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What you need to know about the stone business!

Read what someone else in the business had to say about this article!

Is it 1st Quality? Probably not! Many vendors represent their products as 1st quality. However, the definition of what "1st quality" actually means is illusory. There is no "STANDARD" definition of what constitutes 1st quality to which stone vendors are required to adhere. Quarry owners, tile producers, importers and retail outlets each may set their own criteria to define what they consider "1st quality" stone. The characteristics of stone vary by color, type, composition, age and depth. Depending on the structure and character of the stone at that particular quarry or tile producer stone will be classified in an infinite number of manners. This is why it is important to buy natural stone products from a vendor you trust because reality is that ANY stone no matter how poor its condition can legally be called "1st Quality". Remember, there is no binding governing body that defines what constitutes 1st quality. A stone that Marblemaster might sell as Commercial grade or substandard may in fact be someone else's best (hence 1st) quality product in the same type stone.

Depending on the application, you may not need or want truly perfect stone. Stone that is flawless is much less common and therefore much more expensive. If you are building a skyscraper there is an entire set of scientifically definable physical specifications used by architects and civil engineers to specify stone. These professionals specify things like moisture absorption, rupture modulus, compression strength, etc to insure that the stone facings they are attaching to the exterior surface of the building walls meet certain structural integrity requirements. Clearly you can not hang a piece of 550 LB granite or marble on the face of a building, 30 stories up, and run the risk of having it fail and fall on someone below. An application such as this must use only the highest quality stone that can be found. Few shoppers would ever need a stone that is truly free of all imperfections. Most customers would find the price prohibitive if they did find it.

However, in flooring applications these same anomalies which are so abhorrent in one application actually add beauty and elegance in another. Crema Marfil marble floor tile, for example, is a stone noted for its propensity of natural fissures. Crema Marfil that meets the highest quality definitions is nearly homogeneous and has very little character. However, that same stone of lower quality exhibits a beautiful vein structure more typically associated with marble. Our advice to customers is that if they are looking for a high degree of uniformity and clarity in a flooring tile application then save your money and go buy a good micro-polished porcelain product. We don't sell them, but there are some excellent imitations of natural stone products on the market today, AT A FRACTION OF THE PRICE that the highest quality stone would cost..and each is an exact strident replica of the other. Part of the beauty of natural stone in flooring applications are the veins, the color variation, striation and an infinite number of other anomalies from fossils to fractures that create the look and feel of natural stone. Some of the most beautiful floors in the world are created using some of the lowest "quality" stone available!

On the other hand, there are certain physical characteristics that are very important to insure an efficient and aesthetically pleasing finished product when you purchase natural stone flooring products and I will try and outline the most important ones below:

It is very important that each tile is squared. The smaller the grout line the more critical this issue becomes. As tile is manufactured from time to time the cutting lines get out of alignment and when this happens the tile produced is no longer square but becomes slightly trapezoidal This is a nightmare for the installer. It can result in repercussions ranging from additional installation charges to the absolute refusal of the installer to work with the stone.

Slightly less important is calibration. Calibration refers to the thickness of the tile.or more precisely the closeness of thickness that one tile has to the others. If floor tile is not properly calibrated and every piece is thicker or thinner than the last the installer must expend extra time and effort to level the surface of each tile relative to those around it. Otherwise the finished floor would have ridges sticking up where one tile meets the next. This issue can be of greater or lesser importance depending on the setting method. If you are setting the tile on concrete slab with thinset then the installer has a much smaller margin to work with to level and align each tile than if it is being set on a inch bed of setting mortar.

There are a number of common finishes. The most common are polished (a mirror shine), honed (a duller satin matte), flamed (a rough sandy texture) and brushed (a smooth dimpled matte finish surface with a texture very similar to the surface of a golf ball). Brushed finishes are often used when creating a "tumbled" style tile in combination with chipped edge and corner treatments. Of all of the finishes, highly polished finishes are the most critical followed by the honed finish. Very often during the manufacturing process some tile are left with large but very faint "swirl" marks or scratches from the polishing heads. Most buyers' find the presence of these marks undesirable.and should be selected out, but if you are trying to save a fair amount of money then these products may be an option for the very budget conscious buyer. There are several techniques to minimize or eliminate swirl marks should it be required.

