(written in October, 1998)
by Jim Heaphy
Among the many advantages that solid surface materials offer to countertop fabricators and ultimately to homeowners is the relative ease of creating a wide variety of decorative edge details. In this regard, solid surface materials are much more versatile than other common countertop materials and the possibilities are limited only by the imagination of the designer, fabricator or homeowner.
However, it is safe to say that a few "favorite themes" have emerged as the industry has matured, and that some edges are much more popular than others. On occasion, I have made rough estimates of the frequency that various edges occur in the marketplace based on my personal experience and memory. For this column, I decided to do a more representative survey. I selected, at random, exactly 100 solid surface countertops with fabricated decorative edges that I've inspected in the past year or so, and compiled a list of all of the different edge details involved. Accordingly, this column accurately describes a representative sample of Northern California installations completed by dozens of different fabricators.
It is perhaps not surprising that the most common edge detail I observed was also among the easiest to fabricate and the one commonly sold by fabricators at no extra charge. I am referring to a simple rectangular apron edge, fabricated out of the same color of solid surface material as the rest of the countertop, and usually measuring either 1-1/4" or 1-1/2" thick. This edge occurred in 32%, or nearly one-third, of the installations I inspected. The edge detail is finished off with a routed roundover on the top and sometimes the bottom, and the radius of this roundover varies from a barely perceptible 1/16" for a visually square appearance to as much as 1/2" for a much softer, more rounded appearance.
One variation that occurred in 3% of the installations was a 45ø bevel on the top edge rather than a radiused roundover. This edge creates extra visual interest as the bevel travels along radiused inside and outside corners. Occasionally, a fabricator will bevel the outside corners in two dimensions, creating a distinctive faceted effect.
The edge called either the full bullnose or the 180ø radius occurred 16% of the time. Most fabricators charge extra for this edge, because it usually requires more labor to cut and glue up, more precise router work, and more extensive sanding than a simple rectangular apron.
Routed Roman ogee or standard ogee edges occurred 19% of the time in my survey. Use of these routed profiles adds a lot of visual interest and a more classical look, but I have had a number of customers comment that this type of edge is more difficult to keep clean, because kitchen grime tends to accumulate in the recesses of these profiles. It is advisable to use a sharp, well maintained router bit for this type of edge. It is much more time consuming to sand out an imperfection in an ogee edge than in a simple roundover edge.
A fairly simple way to add dramatic visual interest to a countertop is to build up a decorative edge with three stacked layers of solid surface material, with the middle of the three made of a contrasting color or pattern. This technique was used in 14% of the installations I observed. Often, the accent color was selected to match or complement other design elements in the kitchen - paint or wallpaper, cabinet pulls or plumbing fixtures. One benefit to the fabricator is that the color shift tends to conceal an occasional minor imperfection in the seam between the layers that make up the edge.
In 16% of the countertops I inspected, a decorative wood accent to match the cabinets was incorporated into the edge detail. Most of the time, the species was red oak, although I inspected one where maple was used, and another where cherry was used. I also observed one installation where a polished brass inlay was used and another where brightly colored acrylic was used. For reasons of structural integrity, it is recommended that a wood accent be in the form of an inlay into the front of a thick edge built up ahead of time out of solid surface material, rather than a piece of solid wood sandwiched between two separate pieces of solid surface material. Because wood expands and contracts significantly with changes in moisture whereas solid surface materials expand and contract with changes in temperature, a sandwiched assembly may well be an unstable one. There is no doubt, after all, that a kitchen countertop must withstand dramatic changes in moisture and temperature.
In one case, a serious problem developed when a fabricator combined an oak inlay with a large routed Roman ogee profile. The routed ogee pattern left a very narrow and sharp fin of solid surface material sitting just above the oak. The look was nice, but in service in a working kitchen, the shortcoming quickly emerged. Any glancing impact chipped the edge right where the thin piece of solid surface material met the wood.
The "no drip" edge, so common in with mass-produced plastic laminate countertops, was seen in just 3% of the solid surface countertops. This is a particularly labor intensive edge detail that requires skill and experience to get just right, especially at radiused inside corners.
Finally, I saw three edge details that I would describe as "highly unique". In one case, a fabricator routed an ogee on the edge of a 1/2" thick slab of white solid surface material, and then bonded this slab to a 1" thick 180ø polished bullnose molding made of a very dark granite patterned solid surface material. Another fabricator used a router bit similar to one that would be used to make finger joints in wood to create a deeply textured front edge. The final one was my favorite - the deck was a light gray granite-like pattern, and a very dark burgundy granite patterned edge molding was bonded to the front, with the seam falling on the horizontal surface 1" back from the front edge. A 1/4" wide inlay of a third solid surface material, a milky white pattern, served as an accent stripe between the two speckled patterns, and the countertop was polished to a beautiful luster.
I think that the most notable statistic I gleaned from this survey is that 66%, or almost exactly 2/3 of these installations, were fabricated out of a single pattern or color of solid surface material. The remaining 1/3 accounted for all of the installations that included two or more colors of solid surface material, or incorporated other materials such as wood, metal or acrylic into the edge detail.
So is the cup two-thirds empty or one-third full? I've long observed that people tend to be pretty conservative when making kitchen design decisions. An overly flamboyant blouse or neck tie can be retired to the closet, but most people only have one kitchen and they expect it to serve them for many years or even decades. In my view, special congratulations are in order for the 3% or so of customers who select a decorative edge that is knock-your-socks-off distinctive.