How to Choose a Kitchen Granite Countertop
I'm in the process of doing a complete renovation of our kitchen and I feel like I am back at school with all the wonderful stuff I am learning. Every facet of this job is an education, and I hope to write a whole series on How I "Reluctantly" Renovated My Kitchen. These posts are not in any proper order but when I'm done I'll build a landing page on the Reluctant Gourmet web site to tie all the posts together.
Chester County Granite Countertops
I was very fortunate to meet Dan and Ann Marie DiTomaso of Stone Masters Inc at their incredible showroom in Kennett Square, PA where I received my thorough education in all things granite. Dan and Ann Marie have been fabricating quality granite counter tops in the Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania areas since the late 90's. They started Stone Masters Inc after trying to find stone slabs for their own kitchen renovation and had very little luck in their local area.
They decided to learn everything they could about granite and how to make their own granite countertops for kitchens and bathrooms. At the time they were buying and selling houses, and these new granite countertops added loads of value to the homes they were renovating.
In response to the high prices and poor service available in the Chester County area, Dan and Ann Marie started Stone Masters Inc. They studied stone production tools and equipment. They went to trade shows and met with stone importers and specialized equipment vendors.
With a few ads and word of mouth, customers came. Dan and Philip performed every aspect of templating (they actually make Fir plywood or luan quarter inch templates of the countertop so you can see exactly what it will look like before they fabricate it), fabrication, polishing and installation by themselves. Shortly thereafter, experienced fabricators, installers, and templators were hired.
When they moved their shop from Aston, Pennsylvania to Kennett Square, they invested in automation and hired a trained team of designers to assist customers with overall shapes, edges, sinks, faucets and backsplash designs. You should see these machines! They are huge and can cut multiple countertops at once with their diamond blades. It's worth a visit just to see the production, but I would call first.
Interview with Granite Master, Dan DiTomaso
I must have asked Dan dozens of questions when I went out to Kennett Square to see his shop. I didn't write down all his answers so I asked if we could do an interview on granite, how to buy it, what to look out for - all the stuff you want to know about before investing a bunch of money in granite for your own projects. I think you are going to find this interview very informative and a great read.
This is a MUST READ if you are thinking about purchasing granite counter tops for your kitchen or bathrooms.
As you know, we are in the process of doing a complete renovation of our kitchen including new cabinets and countertops. In my lifetime I have lived in numerous apartments and homes with all sorts of countertops including Formica, ceramic tile, wood, granite, stainless steel, and soapstone so my first question is how does one go about choosing the right material for a new kitchen?
How much is determined by cost?
This depends entirely upon the individual selecting the material and how much they want to spend, but let me give you some ideas about costs and the various options for countertops.
Today, laminates also commonly referred to as Formica (just one brand name of laminate, there are many different laminate manufacturers) are a great surface. They're the least expensive, easy to maintain, and we have all seen it for many years in kitchens.
The significant draw back to laminate is that an undermount sink is not possible, nor are certain shapes and edges. This limits the design of the whole kitchen and the fixtures you can select. Technically, this is due to the fact that it is a flat skin glued on the top of a substrate. It is not solid all the way through the counter itself.
Solid surface solves that problem. It also has the added benefit of allowing any style edge, any shape, an undermount sink and a wider variety of appliance choices. Solid surface can be engineered stone, real stone or a variety of synthetic materials.
Engineered stone is commonly referred to as quartz. It is sold under brands like, Cambria, LG Vitara, Caesarstone, Silestone and others. There are other types of solid surface that are essentially plastics and acrylic type materials such as Corian that do not contain any natural material content.
Then there are solid natural stone options such as Granite, Travertine, Marble and Soapstone and Quartzite.
Finally, there are tile countertop options that are endless in choices, but have the same problem as laminate (Not solid all the way thru) plus grout collects and shows dirt.
In cost terms from least expensive to most expensive let me give you a feel for what I see in this market. Your mileage may vary.
Laminate $25-$45 per square foot Tile $20-$60 per square foot Granite $39-$99 per square foot Synthetic Sold Surface $50-$90 per square foot Engineered Stone $60-$125 per square foot
How much is determined by functionality?
Most customers tell me time and time again that the undermount sink is the single biggest functionality impact that drives the decision to upgrade their countertop choice. Most people opt for the undermount vs. a drop- in style sink for that reason alone.
Working adjacent to a sink during food preparation is a given in almost any kitchen. Being able to slide waste directly into the sink and clean the working surface without a sink rim to catch debris and restrict liquids is worth the premium price of any of the countertop choices over laminate or tile.
