Photo by Michael Reis
Countertop installers face a broad range of challenges before the job is completed to satisfaction.

What are some of the most common issues you and your crews are dealing with in terms of countertop installation? Are there some nagging issues (out-of-level cabinets, seams, etc.) that still don’t have adequate resolution? Are there any new issues popping up out there?

Also, for fabricators who have shifted from new construction to remodel work, has it been difficult to make the adjustment? What are some of the new challenges you are encountering?

Eli Polite, Delaware:Issue number one is always customer relations. In most cases, the installers are one of the most important representations of your company. Having install crews that are intelligent and clean is very important. In my experience, I have never just hired a person to go do installs. They work their way up from being a fabricator to being an installer. It is important for an installer to be well trained as a fabricator, in my opinion. The install is the final piece of the puzzle in the purchasing process, and if it is botched, it can botch your reputation.

I am glad to say that in the last year and a half, we have not had one call-back on a completed job, and we have had no uncompleted jobs. We follow strict templating and fabrication guidelines to accomplish this, and all of the procedures are focused on having a good install. All of our installers have a background in construction or cabinetry, and they are all trained as fabricators. It makes for a much smoother install.

Jason Nottestad:The most time-consuming issue for our crew continues to be poorly constructed and/or out-of-level cabinetry. This applies to both new construction and remodel. There is a continuous give and take with what I feel comfortable doing to a cabinet and what I feel should probably be done by a cabinet professional. We do mostly remodels right now, templating with PhotoTop over existing countertops most of the time. Even with a great inspection process at the template stage, you still never really know what kind of cabinet issues you will face until you tear the old tops off. What we find most often are out-of-level/poorly attached corner blocks and the occasional cabinet wall that sits a little too high - creating “single point pressure” and a risk of countertop failure. Another common problem is cabinets that end up out of plane across a dishwasher opening.

Problems with cabinetry lead to the problems with customer expectations. Even though Mr. and Mrs. Homeowner have been told that adaptations to cabinetry might occur, they don’t really understand what that means until you take out the belt sander or electric planer and start making a little noise. Because most of my clients assume their house is the perfect one, I show and explain exactly what I am doing before I turn on the woodworking tools. If they don’t think you are trying to hide some flaw, and you don’t do any damage, most people are fine with it. Just make sure the base cabinets are empty so you don’t fill the unused grill, rotisserie, knife rack, etc. with dust.

Cabinets that are badly out of level - especially a peninsula in a U-shaped kitchen - are common in my area. I’ll adjust one shim thickness (¼ inch) for granite and two (½ inch) for quartz. Beyond that, I’m not comfortable. I try to show the homeowner what the countertop will look like underneath before I glue it down. That way, they can decide if they want to get a molding to hide the gap or have me lower the pieces back down so that they are out of level, but still in plane, so I can make my seams. Either way, as long as the homeowner is comfortable with the product in the end, all is well.

Ken Lago, Granite Countertop Experts, LLC, Hampton, VA:Out-of-level cabinets are the number one issue for us. On new construction, I’m usually there before the molding has been put on, so shimming the cabinets up to level is easy.

When installing tops onto old cabinets, it is sometimes not an option to shim the cabinets. In this case, I will shim the tops level and fill the gap with color-matched caulk. I always make the tops level regardless of how much the cabinets are out of level. The second big issue is walls not being straight. It’s not a problem if it’s a tile backsplash, but with a granite backsplash, unsightly gaps can make a customer unhappy about the end result. Few remodels go easy and problem free; therefore, it is essential to talk everything over with the homeowner before starting the project. For example, if the walls are not straight, tell them it’s best to use a tile backsplash. If the old counters are way out of level, there could be a problem with the new ones as well. If the cabinets are flimsy and may fall apart when removing the old tops (it has happened to me), then bring it up and find a solution. You are the contractor and are responsible for the job being done right. The customer will listen to your recommendations because you are the professional.

Another problem I used to have was with a full granite backsplash. I used to install the tops first and then measure for the backsplashes after they were in. I always thought that to be a waste of time and money for both the customer and me. I found that with a laser leveler ($125 at Lowe’s ), I solved the problem. I can easily find the highest spot on the cabinets, and from the line, I can then measure up to the cabinets all around the walls. When I get back to the shop, I measure the thickness of the slab and deduct 1/16 inch from the measurements I took. It has made my installs with full backsplashes a one-day affair with much less stress on the customers.

