Some thoughts about picking a fabricator (stone or quartz)

oldryderAugust 18, 2013

I am a fabricator.

Unfortunately there seems to be more variation from the best to worst companies in the stone fabrication business. Here are some suggestions that might help picking a fabricator.

In general, a recommendation from a contractor or cabinet shop should get strong consideration. The contractor or cabinet shop represents repeat business for the fabricator so they have have more leverage in the event of a problem and they also won't keep a fabricator that consistently does a poor job. In my area a cabinet shop or contractor mark-up is 10-15% over a wholesale price. Typically the price thru the 3rd party will be a little higher that what you might get direct.

Kitchen and bath stores generally have much higher mark-ups but again they have the advantage of being repeat customers.

Designers can offer a lot of value BUT I've had many experiences where they recommend a material that is unsuitable for the application or they provide designs that are not readily manufacturable with stone. This puts the homeowner in the unenviable position of trying to figure out who to listen to; the designer they're paying a lot of money or the stone guy.

A good look at a fabricators showroom can give you some indication of the quality of their work.

Look at their polished edges from several angles. If you can see prominent horizontal lines in the edge thats an indication of a shop that is putting out "production shop" quality. Not bad, and possibly cheaper, but no where near state of the art. (Even with a CNC polish good edges are possible but it takes more skill, more time, and still leaves the horizontal lines; just much less conspicious ones)

Look at their sink cutouts. Again, horizontal lines are a negative. Ask them if you'll have a reveal, overhang, or your option.

Look at their seams. Most of the time a seam should be practically invisible; no thicker than a razor blade. It should be most noticeable because of the grain transition. Some stones, which are "chippy", may have a slightly wider seam. A good fabricator will discuss such issues with you during the stone selection process.

Look at the caulking in their showroom between the counter underside and cabinet and splash to wall. The caulk should be minimal, straight edges, and NO smears. A 1st rate caulk jbs takes time and a commitment to quality.

Look at edge samples in the showroom and, specifically, any laminate samples. A 1st rate laminate has a seam that is practically invisible. Most fabricators don't do the extra work to get a hairline seam on laminate.

If you can ask to see an actual install. Some fabricators do better work in their showroom than in peoples houses.

There are 2 kinds of shops in the industry. Production shops, which put out a finished product that is generally deemed acceptable. Production shop edges will be full of horizontal lines characteristic of a CNC polish and they typically do not provide the one on one time with the customer during the stone selection process. Many people are satisfied with this type of service. High volume quartz countertop suppliers are often production shops because the material is virtually the same regardless of color and they don't have the layout considerations associated with the movement available in many natural stone colors.

"Craftsman" type shops are much more focused on quality and customer service. Some large volume fabricators manage to maintain a craftsmanship style business but more typically such a shop would have a max of 20 -30 employees.

A good fabricator will help you pick your slabs. He or she will see things in a slab you won't and also mention fabrication issues which might arise with a particular stone like the exclusion of certain edge profiles or shorter runs due to poor mechanical strength of the stone. (Picking slabs has even become necessarfy with the latest quartz colors which attempt to provide some movement. Such slabs often have pools of resin lacking in color which many people would not want in their countertops. Inspetcing the slabs gives the buyer the opportunity to reject such slabs or demand the uncolored areas not be included in their countertops.)

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Oldryder, where are you? Can you install my next counter? :)

    Bookmark   August 18, 2013 at 11:26AM
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what do you mean by "horizontal lines" on the edges and sink cutouts? I can't visualize this in my head.

    Bookmark   August 18, 2013 at 11:41AM
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Some of that would not work out with the fabricator I use as there is not much in the way of full displays at their showroom.
You can see edges though. If need be I take clients to a prior job, besides they are an hour away.

They are a second generation crafstman shop. Will advise and assist me finding slabs, use "better" but not necessarily "boutique" yards in a region with a lot of yards. Template, veiwing, and install are scheduled as a group. 4 to 6 men are on every install, the templater is always one of them. A team typically does two jobs a day. Methodical, careful, unhurried.

