It’s the classic champagne-on-a-beer-budget dilemma: Deliver the look of natural stone, but avoid running up the cost. Laminate makers are offering some interesting choices, although these alternative surfaces are mainly a matter of appearances.
Providing a manmade option to granite, marble and other stone is a decades-old challenge that manufacturers met with mixed, and often disappointing results. Cast-resin products rarely met natural color schemes, with colorants often fading through the years. Solid-surface and quartz producers also tried to produce stone-like materials, although the results tended to resemble oddly tinted oatmeal or shrapnel from an explosion at a Melmac factory.
Quartz surfaces, in particular, continue to evolve with recent and better-looking representations of granite and marble. Manufacturers often note these interpret – though stone dealers will say mimic – natural materials and provide some care advantages, but the quartz versions often end up costing more than the real McCoy.
Several major laminate companies, though, are expanding product lines that seem to lick nearly all the problems with cost, installation and looks. Instead of interpretation, why not go for photo-realism?
Improved digital processing and production offer high-resolution, picture-perfect copies of granite, marble, sandstone, soapstone and other stone varieties, printed and sealed-on laminate sheets. Some deft use of shading and tones, along with the transparent top layers of the material, offer the illusion of depth and some reflective qualities, taking the visual effect beyond a standard matte or glossy print.
The results look good enough to match the real thing, with some laminate manufacturers labeling some colors with the same names as the corresponding stone varieties. (It’s almost unheard of for anyone to trademark the name of any particular stone, so there aren’t copyright problems.) There’s also a lot less fuss in installation; unlike those bulky, heavy slabs, the photo versions come in standard Grade 12 (.039 in.) thickness and the same sheeting weights as other types of laminate coverings.
The stone-look materials also offer the same performance as other laminates, such as stain-resistance and minimal cleaning care. There’s also a definite price advantage; while resellers set market prices for the material, one of the manufacturers offers an estimate of $25 to $28 sq. ft installed.
Installation can be tricky because of its visual appeal; unlike the constant tones of other laminates, the photo-stone versions show veining, striation and other visual qualities of a natural product – and changes in those patterns can become painfully apparent at seams. In fact, there’s often a qualifier from manufacturers that seams with these types of laminates will show.
Of course, the same problem that occurs when using natural stone itself. And it’s where the craft and experience of a seasoned fabricator comes to the fore in coordinating edges when cutting and installing stone. Laminate users, meanwhile, can perform some sleight-of-seam; the patterns on sheets (available in widths up to 5 ft.) repeat every 4 to 5 lin. ft., allowing for some matching-up.
Squared-off corners are the norm with laminates, but not with natural-stone installations. Manufacturers recently addressed this with ready-made trip with more-traditional edge styles like pencil-rounds and half/full bullnoses. None are in the artistic realm of a cove dupont or triple waterfall, but it’s better than going with the flat-and-true.
For everything that be done for appearances, however, stone-labeled laminates aren’t going to offer comparable performance to natural stone. Like other laminates (and unlike, say, granites), the stone-look sheets can be burned by hot pots and suffer burn-in from countertops appliances such as toaster ovens and coffee machines. Cutting directly on the laminate countertop (as with solid surface) is a no-no. And sanding out light scratches – a possibility with many single-color laminates – will likely permanently mar a printed laminate surface.
Stone-look laminates can also be a tougher sell than natural stone and a harder value-added proposition. Sure, it’s much-less-expensive and easier to handle than stone slabs – but it’s also readily available in the DIY market through big-box hardware stores and other outlets, which limits materials markups. Weekend warriors don’t need diamond-tipped tools and several strong backs to work with the laminate sheets, so it’s also hard to sell specialized labor costs.
The new lines of laminates offer the look of granite, marble and other stone in a price range nearly every customer can afford. However, it also begs the question of image vs. reality. There’s a marked difference between a picture of a glass of cold beer and a frosty glass of cold draught beer. Laminates are alternative surfaces, but the satisfaction lies solely with customer perception.