How much should you weigh appearance?
Appearance and resale value go hand in hand. Some material choices are big enough and long lasting enough that you have to consider what impact your choice will have on your home's value. How this choice will affect resale value or (salability at all) in this market is a significant consideration. While appearance is a personal choice, your selection and budget may depend upon how long you plan on staying in the home.
Let's start with granite since that is what we decided to put into our kitchen. My cabinet person has told me that you buy granite by "Levels". Level 4 is more expensive than Level 1 and so on. Can you explain what these levels represent and how important are they?
There is no standard "Price level" for any stone. One stone yard or fabricator may classify a species of granite named New Venetian Gold as a level 2 and another as a level 3. With thousands and thousands of different stone quarries around the world, price level is a reference point to be used as a budget meter and not too much more than that.
Look at the bottom line of one supplier's quote as compared to another vendor's quote.
It can be deceptive to compare one supplier's level 3 price to another supplier's level 3. Comparing the bottom line as opposed to the top line of the quote shows you all of the elements that make up the quote.
One store may have a really aggressive price for the stone and make it up on edges, extra men, templating charges, trip charges and so on. Be sure to look beyond the square foot price or you may actually pay more in the end.
What makes a level 4 granite better and more expensive than a level 1 or two?
Better is a misnomer, more expensive is accurate. Many people automatically perceive that more expensive means better or higher quality and that is just not the case. The primary factors that affect the cost of stones are:
- County or origin: IE: Labor costs in China are dramatically less than Italy.
- Freight: Quarry from port distance, is especially significant due to the extreme weight of the product.
- Hardness: How hard one granite is vs. another affects how much time and tooling it will take to quarry and fabricate your stone choice.
- Competition: Many quarries producing similar stones near each other will drive down the cost. Compare this to one quarry offering a unique and popular stone. In this case, real (or perceived) exclusivity keeps demand, and price, high.
- Fragile stone: Beautiful yet delicate stones suffer higher breakage and cost more to bring a finished product to market. They may require more reinforcing, and specialized handling drives up the cost.Notice that none of these primary factors are "quality". Quality is a factor, but not the most significant raw material cost. Quality comes into play more so in the finished product.
Since we know granite countertops vary in cost and we are on a budget, how should we determine how much to spend on our granite countertops? What factors should we consider when making the final choice?
Over the years, I have noticed that younger buyers are on a tighter budget and typically planning on a 3-5 year stay in the first home. They tend to buy neutral colors at the 1 through 3 price level. When they sell the home the stone choice has wide market appeal and yet offers the return associated with "granite"
The 40 somethings seem to be buying stone for themselves. They are not buying it based upon resale. They want function, beauty, and a personal choice. Also high on their list is they want low maintenance. This age group/mindset seems to buy from level 4 and up.
Finally there are the 70's and up who are downsizing into a retirement home or assisted living community. They buy what they want in some cases and what they can afford in other cases.
Should where the granite comes from enter into our decision making? For example, you told me most granite comes from Brazil and Italy. Is granite from one place "better" than granite from another?
The Italians produce the best finish, polish and resin treatments and are highly selective with their quarried block purchases. The stones they offer come not only from Italy, but all over the world. They charge for their quality.
Brazil quarries about 70% of the world's countertop stone and Brazil is blessed with a wide variety of colors and types of stone. Labor is inexpensive there. Some of the blocks they quarry are processed into slabs right there in Brazil and some are sold to Italian, Indian or Chinese processers who cut it into slabs, resin treat the stones and polish them prior to selling slabs into the European or Western markets.
Because a stone of Brazilian origin may have been processed in any number of countries, the same type of stone can have different quality polishes, resins and grades. This makes it very difficult to say that one fabricator's New Venetian Gold at $49 per sq foot is a better value than another's at $59. It is not necessarily the same quality even though it is the same stone.
When choosing a granite company like StoneMasters, what should I be looking for to make sure I'm working with the right company?
Stone is only half the decision. Who does the fabricating, and how it is done, is going to impact the finished product more so than the stone itself.
Referrals, referrals, referrals are extremely helpful. Stone fabrication is a mom and pop business, and you are best served by carefully looking for referrals and reviews. You should be looking for all the tell tale signs of a business that has been around for a while with actual bricks and mortar.
At the bare minimum:
- Get referrals from friends and family.
- See your slab in person; inspect it. Do not buy based upon a sample you saw in a showroom or home center. Go to a stone yard and see an actual factory and actual slabs.
- Look at the factory. Is it neat clean and organized? How about the showroom?
