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   How about a stone that looks nice and fabricates about the same as granite, except a little faster? You’d think a lot of shops would be pushing their clients firmly toward this wonderful product – limestone – but most are running in the other direction.
   The main reason why many fabricators shy away from doing limestone for kitchens and baths has little to do with what happens in production, and everything to do with clients’ expectations after the sale.
   While a well-cared-for granite top can look like new almost indefinitely, limestone – as one fabricator puts it – “tends to weather.” And, while we’re not talking about exposure to acid rain inside the house, a lemonade spill can create havoc on a kitchen countertop.
   For those who want the soft, often buttery look of the stone, it’s critical they know what they’re getting into ahead of time and how to keep their tops looking good.
  
INDUSTRY SECRET
   Start talking with fabricators about doing limestone countertops, and it quickly becomes apparent that some just as soon keep it a secret from the buying public. And, even with shops that advertise limestone, a typical response is that they really don’t do them (and don’t want to talk about it, either).
   Not that there’s a groundswell of people buying the stone. Jim O’Hara of Corona, Calif.-based CST Cut Surfaces, estimates that 90 percent to 95 percent of that company’s output is granite, with limestone being only a portion of the other types of tops being cut.
   And, Scott Taylor, manufacturing foreman for Richmond, Va.-based Luck Stone Corp., says his shop is probably averaging no more than two limestone kitchens a month, although he adds, “We did a fairly large job with limestone – more than 300 ft² – in a new house about a year ago.”
   Kirk Lytle of Stonehenge Granite in Forest Park, Ga., says he knows of some of his competitors in the Atlanta area who won’t do any limestone (or marble), period.
   Lytle has somewhat of a unique perspective on limestone countertops because, if you walk into the Lytle home, that’s what you’ll find in the family kitchen.
   “That’s what my wife wanted, and that’s what we did,” he says to explain the choice. “We mixed it with a granite island, and it really looks nice.”
   As with any lifestyle-fashion item, the decision to go with limestone countertops – or bathroom vanities – is a matter of individual preference. However, there are certain trends in the market that are pointing at least a few people in limestone’s direction.
   Heidi LaSalata, brand and marketing director at Luck Stone, notes that limestone has long been a popular material for both flooring and countertops in Europe. And, it isn’t granite.
   “As granite continues to gain popularity and becomes more of a commodity product available at big-box stores, discerning customers are seeking new countertop options that will allow them to achieve a distinctive look,” she says.
   For some clients, limestone is considered an exotic stone. Others are simply drawn to it because of its Old-World look and neutral color palette. Still others like the warmer honed finish that’s typical with limestone, LaSalata adds.
   Luck Stone’s Taylor says the fossils they find in the sedimentary material – shells, chamber nautilus and even squids – often excite buyers.
   “A lot of people just use limestone for the look of the material,” agrees Dean Young, president of Oklahoma City-based Southwest Tile and Marble. “Sometimes the limestone just fits with the look they’re trying to achieve.”
  
“THE TROUBLE”
   Looks are certainly important in any stone purchase, but a second selling point with the product is often its durability. Buyers like the idea of natural stone being something that has the potential to last for decades, even centuries, and granite has developed a reputation for keeping its looks even with low maintenance.
   Not so for limestone, and that’s why many fabricators shy away from the product. Or, as one Midwest shop owner who declined to be interviewed for this article explains, “The designer or whoever picks the stone is long gone when the trouble starts.”
   Although his shop sells a lot of limestone for flooring and fireplace surrounds, Young admits that his sales team tries to discourage customers from going with limestone, particularly in the kitchen. If the shop ends up cutting and installing limestone countertops, “We do it at their (the customers’) insistence,” he says.
   CST’s O’Hara is another one who says while he’ll work with customers on achieving the looks they want, the shop also tries to deemphasize the use of limestone, especially in food-preparation areas.
   “It’s not uncommon to see an island in the kitchen done in limestone, while the main kitchen counters are done with granite,” he says. “It’s great as a decorative accent. It’s not uncommon for people to use different materials for the countertops and the backsplash, and a limestone backsplash with granite counters provides an extra design element that gives it a little pizzazz.”
   While most shops provide some information on the care of natural stone after it’s installed, the real secret to success with kitchen and bath limestone applications is to educate the client up-front.
   “We try to educate people as much as we can about limestone and let them know there will be some serious maintenance issues,” says O’Hara. “We let people know it’s a lot more-porous than granite, so it has to be sealed really well and then it’s something they have to stay on top of.”
   Luck Stone’s LaSalata says that company often finds that many times customers who are concerned with maintenance and resale value opt out after being told limestone is prone to staining.
   “It still may be the perfect material for those customers who desire a specific look and love the idea of having a countertop that develops character and a patina over time – or who never plan on using their countertop for practical purposes,” she says.
   However, that company’s Taylor says he believes some people appreciate what he calls the weathering of the stone after it’s installed.
   “They appreciate that it antiques the look,” he says.
   “You just have to make them understand that it’s going to age differently than granite will,” says Stonehenge’s Lytle. “We do a lot of bathroom vanity tops in limestone and the look outweighs the possibility of something bad happening to it.
   “Besides, with a little care, you don’t have those problems.”
   And, even when you do have problems, there are ways of dealing with them, he adds. Not only do the Lytles have limestone countertops in their house; they also have three children, and their father says at some point some lemons left  on the countertop did cause a problem.
   “It did etch it,” he admits. “We just keep some color-enhancing sealer on it to hide it. It’s not real bad, but it did happen. It’s a countertop and people use it.”
  
