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Articles by Jim Heaphy
for Kitchen & Bath Design News

‘Green’ Countertop Options Are Wide Ranging


As scientific evidence of global warming mounts, the trend toward environmental responsibility in new construction and remodeling grows as well. Interviewed in February in the Memphis Daily News, Jim Lutz, professor of architecture at the University of Memphis, said that the green building movement “is going to be the issue that dominates the field of architecture for the next century.”

Lutz and his students have designed a home to be built this summer that will be one of the first to meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s new LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) guidelines for homes.

Homeowners today are increasingly likely to weigh the environmental impact of the various materials they are considering for use in their homes, and the visibility of countertop surfaces leads to increased attention to “green countertop materials.”

Solid Surface

Many green building advocates object to conventional solid surface materials because their ingredients are made from non-renewable resources. Acrylic resins are derived from petroleum, and alumina trihydrate fillers are obtained from bauxite ore, which is most often obtained from open pit mines in Third World countries.

Solid surface manufacturers say they are striving to improve their environmental performance in many different ways. The aluminum industry has made a commitment to rehabilitate old bauxite mine sites to a condition “indistinguishable from their pre-mining condition,” according to the International Aluminium Institute.

It takes roughly one barrel of crude oil to make the acrylic resin needed to manufacture the solid surface material for countertops in an average-sized kitchen. Those countertops can easily last for 20 to 30 years or longer, and can be repaired or renovated as needed. Informed consumers must decide whether or not it is unreasonable to use petroleum in this way.

Large manufacturers of solid surface materials, quartz products and plastic laminates used by countertop fabricators, such as DuPont, Cambria, Silestone, Formica, Nevamar and Wilsonart, have obtained independent, third-party GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality certification, which assures that their products comply with strict standards limiting chemical emissions, primarily volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

New Options

The desire to use a countertop material that meets even higher environmental standards has led to a proliferation of new products that are being marketed as environmentally friendly. These products are manufactured using a variety of recycled or renewable raw materials. For example, at least three companies now offer countertop slabs made primarily of recycled glass.

IceStone is manufactured in Brooklyn, NY out of recycled glass in a concrete matrix. Some patterns also incorporate recycled post-industrial Mother of Pearl chips. The company operates in a renovated day-lit facility and employs a multicultural workforce that is over 20% Tibetan refugees.

EnviroGLAS uses recycled glass and porcelain embedded in epoxy resin binder to make its countertop product called EnviroSLAB in Garland, TX. The material is 75% recycled glass and 25% binder by volume. The company won the National Recycling Coalition’s 2006 Outstanding Market Development Award.

Vetrazzo is another countertop material that consists of 85% recycled glass in concrete. The company operates in Richmond, CA out of a renovated factory that is on the National Register of Historic Places, and it recently received a $1.3 million grant from California to expand its product line.

Two companies are manufacturing paper-based countertop materials. These products bear some resemblance to plastic laminates, but are much thicker and lack the melamine top coat common to plastic laminates.

Richlite, in Tacoma, WA, is a countertop material made primarily of paper derived from certified managed forests in North America. The binder is phenolic resin. The manufacturer incorporates a limited percentage of recycled paper into the product, but believes that new paper offers superior quality and performance.

PaperStone is a countertop material made by KlipTech Bio Composites in Hoquiam, WA. There are two categories of PaperStone: The original is made with 50% post-consumer recycled paper, while PaperStone Certified is made with 100% post-consumer recycled paper, and is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The company says it uses “non-petroleum based resins”.

Rapidly renewable resources are the holy grail of green building materials. This term refers to useful plant fiber materials that can be re-grown in less than 10 years, as opposed to 50 years or so for red oak, for example. The category includes products made of cork, sorghum, wheat straw, sunflower hulls and bamboo. Of these materials, bamboo has achieved the greatest success in conventional western construction.

Totally Bamboo is a company that now offers laminated bamboo countertop sheets in thicknesses of 1-1/2" and 2" and lengths up to 8 feet. The material is 16% harder than maple, and is laminated in crossbanded layers using food grade, formaldehyde-free adhesives.

Alkemi is a countertop material made by Renewed Materials LLC of Cabin John, MD. It is composed of 60% recycled post-industrial scrap aluminum with either clear or opaque polymeric resin binders. The scrap aluminum consists of distinctively curled shavings, and the product comes in two finishes. With the textured finish, the aluminum shavings are fully encapsulated within the sheet, but visible through clear resin. The honed finish, on the other hand, is machined so that exposed aluminum is visible on the surface.