- How is the stone produced? By hand or by computer aided equipment?
What questions should I be asking them to be sure I'm working with the right people?
- Where the stone meets the wall, is it scribed to fit the wall or straight cut and caulked?
- In front and behind the sink bowl, will there be reinforcing rods in the underside of the stone?
- How is the sink mounted to the stone? Do they use silicone alone or use epoxied anchors and silicone? Are there anchors actually in the stone or are they glued to the surface of the stone? Do they use sink mounting rails? Ask them to show you how it will be done in your home.
- Will you, the customer, be given the option to layout their template onto the stone before it is cut?
- What brand sealer is used and how many coats are applied?
- What is the warranty? What does it cover and for how long?
- Do the templator and the installers speak English? Hispanic workers dominate the fabrication industry, and you certainly don't want any mis-communications when it comes to an expensive piece of granite. You have to ask.
- Most consumers have not bought granite before. Will there be any counter design consulting or assistance to show you what shapes might enhance your particular kitchen design?
- The shop that has long lead times is in demand. The shops that can template today or tomorrow and then install in 2 more days is probably not busy for a reason. Restaurants that require a reservation usually render better meals and service than fast food restaurants!
Are there any sales techniques used by less than above board granite countertop companies that we should be aware of and avoid?
- Pushy "sign the contract now" sales people who are selling based upon a sale price, or selling because their price is better than the next guy's are selling that way because they do not have quality to offer and compete with.
- In certain areas of the country there are men with stone "Leftovers from a job around the corner" that will offer to fabricate in your driveway. Run.
- People attracted to offers of free sinks, free edges or free what ever are frequently the same people disappointed with finished product.
How thick is the granite used for countertops?
In our area 3CM (or what is about 1.25 inches thick) is the normal granite thickness.
Does it vary depending on where you live?
Yes it does. In California, Texas and Florida it is typical to have 2CM (about ¾ of an inch thick). Thinner stone requires a substrate to be installed on top of the cabinets before the stone countertop can be installed. This is typically a plywood base.
The thinner 2CM stone itself requires a "build up" (another layer) of stone to be glued onto the front edge to appear thicker. This is also required in order to produce certain edges and hide the substrate. There is a seam between the two layers running the entire length of the stone edge when there is a "build up".
Counters made this way are more likely to crack than the thicker 1.25 inch thick stone used in the rest of the U.S. market.
3CM is growing in popularity in California, Texas and Florida but 2 CM is still predominate in those markets.
It seems to me installation is as important or even more important than the granite itself. What questions should I be asking to make sure I'm going to get the best installation possible?
The number one question should be - How will a seam be made? A beautiful stone, gorgeous sink and all the right finishes can be ruined if the seam is wide, uneven or done poorly. The pride the company takes in making their seams can make or break your kitchen countertop.
Vacuum assisted seaming tools, chemical biscuits and CNC prepared seams make for the tightest and strongest seams. Coupled with color matched epoxy results is the least visible seam. Sawn cut pieces, put together by hand lend to wider and possibly uneven seams.
Do granite companies typically offer any warranties on their work? If so, what kind of warranties should I expect to receive?
The stone is 30 - 80 million years old already and will outlast all of us. It is not going to change its state, rot, or disintegrate. Granite is as stable a material as exists on planet earth. The warranty you want covers manufacturing defects for a year.
Remember that the material was not made by the fabricator. The fabricator shaped and polished the stone which you chose and inspected. The craftsmanship is immediately apparent. The finished pieces all fit properly, are shaped properly and are polished properly or they are not.
Deficiencies that may show up later are seams that pop possibly due to no chemical biscuits or a settling cabinet base. Sinks that fall away from the stone could be due to improper mounting or a badly vibrating garbage disposal.
Stone can stain and the warranties against staining that I have seen are on limited choices of stones (Resin treated ones) and are similar to an extended warranty in that the increased cost of the product covers the resellers claims. It doesn't guarantee that it will not happen, only that if it does, they will attempt to blame you or correct it.
My current counter has a granite backsplash by the sink and I noticed that some of the joints are not flush. No big deal, but I am aware of it. Is that because it was not installed properly or does the granite shift over time?
There are three possible reasons for this.
- The cabinets were not installed properly, and they settled over time.
- The granite was installed that way from day one.
- The has house settled since the cabinets and counters were installed.
One of the biggest challenges encountered in installing counters is unlevel cabinets or improperly installed cabinets. Using a four-foot level is just not enough. Using a laser level that shoots a line around the whole L or U shape of the kitchen captures level in all directions all at once not just 4 feet at a time.
