Marble. Granite. Travertine. If these materials are the stuff of your dreams, you must be on the tile circuit with high hopes of finding an amazing natural material to turn into a countertop or floor. Oregon Home talked with a couple of stone sellers, stone fabricators and interior designers to set you up for tilework that will thrill you long after its grout dries.
[1. DON'T CUT CORNERS ON THE FABRICATOR WHOSE JOB IT WILL BE TO TURN YOUR BEAUTIFUL SLAB INTO GORGEOUS COUNTERTOPS]
A fabricator can make or break your marble or granite countertops—literally. Quality fabricators will take back a finished countertop that breaks on installation; fly-by-night folks won’t. Fabricators, with their detailed knowledge of how to finish stone, can ensure that you won’t end up with a countertop so porous that it stains the first time you set something on it.
“Actually, it’s advantageous for you to contact a fabricator before you choose your countertop material,” says Peter Rigutto, the owner of Classic Marmo in Portland. “An experienced fabricator can recommend different options, because certain materials will work better in certain applications, and can help you select the proper piece of material that will meet your specific countertop needs. It’s important that the fabricator be knowledgeable about the material, know the limits of the material and know what the wear and tear will be on the piece after it’s been installed.”
[2. SHOW OFF THE IMPERFECTIONS OF NATURAL STONE AND HANDMADE TILE.]
Marbles and granites have nature’s “birthmarks” that come in the form of swirls, grain oddities and other markings that give the material a movement that manmade surfaces can’t match. Celebrate them! Don’t try to find material without these conversation-starting markings. “I look for those natural variations in the material,” says Drew Brandt, the owner of Intrepid Marble and Granite in Portland. “As long as the ‘flaws’ are consistent throughout the material, you can use it. Marbles and granites can have a lot of natural variation in them, but that’s often what makes them so beautiful.”
If there are areas of the slab you don’t like or want to downplay, those sections can be taken into consideration when the piece is fabricated. “If you have one spot or one different colored vein, you can put that part of the material in the back of the countertop,” says Elizabeth Gibson, the owner of Denali Stoneworks in Portland, one of the only female-owned fabrication shops on the West Coast. “Or, if possible, that’s where you can cut out a sinkhole, and then that area’s gone.”
[3. REALIZE THAT A STONE'S AVAILABILITY DEPENDS AS MUCH ON MOTHER NATURE AS ON YOUR LOCAL STONE AND TILE SETTER'S SHIPPING SCHEDULES.]
The “first cuts” out of a quarry have been bleached by the sun for months longer than the stone behind it. That’s why it may be impossible to find another slab that will perfectly bookend a countertop in your new kitchen. When buying stone, buy all the stone you need at the same time to ensure consistency of the look.
“You can only control so much of the color variation of the stone because it’s a natural product, but there are ways to find slabs that are consistent with each other,” says Deniz Ince, the owner of IGE Stone and Tile in Portland. “We make sure that each batch of slabs is cut from the same block, and that they’re all marked as being from the same batch. That’s the best way to control variation. The changes in the slabs will be minimal when the pieces are from the same block.”
[4. BE PICKY ABOUT THE GROUT COLOR THAT YOUR TILE SETTER USES WITH YOUR TILE OR STONE.]
Good tilesetters offer you more than primer-white grout that matches a Hollywood ingénue’s über-white teeth. In fact, the color of the grout can determine the final look of your tile pattern, so think of grout as a design element whether your project is a floor or a multi-patterned backsplash.
“The color of the grout is a huge factor in how tilework looks,” says John Carlile, the owner of Eco Echo Design in Eugene, Ore. “If you want to see the geometry of the tile and accent the tile pattern, use a contrasting color of grout. If you want tile to look more like a solid surface or to emphasize the color, use a grout color that closely matches the color of the tile.”
[5. TAKE PRECAUTIONS TO ENSURE THAT THE STONE YOU SELECTED AT A SLABYARD IS THE EXACT STONE THAT ARRIVES AS COUNTERTOPS.]
Some homeowners spend months selected the perfect slab of granite, known that it was delivered to a fabricator, and then gotten the shock of their lives when a different slab enters their house fabricated as countertops. To keep this from happening to you, find out about the system your supplier uses to track material and follow up on it.
“Every marble and granite supplier tracks their material a little differently,” says Brandt. “At Intrepid, we catalog our material with numbers, so every one of our slabs is identified. When you pick your material, we remove it from availability, stage it with your name on it and put it in an order to secure it. You should always ask for something in writing that gives you all the information about your slab and follow up with your fabricator. Make sure to do your own due diligence.”
[6. DON'T TRY TO SAVE MONEY BY INSTALLING YOUR KITCHEN COUNTERTOPS.]
