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Granite becomes affordable for countertops

Published Sep. 28, 2005

Deep inside the cavernous Interstone warehouse in Woburn, Mass., hundreds of gleaming granite slabs lean like gaunt gravestones against row after row of steel racks. Beneath their polished 5- by 9-foot faces, crystalline colors flash, swirl and glitter, alluring gemstones locked inside frozen rivers of ancient magma. Along their edges are the deeply crumpled scars of their dynamite-assisted birth in quarries as far away as India, Brazil and Finland.

Interstone operations manager Jim Matsas recites their exotic names _ Astra and Rosato, Shivakashi and Black Zimbabwe, Verde Fontaine and Stony Creek _ an all-too-human attempt to classify things into groups, but, in truth, each stone is as unique as a snowflake.

Matsas can't resist caressing a slab's mirror-smooth coolness. "Every one is a different picture,"' he says.

Since the days of the pharaohs, granite has been valued for its inert, near-diamond hardness. Rough granite cobbles pave many centuries-old plazas and streets, and thin granite cladding soars up the exteriors of modern skyscrapers.

Any time that durability matters more than weight _ for headstones and curbstones, millstones and monuments _ granite has won a place.

Those same qualities make granite an ideal material for kitchen and bathroom countertops. The stone shrugs off the daily abuses of spills, dings and knife scratches, not to mention scalding-hot pots. Don't try that with plastic laminates or solid plastic countertops.

Slate and soapstone are as abuse-resistant as granite but lack its wide palette of hues. There are at least 200 colors of granite available commercially, from shades of white and light gray to ebony and subtle greens, pinks, corals and blues.

Marble alone surpasses granite's spectrum, but it is softer, more susceptible to staining and can be etched by such common acids as lemon juice and vinegar.

Despite the obvious advantages, granite's use as a countertop is surprisingly recent. The cost of quarrying, transporting and working the heavy, dense stone _ weighing about 180 pounds a cubic foot _ has long made it too expensive for most homeowners. Now, because of faster, more productive cutting-and-shaping machinery, the supply is up, and the price is down.

Mark Lang of Natural Stone Fabricators in Longville, Minn., says the material is about half as expensive as it was five years ago, putting granite in about the same price range as manufacturer polymer-based solid surfacing.

The National Kitchen and Bath Association estimates that the cost of granite, installed, ranges from $120 to $200 a linear foot, compared with $75 to $200 for solid surfaces. This is still premium territory compared with the $20 to $25 a linear foot for plastic laminates, but this hasn't tempered demand.

"It's busy right now," says Matsas, the Interstone operations manager. "Our guys work overtime most weeks."

With the shop's present stock of tools, making a countertop takes about two days. His shop's latest acquisition, a $400,000 computer-guided saw/router from Italy, will automatically cut and finish a countertop in just two hours.

Matsas' machine and hundreds of others can be fed granite practically forever; there is certainly no danger of running out of the resource. Granite is the most common of igneous rocks, those created by volcanic activity, and can be found on every continent.

Granite comes in two basic types, consistent and variegated. Except for the occasional blotches of mica or feldspar, consistent granite exhibits the same pattern throughout the slab, which helps when hiding seams.

Variegated granite has swirling patterns and colors, known as schlieren, that shift dramatically from slab to slab. This kind of veining, called "movement," requires considerable skill, material and time to join together, but the extra effort creates a counter with great visual impact.

Even a strong stone has weaknesses. Granite is porous enough to stain.

To ensure that it continues to look as good as the day it was installed, Fred Hueston, president of National Marble and Stone Consultants in Winter Park, recommends wiping on a penetrating sealer every six months. Hueston says spills should be blotted up _ wiping spreads them over a larger area _ as soon as possible with a paper towel or a clean rag followed by several rinses with clean water. More persistent stains can be removed with an absorbent poultice.

About the only chemical granite can't resist is hydrofluoric acid, the active ingredient in rust removers. It can severely etch, pit and dull a polished surface.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of granite, aside from the cost, might be the way its captivating beauty tempts overuse.

"Granite isn't warm and cozy," says New York City-based architect Dennis Wedlick, "but, if durability is your priority, granite is an excellent choice."

1998 Time Publishing Ventures Inc.