3 Things You're Not Thinking About Enough When Shopping for New Countertops
If you’ve read any of our previous blogs, you’ve likely landed here thinking you’re getting a creative masterclass in wit, in addition to a dose of knowledge about natural stone countertops. Well, sorry to say this one’s all business. We’ve noticed recently that a lot of folks come in to shop for granite and quartz kitchen countertops without knowing some essential aspects about the buying process, end product, or scheduling timeline. It is in this vein (pun intended...I just couldn’t resist) that I’ve put together a comprehensive blog that takes a deep dive into what you should know before you ever seek out a fabricator to do your project. By the time you’ve invested 20-30 minutes into reading this post you’ll be ready to confidently take on the search for stone with fewer unknowns along the way!
1) Picking Your Own Slabs
When most people shop for natural stone countertops, choosing the right color is the biggest priority. After all, granite and quartz aren’t the cheapest options, they’ll last as long as you want to keep them, and with many hundreds of colors out there to choose from, the curse-of-choice is easily cast upon anyone who struggles with indecision. Further complicating matters can be the variation between slabs found in all natural stone. What happens when even slabs with the same name don’t look very much alike? The answer is to communicate early about color variation with your fabricator, and to perhaps consider taking a trip to a stone vendor to hand-pick your slabs. Here’s what you need to know about this step of the process:
When is it appropriate for me to pick my slabs?
Quartz is man-made, so generally only has a small amount of variation from batch to batch, and therefore is very rarely hand-selected. In the granite world, however, anything goes. Some colors exhibit a large amount of variation, and some just a bit; some will look just like a sample in a showroom, and some won’t. Your fabricator’s expertise will come in handy when you’re perusing their options, and you should inquire as to the level of variation in each color offering. As for the advice you’ll receive from your fabricator… well, it all depends on who you’re working with. Some fabricators buy certain materials in bulk and are able to sell those specific colors for lower prices, but only when you buy slabs they already have in stock. Others mandate that every granite customer hand-pick their slabs, to make sure everyone knows exactly what they’re getting. The bottom line is that if you’re interested in hand-picking your slabs, you’ll need to discuss it in advance with your fabricator, since they have the information about which slabs are available for viewing and where. Keep in mind that stone is imported from all over the world, shipped all over the country, and probably won’t be in their warehouse until they’re about to fabricate it. Which brings us to...
Where will I go to pick my slabs?
Fabricators like us get our slabs from distributors, also known as ‘stone vendors’. These companies import stone from across the globe and warehouse it impressively for viewing and shipping. Here in southern Michigan most of the big distributors are either in the Detroit area or in Grand Rapids. The warehouses at these locations may not have every color, but they do have other regional locations that they can get special order slabs shipped in from. Vendors usually only ship slabs to fabricators and not direct to consumers, but they are open to the public both as walk-ins and by appointment to view stone, and sometimes sell certain materials (like tile) directly to customers. It’s important that you discuss a trip to one of these vendors with your fabricator before you visit, as there is some important information about your project (such as pricing and the size of slabs you’ll need) that fabricators can give you but vendors can not. Also, there are certainly times of the week that are much better for visiting than others, and your fabricator can give you the inside scoop so you have a great experience. There are a handful of natural stone vendors out there, which means that if one vendor does not have the slabs you’re looking for, likely another one does!
Will I be ok if I don’t hand-pick my slabs?
The answer is yes, of course you will be! You’re still purchasing a beautiful, luxury, high performance product after all. There is of course some risk in buying anything that you’ve not hand picked, but at the end of the day you’ll have to decide on your own whether it’s worth the time, effort, and potential extra cost to hand-select your slabs. Your fabricator will be there to help you make the most educated decision possible, and putting the purchasing of slabs in our hands will get you the lowest possible price, as you’ll read below. If you are interested in a color that has a high level of variation but you don’t want to take the risk, then you should explore other colors!
Kitchens are big projects. Big projects more often than not require seams. And while you may already be thinking about them, you should have an idea of how many seams your countertop may require, and why, before you buy. Your satisfaction with the final product will largely be based on your expectations going in, so to that end let’s illuminate the truth about seams and how they might factor into your project:
Why do seams exist?
Size restrictions. Slabs come in a large variation of sizes. If a piece of your kitchen is longer than the slab we’re using to do the project, we’ll need to make that piece in two sections. Along those lines, if you have a giant U-shaped countertop it may require more than one seam. (Pro-tip: This harkens back to hand-picking your slabs, as the slab you like best may come in a small size and require more seams.)
