into salespeople for you - and you don't have to pay them commission, either.

How do you make the seam look nice using polyester?

Smith:Before we pull our seam together, we try to knock off any chipping that will be there.

Padden: I would recommend preparing the customer for the way the finished seams will look. Then you won't have objections. A lot of shops will make a sample that shows the seam in a worst case scenario. They may make them a little bit more wide than normal, and they'll show the distortion in the reflection. You could also take smaller pieces of stone and make a sort of “hand-held” seam that you send out with the salespeople. Then the customers can run their hand over it and you can say, “This is a seam. This is what your countertop will have. Are you OK with that?” The last thing you want is a person who had Corian moving to granite, and they are expecting not to see the seams at all.

People are visual, and they concentrate on what is pretty. So you have to think in their mindset and show them what to expect.

What do you recommend doing to the seams when the workpiece comes off the saw?

Blanda:A lot of the saw blades right now will probably give you an edge that is too smooth. We'll go through and rough it up during the fabricating process to give it a little more bite. Generally, we'll take another piece of stone to knock off some of that arris, but otherwise we don't like to touch it.

Padden: Depending on the saw, a lot of people also see some chipping at the seams, so if you are good at grinding stone, you can literally grind it back 1 mm or so to get some of that chipping to go away.

I am getting requests by my customers to surface polish at the seams. Would you say it is an industry policy to surface polish at the seams?

Blanda:I would say no.

Smith: I don't really get into that.

Padden: I would also say no. As far as surface polishing the seams, there are some people that have developed a nice business polishing seams. If you are one of them, I say, “God bless you. You've developed a technique and created a niche, and you've found a way to make some money based on what people don't like.” But is it something that everybody ought to try? Absolutely not. I am personally scared to death of surface polishing the seam, and once you damage the top layer of resin, now you have another problem. I want the seam to look pretty, but I'd rather spend my time making sure the customer knows that they're going to see the seam.

Editor's Note: One audience member added the following note:

  • “Our company has been seam polishing for the last eight months. We were trained by Mark Lauzon, and we have been getting a perfectly level seam with no haze and no swirl marks at all. It has been really unbelievable, and we've never had a complaint.”

What adhesives are people using? What about shimming as opposed to using screws?

Blanda:We use 100% silicone [as an adhesive].

Padden: People use silicone, latex caulk and Liquid Nails as an adhesive. Believe it or not, Liquid Nails has a new water-based formulation that will take care of it as well. Silicone is not the only way. Although, if you read the Liquid Nails tube it says that is it not for the express purpose of installing stone. But I know companies that use it and have had no problems at all. There is also a “Marble and Granite Liquid Nails” product. Ten years ago, Liquid Nails was solvent based, and you don't want to use that, or you will darken some spots.

A lot of people are also using latex caulk, and there is also a benefit to that. If they get a call-back, and they have to pop off that top, the latex will make it much easier to remove as opposed to silicone.

We do about 4,000 to 5,000 square feet per month at our shop. A total of 60% is residential, and 40% is commercial. We track the costs of labor versus square feet, and we do the same with our tool costs. We also try to use a set figure on products that we sell every day. Is this basically how everyone else determines their costs?

Padden:There are a lot of different ways to determine costs, and maybe half of the fabricators out there right now don't have a real defined way of assigning costs to what they're doing. That's a shame because if you're going to grow, you have to know what your costs are. You need to have a job costing program in place, and there are a number of them out there. You can even do it yourself on an Excel spread sheet. But you need to find a way to analyze every single step of what fabrication takes - from how long it takes the guys to offload the slabs to how long it takes to do the maintenance on the machines.

Blanda: You absolutely have to know what your costs are. Just because you have money in the bank doesn't mean you're making money.

Our shop has a CNC machine, which we're using for all of our edgework. Would an additional machine specifically for edging be of help to my shop?

Blanda:I think you have to ask yourself what the primary function of your business is. If you're doing straight run residential work, you should get yourself a straight line machine. That is the workhorse of your production facility; a machine to crank out the straight runs. If you're doing a lot of work that is shaped or complex edges, then you need a CNC for that type of work. But you need to look at how your shop is laid out; you need to concentrate on the flow of the workpieces. You need to gear up for a production facility where you have material coming into one side, and finished goods are going out the other. It is important to analyze all of the pitfalls and stopping points that your projects are going through and to focus in on what is causing delays. If you're doing more than 10 kitchens per week, you're going to need to get an edge machine.

Padden: There are a lot of people in the same boat. What do you do when you're growing? Do you get a line machine, or do you keep edging by hand? Remember, a line edge machine of any type - either a single-head or a multi-head - is going to give your shop more horsepower. It's going to give you the ability to get more lineal footage of edges polished that don't necessarily have to be done by hand.

But there are a lot of variables that determine what is right for a specific company. What might be right for one company may not be right for the next guy. One thing to consider is getting some consultation. A number of the machine companies have people who can work with you, and at the Marble Institute of America, we have a number of consulting arms available. It is important to make friends with the people in your industry to get the answers to questions like this, and to see what others in your position are doing.

We do about 10 kitchens per week right now, and we are working really hard to make sure everything goes right. But we have had some problems with cracking after installation. It doesn't happen very often, but it is a probem.

Padden:You need to define “cracking.” Is it from a 400-pound person standing on top of the counter saying, “This shouldn't break?” Did someone drop an engine block on the counter? Or is it a fissure in the stone that opened on the job?

Again, the key here is to prepare your customers. A lot of people have disclaimer language in their contracts that explain that they can't [abuse] the overhang and expect it to stay the way it is.