Normally if you purchase any substantive quantity of tile there will be some small percentage of the tile that will arrive with a chipped or broken corner or perhaps even a broken tile or two. Question the credibility of any vendor who claims otherwise. Buyers should not become overly alarmed at the presence of a limited number of these tiles. Some plants will actually pack up to 3% in this condition at the time of manufacturing. This is still usable tile. When tile is set you start from the center of the room and work outward to the walls. When you reach the position to place the last tiles against the wall it almost always has to be cut to fit. Here is where you use tile that may have a chipped or broken corner or edge. If however more than 3%- 5% of the tile are in this condition you should have some concerns and bring the issue to the attention of the company from whom you bought the stone.

Things like fissures are in fact weak spots on the stone.but in recent years with the advent of epoxying and/or netting technologies which dramatically improve the strength of these stones, even these are becoming less of a problem..and in some stone types unavoidable. Natural stone floor tile is supposed to be just that.natural, varying, ever in nature. Remember, imperfection is the art and perfection of natural stone.

Some stone types, such as travertine, have naturally occurring hollow gas pockets created as the stone is formed in the ground. When sliced into tile, much like pieces of bread in a loaf, these hollow pockets are exposed as holes in the stone. In flooring applications it is necessary to fill these holes so they don't collect dust and dirt creating sanitation issues. Travertine can be purchased either factory "filled" or "unfilled". The industry promotes the purchase of factory filled stone over unfilled. It is much less work and time consuming for an installer to work with factory filled stone than unfilled stone on any given installation. However, the problem with filled stone is that many (read most) factories use a very low grade fill material and do a very poor job of matching the color of the fill material to the stone itself. As a result the tile starts to look like it has the measles. Unfilled stone on the other hand gives the purchaser the option to take a tile sample to any major building material outlet, like LOWES or HOME DEPOT, and purchase a matching non-sanded grout. When the installer grouts in the floor he simply pulls his grout trowel across the entire face of the stone filling in all of the holes. By matching the grout filling to the stone the fill then appears as if it is part of the stone rather than something imbedded in it. Buying unfilled stone and properly applying a high quality-matching fill generally will yield a better more aesthetically pleasing job when you are finished. Also available are very good epoxy based grouts. LATICRETE is an excellent source for this product. Epoxy based grouts are much more stain resistant, and provide additional structural integrity to the stone. The downside is that the epoxy grouts are more expensive and require more diligence and speed on the part of the installer. If the installer does not complete the removal process before the material starts to set up you can get a dull hazy appearance on the surface. If this occurs the installer will have to lightly resurface the floor. Additionally, grout shrinks as it dries. After the first grout application you will usually see a dimpled effect where the grout shrinks into the fill hole. Therefore plan on a second "skin" coat to bring the surfaces smooth if you are using an unfilled product. The greater the amounts of fill the lower the quality of the tile. This should be reflected in the price of the material. The buyer is unable to inspect each tile prior to purchase so he will have to rely on his stone vendor to guide him.

Imperfection is the art and beauty of the material.
In summary, it is very important to buy a "mechanically correct" tile in a flooring application. Beyond that, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Variations like color range, veining, motion and striation are simply a matter of personal preference and the look, style and feel you are attempting to achieve. The more consistent and homogeneous a product you desire, the more you should expect to spend in a natural stone product. For example you can buy nice mechanically correct good quality 18-inch travertine floor tile for around $3.50 per square foot delivered in the United States. That same product in a true imperfection free stone would be three or four times that amount.. This is the consumer knowledge gap in which most stone vendors play.

The stone business is a very mature global business that has been around for a thousand years. There are really only two ways to get lower prices for natural stone products.

First, get more of the middlemen out of the distribution chain and get closer to the source of the product. To do that you must buy in ever increasing volumes and assume ever-increasing risks. Importing 20 tons of stone at a time from vendors, half way around the world, who don't speak your language, who demand payment up front, require months of forward planning, and that you possess a global logistics capability is not for the faint of heart. On top of that, if U.S. Customs is backed up.and most of the time they are since they are understaffed.their inability to process your shipment can quickly add $1,000 or more to the freight bill while you are waiting for your shipment to clear customs. A USDA inspection is also needed to insure that the shipment is not harboring any destructive bugs or organisms. If they (USDA) find you get to pay another $1 - $2 thousand dollars to have the shipment re-fumigated. These are not rare occurrences. They are part of the everyday life of a stone importer. This is not like moving computer chips. These are big heavy industrial products!

I still think I can save money if I buy overseas.
We are becoming a global economy at a very fast pace and are enjoying many benefits as a result. This includes lowering prices for commoditized products, a category in which many stone products now fall. This rapidly changing economic landscape is fraught with pitfalls.