Squak Mountain Stone is a unique countertop product manufactured in Woodinville, WA by Tiger Mountain Innovations. The product is a composite that includes mixed paper, crushed glass, granite dust, fly ash and Portland cement. Fly ash is an industrial byproduct produced in coal-fired electric generating plants. It is a fine powder that can be mixed with cement in ratios approaching 50%, reducing the amount of cement needed to make a strong product. The environmental benefit of using fly ash as an additive is that cement is an energy-intensive product to manufacture, whereas fly ash is an inevitable byproduct of energy generation from coal.

Origins is a 100% recycled polyethylene countertop material manufactured by Yemm & Hart in Marquand, MO. The company makes Origins out of colorful recycled post-consumer detergent bottles. Because the recycled bottles are sorted by color before being shredded into flakes, the manufacturer can accurately formulate and produce a variety of standard colors and patterns.

It can be expected that some of these companies will thrive, while perhaps others may fade away. However, it seems sure that the demand for countertop materials perceived as “green” is bound to grow for a long time to come. Accordingly, it would be wise for countertop fabricators to give consideration to adding some of these products to their mix of offerings, and to develop policies regarding their own commitment to environmental responsibility.

Addressing Buyer’s Remorse . . . 12 Years Later


In early June, I received a call from a woman who had added a new kitchen on her home in 1994. At that time, she had children living at home and was caring for an elderly parent. She recalled feeling rushed when making the decisions about the kitchen. She decided on solid surface countertops and, without full consideration of the alternatives, selected a top-mounted cast iron sink and caulked, butt joint backsplashes.

Shortly after the job was finished, she saw a kitchen in another home with solid surface countertops. However, this kitchen had coved splashes and an integral solid surface sink. She saw how easy to clean those countertops were. She immediately developed a chronic case of buyer’s remorse.

She called the original fabricator, who told her that nothing could be done now that the countertops were installed – short of tearing out the old countertops and installing new ones. So, she lived with her dissatisfaction.

Years passed, and the elderly parent passed away. The children grew up and mostly moved away. Several times over those years, she talked with kitchen professionals. Each time, when she mentioned her wish to have coved splashes and an integral sink, she was told that it simply wasn’t practical without tearing our her perfectly good countertops and starting over.

Recently, however, she attended a home and garden show, where she told a local fabricator her story. The fabricator referred her to me. Shortly after she called, I visited her home and discussed the project with her. I informed her that what she wanted was possible, but that it was difficult. I was also honest in describing the challenges.

TACKLING THE JOB

I’ve fabricated and installed quite a few countertops with coved splashes over the years, and have used a variety of techniques. I’ve mentioned in this column a fabricator named Ramiro Martinez of Formline Solid Surfacing in Sacramento, CA, who has been an advocate for coving splashes on already-installed countertops. He was kind enough to offer me some tips. All my previous hands-on experience with coving splashes had been on the workbench prior to installation. I was excited about trying something new, but also a bit worried about the challenge. After all, this was really two separate projects – replacing the cast iron sink with an integral undermounted solid surface sink, and coving the backsplashes.

After I inspected the job, I sent the homeowners a proposal. Then began the most protracted series of negotiations I’ve encountered in years, as they asked for additional details, and checked my references, license and insurance. Finally, after I answered their concerns, they accepted my proposal. I set aside three consecutive days to do the work. My son James agreed to assist me.

I was afraid that it might be difficult to remove the double-bowl cast iron sink if the original installer had bonded it down with some tenacious vinyl caulk. But, the sink had been caulked with silicone, which gave way easily when we sprayed the perimeter of the sink with denatured alcohol and lifted the sink gently from below with a hydraulic jack. However, when we cleaned the countertop surface beneath the sink, we discovered that the original installers had cut the sink hole too large.

To correct matters, they had seamed on four strips of solid surface material around the perimeter, plus four tiny triangles at the corners. For extra support, the installers had cut eight strips of plywood, which were screwed and glued in two layers to all four cabinet sides, touching the underside of the countertop. All of this patchwork was concealed by the sink installation, but the seams were very visible now. It was not only unsightly, but the plywood supports prevented us from undermounting the new sink. It was necessary to tear out all of this old patchwork, and rebuild the countertop in that entire area.

Extensive hand work was necessary at the back, since the bad seam there was too close to the backsplash to be trimmed by a router. Fortunately, some surplus solid surface material we had brought along was a perfect color match to the existing countertop, and our modifications were, for all practical purposes, invisible.

By mid-afternoon of our first day, we had converted a sink cutout that was too large to one that was significantly smaller than needed. We then chose to set aside the sink work for awhile, and to cove the splash behind the sink area. The much wider surface behind the smaller sink cutout gave good stable support to the coving router as we worked in that area.