FASTER THAN GRANITE
   Since limestone represents such a small percentage of most shops’ output, many of them aren’t carrying huge inventories of slabs.
   Lytle, for instance, doesn’t stock any material because of the location of a large supplier across Interstate 75 from his shop. However, he says he does show and sell remnants.
   “Especially with the limestone, people will see a small piece and we’ll end up making a vanity top, that sort of thing,” he says.
   Luck Stone’s Taylor says his company started carrying limestone slabs about 18 months ago. However, he describes the selection as, “very limited,” and the company relies on its suppliers to provide the right slab to fill a customer’s request.
   “We try to keep a couple limestones in stock, and we have samples of others if there’s something in particular a customer is looking for,” says Southwest Tile’s Young. “We certainly don’t carry the variety of limestones that we have in granite.”
   The slabs are available in both 2cm and 3cm thicknesses, and preferences seem to vary by shop. CST’s O’Hara says that company typically works with 2cm slabs, and he feels the material is a little-more-fragile than granite at that size.
   However, for the most part, fabricators say the limestone slabs fabricate and install much like granite.
   “Being a softer material, it really handles almost like marble,” says Taylor, who works with 3cm slabs. “We’re also using a limited selection of edges on it, but we’re doing an ogee, a half bullnose and a full bullnose, as well as different bevels. And, we’ve done some laminate work on it.”
   “It responds to the tooling pretty much the same way granite does,” says O’Hara. “As I say, it can be a little more delicate in the shop, whether you’re cutting it on the bridge saw or edging it on one of the machines. It’s easier to chip or get breakage along the edge when we’re profiling it.”
   Young says that company’s choice of a 2cm or 3cm product depends on what edge detail the shop is trying to achieve but, “We can do anything in limestone that we can do in a piece of granite; I don’t think there are any limitations.”
   Even better, from a production standpoint, is that limestone tops typically aren’t polished. While there are some limestones that are brought to a high polish, most are honed; fabricators just match the edges to the top.
   “Certainly, the saw moves at the same speed, whether we’re cutting limestone or granite,” says Stonehenge’s Lytle. “But, because it’s softer, it’s a lot easier and a lot quicker to fabricate. It just happens a lot quicker.”
   Once the job is fabricated and heads out the door, everyone agrees that limestone handles much the same as granite in the field, too. Again, CST’s O’Hara expresses some concerns about fragility with his 2cm product, but the others say once it’s cut, at 3cm it seems slightly less brittle than granite.
   And, installation is the same, using mitered edges and a two-part epoxy system color-matched to the stone. One advantage a honed limestone has over polished granite is that the seam can be smoothed out with a polishing pad without marring the surface, says Lytle.
   An important part of the installation is sealing the stone, and while opinions vary on whether it’s best to use a silicon enhancer sealer or a penetrating sealer, doing the work and then educating the buyer about it are what’s critical.
   “We tell customers that it’s much more-important to keep their limestone sealed than if they had granite,’ says Southwest Tile’s Young. “As far as cleaning and maintenance, it’s done with the same products used for any other natural stone.”
   Luck Stone’s Taylor says he also stresses the importance of a pH neutral soap – rather than anything acidic – for cleaning.
   And, despite its perceived drawbacks, for many people the addition of limestone to their kitchen or bath ends happily.
   “They like the look and once they’re educated about the product, they’re happy with the results,” says Young.
   Lytle agrees. He notes that – thanks to television and the Internet – stone buyers in general are more knowledgeable than they were a few years ago. For those who want limestone, most go in with their eyes wide open.
   “People know what they want when they come through the door,” he says. “Sure, we get customers from time to time who complain, but I don’t think it would matter if you were putting down limestone or plywood for them. They want to complain about something.”

This article first appeared in the September 2006 print edition of Stone Business. ©2006 Western Business Media Inc.