Consider the implications when you buy a product that is being produced and shipped from Turkey, through a seller in Canada, for delivery to a customer in the United States and there is a problem. Containers fall overboard, they are dropped being loaded or unloaded from the ship, suppliers ship poor quality tile because there is no ongoing business relationship. These are not a rare, once in a million events. They happen with alarming frequency every day. Do buyers have any recourse? Sure. Buyers can litigate and may be successful in getting a judgement. But now try and enforce Canada, Turkey or China? Instead the buyer will find himself embroiled in International courts burdened with legal bills that far exceed any perceived benefit. It is not impossible for consumers to buy directly from overseas or international sellers, but there are serious risks for the uninformed, unsuspecting and uninsured. Increasingly companies are wrapping themselves in a mantle of web pages to appear as if they are a domestic U.S. based company, or maintain token U.S. operations, when in fact they reside in business friendly international locations EFFECTIVELY OUT OF THE BUYER'S REACH! As my grandfather used to say to me, "Boy, don't be pennywise and pound foolish". KNOW YOUR SUPPLIER!

The second way to save money when buying natural stone products is to trade quality in the strictest sense for dollars. Yes. as a typical buyer whether you know it or not, at some level you are almost certain to be doing this if you buy natural stone flooring tile. This is not a bad thing. What is bad is when the customer's expectations do not match that of the product delivered. This is a task where most consumers need some assistance from a knowledgeable stone buyer. Your best protection is knowledge. You need to get educated and that is what we do here.

Stone floor tile manufacturing costs vary by type of stone and the location of manufacturing. Stone produced in Europe, Canada, or the United States are typically much more expensive than stone tile manufactured in Brazil, Turkey, India, or China for example. A stone tile produced in China is not of any better or worse quality than one produced here in the United States or Europe. Countries like China and India simply have lower costs of overhead and labor and therefor lower overall costs of production. Because competition for business is so acute within these stone producing areas the ex-factory price is almost uniform from company to company in the country of origin. Whatever price differences there are in the cost of the tile for a given quality at the factory become insignificant by the time the material reaches destinations in the United States. THEREFORE THE ONLY OPPORTUNITY FOR SAVINGS IN THE COST OF MATERIALS IS TO COMPROMISE QUALITY! The closest a commercial or retail buyer can get to the source of production is the stone importer without undertaking huge commercial risks. So, when you find a direct importer who offers product at a substantive discount to the other direct importers you can be almost certain that you have not discovered the best kept secret in the world but that quality issues are in play at some level.

Whether you buy your stone from MARBLEMASTER or someone else it is of paramount importance that you find a company you can trust and whose advice on which you can rely. This person or company can save you thousands of dollars, literally!

The selection of your stone tile installer is probably the single most important decision you will make with regard to your flooring products. There are all of the obvious reasons.. will he show up on time, is he or she qualified, will he do a good job, will he get done on time.etc, etc? These are straightforward issues which most consumers are prepared to evaluate and negotiate.

Unfortunately, in today's hyper-competitive environment there can be subtle agendas at work that are designed to separate you from your money. As consumers become more information rich and purchasing capable as a result of the Internet, more and more traditional brick and mortar companies are finding themselves under financial siege. This is disrupting traditional distribution channels where local tile installers and local stone flooring outlet are very closely tied to one another either formally or informally. Each relied on the other to generate sales and leads. Today that is changing.. RAPIDLY!

Buyers are purchasing stone in droves directly from companies like MARBLEMASTER who have deep Internet marketing channels at prices significantly discounted to those enjoyed in the recent past by traditional stone suppliers. As a result installation services are often purchased today as a single stand-alone service. Companies like MARBLEMASTER have a national marketing reach and are able to spread costs and gain efficiencies not possible even 10 years ago. The enlightened consumer is eliminating the substantive profits the installer and traditional natural stone distributors have enjoyed in the past from the markup in the material. It was not, and in many local or regional outlets is still not, uncommon to see markups in the range of three to five times cost. But today the business is shifting from a "low volume, high margin" industry to a "low margin, high volume" environment. That is causing a lot of traditional stone companies' serious financial pain. Business is very vibrant in the stone sector, but not at the gross profit margins many companies became accustomed to in the glory years of the 80's and 90's and in fact need to support their business model. This kind of business climate can lead to some very desperate measures that a few short years ago would have been unthinkable by struggling businessmen who are working a lot harder for a lot less.