COVING THE SPLASH

Solid surface coving routers have been on the market for roughly 20 years, but newer models are significantly improved. Notable changes include optional dust collection, as well as precise fence adjustments, improved router bit design, and optional friction-free operation using flotation on a bed of compressed air.

To cove an existing splash on an installed countertop, special clamps using small suction cups are required. All the necessary equipment is available from several companies including industry stalwarts Specialtytools.com and The Pinske Edge. Even with all the proper equipment, the process is physically challenging. When coving a top on the workbench, the router operator can pick a work position behind and above the splash, for better control with the router operated relatively close to the body.

It’s very important to remove every trace of accessible caulk from the area of the cove. We used utility knife blades, dental picks, putty knives and thin steel rulers to cut, scrape, tease and gouge the old caulk away. We flooded the area with denatured alcohol and sopped up the dirt and grease. Then, we scuff-sanded both the horizontal and the vertical surfaces.

Use generous, consistent beads of adhesive and secure the strips with clamps spaced every four inches; be sure that you see two consistent lines of adhesive squeeze-out.

Take the time to adjust the coving router so that the bit cuts deep enough – but not too deep. The adjustments are complex at first, but become second nature after a few hours of work. If only every surface was perfectly flat and all angles were exactly 90 degrees, few problems would be encountered.

The router can be adjusted to compensate for a splash that is slightly out of square, for example, but will then be a bit out of adjustment where the splash angle changes.

We encountered some problems where the deck seams had been a bit over-sanded at the wall. Caulks can fill lots of minor irregularities, but we noticed a tendency for adhesive voids and bubbles at the locations of these deck seams.

Finish sanding took more time than we expected, especially at vertical inside corners. By the afternoon of the third day, we could see the light at the end of the tunnel, but still had lots of work to complete. It took much of a fourth day to tweak everything to our satisfaction, but the result looked really great, and I left with a final payment in my wallet.

Later, we received an e-mail from the customer, thanking us for the beautiful job we had done. The e-mail concluded: “Now the counters look the way we always wanted. Thank you again for your professionalism, reliability and excellent work.” That e-mail was our additional reward.

Surface Show Embraces New Direction in Las Vegas - August 2006


This past March, thousands of surfacing industry professionals gathered in Las Vegas for the Surface Fabrication & Design Expo, which is the new name for what was formerly called the Solid Surface International Expo. The show’s name change represents the shift in emphasis at the show (and in the industry) from a narrow focus on solid surface materials to a broader emphasis that includes engineered stone products (also called quartz surfaces), natural stones and even exotic items such as glass sinks and glass countertop surfaces.

This was the ninth annual show held in Las Vegas, and this year’s event featured the best lineup of educational opportunities ever offered. Over 60 workshops covered a wide variety of topics in four tracks: Business Solutions, Sales & Marketing, Fabrication, and Clinics, which were hands-on presentations on the floor of the exhibit hall.

A THICKER APPROACH

The proliferation of brands of solid surface materials has certainly led to a more competitive marketplace for fabricators looking to purchase less-expensive, half-inch-thick sheet material. With so many players in the market, however, it is difficult for new entrants to differentiate themselves from the pack.

One company has decided to take a completely different approach to selling solid surface materials to fabricators – Eos Surfaces. Company founders Evan Kruger and Ken Trinder don’t bother to offer the industry’s common half-inch thick sheet. Instead, they are dedicated to a different and much simpler way of fabricating – with much thicker solid surface sheets. Eos measures a full 3 centimeters thick, which is just a little bit less than an inch and a quarter. Although

Eos promises improved product strength and performance, its main benefit is a dramatic reduction in fabrication and installation labor. The cost of the shop labor and seam adhesive needed to build up, trim and sand rough edges is eliminated. Because the countertops sit directly on top of the cabinets, it’s not necessary to apply wooden build-up strips to the cabinets. It’s also unnecessary to bond solid surface reinforcements under the seams, since the deck seam surface area is more than doubled, and the seams are, therefore, very durable.
Eos is an acrylic polyester blend, now available in 19 patterns. Eos can be fabricated dry using CNC equipment optimized for conventional solid surface production, or with equipment intended for stone fabrication, using wet cutting for better dust control.

The company has established a national distribution network, and does not plan to sell through home centers. This may prove appealing to traditional kitchen dealers and mid-sized fabricators beleaguered by giant competitors.

One possible criticism of Eos is that it is quite heavy. A 10-foot length of countertop fabricated of conventional half-inch-thick solid surface material weighs about 100 pounds. The same countertop fabricated with Eos weighs about 230 pounds. That may seem like a dramatic difference, but another comparison should also be made. A granite countertop the same size and thickness as Eos would weigh roughly 375 pounds. Although there is significant weight variation among different granites, all are much heavier than Eos. For more information about Eos, please visit www.eos-surfaces.com.

