Mark McMunn

Diagram courtesy MIA

You have been in the granite business for a while and have done countless countertop jobs. You may even have gone out on a limb and installed a full height backsplash, or maybe even a fireplace facing surrounding the firebox opening. Both of those scenarios require that you set pieces in a vertical position and secure them so as not to fall forward and down on someone’s hands or head.

Detail #6 from the MIA Dimensional Stone Design Manual

Detail #6 from the MIA Dimensional Stone Design Manual

If you, like many, came to the stone business from another profession and have mainly installed only horizontal surfaces, you are very likely unaware that setting vertical pieces requires a much higher level of mechanical understanding of how stone should be fastened so as to be secured from falling and causing any harm. This is especially true when installing a soffit made from slab. 

A soffit is a slab piece of stone that is actually set in a horizontal position, but instead of being supported against gravity with a wooden cabinet below, it is mechanically fastened to a backup structure above. So: how should you set a soffit piece and be confident that the piece will not later become dislodged and come down on someone’s head?

It comes down to this: as long as you are installing stone pieces that are below the head and shoulders of a person, and the pieces are set in a horizontal position supported by a cabinet or other structure rather than gravity, and building shift and the occasional tremor (if you live in a tremor-prone part of the world) are not really a concern for you, go ahead and sleep well. 

However, if you want to include the installation of stone wall veneer to the services you provide, then you need to learn how to install stone veneer properly – and there is a lot to learn.

The scope of information required in order to know what you are doing when it comes to safely installing stone wall veneer cannot be conveyed in the space of this column, and indeed could fill the entire space of several editions of the SRG, and that would be without photos and drawings.

Regrettably, there is definitely a shortage of skilled marble and stone mechanics who know how to install dimensional stone in the United States. Also, there’s a shortage of places where a person can learn how to become a skilled mechanic in this field. There is no school that you can attend, or any online university that offers a course. Truly, the only reliable and accurate source to learn this trade, and it is a very good one, is found in the MIA manual, but here, too, you have to be able to conceptualize the installation in your mind without the benefit of working with actual pieces – which is not easy to do. 

Imagine trying to build something as simple as a picnic table with only a black and white illustrated book along with several sheets of plywood, some 2 x 4s, a circular saw, drill, some lag bolts and wire. In the mind, this seems an easy task, but truly it’s easier to push – not pull – a heavy chain across a railroad track than to read instructions and interpret black and white illustrations. 

This lack of qualified mechanics and an absence of a place to receive qualified, hands-on instruction has actually always been with us, but now with a surge in the demand for more stone veneer in homes and commercial installations, there’s a dangerous risk that some companies will perform these installations without the full knowledge and skill required to ensure that the installation is safe.

As a dramatic example of what can go wrong, about a week ago, after being installed for about 35 years, gravity collected the overdue toll demanded by an insufficiently anchored veneer piece, in the form of a spectacular failure. Luckily no one was hurt, but there was significant property damage to the building.

The point here is that installing vertical stone veneer is a completely different and separate discipline from the installation of countertops. Do not attempt to install veneer above the shoulder level if you are not sufficiently knowledgeable about the required methods to make the installation safe.  

However, it is worthwhile to learn this type of work because it pays well and is a very thinly populated domain that’s begging for more skilled workers. If you decide to step into this area of the business, be sure that you are thoroughly familiar with all of the methods required to make your installations secure and safe.

For example, if you think that simply using #8 copper wire and Laticrete Platinum thinset is sufficient to secure a vertical piece, then that means that you have only read what has been posted on the SFA forum. You need to understand why #8 copper wire, while sufficient for installing stone, has been replaced by stainless steel wire, which is thinner and stronger than copper wire.

 For lack of room on the page this discussion has to end for now. If you want to learn how to set vertical wall veneer, the best thing to do is to build a masonry and sheetrock wall in your shop, and simply follow the illustrations shown in the MIA installation manual to guide you on how to install stone on these two different types of backup walls.

Remember: practice makes perfect, and you won’t know if you can do it unless you try.