Also, I see a lot of fissures; natural cracks from when the stone was formed. There's nothing you can do to make the stone fuse back to itself because it has been there when it was formed; it was there when the block was cut into slabs; and it will still be there once it is installed in the home. That fissure may open up, and you can come in and glue it back together and resurface the stone, but you have to explain that the fissure is there, and once the stone is installed, it is theirs to deal with.

A lot of companies are moving in this direction. People have to take responsibility for what they are putting in their home, and it is our responsibility to help them make a good choice.

Stones like this are generally a gneiss or a schist as opposed to a true granite. There is a lot of debate over that issue right now. Fabricators are getting into hot water over stones that have fissures in them. A prime example is a stone that is popular in the West called Jurassic Gold, which is a gneiss and not a true granite. It has granite-like qualities, but it has fissures as well. Obviously, stones like Black Galaxy and Absolute Black won't generally have these problems. There are exceptions, but generally, a true granite will not have these problems.

As a professional, when you are looking at a stone with your customer, you need to understand that they are only seeing “pretty,” while you should be looking for resining and fissures in the slab. And if you see a fissure, you need to tell your customer exactly what a fissure is and that it could open up. You need to explain that if this happens, you can fix it, but you're not going to start over.\

Blanda: You're going to have to handle things like that on a case-by-case basis. If this is somebody that you expect future work from, as opposed to a one-time customer, you have to weigh that and how it will affect future sales.

How many people are doing rodding on a regular basis, and what are they doing?

Padden:Based on a show of hands in this room, most people are rodding. Rodding is cheap insurance. If you're a fabricator, you should be rodding the long pieces and absolutely at the sink opening.

This is true for both 2-cm and 3-cm granite. I'd rather be safe than sorry. I'd rather rod and sleep well at night. As a fabricator, you're in the business to do new work; not to go back and re-do what we already did.

Are you finding the need for stainless steel rods, or is it protected enough from water that you don't have to worry?

Blanda:We aren't using stainless steel; we're using galvanized rods. We've done some testing on the strength of rods, and the fiberglass is getting a better bond with the polyester than steel. The downside is that it is a very expensive material.

Padden: For me, I'd rather use stainless steel. I don't want to have to worry about call-backs. Also, you don't have to rough it up.

What about something like backlit onyx that is 2 cm?

Padden:Onyx is a wonderful stone, but you also have to think pragmatically. When you have backlit onyx, anything that comes in contact with it is going to show up as a shadow or a spot. You may have to explain to the customer that this can be a problem, but it can work. About a year ago, I was involved with a concierge desk project in onyx that had both front and rear access. They had a steel substructure with lexan, and they laid in a light directly underneath the stone. It turned out very nicely.

Another tidbit on onyx. It can shatter. If you store it outside in the sun and it gets very warm, you need to let it cool down in the shop before you place it on the saw bed.

One of the biggest problems we have had lately is with exterior barbecues. The seams are expanding and contracting, and they ultimately pop or crack.

Blanda:Most of the barbecues we are doing are covered enough that they are not overexposed to the weather. But it is possible that you may need to build a little more tolerance around an outdoor grill.

How long do most people guarantee any project? We are getting call-backs on jobs we installed two years ago, and we still feel obligated to go back there and fix it.

Blanda:We normally warranty our tops for a year after installation. If they call us back after that period and we're in the area, typically there won't be a charge. But it depends on the situation. If you have a broken piece, that's a different story. But if it's a seam that opened, we can fix it pretty easily right from the truck.

Most states have laws that require construction to be warranted for a certain period of time.

We have had problems with thermal shock and expansion, where even materials like Black Galaxy granite have broken. What can you do about this?

Padden:In that case, chances are the stone got heated up and then was hit with something cold. For those of us with experience in the tile industry, we know all about expansion joints, and you can see the same thing with countertops. If a stone is heated, it will expand, and if you don't give it anywhere to move, you're going to get shearing somewhere.

What is the best method for doing an undermount sink cut-out without automation?

Blanda:This really depends on the skill of the fabricator. You need a good one.

Padden: If you're thinking about that issue, don't think that you're going to have one man cranking out undermount sink cut-outs all day long. He's not going to be as effective in the afternoon as he is in the morning, especially on a Monday or a Friday. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are going to be his best days in the shop, and the mornings are going to be when you get the best productivity. Unfortunately, there isn't a really good answer for this. However, there are a lot of good systems out there that are mechanical, and eventually, you're going to need to be there.

Blanda: I don't know of any mechanical or semi-automated way of doing a rectangular sink. They can only do an oval bowl hole.

Padden: And then you use finger bits to get the radius of the corners. The finger bit on a CNC is not just for cutting. You can also use that to do the shaping on your sink cut-outs.

Has anyone tried a hand saw for that?

Padden:Absolutely. There are shops that do all of their sink cut-outs by hand. They use a Skilsaw or a regular 4-inch grinder. There are some great blades out there that can do a tight radius for sink openings.

How do you deal with people selling granite countertops out of a truck? They don't have a shop, and they don't have insurance, and they're selling countertops for $12/foot.

Blanda:That's a tough thing. You have to try to get the word out that people get what they pay for, and if someone doesn't have insurance, they could destroy your house or injure themselves, and you're going to be liable because you tried to get countertops for $12/foot.

Padden: That's a problem that we see throughout the country. You want to take the high road and explain that you are doing it the right way. You need to put some questions in the customer's mind about the integrity of the competition. There will always be people out there who want the lowest price no matter what the situation is, and the guy with the pick-up truck is going to be there doing that. Let him take those customers who are only interested in “cheap.” Those aren't the customers you want anyway.