OTHER APPROACHES

Every shop manager worries that, someday, an OSHA inspector will drop by and discover something wrong and impose a hefty fine. To help ease fears, TechneTrain, Inc. has published its “Federal OSHA Compliance Manual for the Solid Surface Industry,” a book that teaches how to comply with the regulations applicable to our industry specifically. This manual is all wheat and no chaff, and is available in both printed and CD ROM versions.

The company also sells PowerPoint safety training modules that smooth the process of training employees as well as the documenting of that required training. Contact www.TechneTrainOnline.com for more information about these and other products.

Established industry players Wilsonart and DuPont are taking opposite approaches when it comes to responding to the challenge posed by granite. Wilsonart Solid Surface distributed flyers at the Surface Fabrication & Design Expo making the case that solid surface is superior to granite as a kitchen countertop material. I remember quite clearly when DuPont made the same argument. However, theoretical arguments are one thing, and market realities are another; no one can dispute the dramatic growth of granite in the upper-end kitchen countertop market in the past 15 years. Solid surface loyalists may not like it, but the market has embraced granite.

DuPont made a strategic decision at the beginning of the 21st century to broaden its countertop offerings rather than rely on Corian as its only such product in the marketplace. The company then introduced Zodiaq, an engineered stone or “quartz surface” product. Next came Simplicity, an economical solid surface material manufactured in China. Now, DuPont has introduced “Granite Certified by DuPont,” available in 15 colors, treated with a proprietary sealant and covered by a 10-year limited warranty. The warranty against staining is for just one year, though. Information is available at www.granite.dupont.com.

Suitable Solutions is a computer software company that offers a variety of programs of interest to countertop fabricators. Among them are suitableFABRICATOR, a suite of programs for fabricators, and Tractivity, a job-costing program. The firm’s latest offering is zEstimator, which is a sales presentation and estimating tool that will produce a range of estimates for a single job in a choice of a variety of countertop materials, such as solid surface, stone, laminate, tile, wood or stainless steel. This is a program intended to help salespeople close profitable sales more quickly. Visit www.suitable.com to find out more.

After nine years in Las Vegas, the Surface Fabrication & Design Expo will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year with a cross-country move to a new location – Orlando, FL. Expect plenty of new products and new faces. Plan now to attend from March 15-17, 2007, at the Orange County Convention Center. Visit www.sfdexpo.com for complete details as next year’s show approaches.

ISSFA Fabricator Training Gets Manufacturer Support - May 2006


Once a month, the International Solid Surface Fabricators Association (ISSFA) conducts its four-day Total Fabrication Training program near Las Vegas. These classes are so successful that they are booked up months in advance.

By far the most comprehensive hands-on training program now offered to the solid surface industry, Total Fabrication Training is offered at the ITEC, ISSFA’s Training and Education Center in Henderson, NV, a state-of-the-art facility that offers students a real-world shop environment furnished with tools and technology from leading industry suppliers.

My wife and I took a seminar on decorative inlay techniques at the ITEC shortly after it first opened, and we had the opportunity to tour the facility again recently, courtesy of ISSFA executive director Robert Oxley. The exciting announcement that motivated our latest visit was that every major manufacturer of solid surface materials now endorses the Total Fabrication Training program as an integral step in the training of solid surface fabricators and installers.

“This is a major step forward for ISSFA. Never before have all of the solid surface producers come together to endorse a single training curriculum for the industry,” said Oxley, an industry veteran who has helped revitalize ISSFA in the past couple of years.

Manufacturers that have signed on for the program include Avonite, DuPont Corian, Formica Solid Surface, Wilsonart Solid Surface, Samsung Staron, LG Hi-Macs, Centura, Dovae, Florenata, Harmony, Hudson Surfaces, Lion ChemTech and Royal Stone Industries. As a group, these manufacturers now acknowledge that the solid surface fabrication industry ought to operate under commonly accepted quality standards, and that the variations between brands are less important than the general principles that unite them, at least as far as fabrication quality goes. This refreshing display of unity among all major manufacturers is a welcome development and certainly a good omen for the future.

Training Inspiration
Back in the late 1980s, I was active in a now-defunct trade association called the Decorative Laminate Products Association (DLPA), which had a subgroup for solid surface fabricators. This was an early and only partially successful effort to build unity among solid surface fabricators, as well as to garner support for a national fabricators’ group.

A well-known and respected fabricator, Ron Biloff of Lincoln, NE, initiated this project, and I was proud to assist him as co-chair of the committee. Later, I became committee chair for a couple of years. As part of a DLPA conference held in Winston-Salem, NC, I conducted the first solid surface training seminar that gave equal treatment to the four major national brands on the market at that time. During my presentation, I completed some basic fabrication procedures on DuPont Corian, Formica 2000X, Nevamar Fountainhead and Avonite, and each company donated a sheet of material and some seam adhesive to the effort.