Many employees are there 20 yrs and appear happy on the whole. That has gotten to be something I watch for with all my suppliers, have found it telling to the point of decisive.

Many kitchen and bath dealers have switched over to production shops in an attempt to keep margin and remain even moderately competative. My choice was to sacrifice margin- which is why I only will do tops as part of a job. I settle for my trade discount and sell at the same price they do. Still they are not the cheapest so I lose at least half of the tops involved in my projects typically to a production shop. In those cases I am hands off, you're on your own.

    Bookmark   August 18, 2013 at 12:19PM
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Sophie Wheeler

If you make your counter search about quality first, you may end up paying more, but you most likely won't have a GW horror story to post. If you make your countertop search all about the cheapest price, that's what you'll get.

There are a lot of questionable "fabricators" out there trying to out-cheap each other. There's a certain bottom line that any fabricator will need to be able to get to ensure that he keeps the lights on and his helpers paid. The really cheap guys won't be in business long. And then where will you be when the undermount sink that's just siliconed to the counter falls out? Or the enhancer that they put on the poorly polished edge wears off and you're left with a dull edge? Or the seam at the cooktop which wasn't rodded breaks, and your pot of spaghetti comes crashing down into your cabinet below?

Educate yourself about the process first. Get recommendations from contractors or designers that you trust. Then don't try to haggle them down on their price to "compete" with the guys who fabricate in their garage and won't be around in a year's time. A true pro won't compete with hacks. They aren't even in the same competition to begin with.

    Bookmark   August 18, 2013 at 1:41PM
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holly, what do you mean by "seam at the cooktop which wasn't rodded"? A rod put underneath it for support?

If so, why do fabricators put seams at sinks? Maybe they do not put a rod in theirs? My fabricator didn't say anything about a rod. He is the only fabricator around here who actually has a building with a showroom. Peke

    Bookmark   August 18, 2013 at 6:09PM
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"what do you mean by "horizontal lines" on the edges and sink cutouts? I can't visualize this in my head."

A CNC (computer numerical control:) is a computer controlled router that can cut, shape, and polish the edges of stone. A typical tool set has 4 grits in metal bond shaping tools(100, 200, 400, 800) and three of four more that are resin bond polishing tools. (1000, 1500, 2000, 3000)

The tooling, which are the parts which actually work the stone, are cylinders with various grits of diamond in a metal or resin matrix.

To finish a sawn edge it is 1st shaped with a series of course tools made in the shape of the desired edge. As the tools pass along the edge the diamond grit leaves scratches in the stone. Subsequent tools of finer grit do not remove these scratches because there is no cross action. The edge ends up polished but the scratches from the coarse tools, which appear as horizontal lines, are still there. This effect can be minimized with proper set up and brand new tools do a better job than worn ones.

A very high end shop will use the CNC to shape the edge but will finish off the edge by hand. A set of CNC tools is several thousand dollars so many shops use them well past the point where they are doing a good job.

10 years ago a CNC edge polish full of lines was considered poor quality. The advent of the big factory shops has lowered the bar for whats acceptable.

In todays market most shops simply polish everything on the CNC and call it "good enough." Polishing to a finish on the CNC saves the fab shop several hours of hand labor on a typical kitchen.

Most of the general public doesn't know the difference and, admittedly, it is often hard to see the lines given the lighting and viewing angle in most kitchens particularly on lighter colors. Unfortunately those lines can also be glaringly obvious in the right conditions or of the tooling was well worn.

A tip off to a shop that finishes everything on the CNC is one that provides a variety of edge options for no upcharge. If the CNC is doing all the polishing there is little difference in the manufacturing time for a edge like an Ogee compared to a simple flat or 3/8" top radius.

    Bookmark   August 18, 2013 at 6:45PM
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