Kitchen & Bath: High-Tech Countertop Templating
Savvy entrepreneurs sometimes make their mark not by inventing
something new, but by adding to or improving on an existing
technology. In that category are two innovations in
solid-surface fabrication. If this material doesn't soon
dominate residential countertop installations, don't blame
There probably isn't a solid-surface countertop fabricator
worth his sawdust — or whatever that stuff is
— who hasn't run into some kind of costly error
working from a template made at the job and brought to the
shop. Over his 15-plus years as a fabricator, Paul Dubuc has
seen his share of problems, from multiple site visits required
to finalize measurements to templates that fall apart in
transit, or some vital detail that got overlooked in an
all-too-human moment of distraction. It doesn't take much to
delay a countertop delivery by days or even weeks.
Dubuc has analyzed his missteps and benchmarked every step of
the entire process. The result, six years in development, is
the MobileFab System (Rissco Fabrication, Warren, R.I.;
401/247-7700, www.rissco.com), a rolling fabrication
plant available for hire or franchise (see Figure 1). Bringing
a fully equipped, highly efficient shop right to the job site
effectively closes the biggest gap in the process —
the one between shop and site.
Figure 1.The only thing missing from this
solid-surface fabricating shop is inefficiency.
Seeing is believing. I
watched two skilled fabricators turn blank, 1/2-inch sheet
stock into a fully finished and installed L-shaped sink deck,
complete with integral basin, dropped edge, and backsplash. The
entire job took four hours, clocked from the moment the truck
pulled up to the site.
The totally tricked-out, 26x10-foot box truck contains its own
diesel-fueled generator, furnace, electrical system,
heat-recovery ventilation and climate control, vacuum, and
filtered evacuation system, along with every other tool needed
to produce a top-notch installation. As a result of exhaustive
time-and-motion studies, the cargo bay interior is detailed
down to the smallest amenity, maximizing efficiency and putting
many far roomier shops to shame (Figure 2).
Figure 2.Task-specific tools are within easy reach
on the above-bench racks (top). The topless, flip-up bench arms
can be configured to suit various jobs. Vacuum ports above the
bench provide efficient dust control (bottom left), while
blowers below the bench warm the material for rapid glue-ups.
The table saw folds down out of the way when not in use (bottom
The blank sheet goods are precisely scribed and marked in
place on the cabinets, eliminating measurement and transfer
errors. Countertop seams are typically prepared in the truck
and completed during installation (Figure 3). Because the
guesswork is eliminated, there's no compromise in quality
— like the difference between an off-the-rack suit and
a tailor-made tux.
Figure 3.Sheet blanks for large or complicated
countertops are scratch-marked in place on the cabinets.
Complex countertop shapes are then produced in segments to be
assembled and seamed in place.
And fabrication isn't limited to countertops; MobileFab
commonly handles shower surrounds, tub decks, and vanity tops,
too. Pricing varies by fabricator, from competitive to premium,
depending on area demand. Currently covering New England and
New York State, franchisees are coming on line in Chicago and
Jacksonville, Fla., early this year. A training area at the
company's headquarters exactly reproduces the vehicle's
interior, providing interested fabricators with first-hand
observation and training in the system. A MobileFab truck can
also be deployed to a demonstration site anywhere in the
By the way, I also witnessed a great trick for cleaning up
silicone caulk squeeze-out after bonding an applied backsplash.
Don't touch it until you've misted the seam area with Windex
(also used to clean solid surface between polishing grit
step-downs). Then use a plastic scraper and paper towels to
completely wipe up the excess without a smear.
A Picture Is Worth a Thousand
Digital countertop templating is an exceptionally precise
method that does away with all temporary materials,
conventional measuring, awkward and fragile stick assemblies,
and as-built dimension drawings. Instead, the fabricator simply
photographs the installation site. Columbus, Ohio, builder
David Schaeffer described the first solid-surfacing
installation he ordered from Randy's Countertops (Powell, Ohio;
740/881-5831) as scribe-perfect right off the truck; it settled
into place with a whoosh of displaced air.
How does it work? Measurements are derived from photos taken
with a digital camera that's been precalibrated to proprietary
ETemplate Photo software program standards (ETemplate Systems,
Raleigh, N.C.; 919/676-2244,
www.etemplatesystem.com). The photos not
only provide a visual record of site conditions, but supply all
the measurements necessary for countertop production.
The "measurer" places "Intelli-Marks," or graphically coded
plastic markers, at key locations on the cabinets and
supporting walls to define the countertop borders and
backsplash areas (Figure 4).
Figure 4.Proprietary plastic "Intelli-Mark"
markers center target dots on cabinet edges. User-defined
graphic codes inform the software of each marker's significance
in the pattern.
Each marker's code informs the software of its significance in
the general layout. For example, codes 72 and 73 might indicate
a sink base, 68 and 69 a flush edge, and 80 a backsplash or
vertical marker. (With two axes — X and Y —
defined, the third, Z, is a simple mathematical deduction.) A
gauge bar of known dimension is also placed with the markers
and is used by the program to establish accurate scaling
between points. The software compensates for distortions
created by the view angle.