What ISSFA has now achieved with Total Fabrication Training is the realization of a vision shared by pioneering fabricators like Ron Biloff 20 years ago, and the result is most impressive.

Course of Action
ISSFA’s director of education and certification, Bill Wolle, is the key instructor for the Total Fabrication Training program. After studying DVDs of his presentations, I can tell you that he’s a natural teacher and a prepared instructor. He loves to communicate and educate, he understands the industry and he has worked with successful fabricators worldwide to develop effective instructional materials that can help turn a beginner into a professional fabricator. Oxley complements Wolle well, with his captivating presentations on the theory of management as applied to the solid surface industry.

ISSFA’s approach to management is based on five key words: “Plan,” “Organize,” “Implement,” “Execute” and “Evaluate.” Following through step-by-step on these essential concepts ensures the greatest chance of success in any venture. The ISSFA training philosophy combines theory, best practices and real-life experiences. Attentive students leave equipped with the tools for success.

The first day of Total Fabrication Training introduces the student to the fundamentals of solid surface materials and the basic principles of productivity. Safety gets a big emphasis from the beginning, as it should in every solid surface shop. Both physical and electronic techniques for templating of countertops are explained, and seaming and seam reinforcement procedures are introduced and demonstrated.

The students work in teams of two, and each team has a fully equipped workstation with the latest tools and technology. Over the four-day period, each team completes the fabrication and installation of a typical kitchen countertop.

On the second day, students are introduced to decorative edges, and the program covers both structural issues and design aspects of edges. Various types of countertop cutouts are explained, with a particular emphasis on the special requirements of cutouts for heat- generating appliances such as cooktops. Countertop support systems are demonstrated, including special provisions for cantilevered overhangs. Each team learns about sink installation options and installs a seam undermounted solid surface sink.

Day three covers major backsplash options, with particular attention to coved splashes. Thermoforming, decorative inlay techniques and an introduction to solid surface repair procedures are also covered.

The final day includes sanding and buffing techniques used to produce surface finishes ranging from matte to semi gloss to high gloss. Quality control is discussed, along with systematic installation procedures. The course closes with a summary of the course material and a rededication to profitability through efficiency and high-quality workmanship.

The shop facilities are neat, clean and very well organized. Working in teams, the students in the program use the sort of production power tools used every day in real fabrication shops, and fabricate actual countertops with donated solid surface materials. Companies I’ve written about for years, such as The Pinske Edge, Specialitytools.com, Monument Toolworks, Andreas Templates and ETemplate System, have donated equipment to the ITEC. Many other companies also offer support for the program.

Next year, ISSFA will celebrate its 10th anniversary. Now representing 878 companies worldwide, its dedicated staff and volunteers can be justifiably proud of its accomplishments.

Israeli Countertops Blend Ancient History & Sleek Design - October 2005


While my three-week trip to Israel this summer with my wife and sons was incredible, I have to admit that the kitchen/bath industry is never far from my mind. I had to check out the countertops, the cabinets, and the kitchen and bath showrooms everywhere we went.

We arrived at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv where the ultramodern Terminal Three opened last November. This billion-dollar international terminal was efficient, comfortable and very attractive. A special treat was the discovery of well-fabricated DuPont Corian vanity tops in the public restrooms, featuring coved splashes and undermounted vanity bowls.

A fascinating stop was the splendid ancient Roman port city of Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, originally built by King Herod more than 2,000 years ago. At the site there’s an impressive Crusader citadel built about 1250 A.D.

Immediately adjacent are the modern production facilities of CaesarStone, which is owned by Kibbutz Sdot-Yam, a communal settlement established in 1940 whose name means “Fields of the Sea.” CaesarStone, a pioneer in the manufacturing and marketing of quartz-based engineered stone products, produces the dominant countertop material for upper-end kitchen and bath remodeling in Israel.

A few days later, we visited Safed, a mountain town in Galilee considered one of the four holy cities of Judaism, and renowned as a center of Kabbalistic mysticism. In Safed we visited the Joseph Caro synagogue, founded by a famous scholar almost 500 years ago. I was amused to see an ultra-modern kitchenette and engineered stone countertop installed in a niche in the old synagogue stonework.

The installer had scribed the trim strips carefully to follow the irregularities of the ancient stone work. It was a striking contrast. The cabinetry had high-tech Italian door and drawer pulls, white melamine interiors, concealed European hinges and epoxy-coated, full-extension drawer slides.

