Mark McMunn

Photo courtesy MSI

How many times has this happened to you? You are so busy you skipped lunch and you get a call from someone who wants a fast track job, to be completed in two weeks (or less). To get you to say yes against your better judgment, the client or the client’s decorator or contractor says the slabs have already been selected and that the cabinets are all in and ready for you to go and measure. The client then asks if a $10K deposit is enough to get you to commit and get started– applying the pressure before you even have a chance to make an estimate or visit the jobsite. 

This scenario may not have played out exactly like this for everyone, but if you stay in the business long enough something like this will come your way. The key thing to remember is: why should anyone come to you right out of the blue and offer a job with a big deposit check in hand? 

There are several possible answers: 1. The person – whom you just met – has heard of your great reputation for quality and is convinced that you, “the maestro,” are the only one that can handle their job; 2.  The person had another fabricator that walked away, which could explain why the slabs are already selected and the cabinets ready to measure. The truth lies somewhere between those two scenarios. 

What do you think is the biggest wild card in this scenario: the potential new client, or the time element? The argument presented in this article will be that the biggest wild card is the material.

The allure of beautiful but challenging stone is undeniable. Be aware that some high-priced, exotic and unfamiliar types of natural stone slabs – including quartzite  – can be more difficult to fabricate than you expected.

The allure of beautiful but challenging stone is undeniable. Be aware that some high-priced, exotic and unfamiliar types of natural stone slabs – including quartzite  – can be more difficult to fabricate than you expected. 

No doubt you have heard, “The greater the risk the greater the reward.” There is no doubt that the above scenario is full of possible dangers, but is also potentially a very profitable job if you are careful about the terms and especially careful with the material. If the job turns out to be a Level 1 granite with flat polished edges and a surface mount sink, take the job – there is likely nothing in that fabrication scenario that is going to be an unknown. However, when the material turns out to be a high dollar material like a natural quartzite that you have never worked before, step back and hit the pause button, because it could save you from disaster.

Here is a true story. A very experienced fabricator, who had many years under his belt with all types of clients including the “I’ll call my lawyer” type, took on a job with a material he had not worked before, but appeared very similar to another stone he had fabricated successfully. This could be likened to someone working Baltic Brown, for example, and then encountering a material that appears similar, and thinking, “If I can handle Baltic Brown, then I can handle this material, right?” Wrong.

The way this job played out was that the fabricator was able to command a higher premium to perform the work on such short notice, which was a good thing, as will be explained later. As an insurance precaution he included an additional slab in his price. 

Long story short: the job was executed perfectly, the owner paid and everyone was happy… until stains started to mysteriously show up on all the edges, after just a few months. Every possible cause was considered, along with appropriate remedies such as poultice, torching the edge, bleaching the edges with peroxide, etcetera, etcetera. Nothing worked and no cause for the staining was ever discovered. 

The saving grace was that this fabricator typically made his countertops 25-1/2 inches deep, versus 24-¾ to 25 inches deep, which most shops produce. The stains consistently went into the countertop about ½ inch in this particular case. The fabricator simply removed the top, sawed off the stains and reinstalled the tops, but left the edges unpolished to wait and see if the same thing would happen again. After several weeks no stains had returned, so he had a crew polish the edges in place. 

There was the still issue of the island, though. The island had bumped-out corners, and to cut ½ inch away all the way around would have left an unacceptable overhang. Remember that this fabricator had included the cost of an additional slab to his lump-sum price, as an insurance policy in case of emergency? It paid off, and saved this job. He was able to replace the island with no additional out-of-pocket costs, and along with the premium price he received for a quick turnaround that left him with a small net gain, and a big sigh of relief that he did not have to take a huge loss in time and money.

But this example illuminates a problem in our industry that has gone on for too long: just because someone can cut up a stone into slabs and polish the face, get a wholesaler to buy it and stock it, does not mean that it should or could be fabricated for countertops. 

The great American granite countertop rush brought about a certain madness among stone producers to dig up any old interesting rock outcropping, anywhere, and the more wild the markings the better, because for many years it appeared that the more wild and “Picasso-like” the markings of the stone, the more recklessly wild the American homeowner would spend to have it. After all, the cost of these exotic stones could be put into the mortgage… but that is another story. 

With that kind of reckless spending going on and new granite colors becoming less and less novel, other stones that were not previously considered for countertop use were quarried anyway, turned into slabs and sold to the American market. Two types of stone that come to mind right away are the schist granites and the quartzites. The schist-type granites have the wild type of markings that Americans craved but there was a problem for fabricators: the stone was almost impossible to fabricate.

Schistose granites cannot hold a profiled edge, and to even make a nice flat edge requires difficult and time-consuming techniques. That is not to say that the stone cannot be fabricated; if anyone can fabricate delicate or difficult stones its Americans, but still, was it worth the grief from customers who insisted on an ogee or triple waterfall edge, when they were told it could not be done? There were a lot of refunds made because of these stones. Same thing goes for some of the quartzites. Some quartzites have peculiar properties that we do not yet understand, and taking on these difficult stones has hurt some fabricators. It’s high time we did something about this.

Just like any drug has to go through trials with the FDA, so too there should be a process of testing to determine if a stone is suitable for fabricationJust like any drug has to go through trials with the FDA, so too there should be a process of testing done within the industry to determine if a stone is suitable for use on countertops, or if it can even be fabricated to begin with. The approval process should include tests for etching, staining, scratching, exposure to sunlight, and exposure to sudden heat, such as a pot of boiling water being placed on the face of the stone: does it cause immediate discoloration? Those are but a few of the tests that come to mind, but surely there are other things such as rates of absorption of stone agers and waxes which themselves are suspects of certain types of staining problems, problems which we must lay down at our own feet, as an industry.

It is heroic to be the fabricator who can fab anything, but you will be forgotten very quickly if you become the fabricator who fell from grace over a stone immune to our fabrication hubris. Let’s do ourselves and our customers a favor and have new stones tested before we put them out on the A-frame for sale.