(Written in March, 1998)
by Jim Heaphy
I've been working with solid surface materials for fifteen years now, and I am convinced that these products are without a doubt the best available for countertops and sinks. In my opinion, though, there are some things that manufacturers and distributors can do to improve how these materials are produced and delivered. Therefore, in this column I'll describe a few problem areas and suggest some solutions. I hope that all parties involved will consider my remarks to be constructive, because that is my intent.
Dimensional sheet consistency is sometimes a problem in fabrication. Ideally, a sheet of solid surface material should be flat on both sides and of consistent thickness both at the edges and in the center of the sheet. In real life, nothing is ever absolutely perfect, and some slight deviation for the ideal must be allowed. Manufacturers must establish reasonable tolerances. However, fabricators sometimes receive sheets that are noticeably thinner on the long edges of the sheet, or that have edges that are slightly curled out of the flat plane. Such defects greatly complicate the process of making long seams in a wide island or peninsula countertop.
Ideally, the long edges of the sheet should be straight and square and true, so that two sheets can be placed side by side without any noticeable gap between them. In the real world, all too often this is not the case, and it is necessary for the fabricator to trim back two long edges before making a lengthwise seam between two sheets.
Some deviation from nominal thickness can be tolerated, but not much. For example, if a sheet that is sold as 1/2" thick is actually manufactured slightly thinner, stacking three layers of the sheet to create an 1-1/2" thick edge will triple the error, resulting in an edge that is noticeably less than 1-1/2" thick.
Of course, the manufacturers are aware of these problems, and fabricators have the right to expect that an ongoing effort will be made to improve manufacturing quality.
The distributor also has a role to play in sheet quality, because poor shipping and handling procedures can cause all sorts of problems. In my experience, a significant percentage of individual sheets of solid surface material arrive at the fabricator's shop with some sort of shipping damage. Often, the fabricator can't be certain who is responsible for the damage, since the material has been handled by the manufacturer, by a common carrier and then by the distributor. However, much of this clearly is the responsibility of the distributor, because larger quantities of sheets are shipped from manufacturing plants on pallets and are usually better protected, whereas the pallets are broken down into individual sheet units by the distributor. Most commonly, the damage consists of nicked and chipped edges, or scratches and abrasions on the finish surface of the sheet. If the damage is severe, the fabricator will exchange the sheet, which will then delay a project a day or more. However, accepting a sheet with minor damage usually results in additional labor costs for trimming damaged edges or sanding damaged sheet surfaces.
Fabricators would appreciate it if distributors would take a step by step look at how they handle and ship these heavy, awkward sheets. Perhaps procedural changes would help. Perhaps employees, even if they are husky weight lifter types, shouldn't be expected to handle 12 foot sheets by themselves. Perhaps truck storage racks can be improved. Perhaps the edges of single sheets can be protected by some sort of cardboard "U" channel. Perhaps surfaces can be protected with a slip sheet.
Sinks, because they are lighter and less awkward and lend themselves to effective protective packaging, are also less prone to shipping damage. However, they are not without their problems. One example is the solid surface vanity bowl that is shipped with a loose rubber hose for the overflow assembly. The hose is too long. The exact dimension is not furnished and it is difficult to measure the length across a curved surface accurately. Installers must fit the hose through a trial and error procedure, cutting off a little at a time until it is just right. If the installer doesn't remove enough, the hose will kink and not drain effectively. This is frustrating and a waste of time. It is a mystery why the hose is not cut to the proper length at the factory, and even why the whole vanity overflow system is designed in such an awkward and leak prone fashion.
A major solid surface manufacturer had a double bowl kitchen sink in its product line for many years. This company decided to discontinue that sink and introduce a completely different double bowl design. All well and good. However, they assigned the new sink the same model number as the discontinued sink. As a result, customers ordering from older catalogs received a different sink than what they thought they had ordered. If a new model number had been assigned, these customers would have been informed at the time of the order that their first choice had been discontinued, and asked to make another selection. Instead, delays, financial losses and unhappy customers resulted. Specifications of this sink model by architects and designers could no longer be trusted and had to be verified by submittal and approval of a scale drawing. The whole thing was an unnecessary mess. Manufacturers - the principle is simple. Every distinctive product should have a distinctive model number.
Solid surface manufacturers often illustrate their advertising and product literature with photos of upscale installations incorporating intricate edge details. Such photos are, of course, wonderful sales tools. Often though, duplicating these designs is a challenge to fabricators. In my opinion, it would be quite helpful if accompanying technical bulletins were published that would assist the average fabricator to produce these distinctive details efficiently, and even offer some unit labor estimates to assist in pricing.
If I could make just one change in the way that distributors handle their business affairs, it would be to convince them to process returns and credit memos in a prompt and efficient way. It is frustrating to be billed for material you didn't order, or material different than what you ordered in writing and have already returned, or material that arrived damaged and was never even unloaded from the distributor's truck. It is even more frustrating when it takes months to clear up the problem. Distributors should set a goal of resolving this sort of billing problem in a matter of days rather than weeks of moths.
The majority of the time, it is truly a pleasure to sell, fabricate and install solid surface materials. Occasionally, though, these nagging little problems that I've seen over the years crop up again. Perhaps they will all be solved in the 21st century. Maybe some of them will even be solved sooner. At least, we can all try. That's all I ask.
If you have comments, questions or suggestions about this column, write to me care of this magazine, or send me an e-mail at Heaphy@aol.com. I am always happy to hear from readers. Thank you.