Showroom Insights

I also had the chance to visit three kitchen/bath showrooms in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv. Because business has improved in the past year, all four establishments were quite busy. I considered myself lucky that two English-speaking managers were willing to meet with me to discuss the current state of kitchen and bath remodeling in Israel. I give my thanks to Hanan Fridel of Ziv Kitchens and David Miller of Mobalpa Kitchens, both in Jerusalem, for being so generous with their time.

Overall, Fridel and Miller confirmed my strongest impression gained from touring these showrooms: sleek, modern, European design influences prevail in Israel. Solid wood, raised-panel cabinet doors just aren’t seen, nor are face-frame cabinets. Veneered, flat-panel doors and drawer fronts covering frameless cabinet boxes are almost universal. Decorative hardware is contemporary. Large storage drawers are common, and upper cabinets often feature top-hinged, tilt-up doors rather than side-hinged ones. Drawer boxes are almost always made of metal or plastic, rather than wood. Innovative ideas using functional hardware, such as Blum’s Dynamic Space concept, are displayed prominently. Many kitchen displays show base cabinets perched on short metal legs instead recessed toe kicks.

Common appliances tend to be significantly smaller than in the U.S. For example, four-burner gas cooktops are often 60cm or just 24" wide, and five-burner units are often just 70cm or 27-1/2" wide. Most of the appliances are made in Italy.

Since Israel does not have natural gas service supplied by utility pipelines, gas appliances operate from propane tanks installed outside of houses and apartment buildings. The gas is produced locally as a refinery by-product.

Countertop Preferences

Beyond that, both men provided even more insights on current kitchen/bath design trends in Israel. For instance, they report CaesarStone’s engineered stone is the number one countertop material in Israel, with a market share estimated as high as 95%.

I did see other countertop materials on display, including DuPont Corian and Samsung Staron, as well as stainless steel and granite. Solid surface materials are significantly more expensive than CaesarStone in Israel, and are perceived as a very exclusive product. Marketing of natural stone products is disorganized, while CaesarStone offers dealers free installation of showroom displays and quality guarantees.

In terms of other product trends, they reported the vast majority of the cabinets sold in Israel are made domestically, though almost all of the hardware comes from Europe. The industry is highly automated, relying on CNC equipment. Some European cabinets brands are sold in Israel, but their prices are not competitive because in recent years the Israeli shekel has been weak against the Euro. Plus, many of the European cabinet makers prefer particleboard, which Israeli consumers perceive as inferior. There’s a strong preference in Israel for plywood panels, which are imported by Israeli cabinet manufacturers from Scandinavia and the former Soviet Union.

Fridel reports the dominant design trends migrate to Israel from Italy and Germany, with some delay. For instance, if leading European cabinet firms show lots of glass or lacquered doors at the big show in Milan, then Israeli companies will display a similar look about two years later.

Home Trends

Another interesting note is that Israel has a very high rate of homeownership at nearly 80%. However, most Israelis live in what are called “apartments,” which are privately owned in a way similar to our condos. Separate, single-family homes are available, but are far less common than in the U.S. Fridel and Miller indicate Israeli homeowners take great pride in their kitchens, and love to modernize as their personal finances permit. They usually pay cash or use short-term financing for remodeling projects, rather than relying on home equity loans or other forms of long-term mortgages.

Specialized kitchen/bath showrooms still prevail at the upper end of the market in Israel, though big-box home centers such as Home Depot and Ikea are starting to emerge in the suburbs.

Both men agree the business climate at the turn of this century was very poor – a direct result of the wave of terrorism called the “second intifada” that swept the country, which included more than 160 suicide bombings. Business has improved in the past year or two, as the violence has receded. Miller is optimistic that good times are ahead, while Fridel is a bit more cynical, believing that business will be good only if the peace process goes forward.

In the end, my showroom tour in clearly opened my eyes to Israeli kitchen/bath design, product and business trends. I recommend a visit and a tour of a few showrooms. There’s much one can learn.

A Streamlined Operation Can Boost Your Bottom Line - August 2005


I mentioned in my last column that I was planning to attend a one-day training seminar, the goal of which is to improve the efficiency and profitability of your business. It's a topic that, as fabricators in the kitchen and bath industry, shouldn't ever be taken lightly.

Indeed, this particular seminar that my wife and I attended in West Sacramento, CA in May was given by industry pioneer Tom Pinske, owner of The Pinske Edge. It was one of at least 35 one-day training seminars he'll be giving in 2005 and 2006 all over the country.

Of course, Tom will be introducing attendees to his package of systematic fabrication methods, but by doing so, he emphasizes something that must be in place in order to improve any fabricator's efficiency: the standardization of fabrication methods.