Veining. Making sure that any veins line up directionally on your countertops may be a top priority for you, depending on the color you choose. To maximize yield from slabs and minimize material costs, it often necessitates that veins will not line up perfectly. Therefore, asking for veins to be lined up may require more raw materials, more seams, and increase the price. For best results, communicate your visual priorities with your fabricator during the quoting process. (Pro-tip: With high amounts of veining, backsplash also looks best when ‘bookmatched,’ which may require it to come from a specific part of your slabs.)
Safety. Stone is extremely hard and durable, but it can still flex under its own weight when being carried around during fabrication and installation. Natural stone weighs about 20-30 pounds per square foot on average, and bigger pieces in a kitchen can easily weigh upwards of 500 pounds! This is heavy enough that these large pieces can sometimes break unless we put a seam in them. So, while a large section of your kitchen may technically fit as one piece on the slab we’re using, it may still require a seam to protect both your stone and our team.
Unlike plastics, which are engineered to be as precise as possible down to degrees naked to the human eye, we’re dealing with a natural product here. Slabs come to us with imperfections and variations, so we can never make a perfect product with no inconsistencies. Thus, seams are both visible and tangible. We cut seams extremely carefully to ensure that even micro-minerals do not fall off the edges, we use special seaming equipment in the field to pull the pieces together as tight as possible, and we mix up color-matching adhesive on-site to hide them as best we can. Despite these efforts, it’s impossible to make them disappear entirely. Here are three things that affect how much you can see and feel the seams in your countertops:
Stone Color. The more veining your color has, the more noticeable it’s going to be when a seam occurs. Sometimes, veins can even change direction at a seam (see ‘Veining’ above). Also, the more color variation your stone contains, the harder it is for us to make an accurate adhesive color-match within the seam. Some stone colors hide seams better than others, and it’s hard to predict which will be the most inconspicuous.
Cabinets. If your cabinets are not 100% level, and they almost never are, then our installers will have to shim them up to level as best they can before setting and adhering seams (you can imagine that two slanting pieces of stone will not fit together very smoothly). Even when our guys do a good job shimming, there remains the potential for cabinets to be slightly out of level, which can result in a seam being a bit more obvious. The best way to avoid this issue is to know in advance how out-of-level your cabinets are and to have your cabinet maker do some leveling before we come out to install (more on this below).
Planned vs. Unplanned. We know that nobody wants a seam in their project, and we want to give you exactly what you want. However, when a fabricator makes the call to not include a seam where one should be, they’ve actually done you a disservice by putting your stone at risk of breaking (see ‘Safety’ above). Not only do breaks cause delays and a lot of stress for all parties involved, but they don’t automatically result in a re-do of the piece in question! Repairs are often attempted first, and even in the best circumstances the final product will not look as good as it would have originally with a seam! All fabricators reserve the right to place seams wherever they need to go, and in doing so they’re looking out for their customer’s projects. Go with a planned seam and not an unplanned one.
Everyone already thinks plenty about when they want their kitchen remodel finished by, or how long they believe is reasonable for the process to take. What most are not aware of are the variables that affect a timeline, or of the handful of areas in which you as the homeowner can set yourself up for the quickest possible turnaround! Here’s what you should know:
Winter vs. Summer. The Winter is a slower time in the home improvement industry than the Summer. In the Winter there’s traveling, school, weather, and most people (including builders) just want to stay indoors. The Summer is a time of ambition and energy, the weather is ideal for construction, and your kids are at camp. This means that everyone plans their project for the Summer, and this causes long turnaround times and a lack of flexibility, the very things you’re hoping to avoid. Fabricators and homeowners all benefit from scheduling that is more spread out over the year, and if you decide to do your project in February or March you’re almost guaranteed to have a quicker turnaround and more scheduling flexibility, which is underrated as you’ll soon discover!
Holidays. There’s a season that’s not Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall, and that’s the holiday season! This one is stereotypically localized to the late Fall and early Winter, but in our business the Holiday season pops up whenever a day off comes around, and the build-up to each holiday is a high-demand time. That means that the 2 weeks leading up to the 4th of July, Christmas, New Years, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, and Veteran’s Day are all times to avoid for your project if you can help it. Everyone “needs” to have their countertops in by these holidays, but you can play it smarter with this insight and plan for a more relaxed time of the year, then kick back while everyone else is in high-gear!
When is the best time? Combine the two pieces of advice above and you’ll see that the best time of the year to schedule your kitchen countertop project is between mid-January and late March. There aren’t many holidays and it’s still cold enough outside to ward off the fair-weather crowd. This is our slowest time of the year, so I can tell you with confidence that we want more business then and will be able to offer you faster turnarounds on average than at most other locations on the calendar!
