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Counter reformations

A Corian countertop is a personal thing, tailored to its setting. In one local shop, the process begins with a template, then sculpting and polishing create a household work of art.

By JUDY STARK

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 8, 2001


GULFPORT -- It's a noisy and dirty job, turning a sheet of Corian solid-surface material into a countertop. Saws scream, sanders roar, and the fine powder generated in the cutting process covers the factory floor like flurries of snow.
Countertop cutout
[Times photo: Jennifer Davis]
At Surface Technology Corp. in Gulfport, Abel Quesada routs a cutout in a piece of Corian for an integral sink. The sinks are poured and formed by DuPont, shipped to the local fabricating shop and attached with an acrylic glue that forms a chemical bond.
It's also a personal job. Each countertop is a custom order, made to the room's exact specifications and reflecting the customer's choice of color and trim detail. Holes are cut using individual templates where sinks or cooktops will drop in, and the sanding and polishing to a silky touch are done by hand.

"It's a two-day process" to fabricate a countertop, said Alice Brown, a saleswoman at Surface Technology Corp. of Gulfport, one local company that fabricates and installs Corian and other countertop surfaces for designers, builders and retailers.

Corian is the trade name for the acrylic polymer product, blended with natural minerals and pigments, invented by DuPont in 1968. DuPont is the leading producer of solid-surface materials.

As a countertop product, Corian competes with granite, with laminate (Formica is one well-known trade name) and with other solid surfaces, such as Surell and Fountainhead, which are made of polyester rather than acrylic.

Corian is flexible while the polyesters are said to be brittle and prone to crack. It doesn't fade in sunlight, can be heated and shaped, and offers close to 100 colors that penetrate through the material (hence the term "solid surface"). Its seams are virtually invisible. One of its chief selling points is its wearability: If scratches and stains do occur, they can be buffed out with a Scotch-Brite pad. A badly damaged section can be cut out and replaced almost imperceptibly.
Polishing
[Times photo: Jennifer Davis]
Chanh Vu sands and polishes a Corian countertop. Typically, kitchen counters take a matte finish, bathroom counters a semi-gloss. High-gloss finishes aren't recommended because they require high maintenance.

At about $100 per linear foot (1 foot long, 25 inches deep, standard countertop size), Corian is more expensive than the polyesters or laminates and is about on par with the cost of granite. That price does not include special edge treatments or other custom upgrades, Brown said.

In a recent survey for the National Association of Home Builders, Corian was rated as "desirable/essential" for kitchen countertops by 55 percent of respondents overall. Among those who expected to pay $350,000 or more for their homes, the rate was 74 percent. Among buyers who said they planned to spend $150,000-$249,000, Corian was rated as desirable or essential by 64 percent.

At STC's factory on 49th Street S in Gulfport, follow along as a sheet of Corian becomes a countertop.

DuPont supplies the basic product in sheets 12 feet long and 30 inches wide that weigh about 120 pounds each. Corian is produced in DuPont's factory in Buffalo, N.Y. STC stocks two thicknesses: half-inch for horizontal surfaces, such as countertops, and quarter-inch for vertical surfaces such as backsplashes or shower and tub surrounds.
Custom templates Rose Trumbull carries a stack of templates used to make the solid-surface countertops. For every job, employees go to the home and build a custom template out of luan wood to the exact size and shape of the finished countertop. It is used as a pattern to cut the Corian.

[Times photo: Jennifer Davis]

When a consumer orders a countertop, one of STC's employees goes to the home, draws a precise sketch of the new top and creates a full-size template from strips of a thin wood called luan.

Back at the factory, the engineering department generates a computerized drawing of the future countertop, along with a cut list of the sizes and shapes of the pieces.

Using a diamond saw, a fabricator cuts the 12-foot sheets into the sizes and shapes needed. The next step is to cut a V-shaped groove down the length of the sheet near the edge. The piece that is cut off is folded back and attached to the top with an acrylic adhesive, creating a chemical bond, to create an edge 1 1/2 inches thick that later can be shaped in a variety of ways. A simple round-over and a classic bullnose are the most popular, Brown said. These give the impression that the countertop is much thicker than its actual half-inch depth.
Decorative edge
[Times photo: Jennifer Davis]
The inset decorative edge has long been a popular feature of solid-surface materials. Here a finished countertop stands with its wooden template, awaiting delivery and installation.

If the customer has asked for an inset band of color, the procedure is slightly different. Rather than cut the V-groove and fold it back, workers make a stacked "sandwich" of the colors the customer chose and attach those with acrylic adhesive.

At this point an individual fabricator takes on the order, or "package." The fabricator makes sure the countertop conforms to the wooden template created at the home. The fabricator cuts out holes for sinks or cooktops, using a library of templates from all the national manufacturers so they get just the right size and shape. If customers have ordered an integral Corian sink, it will be delivered from the manufacturer and attached to the underside of the countertop.

If the countertop has a curved edge, strips of Corian are heated to 350 degrees until they are as flexible as rubber, then attached. The fabricator "profiles" the edges, creating a bullnose or other decorative shape.

Then another team of workers attaches a 1-inch wood perimeter buildup that reinforces the countertop against cracking and raises it to allow cabinet doors under it to open.

Now finishing teams take over. The top is sanded and polished with progressively finer grades of sandpaper and Scotch-Brite pads to a matte finish for countertops. Sometimes workers create a semigloss finish for bathrooms; the company doesn't recommend a high-gloss finish because it requires extremely high maintenance.
Finished countertop Integral sinks, cutouts for cooktops and backsplashes are featured in a finished kitchen.

[Times photo: Jennifer Davis]

The maximum length of a completed section of countertop is 10 feet, and the maximum weight is 100 pounds. There are two reasons for that: to make sure the completed piece can fit in high-rise elevators and turn corners; and to make it possible for workers to lift and carry the piece. For longer stretches of countertop, sections are assembled on-site.

Edges and insets of contrasting colors were once one of Corian's most eye-catching features, but some say there is less call for that look now than before. In recent years, to compete with materials such as granite and concrete, Corian has added stonelike looks with names such as "shale" and "gravel," "black quartz" and "macadam." As the product has come to look more and more like natural stone, customers are inclined to enjoy that beauty unembellished.
photo
[Times photo: Jennifer Davis]
For curved edges, strips of Corian are heated in an oven to 350 degrees to make them pliable. Here Phou Thone Leuanglath, wearing protective gloves, twists a heated strip into a knot. When shaping curved borders, a fabricator “profiles” the edges, creating a bullnose or other decorative shape.
The most popular seller is a color called "glacier white," Brown, the sales rep, said, but that's likely because it's the color that is discounted to builders as a standard. Earth tones such as "aurora sandstone," an off-white with terra-cotta speckles, are big sellers. (Fun fact to know: Those confetti-like specks of color in a piece of Corian are officially known in DuPont language as "crunchies.")

The crews at STC have created a pair of cowboy boots out of Corian, a Gumby and a miniature house, and they like to demonstrate how a strip of Corian can be heated, then twisted into a pretzel shape.

At Corian's Web site, www.corian.com, click on "homeowners," then on "specialty applications" under "countertops and more" for pictures of Corian guitars, golf clubs and other unusual uses. They're a long way from countertops!

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