Installing a countertop is something a do-it-yourselfer often attempts in order to save money, but there’s more to installation than just slapping the slab on top of your cabinets. “Countertop installation isn’t rocket science, but there are a lot of little tricks involved,” says Rigutto. “A homeowner can probably install a 4-foot-long vanity in a bathroom, but in a kitchen, you’ve got to look at several things. If you’re reusing cabinets, you need to know whether they can accept the heavier weight of the stone or whether they need to be modified to hold the extra weight. Some older cabinets won’t take that weight without reinforcement.”
Ending up with straight, flat seams is something that Rigutto says takes years of experience to do correctly. “One of the hardest parts of a countertop installation is taking the time to get the seams flat and making sure they’re level, straight and properly adhered,” he says.
[7. IF YOU'RE MATCHING A ROOM'S FINISHES TO A ONE-OF-A-KIND SLAB, PURCHASE THE STONE SO YOU DON'T HAVE TO MAKE DO WITH A SLAB THAT MAKES YOUR OTHER FINISHES APPEAL A LITTLE OFF.]
Just because you’ve fallen in love with a particular sample of stone, there’s no guarantee that the slab will be available months from now when your contractor is ready to install it. If you can’t buy a slab right way and store it, stone purveyors say you should wait until you’re closer to needing to install it before you make a final-final decision.
“Buying stone isn’t like picking out a faucet or a sink that regularly comes off a production line,” says Brandt. “This is a natural material, and I can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to get the same slab a few months down the road.” Brandt suggests that you have an idea going into a remodel of the materials you want to use—honed black granite or polished Red Dragon for the countertops, for example—but on Day One, don’t go out and pick your material—or paint your walls to match the stone you don’t yet have in hand. “Usually, it’s later in the project when you finalize the details of the kitchen,” he says.
[8. DON'T CHOOSE YOUR STONE FROM A SMALL SAMPLE.]
If you want to use stone tile for your floor or have a large backsplash, don’t base your final decision on just one or two Scrabble-sized pieces of the tile. “It’s better to look at the larger picture and ask for several tiles to get a good sense of the natural color variation, so you’re not going to be disappointed later on,” says Ince. “That’s a common mistake. You’ll pick out a stone from a small sample of the material, decide to buy it and schedule installation while you’re on holiday. Then you come back and are surprised—and not in a good way—that it’s not at all like the sample you selected.”
According to Carlile, if you’re undertaking an expensive remodel that includes a tile floor, buy a box of tile and lay it out on the floor to get a good idea of what it will look like. “Especially if you’re doing a extensive remodel, this is the best way to see if a large area will look the way you imagined it would based on just one or two tiles,” he says. “A lot of times, there will be colors in the tile that aren’t obvious when you choose from too small a sample. Once you install the tile there’s no going back if you don’t like the result. Having a tilesetter chip it out and replace it will turn your remodeling project into an archaeological dig—and will add a lot more expense.”
[9. GET MORE OUT OF YOUR SLABS THAN JUST A COUNTERTOP.]
It’s rare that a piece of marble or granite is an exact fit for your kitchen or bathroom countertops. Typically, there are some leftover pieces once the project is done. Have your fabricator turn those remnants into other items that you can use in the kitchen or other areas of the house.
“Pastry boards, which are great for making cookies or rolling out dough, are easy things to add on and ask for because you have the waste from the stove hole or the sink hole,” says Gibson. “If the piece is big enough, you can even do an end table.”
[10. ACCEPT THAT DIFFERENT MARBLES, GRANITES, STONES AND TILES ABSORB STAINS AND SHOW WEAR AND TEAR DIFFERENTLY.]
With stone countertops, people worry about stains, but all stains aren’t equal. “Most of the staining that occurs in a kitchen are organic stains—coffee, wine, juice from fruits and vegetables,” says Brandt. “Organic stains can be removed; nonorganic stains such as fingernail polish are very difficult to remove.”
Make sure your remodeling contractor tells you how your specific countertop, floor or backsplash material should be sealed and how frequently it should be sealed. While a fabricator-installed countertop will be sealed upon delivery, you’ll need to seal it in the future to maintain the stone. “No sealer makes the stone impervious, but a sealer does increase the time it takes for something to penetrate the stone,” says Rigutto. “You shouldn’t think that sealers make thestone impenetrable to things such as scratches from a piece of glass.”
How often you need to reseal your countertops depends on the kind of use they get. “It’s not necessarily an amount of time, but an amount of use,” says Gibson. “Test your countertop every once in a while by dropping a bead of water on it. If the water bead holds, it’s sealed. If the bead of water disperses and runs, the countertop needs to be sealed again.”
[11. REALIZE THAT EDGE DETAILS ARE IMPORTANT ASPECTS OF COUNTERTOPS.]
The devil is in the details, and choosing the wrong edge finish for your kitchen and bathroom countertops can create unexpected problems. “Always ask about a countertop’s edge,” says Gibson. “A full bullnose finish is popular, in part because some stone comes manufactured that way from China. But that’s not a great edge choice for a countertop that includes a sink, such as a countertop in a kitchen or a bathroom, because the water wicks around it and goes down the face of the cabinets into your drawers. A bullnose edge is great for a center island where people will sit around a breakfast bar and stroke its edge.”