Eli Polite, Delaware:Out-of-level cabinets can be a hassle, but we catch it at time of template and make sure the problem will be rectified before the install. How smooth your installs go has a lot to do with how well the template process is done. We always level the cabinets at time of template. Drop-in ranges are a must at time of template, along with sinks and anything else that has a role in the manufacturing of a stone countertop.

Figure 1

Ken Lago, Granite Countertop Experts, LLC, Hampton, VA:The difference between installing new construction and remodel is like day and night. With remodels, you are entering somebody’s home and you have to be extremely careful with everything you do. You can’t make dust, and you have to watch out not to damage floors, doors, furniture and all the stuff people have on their tables, which can easily be knocked over when passing by. You always have to ask permission to use the bathroom or if you have to walk into other areas than where you are working. You have to empty cabinets where there is a potential for doing any damage. It is also important to leave the home as clean as when you entered, and don’t forget the outside.Wash down the driveway and grass for any dust you may have made cutting. Making the customer happy is a matter of many things, but having respect for their property is number one on the list.

Gary Anderson, Anderson Granite Works, Menomonee Falls, WI:Out-of-level cabinets seem to be our biggest challenge as well. We try to measure with their existing countertops off, but as we all know, this doesn’t always fly with most people. So we have to explain in great detail that we may have to shim or possibly have a carpenter come in and adjust the cabinets as necessary once we are there to install. We will not shim anything more than ¼ inch unless the customer chooses to sign off on it - regardless of whether it is engineered stone or granite.

Any countertop that we have to shim is filled with epoxy rather than silicone because it just doesn’t flex. We tape the cabinets with painter’s tape and pack any gap with epoxy using a shim or our fingers. You can also tint it to match the color of the cabinet if you choose.

One way we check cabinets in new construction or remodels is with our LT-55 [templating system from Laser Products], we run the laser on the edge of all cabinets to get a good indication what is level or what needs fixing. With this technology it makes it easy to show builders or customers if there is anything wrong before we install.

I almost forgot what cabinet makers seem to almost always miss is the support piece between the two cabinets where the dishwasher goes. Please put these in because it’s easier to mount the dishwasher this way.

Dustin Braudway, Cape Fear Marble and Tile, Inc., Wilmington, NC:With the market shift, remodel has become the norm. There are many issues that can pop up with remodel work. Everyone has to deal with out-of-level cabinets, back sheetrock work, plumbing and electrical. Nowadays, with all the remodel work, the installers are having to learn various parts of work often performed by other trades.

In dealing with out-of-level cabinets, we usually just shore them up and let the customer know what is taking place prior to setting the top. If it is too bad, then we ask them to have a cabinet company come out and see about fixing the problem. Our company has a policy to not hook plumbing up or electrical. That’s not to say that we don’t undo it from time to time, to help out the homeowner, but that could backfire and get you into trouble.

I still think that with a little education the client will know exactly what sequence of events will need to take place prior to and after installation. Always give the worst case scenario, so that you are covered.

That last nagging issue would be the homeowner that wants to participate in and/or watch over your shoulder. I always politely tell our customers to stand back out of the way or, in the best case, to go work on another part of the house while the guys are working. It’s difficult to stop and answer 50 questions on every little thing.

Reuben Flax, Sinai Marble & Granite, Baltimore, MD:Right now, slide-in ovens - with the little wings over the sides and the controls in front - are a huge issue for us. We just found a couple in a house that were 30 3/16 inches wide. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a 30-inch opening not fit a 30-inch appliance. The wings are always tiny, and they require very careful planning with regard to where the profile has to stop before going back to a square profile. This is needed so that things look normal near the oven. Behind the oven, there is also a small strip of stone we glue in - which requires some careful cutting on site to make it fit properly.

To help with these problems, we ask customers up front if they’re planning on using these types of ovens. If they are, we make sure that they are on site when we template. During the template, we put the oven in its place and measure the front setback until the front ears will fit the overhang we’re using (usually 1 ½-inch front overhangs in the kitchen). From there, we take careful measurements of the distance behind the oven so that we can cut the back strip to the proper width in the shop.