Standardizing Methods
While there isn't only one right way to carry out any given fabrication procedure, each fabrication business should decide on a single such method to be used in its operation, and insist that all employees follow the standard at all times. In fact, the entire package of fabrication procedures should connect with one another in a logical way, so that inefficiencies can be driven out of your business.

To that end, The Pinske Edge offers two different packages of equipment used for coving backsplashes. The router-based system is appropriate for smaller fabricators, and the shaper-based system is appropriate for larger fabricators. While talking about the topic of improving efficiency, Tom cites these two products as examples of ways to do so. But, most importantly, he recommends that you, as fabricators looking to boost profitability while streamlining operations, make an informed decision on the technique your firms will use, teach it to all involved employees and stick with it consistently.

Upselling is another point that can't be stressed enough to you as fabricators, and it's also something Tom speaks to in his seminar. You can succeed in solid surface fabrication by selling the lowest-cost, plain-vanilla countertops. But, as Tom points out, a better direction to take is to focus on more sophisticated fabrication techniques, such as coved backsplashes, pinstripes, decorative inlays, routed drainboards, thermoformed items such as shower pans, and, for larger shops, CNC routing.

Some fabricators may see such offerings as too labor-intensive and not profitable enough, or, in the case of CNC routers, way too expensive. But, before ruling out any or all of these possibly profit-boosting options, take a cue from Tom and his business and the way he has streamlined his packages of fabrication methods: look at ways you can improve the efficiency of all of these procedures, analyze their costs and price them to improve the profitability of your business.
In fact, an emphasis on upscale fabrication techniques will differentiate your shop from your less sophisticated competitors, leading to improved profitability, as Tom points out. Automation is necessary for larger shops, and is, in fact, profitable, as long as the proper equipment is chosen and used in an efficient and systematic manner.

Furthermore, examine your fabricating process from start to finish, starting at the time when a countertop is measured.

Accurate job-site templating is one crucial element in the process. And Tom is a strong advocate of this. For smaller shops, he recommends a physical template made of luan strips, with wall irregularities scribed onto a strip of luan plywood, and then sanded to the line for a very accurate fit. Actual scribing of the countertop is completed in the shop, which greatly speeds installation. For larger shops, he recommends electronic templating – specifically, the ETemplate system, which can interface with a CNC router.

Securing materials properly during fabricating is the next crucial step, of course. If materials are properly secured, then there's considerably less chance of waste. In the case of Tom's system, it involves Power Grips, or suction cups, that hold straight edges and templates during solid surface fabrication, and also clamp deck seams. His Starter System also includes folding, portable work station supports called Power Stands, the Wavy Edge system of preparing field seams for assembly, aluminum straight edges and radius templates. An expanded Starter System Plus is also available. Included are all of the essentials needed by a small shop, with the exception of standard power tools such as saws, routers and sanders.

These two systems are just two ways to set up and standardize the fabrication process so that more jobs can be sold and produced at a more efficient and accurate rate. But these are not the only systems. As fabricators, we need to examine the right processes, and products, that will work with our type of businesses, for our type of customers and for our type of shops. Then, we need to create a systematic package of fabrication methods that works best for us, and yields us the most profitability – whether it's an all-inclusive package or built from different pieces.

Cost of Labor
Another advantage to streamlining fabrication and improving the efficiency of the fabricating process is that fabricators can more easily control skilled labor costs. In the seminar, Tom points out the labor cost savings that can be obtained by doing this in your own firms.

For example, for a typical three-sheet kitchen countertop with a 4" coved splash and an integral sink, using conventional methods, fabrication time is estimated at 55 man hours. Using tools and techniques developed by The Pinske Edge, for instance, fabrication time is reduced to 27 man hours, as Tom points out. Given the significant difference in time and money this example represents, any fabricator should be inspired to take a very careful look at his/her own operation to see where comparable labor savings might be obtained.

I've known Tom for more than 16 years. Back then, I did a lot of introductory solid surface fabrication seminars. At a trade show sponsored by KBDN, I broke a router bit I needed to do my seminar. Tom had only been in the tool business for a year or two, and had a booth there. He loaned me the router bit I needed to finish my seminar, and I've never forgotten his kindness.

In 2003 Tom was selected for admission into the Hall of Fame of the International Solid Surface Fabricators Association. You can find out why I feel that honor is well-deserved by attending one of Tom's one-day seminars. I think you'll enjoy yourself as you learn, and it'll even make you want to examine how efficient your firm really is.

The Best and Brightest at Solid Surface Expo - June 2005


Nearly 3,300 solid surface industry professionals gathered in March at the Las Vegas Convention Center for the 8th Annual Solid Surface International Expo. Many of the attendees rode from their hotels to the convention center on the convenient new Las Vegas Monorail, which carried a record-breaking one million passengers in March. The monorail makes traveling up and down “The Strip” a breeze. Try it the next time you’re in Vegas.

