These are tumultuous times for many fabricators in the residential housing market. Many of you are looking to diversify your business to avoid being at the mercy of just a single market segment. For solid surface fabricators in the countertop end of the business, a natural way to expand your horizons is to look into natural stone countertop fabrication.
SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES
There are some similarities in production and installation techniques; however, there are more differences than meets the eye. The tools and processes vary between these types of countertops. Some of the solid surface experiences that will easily transfer over are the bidding and templating process. These are virtually the same. According to Chip Gleine, operations and purchasing manager for the Columbus, Ohio, company Hytec Tops, a division of Moellering Industries, the increased labor required for edges in natural stone vs. laminate and solid surface meant a higher cost for his customers. But beyond that, there is little difference how this part of the process is managed.
Gleine has been in the countertop business since 1999 and has seen many changes along the way. His company started out as a laminate and solid surface shop. Two years later, it expanded into natural and engineered stone products. As of 2007, stone countertops are 70 percent of its revenue and the balance is from solid surface installations.
The similarities begin to fade as you get further into the process. This applies to your tear-out process on remodels. The tools you need to perform these things for a natural or engineered stone countertop are the same as with other materials: luan strips, glue gun, hammer, pry bar, etc. However, most solid surface and laminate tops are 1 ½ in. thick and stone is generally 1 ¼ in. (3 cm), so there are some issues if replacing one with the other.
To deal with this issue, Gleine said, "We would either have to make taller [backsplashes] or raise the tops by placing trim pieces on the top of the cabinets." This becomes a matter of choice. There are techniques to laminate slabs to make the edge 1 ½ in. to match an old installation. To ensure a happy customer, this is an area where good communication is important. Make certain that both of you understand the final expectation and how you need to get there. As with all sales and production, open and clear communication is the key to expanding your business through referrals.
The next item in the process is the selection of the stone. Quartz surfacing, or engineered stone, are very uniform and ease the customer's selection if they are interested in the same pattern and color throughout the installation. This is also helpful for people who want that similarity in different rooms, such as the powder room and the bar area. When you get into natural products like granite, this is more difficult. These slabs are cut from a quarry and vary in size, but are generally a bit larger than their engineered brethren. New technology available will lessen the gap in the near future, but that doesn't account for color variations.
One of the main things with natural product, whether it is marble, granite or limestone, is the variety in each slab and among slabs within the same bundle. While this makes the countertop very interesting and appealing to many people, you need to communicate with your client as to the true variation and that it will bring the authentic stone beauty to their project. Because of this, your layout on a natural stone is very important to the outcome of the job.
GETTING STARTED IN STONE
The tools you will need to get started in the stone countertop business will depend on what level you are willing to enter the business. In the not too distant past, you would have had to get at least a wet stone cutter with a rail system, similar to a saw with a water feed, to use with a wet diamond blade to cut the pieces to your template. All electric tools that have a wet component must have an integrated GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) to make the operation with water and electricity safe for your operator. This tool is still a good option, particularly if you are looking to get in the prefabricated blank end of the granite business. These are completely prefabricated blanks with a variety of finished edges that come in fixed lengths. These pieces are designed to fit the standard 24-in. floor cabinet depth.
This is where you can make another choice about the direction you want to take: either focusing on the prefabricated blank tops or moving toward more custom stone tops. The investment for the former is a good deal less than that required to custom fabricate each top to a specific template. For the blanks, portable hand tools are the least expensive, most efficient to purchase. To custom fabricate from a raw slab, however, requires more elaborate machinery.