By comparing multiple, overlapping photo images shot from
different angles, the program can triangulate the relative
distances and produce a descriptive, three-dimensional file of
the marker points in drawing interchange, or DXF, format
Figure 5.The software reverse-calculates the
camera's position and shot angle. Overlapping camera views
enable the program to recreate a contiguous, panoramic layout
The software can define the Intelli-Mark centers down to the
sub-pixel level — a lot sharper than your pencil. That
file can then be exported to virtually any CAD program. The
file initially looks like a constellation of unconnected dots
on screen, requiring some human interpretation and refinement
Figure 6.The CAD operator develops the data into a
working drawing by connecting the points, closing and
chamfering corners, adding overhangs, and determining
The CAD operator connects the dots into a line drawing, then
closes and chamfers corners as needed, places sink and cooktop
cutouts, and determines the countertop overhang distance.
Digital templates for sinks and ranges can typically be
imported from a manufacturer's DXF component catalog. The
refined CAD file can be used to drive a CNC (computer numeric
controlled) router, automating the cutting process. Because CNC
technology typically represents a minimum six-figure
investment, CNC-equipped countertop fabricators are few and far
between. Alternatively, ETemplate Systems also offers ETemplate
Maker, a program that sends the data to a roll-feed vinyl
cutter to produce an accurate, full-size template. Sign makers
use similar equipment to create vinyl lettering and
Digital templating can faithfully reproduce every nuance of
plumb, level, and dimension to an almost excessive degree of
accuracy, enabling truly custom remote fabrication. And remote
means remote — the digital photos or ETemplate file or
finished CAD design can be e-mailed to a fabricator in the next
town or on the other side of the world without loss of
ETemplate technology, which includes the camera, software, and
technical support, costs $10,000, so small builders and
remodelers aren't likely to jump on board. But to an everyday
fabricator or sophisticated cabinet shop, the technology could
prove compelling. Most solid-surface fabricators are
mom-and-pop businesses whose proprietors would be hesitant to
tackle a strange new method of operation, with its attendant
high cost and learning curve. While a couple of hundred
fabricators have made the switch to digital templating, around
130,000 others are still looking askance.
Don't Let the Bath Bugs Bite.
hot bath is supposed to help you relax, not make you sick.
Strange as it seems, certain unhealthful bacteria can thrive in
the active piping of a whirlpool tub. Advise your concerned
clients that StayClean antimicrobial action is available as an
option in most American Standard whirlpools. The technology is
incorporated into the piping, eliminating the need for chemical
or topical treatments. Price varies by unit.
American Standard, 800/442-1902,
Good taste constrains
us from showing this tub in an occupied state. But once
installed, it's unlikely to remain empty. A six-seat capacity,
3-hp dual-speed pump, and 41 jets driving 310 gallons of water
crazy bring health club conviviality to the privacy of home
sweet home. Built-in head cushions in the corner seats and
shoulder-directed jets are among the creature comforts
provided. The MSRP for the Dream HP is $6,695.
Dimension One Spas, 800/345-7727,
With a fill level of
21 inches, this tub makes it easier than ever for your clients
to go soak their head. And the freestanding Serenity X
claw-foot tub, at 72x40 inches, would look great in their
traditionally styled bathroom. Sixty air jets deliver thousands
of heated air bubbles with three different intensity settings
at variable blower speeds. Separate colors may be specified for
the interior basin and exterior surround; in the case of the
Serenity XI pedestal base, a tri-tone tub becomes possible.
Either model, in eight standard colors, costs $4,975.
Twenty-two premium colors are available for a $322
Aquatic Industries, Inc., 800/555-5324,
bathroom can accommodate a big built-in jetted tub. But
average-sized bathrooms need not be left out. The remodel-sized
Bella fits in a standard 5-foot alcove; it's 32 inches wide,
with a floor-to-rim height of 181/4 inches. The acrylic tub has
a reinforced integral skirt and a tile flange for those who
don't want to sacrifice the convenience of a tub-and-shower
combo. Five jets deliver authentic whirlpool action for
MTI Whirlpools, 800/783-8827,
The oven doesn't
have to be attached to the cooktop to occupy the same slot in
the cabinetry. Whirlpool's Gold model GBS307PD 30-inch single
electric oven actually measures 28 1/2 inches wide, 27 3/4
inches high, and 23 1/4 inches deep. That leaves about 4 inches
of drop-in depth for a cooktop in your average cabinet and
leaves the dual-fuel option wide open. The oven sits flush in
the cabinet face. And the toekick's left free for kickspace
heater installation, directly underneath. A handy design
solution for an MSRP of $1,100 to $1,240, depending on
24-inch 2075DWRR Double-Drawer Refrigerator has a crisper bin
in the bottom drawer that slides out on a transverse axis to
either side for convenient access. A glass shelf above provides
a clear view of its contents and additional storage on top. An
adjustable "Slide & Divide" separator keeps contents
from shifting during the ride. The 5.5-cubic-foot-capacity unit
can be completely concealed behind custom cabinet drawer
panels. It'll even chill wine. The unit retails for $2,174 in
black, $2,540 in stainless steel.
U-Line Corporation, 414/354-0300,
People use lots of
ice, but ice making uses lots of standard freezer space. Give
the DCE33 a 15-inch space of its own under the counter, and
your clients can enjoy "perfectly clear gourmet ice cubes,"
without sacrificing ice cream storage. The unit is capable of
producing 30 "cubic" pounds of ice per day. Door panel options
include white, black, and stainless steel. Prices vary by
Scotsman Ice Systems, 800/726-8762,