Factors Affecting Your Timeline
When it comes to residential applications, every single countertop project is different. From the thousands of available colors to the dozens of design choices and features that can be selected, there are truly no two kitchens exactly alike. While this keeps us stimulated, and offers you the promise of a refreshing and inimitable look in your home, it means that we can never predict exactly how long it will take to complete a project. Add in the factors below and it becomes clear that being able to give a standard turn-around time is impossible. The best we can do is to give you an estimated range, and the more we know about your project the more accurate we can be. Here are some of the factors that can affect your timeline:
Stone availability. Some stone is readily available and we can have it delivered to us within 1 week. Some may need to be shipped from further away and could take several weeks to arrive. Some stone is on back-order and may take a month or longer to be restocked at a vendor. If you want a specific stone, you may have to wait for it to become available.
Stone Type. Some stone requires more fabrication time to achieve a smooth and consistent finished product. Certain slabs are more fragile, more dense, or more varied than others, and require a slower and more deliberate approach to avoid inconsistencies, which can add more time to the turnaround.
“Custom-ness” of your job. The more custom features your job has, the more time it may take to template, fabricate, and install. Having a custom edge profile, a large circular radius, mitered or laminated edges, or any particularly giant pieces of stone can all add time to the process.
Stages of your project. If your natural stone project contains multiple stages, such as a kitchen, bathroom, laundry room, etc., your turnaround time will be much quicker if you order them all at once compared to at different times. The biggest time saver here will be needing only one template and one installation, but it will help us be more efficient fabricating your project as well if we’re working on every stage at once. To optimize time with different parts of a project like this will require that all the individual areas be ready at the same time for both templating and installation, which will require some planning ahead!
Taking Matters Into Your Own Hands
In addition to the factors above that can affect the turnaround time of your job, there are milestones for every project and not hitting them can cause delays. Fortunately, meeting these milestones in a fashion that’s timely is in your hands more often than not. If you plan ahead and take care of these steps promptly, then you will have done all you could to ensure the shortest timeline possible, and the turnaround time will be in the hands of your fabricator. Ask your fabricator what it takes to meet these milestones, and they’ll help you plan ahead!
Place your deposit. You may have selected your stone and said yes to the price, but your fabricator likely can’t schedule you a template until they’ve received your deposit.
Prep the area for a template. The cabinets the stone is sitting on must be set before your fabricator can make an accurate template. If you have existing countertops, make sure they’re all cleared off. If you have bare cabinets, make sure they are as level as possible. Any changes to the cabinetry (besides leveling) after templating will render the template more or less obsolete! (Pro-Tip: If you have existing laminate countertops, remove them before the template appointment, get your cabinets leveled if need be, and have us template directly over the leveled cabinets. This will ensure the most accurate template possible and will save you time and hassle leveling your cabinets on the back-end. When we leave, gently set your laminate countertops back on the cabinets so you have a surface to cook on while we work on your new stone countertops!)
Consolidate materials. Your fabricator will need your sink, faucet, soap dispenser, reverse-osmosis faucet, cooktop, and anything else you plan on having inserted into the stone, on-hand to start fabricating your job. (Pro-Tip: Have these available for pick-up at the templating appointment and you won’t have to lug them around!)
Final confirmation of design. After a template is made there are always some updates to the design that your fabricator will need to discuss with you before they can start on your job. Be prepared to hear from your fabricator very soon post-template, and be ready to hit the go-button!
Ensuring cabinet levelness. This one is sneaky if you have existing countertops, as you can never tell the exact condition of the cabinets underneath. The bottom line is that your cabinets need to be as close to level as possible for stone to be installed safely. If your fabricator comes out to install countertops and the cabinets are too out-of-level to properly install the stone, you will need to re-schedule the installation! (Pro-Tip: Remove any existing countertop material days before the stone installation to confirm the levelness of your cabinets, and leave yourself enough time to get a professional in to do leveling if needed.)
Prep the area for installation. Plumbing needs to be disconnected, appliances need to be out of the way, any existing countertop material needs to be removed and set aside, and your cabinets must be as level as possible. If any of these steps are not taken care of, your installation will likely need to be rescheduled (Pro-Tip: Installations are never rescheduled for the next day, so be sure to take care of this step of the process!)
So there you have it.
Those are the fundamental details that most people aren’t giving enough consideration to before beginning their natural stone countertop search. I know it was a lot of information on top of what you’ve already got going on, so feel free to give us a call if you ever want some clarification...who knows, you may be able to speak with this humble author himself! If you read this blog and end up coming to us for your quartz or granite countertops, then I speak for all of Zimmer when I say we can’t wait to work with someone who knows all this about their own project! Good luck out there, and happy hunting!