(Written in February, 1999)
by Jim Heaphy
I've been working with solid surface materials for fifteen years now, and I've seen dramatic changes in the industry. One thing that remains the same, though, is that most consumers are still enchanted and intrigued by this material that we work with every day. When I first started selling countertops, there was just one manufacturer of solid surface materials, offering just one marble pattern and two solid colors. We salesmen used to joke, outside of earshot of the customers of course, that you could have any color you wanted, as long as it was white, off-white or dirty white. That was reminiscent of Henry Ford's oft-quoted remark 80 years ago that you could get your Model T in any color, as long as it was black. At that time, I was also selling plastic laminate countertops, available in hundreds of colors and patterns at a significantly lower price than solid surface countertops. Despite this, the customers were drawn to the solid surface materials. They would stand in front of the showroom displays, showing an obvious visual and tactile attraction to the product. Even those who were forced by cost considerations to purchase a less expensive product would often examine the solid surface materials at length, asking many questions and touching the smoothly sculptured curves with great satisfaction.
A couple of years after I got involved with the industry, several other national manufacturers entered the market, offering dramatic new patterns reminiscent of granite and a much wider range of colors. The company I worked in those days did some of its marketing at consumer home and garden shows and construction industry trade shows. I designed a conference table that featured two of the newly introduced granite patterns. It combined long sweeping curves of a medium grey granite pattern bordered by a wide edge band of a very dark grey, almost black granite pattern. The edges were beveled and the surface was polished. We used this table at the entrance to our booths at these shows, and it was always fascinating to see how consumers responded. They would stand in front of the table, smiling as they ran their hands lightly along the smooth, gentle curves. Their questions evidenced fascination rather than skepticism. Many times, homeowners stopped to tell us that they already had solid surface countertops, and how delighted they were with the product in their homes.
In our marketing efforts, we often emphasize practicality. Solid surface countertops are durable. They are sanitary. They are easy to keep clean. They are covered by an excellent warranty. The manufacturer has a good reputation. The dealer and the fabricator have a good reputation. All of these factors are very true, of course, and must be mentioned. But I remain convinced that it is the beauty and elegance of these materials that is by far the greatest selling point.
If a customer was to see, though, a dusty uncut slab of solid surface material laying on a shipping pallet on the floor of a fabricator's shop, that would not be a very elegant sight. It is the craft and creativity and talent of the fabricators and installers that brings the material to life in a customer's home.
Five years ago, I went into business for myself, specializing in solving problems with solid surface installations. Often these problems are covered by the manufacturer's warranty, but sometimes I am paid either by a fabricator who has accepted responsibility for the problem, or directly by a homeowner whose problem is not covered by a warranty. I have had great success, I believe, in turning dissatisfied customers into satisfied ones. Day after day, I deal with homeowners who have a complaint, and most of the time, I repair the countertop that same day. You might think that many of these homeowners would have soured on solid surface materials, but that is rarely the case. Even after five years, I am surprised at how often a homeowner will exclaim with great enthusiasm, "I just LOVE these countertops, except for this one little problem right here." And when I have solved that problem for them, they are even more devoted to the product.
My job has enabled me to see the widest possible variety of shortcomings in workmanship that result in a less than perfect final product. Accordingly, I offer a few suggestions to fabricators and installers to ensure consistent quality and customer satisfaction.
First and most important, every hands on employee must be fully conversant with the manufacturer's required fabrication and installation procedures. It should be considered a warning sign if employees belittle the importance of these standards in any way. Issues such as crack resistant cooktop cutouts, seam reinforcement, proper support structures and finishing procedures must be fully understood and standardized. Surfaces to be bonded to one another must be machined carefully for a good snug fit and meticulously cleaned before applying generous quantities of adhesive. Contaminated or starved glue lines result in weak, ugly seams. When a large countertop is to be assembled out of sections, it is important that the depth of each section and the thickness and configuration of the decorative edge match precisely where seams will be assembled in the field. Installers must assure that adjoining sections are leveled flush with one another before final assembly, to prevent misalignment of front edges and excessive sanding of high spots.
Installers should be equipped with random orbital sanders fitted with vacuum dust collection, and should be issued the full range of abrasives needed to produce consistent surface finishes. On many occasions, I have completed extensive sanding in a customer's home only to have them marvel at how little dust I've left behind. Customers often comment that sanding by the original installers filled the entire house with dust that took days of cleaning to eliminate. And these are not just installations that took place many years ago - some of them are quite recent. I am amazed that some installers continue to sand in homes without adequate dust collection. Recent advances in router design also make effective dust collection while routing increasingly practical.
I consider it a real privilege to work with a product that customers find so appealing. We all know that homeowners who have spent a lot of money to create a kitchen environment of their choice are delighted when the project turns out right. Our customers have every right to expect that our craftsmanship does justice to their choices. When it does, the result is functional and architectural beauty that we can all be proud of.