When I’m at the Solid Surface Expo each year, I’m always on the lookout for new products that may be useful to the average solid surface fabricator. I’ll be the first to admit that my knowledge of engineered stone is not as extensive as what I know about solid surface materials, but I can tell you that the number of exhibits highlighting engineered stone products is on the increase. The show displays everything needed for that market segment. However, based on experience, I feel better prepared to evaluate the products intended for solid surface fabricators, so those will be my focus here.

What’s New
I’m always interested in anything new that Kevin Andreas of Andreas Custom Design has developed. As a repair specialist, I use his solid surface repair templates almost every day, and recommend his template system to any repair technician. This year, Kevin has perfected “The Dust Raider,” which is a special router base plate designed to pick up the vast majority of dust generated in edge routing. The dust collection fitting rotates 360 degrees, utilizing a Teflon-coated stainless steel spin ring carefully engineered to keep dust particles out of the mechanism so that it won’t jam. To manufacture the Dust Raider, Kevin has partnered with Monument Toolworks, the same company that manufactures the “Parallign Seam Leveling Clamp.” For information, call Andreas Custom Design at 845-469-5771.

Another of my favorite innovators is Tom Pinske of The Pinske Edge. I first met Tom in 1989 when we both appeared at a trade show sponsored by Kitchen & Bath Design News at the retired ocean liner HMS Queen Mary, docked in Long Beach, CA. I was preparing to do an introductory fabrication seminar, and had broken a router bit that I needed for my presentation. Tom graciously loaned me a spare.

Over the years, Tom has developed and perfected his comprehensive system of tools and equipment for fabricating solid surface materials. Whether it’s Power Grips, Power Stands, precision straight edges, decorative inlays or innovations in material handling, Tom Pinske leads the way. Now, Tom is taking his show on the road, traveling around the country in an RV in 2005 and 2006, conducting one-day training seminars from California to Massachusetts, and from Florida to Washington. I’ll be at his Sacramento presentation soon. Visit www.pinske-edge.com for details and dates.

Integrated Designs LLC has developed something unique – the solid surface “IntegraFlo-Faucet,” a beautiful faucet that flows seamlessly out of the countertop, eliminating that area where soil and dangerous bacteria occur. The faucet can be bevel mounted into any solid surface countertop. Visit http://www.integrateddesignsllc.com/ for information. “Templamat” is billed as “the bridge between lauan strips and electronic templating.”

Templamat is based on flexible plastic strips that can be fused to one another with a quick-acting adhesive. The strips are stiff enough to follow a wall profile accurately and maintain the template shape, but can be cut easily with scissors, or scribed to curves.

After only six to eight minutes, the adhesive has set up, and the entire template can be rolled up compactly for transportation back to your shop. After the job is complete, the template can be cut up and segments can be reused. An introductory Templamat Tool Kit, containing everything you need to get started, packed in a convenient nylon carrying bag, is also available. I’ve tried Templamat and found the material superior to my previous methods. Go to http://www.templamat.com/ for more information.

Seminar Success
The International Solid Surface Fabricators Association (ISSFA) began the Solid Surface Expo eight years ago, although the show is now owned and operated by Cygnus Expositions, a division of K&BDN’s parent company, Cygnus Business Media. ISSFA, which remains a sponsor of the show, is a leading force in solid surface fabrication training, and is the recognized trade association for the industry. I recommend that you join ISSFA now if you’re not already a member.

A recent ISSFA success is the association’s “Job Management & Installation Seminar,” which is all about hiring, training and keeping great installers. This seminar has been presented several times at ISSFA headquarters in Henderson, NV, just outside Las Vegas. Those who’ve attended are lavish with their praise. This year, the JMI seminar will be presented in Chicago, New York, St. Louis, Atlanta and San Francisco, in addition to Las Vegas.

The highlights of this acclaimed seminar are also available on videotape or DVD, along with all of the written materials in the JMI workbook. Contact ISSFA at http://www.issfa.org/ for information.

Since creativity and innovation remain strengths of our industry, I’m sure that Solid Surface International Expo 2006 will showcase many outstanding new products. Make your plans now to attend the show at the Las Vegas Convention Center next March 16–18.

Something new and exciting will be featured at next year’s show – the 2006 Cygnus Achievement in Design Contest. Designs must feature at least 40% solid surface materials, and can be entered in one of four categories: Freestyle/Art, Countertop, Furniture, and “Outside the Box.” All entries will be on display at next year’s show, and will be judged by a panel of industry experts. Go to http://www.solidsurfaceexpo.com/ for details about the show and contest.
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