Mark Mihalik, Counterparts, LLC, Delaware:I agree with the others on the cabinets being out of level being the biggest challenge. Next would be pets loose in the house and children that are not being attended. I tell the guys to make sure the pets are locked up and don’t get out and run away, while keeping safety a first priority. We make a real point with the customer that we are moving heavy objects, and it is dangerous to be near us while we are moving stone.

Another issue is getting large pieces up to second and third floor kitchens with limited space in the stairs. We are in a coastal beach area, where upper-floor kitchens and condos with elevators are common, and of course, the customer never wants a seam. We have used a crane to get large islands onto top floor balconies, and it is never fun. Some pieces are just plain heavy, no matter what floor you are on. Make sure there is adequate help at each install to get the tops in safely and without injury.

All in all, our installs usually go rather smoothly. If the templater does his job properly, there should be limited issues. It is important that the templater check the cabinets for level and make sure the customer is ready for countertops. All appliances should be on site and checked to avoid problems. Our templaters (usually me) educate the customer with the install process and let them know what to expect to help the process run well.

Eli Polite, Delaware:Communica-tion between the templater and the install team is a must. I can’t count how many times I have walked into a house and heard, “Well, the guy that did the template said you would do this.” After a few phone calls later, you find out that the templater did indeed say this, and I end up having to leave the jobsite and make a trip to the hardware store in order to live up to the promises of the person that did the template.

There have also been numerous times in which we show up at a house to tear out the existing tops and do an install, and the tops are crammed full of personal items - coffee maker, toaster oven, canisters, etc. The cabinets are packed to the hilt, and even though they knew you were coming, they made no effort to prepare. Yet they don’t want dust on anything, so that eats up a good hour of time that you spend clearing everything out so you can start to work.

Customer expectations are another issue. I am continually asked about why there are gaps behind the top of the backsplash, seam placement, sink reveals, overhangs, doing the plumbing and so on. I would say that 90% of the problems faced at time of install could have been handled and resolved at the time of the sale or at the time of the template.

The cabinets being out of level is a given that we just expect. It’s the things that come out of left field that will just kill you - like when the templater does not bother to look at the existing laminate top and see that the laminate top drops down and covers about ¾ inch of the top of the cabinets. So when you remove the laminate tops, there is a ¾-inch-wide ring around the top of the cabinets that is a different color, and the stove won’t adjust high enough to reach the right height of the new tops.

Figure 2

Brian Briggs, Florida:On new construction, you have to be sure that the templater is fully doing their job - checking for level so that when the cabinets are off, the builder (supposedly) will have time to get the issues resolved. If the cabinets are way out of square, they should have time to ask the builder if they want equal overhang or a squared top. These are just three of many common issues. Last, but definitely not least, is to have someone sign off on the completed project. This way, when the plumber breaks the sink rail, or the electrician chips the marble top while putting in the high hats, you are returning for a back charge, not a warranty issue.

My biggest pet peeve goes like this: Fabricator calls to make sure the cabinets are ready, and the builder says, “Yes, hurry up and template. The house is behind schedule.” You get there, and the kitchen and maybe one of the six other areas are ready to template. Then they ask, “You’re not going to charge for a return trip, are you? The cabinets for the rest of the house should arrive in a couple of weeks. By the way, can you tell me when you will install the kitchen and the powder bath that is ready?” The key thing with remodels is education. Make sure the sales team lets the client know what you will and will not do. Give them informational packets that tell them that you do not do plumbing, electrical, drywall work, etc. A lot of remodel clients think they hired handymen. Make sure they know that the countertops need to be cleared off for template and install. If you require it (and I do), make sure the cabinets are empty and drawers are removed. (This keeps you from getting caulk on great grandma’s China, since we all know it will not end up on the old Tupperware.)

The more you can convey to your clients what you expect of them and what they can expect of you, the smoother things will go.

Ravin Perinpanayagam, San Diego, CA:I thought I would add something on possible plumbing issues. I know most fabricators don’t do the plumbing, but it would be nice to educate the customer on the possible issues that they may face with plumbing up front.

