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Nobody likes a seam: Why seams exist and how to mitigate their impact

April 14, 2020

It is one of life’s hard truths: countertop seams are as unavoidable as death and taxes. Arguments over seam location and seam quality are commonplace between customer and fabricator but an unpleasant experience can be avoided entirely by understanding the reasons for seams and the decisions that go into their placement.

Accepting this reality and understanding why seams exist in the first place will help you make wise decisions in the material selection process and give you the necessary perspective to work constructively with your fabricator to ensure minimal visual impact on your finished project. So, first thing first…

Why do seams exist?

Reason 1: Countertops are cut from slabs of stone and slabs of stone are manufactured in size formats that are conducive for transport and handling. Ergo, the fixed size of the slab constrains the dimensions of surface it can yield. Clearly, a 13’ run of countertop cannot be created out of a 12’ long slab without the use of a seam.

Reason 2: You’re not made of money and project budgets are important. Purchasing additional slabs to avoid an unsightly seam is a luxury that few people can afford and in our humble opinion, a waste of your hard-earned capital. It’s also important to remember that Countertop Fabrication is a business, so if you’re being sold a countertop at a SF price, you should understand that your countertop is going to be created out of the least number of slabs possible. So, on that note…

What are the rules for seam placement?

The short answer is that there is no right or wrong in countertop seam placement. Many factors need to be taken into account:

1.    Color matching: You may have noticed that slabs of natural stone often have gradations of color across the surface. This is going to affect the layout of your countertop and is a major factor in seam placement. A dramatic shift in color at the seam will naturally draw your eye and you’ll risk becoming that homeowner who rushes to point out flaws before your guest notices. Not a good look.

2.    Stone veining and pattern: Same thing as above. As much as possible, your seam placement should allow the stone pattern to flow otherwise your counter can end up looking disjointed.

3.    Stock availability: This is especially important with natural stone that has inherent color and pattern variation from slab to slab. Typically, slabs are sold in bundles or “job lots” in order to ensure a modicum of color consistency in a project requiring multiple slabs. If slabs from the same stock are not readily available, seam placement becomes even more important in creating the appearance of consistency.

4.    Access to the project site: A countertop installer is not going to be able to remove and replace a wall in order to get large runs of countertop to where they need to go within your house. Since stone doesn’t bend, countertops sometimes require a seam just to get them around tight corners. Stone is also very heavy and transporting up a set of stairs can be dangerous if not segmented into sections.

5.    Lighting: Maybe don’t place the seam right under the window that lets in all of the beautiful natural light?

6.    Appliance placement: Ranges, stovetops, and refrigerators provide natural stopping points for your countertop. If possible, layout the countertops on the slab so that the inconsistent portions of stone are separated by the appliances. 

So, back to question of right and wrong: If you think your seam placement was created poorly, can you hold the fabricator to account? The short answer is no (at least not legally). The National Stone Institute, which creates the guidelines for installation best practice considers seam placement a matter of taste and preference. Codifying seam placement is untenable as what may constitute best practice for Project A may not be best for Project B.

Prevent this situation entirely by following some basic considerations for disguising or hiding countertop seams…

What are some considerations for seam location?

With the understanding that seam placement is fettered by slab size and the available budget, the decisions that remain are aesthetic ones and need to be discussed directly with your fabricator. Fortunately, reputable countertop fabricators have slab layout software to help you visualize the finished countertop prior to fabrication and installation. When working through your layout options it’s advisable to consider the following:

1.    Continuity of veining, grain, and color at the location of the seam: This is especially important when working with natural stone that has linear or swirling veins. Accept the reality that you won’t have a perfect match and don’t dwell on it. If you’re working with natural or engineered stone that has a uniform pattern or a solid color, this may not be a consideration at all.

2.    Odd versus even segmentation: A general architectural rule when dividing any space into sections is to adhere to odd segmentation over even segmentation. For instance, seaming a kitchen island into two equal sections is going to create a visual focal point on the seam, whereas seaming the island into three equal sections redirects the eye to focus on the stone, which of course, is the desired effect.

3.    Hiding the seam where possible: Use the center of kitchen sinks or stove tops to effectively hide the countertop seam by reducing the amount of the seam that is visible. In addition, sink brackets which adhere the sink to the under surface of the countertop serve to structurally reinforce the seam against vibrations from kitchen appliances (such as dishwashers and garbage disposals) that can create stress on the seam over time.

4.    Seam placement sign-off: As with all construction work, the key to avoiding conflict and project delays is clear communication through the use of contracts. A reputable fabricator will provide you sign-off sheets that indicate seam placement prior to beginning fabrication. Make sure you’re comfortable with the seam placements and use the opportunity to confirm the other project details such as edge profile, overhang, and faucet placement.

We get it, no one likes seams! But until we start 3D printing countertops on location, they’re here to stay. The sooner we accept that fact, the sooner we can focus on minimizing their impact and moving on with the project.