When designing an image for a commercial project, there is a constant battle between form, function, and finances.
You want the look of the space to reflect the quality of the products or services being offered.. Whether it’s a retail space, restaurant, or doctor’s office, the customer experience typically begins when they walk through the door and look around. Research indicates that material choices greatly impact purchasing behaviors - from floor to ceiling and everything in between.
For this reason, stone countertops have become a timeless staple in crafting a space with a premium feel. Checking out (or checking in) at a service desk made of stone instantly adds a touch of class to the customer experience - and reinforces that quality is a priority. Much like carpet in the above referenced article, countertop choice can subconsciously impact a customer’s perception and encourage better reviews along with repeat visits.
Stone seems like a no brainer… Until you consider the costs involved. Granite tops can quickly inflate remodel or new construction budgets, particularly for franchises looking to reproduce a premium experience across several locations,. Now the owner has to decide between spending thousands of extra dollars to achieve the look they want, or going with cheaper materials.
We often have this conversation with customers, and just as often we ask the question:
What about solid surface?
The answers are mixed, but the most common response is:
“What is solid surface?”
In the simplest terms, solid surface (often referred to by originator DuPont’s product name Corian) is manufactured to look feel similar to stone - beautiful accent veins and particulates, cool to the touch, and more solid than laminate. The biggest difference is price: with solid surface coming in as much as 70% less than natural stone, you can get the premium experience of stone without blowing out the budget.
Undoubtedly, natural stone has its place. While solid surface is a great alternative, it’s not necessarily a true replacement. Let’s break down some of the differences, and determine if solid surface would be a solid choice for your project.
Watch any home improvement show on TV, and count the number of times laminate countertops are used over stone. It’s well known that in both commercial and residential settings, stone countertops are an eye-catcher, and definitely the preferred material of choice.
Solid surface does a fantastic job of capturing this desired look, in some ways better than real stone.
Where as stone patterns feature a very random, natural appearance, it also offers natural blemishes and imperfection that can distract from the beauty of the installation Solid surface eliminates these blemishes, leaving you with a perfect display of swirls, veins, and (on some colors) particulates that also offer a natural essence. This does, however, come with a trade-off.
Due to the way solid surface is manufactured, each sheet features a very similar pattern, typically repeating every ten to twelve feet. For some, this isn’t as attractive as natural stone. However, a combination of proper fabrication and design can ensure that a repeating pattern is unnoticeable.
Solid surface can also be installed with a seamless appearance. Because the material is nonporous and homogeneous (the color is the same through the entire sheet, and not just the surface), it can be perfectly seamed and finished less conspicuously than granite, marble, or limestone.
Most stone comes in 10’ slabs that limit installation options. As mentioned above, any countertops longer than this will require at least one seam. Some smaller jobs (depending on the location of the veins, color, etc) may even require multiple slabs, as well as seams, to provide the desired look. Because of this, stone is fabricated and installed in a very two dimensional way. This is where solid surface truly shines.
Solid surface can be cut, engraved, seamed, and installed much easier and quicker than natural stone. The properties of solid surface allow multiple sheets to be joined without obvious seams, including custom installations such as waterfall counters, vanities, and more. Solid surface can also be thermoformed to creates curves and various shapes, which is great for forming backsplashes… or even making other items such as tables and chairs.
During installation, accidents happen. If you’ve been in the industry long enough, you’ve seen an installer crack a stone slab while transferring it to the install destination. Now they have to go back to the shop and fabricate an entirely new piece. Worse yet - if there are multiple sections involved, they may have to remake them all in order to closely match and “hide” the seams properly. Going for the worst case scenario here - the material was special ordered, and although the distributor has one slab in stock, it does not match up to the other pieces being installed. Additional slabs carry a two week lead time… but your project wraps up in a few days. For owners and contractors alike, this creates a major setback that could potentially cost much more than the countertops themselves.
Now imagine the same scenario with solid surface. Although the material offers a slight flex and the chances of cracking are much lower, for comparison’s sake we will assume that the countertop has indeed cracked. Most of the time, this it can be repaired on-site by the installer. Maybe the piece was dropped and cracked in multiple areas, so on-site repair isn’t an option. The good news is twofold - the additional adjoining pieces do not have to be remade for the sake of seams, and the one sheet in stock is guaranteed to work for the repair. You still hit your deadline, make a clean turnover, and actually get paid double for the entire job because those countertops look SO GOOD.
Ok, that last part isn’t going to happen… but you get the picture. Solid surface makes installation issues easier to resolve, saving you precious time and money. Solid surface also offers a great solution for traditionally wood or stone items, such as window sills and chair rail.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way up front:
Stone is much harder, and generally more wear resistant than solid surface.While neither do well with extreme temperatures (heat can crack granite and warp solid surface), they both have their advantages in durability.
Dragging a set of keys across a granite countertop may not do much, but on solid surface you will be left with some scratches. This is much less noticeable on patterns than it is on solids, but it is an issue that should be addressed. (See below on maintenance to figure out why this isn’t that big of a problem).
On the flip side, solid surface is softer and a little more forgiving than stone. This becomes apparent when items are dropped onto each surface. Where as a heavy pan being dropped may permanently crack stone, it will most likely dent solid surface. At this point, you’re probably asking “well who wants a dented countertop?”
Nobody does, and it’s a good thing that dents and possible cracks can be repaired easily by a trained installer, leaving the countertop looking brand new. Speaking of brand new…
This is another trade-off category, where each product has its perks.
Stones like granite are porous, and must be sealed and re-sealed annually (sometimes less often depending on the type of sealant used) in order to prevent stains, scratches and etching that can lead to cracks. Because solid surface is nonporous, this care step can be eliminated entirely. Spilling a glass of red wine on a solid surface top will not have the same color-changing impact that it would on an unsealed stone top.
Finally we get to the scratches. With stone, there isn’t a great way to deal with scratches. While they occur less frequently, they tend to be more permanent. You can always apply sealant over them to prevent further damage, but after several years some stone tops begin to show the abuse they’ve taken.
Solid surface scratches easier, as mentioned, but can be entirely refinished to restore them to like-new condition, year after year. Taking the annual maintenance position previously occupied by sealing, refinishing is a fairly simple task (involving only a sander and some fine grit sand papers) that can be performed by anyone. Even after ten years of use, solid surface tops can look as fresh and wonderful as the day they were installed. Due to the steep price difference between the two materials, you could potentially install entirely new solid surface tops after 10-15 years, and still realize financial savings.
Our goal here was to touch on the most frequently asked questions and discussion that we have on solid surface. The differences run much deeper (such as solid surface being approved for food service operations due to being nonporous), and we’ve only scratched the surface (pun absolutely intended). If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out directly or leave a comment below!