When it comes to edge detailing and backsplash design, there are a lot of decorative options. “I’ve done frosting with air chisels, and there are laser etchings that take a digitized photo and transfer it to the surface of the stone,” says Rigutto. “That tends to work better with darker colors. It gives you what looks like a black-and-white photograph.”
[12. FINALIZE THE DESIGN OF YOUR TILEWORK BEFORE YOU BUY THE TILE.]
Whether you’re planning a patterned backsplash, a stove surround or a floor, work out the details before making your final material selections. Don’t just buy tile that’s on sale hoping that a pattern will eventually emerge. “People often think that using remnants is a cheaper way to go, but having a design from the beginning is more cost-effective,” says Carlile. “Using remnants is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. It requires a lot more hours of labor from the tilesetter to make everything fit and come up with a design as you go. It’s better to work from the beginning with a designer who knows how to put tile together.”
[13. CONSIDER USING NEW STONE-COMPOSITE PRODUCTS THAT EXPAND THE PLACES IN WHICH YOU CAN INCORPORATE STONE.]
While natural stone will always have the benefit of longevity, there are new materials on the market—think tile made of recycled marble—that increase stone’s appeal and functionality. “I’ve seen a tile that’s a composite of travertine on the top and porcelain on the bottom, which gives you the beauty of travertine and the cutting ease of porcelain,” says Carlile. “A tile like that would be a great choice for a bathroom: The moisture would stop at the travertine level, so the porcelain would provide an extra barrier.”
[14. LET YOUR COOKING STYLE LEAD YOU TO THE PERFECT COUNTERTOP—THEN THINK ABOUT COLOR.]
If your kitchen always looks as if the Swedish chef from “The Muppets” uses it, take that into account when choosing your stone. “I always ask my clients how they really use their kitchen,” says Brandt.
“If you’re a heavy user, granite is probably a better choice for you. If you’re a light user or if you’re very meticulous and always wiping up, then you could go with marble countertops.” Eliminating possibilities early on can make your visits to showrooms more effective. “Different stones are suitable for different applications, so it’s best to eliminate some of those options when you’re choosing a stone for a specific use,” says Ince. “But then there are still hundreds of different colors, so think about which colors you’re looking for in a countertop, as well.”
[15. RESEARCH HOW A COUNTERTOP'S FINISH WILL WEAR ON A DAILY BASIS, AS WELL AS OVER TIME.]
The more you learn about stone and how to maintain it, the more confident you can be in making a good selection. Choosing the right finish can also help protect the countertop and maintain its beauty, which is important if you’ll use a lighter-colored marble or more porous material for your countertop. “I recommend using a matte-like honed finish in the kitchen,” says Ince. “With the polished finish, the polish wears off over time. I also like to encourage people to use stones other than granite in the kitchen. I’m from a stone family, and my family in Turkey is my supplier: My mother has had marble countertops for 15 years, and my sister has the same. My mother’s countertops still look good, and now have a beautiful natural patina.”
[16. BE BOLD IN BOTH YOUR COLOR CHOICES AND YOUR TILE USAGE.]
Would you love to have a kitchen back-splash made of palm tree embellished tiles, but you’re defaulting to white subway tiles for resale purposes? Step away from the tile showrooms and embrace the tile that really speaks to you. “A common mistake people make, particularly when remodeling their kitchens, is to be too safe with their tile choices,” says kitchen and restaurant designer John Hurst of John Hurst Design in Portland. “To encourage my clients to try bold colors, I tell them to pick a few tiles in bolder colors, make a plaque out of them and hang it on the wall. That way they can have bold colors against the subtle pattern on the wall, and if they get tired of it, they can take down the plaque or make a new one.”
[17. HIRE A FABRICATOR WHOHire a fabricator who makes house calls.]
“It’s important to visualize the piece in the space you’re going to have it before the material is fabricated,” says Gibson. “We actually go to your home and make a template and help you figure out how your slab’s pattern should lay. Sometimes, for example, a slab will have one different-colored vein, and we can plan on putting that in the back or getting rid of it when we cut a hole for a sink. The same is true for seams. Most countertops will have seams, and you want to minimize them. When your fabricator comes out, make sure you talk about exactly where the seams will be placed.”
[18. Know that not everything about stone is set in stone.]
If you’ve often heard that marble is more porous than granite, you could conclude that a dark granite is the best choice for a kitchen, but that’s not always the case. “There’s a tendency to throw everything that’s a granite into the same bucket and everything that’s a marble into another,” says Brandt. “In reality, the way a stone is formed in nature creates the density of the material. I have some marbles that have a high-density factor and some granites that are a little softer than marble.”
Remember that just because a marble won’t work with the way you cook, doesn’t mean that you can’t use it somewhere else. “Marble is harder to take care of as a kitchen countertop,” says Ince. “but for a bathroom vanity or floor, there’s no problem.”