Since I do my own plumbing, I’ve found some issues. In some cases, the drains will have to be redone because the new sink will probably be at a different level than the old one. Also, the new sink holes may not line up with the drain exactly. Depending on the issue, the drain may have to be cutback all the way to the wall and re-piped. It does make sense to replace everything, including traps. This is especially true in bathrooms, since they tend to get clogged with hair and other items.

Another contributing issue that I’ve seen has to do with plumbing fittings. There is really no standard between manufacturers, so many times you cannot simply drop out a trap, for example, and install a new one. I’ve seen P-traps with slightly different bend radii.

Another possible issue is with shutoffs; if they have not been turned off for years, they can jam up and/or start leaking. This will require replacement of the shutoff. Most shutoffs use a compression fitting, but the threads may not match the new fitting. In this case, the plumber will have to try pulling out the old ferrule and installing a new sleeve and nut. If that’s not possible, and there is no space left, the drywall may have to be opened.

All of these issues may add a significant cost to the install. I think that educating the customer on all of these potential issues would be a nice thing to do. The same goes for any electrical changes.

Kent Potter, TK Custom Stone, Inc., St. Marys, GA:Typically, our problems always revolve around poor cabinet installation. In rare cases, the cabinets will not adequately support 3-cm granite loads - such as the MDF [medium-density fiberboard] European style “some assembly required” cam-lock cabinets. On most remodels, we expect the cabinets to be out of level. The older houses (in excess of 40 years) will be the worst. In these situations, you have to work with the customer - explaining everything that needs to be done and ensure their involvement in every step.

New installations suffer from poor installation generally because the installers do not possess the expertise nor care about the end product. This is particularly true of the “paid by the box” installers. There are few real craftsmen left out there; you just have to appreciate them when you run across them.

As for the plumbing - and the electrical for that matter - we are not licensed, nor are we insured to perform the work. Even though we can unhook the plumbing by law, we have chosen to stay clear of this as well, since the shut-off valves are generally frozen in the open position. We will, of course, give them a list of plumbers and electricians that we know will do good work for them.

Paul Eline, Superior Granite LLC, Rosedale, MD:Sometimes we get jobs through contractors where there is something like a breakfast bar with an overhang that requires some sort of support. We tell them that we do not install wood posts and will not screw up the wood corbels. That is their job, since they are the carpenters. We ask that the supports be installed or that they (the contractor) be there at time of install, so they can mount the support they choose. Almost all of the time, though, there are no supports installed and no contractor there on the day of the install. When we call them, they say they’re stuck at another job or can’t be there for some other reason, so we just do what we can do to get it in. Sometimes we will cut 2 x 4s and wedge them under the piece until the contractor figures out what he is going to do. And if a homeowner is present, we get them to sign off that it was installed that way due to the contractor. Or we don’t install and tell them that there is going to be a reinstall charge. But 99% of the time, they don’t want to pay.

Also, like everyone else has said, the plumbing is an issue. We tell them at the time of estimate and again at the template that we do not install plumbing. Of course, when we come to install the countertops, they will play dumb and say, “I thought you were going to hook my plumbing up.”

There are also the homeowners who stand over your shoulder from the time you pull up to the house. When you should be there one to two hours, it turns out to be three or four due to all the questions you have to answer about what you are doing and why.

Dan Riccolo, Morris Granite Co., Morris, IL:We run the gamut [of issues] from out-of-level cabinets to no supports (corbels) when required. We work with the out-of-level cabinets within reasonable limits. And we are starting to supply corbels at an extra charge. This way, things get done smoother on our end, the contractor is off the hook for them, and the homeowner is happy with a complete job. We look at ourselves as problem solvers, since we are one of the last trades on a job. We have adapted to become part plumber, part carpenter, part designer and part whatever else is required. It seems necessary more and more to get and complete jobs. Being dynamic and flexible seems to be the key, in our experiences.

