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.
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.
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.
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.