Throughout 2017, Dunn Solutions is keeping up with Daniel Westbrook as he restores this historic Seattle residence. This video and post are a part of the ongoing series. For other related posts, click here.

Custom countertops are as wide and varied as the imagination, and are found just about everywhere. They can be made of glass, concrete, sheet metal, plastic laminate, composites, wood, and natural stones such as granite, marble, soapstone, and quartz.

For this custom kitchen remodel, Westbrook Restorations is installing quartz countertops. Today, I'll walk through everything you need to know about this installation process, from installing a custom countertop cut from a slab and choosing the right stone, to the basics on installation day.

Choosing the Right Stone

There are three things to consider when choosing stone for your countertop: 

  • Use
  • Material
  • Interface with surrounding surfaces (like a backsplash)

Not all natural stones are the same—some are more porous than others, some are softer, some are less stable, and some are harder to polish. All of these are natural occurrences and have an effect on not only the craftperson’s fabrication and installation process, but more importantly, on the homeowner’s expectations of use. Hot pans and cleaning agents can cause discoloration; extreme heat or cold can cause cracking; excessive hard use can cause chipping. Natural stone is not perfect, so it’s important to choose one with a learned understanding of its dynamics and how to care for it properly over time. Ultimately, stone—whichever kind suits your needs—is a great choice because of its natural, beautiful qualities and long-lasting durability.

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Choosing Stone Slabs

It’s best to select the stone before your project begins. If you’re unclear where to start, fabricators usually have a representative who will accompany the customer to choose slabs at their facility. When you go, bring a print of the cabinet layout—this is necessary for the fabricator, because they’ll be able to deduce the size of slab you need to complete the project while keeping in mind where to put seams and how to best compensate for waste. Color and grain match are a factor not only for design, but also as you consider the best fit when matching multiple slabs for continuity. At this time, the fabricator can also educate the customer on all the dynamics of stone—including proper care—to help you make the best choice.

Once the slabs are chosen, a hold can usually be put on the slabs, and the fabricator will store them until they are needed. At this point in the process, it’s important to know the thickness of the slabs, the ideal overhang length beyond the edge of the cabinets, the desired countertop surface, the type of sink that will be used, and the number of holes that will need to be drilled for plumbing and electrical. All of these details affect cost—so it’s best to have these decisions made long before the fabricator is scheduled to template your countertops.

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Being Ready Before Templating  

All cabinets should be set and secure before templating. This includes any supports needed for large overhangs, like a bar or seating area. Typically, I figure anything over 12" should be supported with some kind of bracing to help avoid stress and breakage. In this kitchen, we used a thin steel outrigger that was secured to the top of the cabinets.

Another standard overhang consideration is where the counter meets cabinetry at the ends of a slab, like the side of a cabinet, or refrigerator cabinet panel. For instance, if there is a 1” slab overhang, then these cabinet sides should be farther out from the face of the slab edge by a 1/4" or more. This will look better than seeing the raw cut end of the slab protruding beyond the face of a side cabinet panel, unless of course—a return is designed into the slab.

Any fixtures (an under-mount sink, for example) that call for specific-sized cuts at specific locations should also be on site before templating. Most specs for stoves are standard, so it’s not always necessary or desirable to have an expensive stove on site while work is going on—and the install specs will have already been in use (as they’re needed for the cabinet manufacturer anyway). The point here is that the project manager must have everything ready to go and figured out before templating, because once the slab is cut, there is no going back!

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Templating the Countertops

When the fabricator comes out, they’ll template in one of two ways: 1) with a digital measuring device or 2) (my favorite) ⅛” plywood strips, hot-glued together to create a template of the exact perimeter of the slab cuts.

Make sure your cabinets are set level, flat, and in plane. The fabricator will bring a straightedge level, and if there are any irregularities that will impede installment, they’ll ask you to fix them before installation.

Work with the project manager to verify the location of sinks, holes for plumbing fixtures, and any other penetrations that need to be made in the shop. The fabricator will ensure verification by writing everything down as needed, then sharing with the project manager for approval. I find that sometimes drawing on cabinets, writing on prints, taking pictures, and then sharing all that with my fabricator is a great way to ensure everyone is on the same page (and eliminate any guess work). You can expect a 10– to 15– working day turnaround from template to installation, so be sure to figure that into your schedule.

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Installation Day

When the day comes to install, it’s important to help the installer by understanding that the slabs are heavy and extremely awkward. On my projects, we make sure the installer has proper access for working, that all tools and obstructions are out of the way, and that all floors are well-protected (to avoid the weight of slabs on the dolly wheels causing divots in hardwood floors or cracking tile). Once the slabs are hauled in and lifted onto the counters, they’ll do a dry fit to make sure everything fits together correctly. Then they’ll remove the slab and apply an epoxy adhesive in various places on the top of the cabinets and along the slab edge-seams before lifting the slab back into place.

The installer will use a machine to hold any seams together until the epoxy sets. Under-mount sinks can also be epoxied in place or attached using brackets and shims. A high-quality caulking should be used between any stone-to-sink interface, stone-to-wood interface, or stone-to-tile seams. Once the installer is done, they’ll clean the counters and make sure you have any paperwork for care.

This is generally how countertops are installed. There are many unique applications that can make this process a lot more complicated (I know because I’ve done them), but this post offers a simple guide to better educate you as you gather the information you need from fabricators, contractors, and designers. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this subject.

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