Scott McGourley, Kasco Stone, Tampa, FL:Our biggest problem on installs is ourselves. The number one problem is jobs not ready for install. Also, there are problems with things being forgotten, not following procedure, wrong sinks, etc. We have procedures in place to stop this, but they are not always followed. The next thing would be that the jobsite is not ready, and the homeowner not willing to participate. For example, maybe the faucets are not on site, and all of the homeowner’s possessions are on the tops and everywhere around. Children and dogs running rampant. Probably my worst problem is the distracting, hovering homeowner. I totally lose it when I get one of these.

We are a small company, and I personally template almost all jobs, so we don’t run into too many issues that were not expected. We also have always done mostly remodel work, so we are good at it. We solve problems for our customers; we don’t just tell them to call a plumber or carpenter and leave. Usually, we are the only contractor, so we handle all but the plumbing and recommend a quality plumber who shows up on time and makes it seamless for the homeowner.

Mark Mihalik, Counterparts, LLC, Delaware:Another issue is when you have to install a raised bar top, and the cabinet company or contractor is supplying the corbels, and they are not installed. We will prop the bar top with 2 x 4s until they can put the brackets in place - with a big note saying “Do not remove until brackets are in place.” You then have to worry about the floor guys removing them and the top falling off. I never had one fall, but did have a close call one time.

Dan Dauchess, Signature Stone, Williamsburg, VA:I’ve had one fall. My situation was that the flooring contractor kicked out the supports holding the raised bar up so that he could finish the hardwood floors. They did this despite the big sign that told them not to touch the supports.

Eli Polite, Delaware:That sounds like a recent incident we had with a top (shown in Figure 1). The flooring guys took out the support you see in the picture, so the top was tilted at about a 20-degree angle, and was hanging by a thread. We went back and took the top off and put steel plates in.

Unfortunately, signs don’t do any good. No one seems to be able to read anymore. I have left huge signs that say, “You scratch it or break it, and you bought it,” and then I walk back in and see the plumber’s big metal tool box sitting right next to the sign.

Clyde M. Kingry, Southside Granite Co., Dothan, AL:Just about everything I can think of has been touched on, and I agree with all of it. I do have one other pet peeve to point out. It seems to be quite common in new construction that the design and application of the millwork or trim carpentry lacks adequate planning in allowing for the overhangs of countertops or any other surface. This is evident in any application - from kitchen counters to tub decks to fireplace hearths, etc.

In most instances, we put that last piece of the puzzle in place, and then it becomes obvious. The thing is that we are the ones who have to deal with all the mistakes and previous lack of planning.

It’s hard sometimes to catch all of these when templating, since often we don’t get in on a project in the planning stages or early enough in the construction phase to point these things out.

In the case of fireplaces, we want to put a fireplace hearth and surround in before the mantle is in place, so it can be set on top of our hearth and over our surround.

It looks much better if a cabinet end panel projects beyond the face frame of the cabinets. It should project at least as far as our overhang, so that the end of our overhang isn’t exposed. It is better to locate the door opening 1 inch further over, or stop the cabinetry the proper distance from where the molding will be, not the opening itself.

In short, it just looks more finished if the trim carpentry fits the stone rather than having to fit the stone to the millwork. I think that’s why they call it “finish carpentry.” When possible, we try to talk to custom cabinet builders and contractors about these things, so that they might think about them ahead of time on the next project.

The attached photo (Figure 2) is an example in the home of a custom cabinet shop owner.

Ken Lago, Granite Countertop Experts, LLC, Hampton, VA:This is the same case with the upper cabinets in the kitchen when doing a tile backsplash. It looks 100 times better when the upper cabinet is offset 1 inch from the lower cabinet. These are details which make a job look professional and represent true custom building.

Paul Eline, Superior Granite LLC, Rosedale, MD:We just installed a job on which the customer went to our slab distributor not once, but twice, to look at the slab that she wanted. She picked Giallo Vicenza. We got the slab done and installed in three days, so you would think she would be happy. The day after the install, she calls and says there is a problem. In my mind, I’m thinking, “What could possibly be wrong? She loved it yesterday.” She said she does not like the color and would like it removed. We have already been paid in full. She said she wants a black, and she is going to pick out a new slab. So now not only do we have to take the countertop out (that we just put in), we have to hope that when we install the black, she decides she likes the color. And she is paying full price for the new countertop. It must be nice to have money like that.