Here is one hypothetical scenario based on true experiences. An installer meets with a potential customer. After evaluating his purchasing options the customer realizes he can save thousands of dollars if he buys his natural stone tile directly from a stone importer instead of through his installer or local retail flooring outlet. When the installer is informed that he will not be providing the stone tile, he focuses on getting the consumer to provide advance deposits or sign binding contracts that guarantee him (the stone installer) the installation job. Weeks or months later the stone tile the consumer purchased at a huge savings directly from a national importer is then delivered. Great care was taken to time the delivery of the tile to coincide with the needs of the contractor's schedule. Then the installer (clearly the on-site stone expert) now ready to proceed with the installation, informs the customer that he or she has purchased inferior and defective stone. The installer points out some naturally occurring crazing or other anomaly in the stone and declares them structural defects. The consumer is further informed this tile is going to disintegrate into a pile of gravel in a matter of weeks. That the installer, having his reputation and good name to uphold, must in the name of high ethics refuse to be a part of this installation. In the alternate, he can not warrant any part or nature of his work should he be forced to proceed. Further, he would have to "sort" the tile creating much more work so he will need to charge more. Typically this is code for, 'if you make me install this tile I am going to do the sloppiest, fastest work I can get away with, because I am not making enough money from you'.

Here sits the poor consumer with a full-fledged crisis on his or her hands. The installer is telling the consumer that in spite of his or her best efforts they are about to make the biggest mistake of their life if they install this tile. That unless they get some different tile there pronto he has to go to the next job AND by the way, he is not available until the middle of next year if he misses this time slot now because he is booked solid with work. So there will be some penalties perhaps, and of course the loss of the deposit as well for his trouble. To make matters worse there is no floor installed so the bank will not proceed with the closing on the buyer's new house.

BUT, fortunately for the customer, the installer has a "friend" who he works with a lot that MAY have this tile or another one the buyer might like even better in stock.. but (here it comes) the price is going to be quite a bit more than what the consumer originally paid because his "friend" at the local tile distributor only sells the highest 1st quality stone. Our consumer is now easy prey. He or she is, as they say, between the proverbial rock and the hard place (No pun intended). The customer's choice is distilled to spending untold amounts for material or risk losing thousands in the costs resulting from a significant delay in completing the project.

What should consumers do to avoid these predicaments?
First, educate your self. Decide what qualities are important to you and which ones are not. In part, this may be driven by your budget. Generally speaking, within any color type the more the you want the stone to look like it has been poured out of a vat and onto your floor the more expensive it will likely be.

Second, plan. Allow yourself sufficient lead-time. Problems do occur from time to time, which are beyond anyone's control. If you are dealing with a reputable company it will get worked out as fast as humanly possible.but don't plan to have the material arrive at the job site the day you need it.. you are not giving yourself any opportunity to recover from whatever delays might occur.

Third, avoid binding yourself to any installer from whom you can not disengage and always have an alternative option available. You are the buyer. The installer wants your money.and as long as you still have it in your pocket instead of his or hers you have the power. Never lose site of this. Once you give your installer 15 - 25% as a deposit all of the profit he is likely to make on your job is already in his pocket. If he tells you he wants it as an advance for supplies and materials BE VERY WARY! If HOME DEPOT won't give him credit why should you? Most installers are honest hardworking businessmen or women but unfortunately it is easy to be taken advantage of as a buyer if you are uninformed. Keep his attention and keep your money until the work has been completed. If it is a large job progress payments are an accepted practice, but NEVER NEVER let him get more money than is represented by the work he has completed!

Fourth, know your supplier! Unless you import stone for a living, deal with a company based in the country in which you live. That means the companies primary operating assets are located in your country.. not a token "marketing office" for an international supplier. Mitigate your risk and rely on them to acquire high quality stone at a good value for you. To do otherwise is a fool's game..and we all know about fools and their money.

We at MARBLEMASTER know the stone industry. We deal with quarries and factories all over the world. We have a nationwide distributions system with distribution warehouses in Norfolk, Miami, Houston, San Diego and Seattle. Our operations are solidly headquartered in a 12, 000 plus sq. ft. facility in San Diego, California. We know what works and what doesn't! Most importantly our business model is specifically built to deliver YOU a quality product, that meets YOUR needs and saves YOU money!

© Marblemaster 2011 All Rights Reserved.
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Updated 3/10/2011