Either the cabinets get shims underneath them installed by the carpenters or shims installed on top of the cabinets installed by the countertop installers. The best option is under the cabinets. That way the shims are hidden by the toe kick and are not visible.
Both cabinet companies we've been working with wanted to supply the granite countertops themselves. I'm guessing they work with companies like StoneMasters and work as the middleman. So I'm wondering why more people don't come directly to you. Is there an advantage to working with designers or cabinet suppliers?
The cabinet companies do make money referring customers to a specific granite company. The benefit to buying granite from a cabinet company is that they know which granite companies offer good quality and which granite companies are just cheap. If there is a problem with the granite, both the cabinet and granite company will more likely work together to solve a problem as opposed to finger point at each other. Remember: referrals and reviews are very important.
Cutting out the middleman may result in some savings since the cabinet company has to pay commission to the designer. Remember that the cabinet company does kitchens every day all year long. The end user is typically buying one or two countertops per lifetime.
What are the advantages of working directly with the supplier and installer?
Many cabinet companies know cabinets, but do not necessarily know granite. Even if they have a good understanding of stone they typically do not know what is in stock and available or what the current resin finish or polish is like. I would not ask the granite expert which cabinet finish is best for wear and tear any more than ask the plumber for electrical advice. The best price, advice and variety are going to be at the stone yard or fabrication facility, not at the cabinet designer's desk.
Let's talk a little about granite. My high school geology classes taught me most rock is porous. Why doesn't granite absorb liquids?
Granite does absorb liquids and can stain. Your high school geology class serves you well. Most (not all) stone slabs have been resin treated. A resin treated stone has had resin squeegied over the surface to fill in pores, fissures and other natural blemishes.
The whole slab is then heated to cure the resin. Finally, the whole face of that stone is polished. This resin treated version of the stone is largely impervious to liquid absorption and very stain resistant.
Three things to know:
- Not all stones are resin treated.
- Not all resin treatments are the same quality. (Remember that the same stone can be processed in Italy, India, Brazil, and China but was quarried in Brazil)
- The edges of the stone are cut and are no longer resin treated...enter sealer!
Is there any type of sealer used in the manufacturing of granite?
There are scores of different sealers available and they vary widely in quality and performance. I find that certain types of sealer perform really well for repelling oil based liquids and yet perform badly for water based liquids. We seal with one type of sealer in the shop and another in the field after installation to capture the best of both products.
What type of maintenance do you recommend to your clients to keep their granite looking great?
If you have an un-resined stone, re-sealing it twice a year will take a few minutes and is as easy as using Windex. If you have a resin treated stone, once a year should be more than adequate. There is a very easy test you can do to see if your sealer is still working.
Place a drop of water on the surface and see if it darkens the stone and absorbs into the stone itself. If it immediately absorbs into the stone you need to re-seal the stone. If it takes a long time or does not absorb at all. You have nothing to do.
DuPont Stone Tech makes wipes that both clean and protect by applying a small amount of sealer as you clean your counters. I do not think this can hurt at all.
What if it accidentally gets scratched?
Granite is very hard to scratch. Chipping is more likely than scratching. The only thing in your home hard enough to scratch granite is diamonds or more granite. Your pots and pans can chip the stones especially around the sink if you carelessly toss pots and pans into the sink.
If it does scratch, it can be filled with color matched epoxy, cyanoacrylate or polished out.
Dan, I realize there are a lot more questions I would like to ask you about granite and how it compares to other counter top materials. I'm hoping we can continue this conversation in a future interview but let me end today by asking you to sum up what you consider the main benefits of installing granite as a counter top.
Select your fabricator based upon referrals. Go see the production facility and look around at the equipment and condition of the factory. The finished product will reflect what you see in the environment. Good quality work and products come from well-run and well-organized shops. Sloppy work comes from sloppy shops. Make sure the fabrication shop is not a pick-up truck in your driveway!
Select your stone from actual slabs and not just samples or pictures. Select your slabs in person and inspect them closely for fissures and flaws. What you see is what you will get.
Ask for scribes, rods, anchors, resin finished slabs and, unless you are fluent in Spanish, ask for English speaking templators and installers to facilitate communication.
Be at your house for both the templating and the install. There will be questions that affect your job's finished look and fit. You want to be there to ask, and answer, them.
Read your contract and ask questions, lots of questions.
Next time, perhaps we can talk about Soapstone and Marble as countertop choices.
Dan, thank you so much for you answers and I know anyone who reads this interview will have a better understanding of granite countertops and how to choose the best granite for them.