When I started writing the Housebuilder's Bible in 1993, I had in mind to produce a long, rambly tract, the sort of thing that you might hear from someone who just happened to be propping up the bar at the Pig and Whistle. I figured that there were loads of little things that builders knew and ordinary members of the public didn't, and I set out to lift the lid on the builder's secrets.
But over the years, the tract got ever-longer and more rambly, and I found out that there were masses of stuff that builders didn't know and neither, for that matter, did I. My book seemed to enter a new phase of explaining how all these new technologies worked, and how Part X and Part Y had suddenly changed everything anyway. What started out as a piece of timeless folklore turned into a grumpy discussion paper, as I tried to figure out where exactly you stuck a heat pump or a pellet boiler when you were at home.
The internet should have taken over where my book left off but, by and large, it hasn't. Instead it appears to be mostly populated by salesmen and apparatchiks, intent on pumping out a line, and not really concerned with both the pros and the cons. Independent advice is very thin on the ground.
In the homebuilding arena, there is very little that makes me think "Wow, that's useful." There's Tony McCormick's excellent Paving Expert site which goes from strength to strength. There's an interesting site run by Mike The Boilerman which will covers many modern plumbing and heating issues, and tells a few tales. And there's a new one I have recently come across, run by Marion of Advanced Kitchen Design in Nottingham, called Majjie's Blog.
Majjie takes on a writing form that I instantly identify with. It's that bloke (or, in this case, blokette) down at the bar of the Pig and Whistle again, mixing up facts with opinions, and generally being extremely entertaining whilst also being a fund of good, hard information. Priceless.
Here's a flavour of what she writes, explaining to kitchen muppets what the difference is between solid surface and quartz composite worktops. Bloody useful if you are thinking about getting a new kitchen.
There's a lot of confusion about the man-made worktops and - to be fair - the distinctions between the different types is getting blurred now - but basically:
• the surface material, of solid surface worktops, varies from 2mm to 13mm thick and is fabricated onto timber or chipboard boards - or cores - to form a worktop of the desired thickness (often with, for the very thin materials, a thicker surface on the front edge)
• the surface material is softer than other types of worktop - easy to scratch - and not very heat resistant (even to the point that some of them tell you not to pour boiling water straight into the integral sinks!)
• glossy solid surfaces (presumably developed to compete with polished granite) are a nightmare to keep looking good - very easy to scratch - I wouldn't recommend them at all
• matt finish solid surfaces are warm to the touch, can have virtually invisible joins (better on some colours than others), scratches are relatively easy to remove (see latest blog!) and more serious damage can be repaired (but pure white and black colours will mark more easily than the browny, beigy mottled colours)
• for the thicker surfaces, integral sinks can be made in the same material (although not necessarily the same colour)
• solid surfaces are very hygienic (including where joined) and non-absorbent so, although they will mark and scratch, they shouldn't stain (they're often used in toilets and laboratories ... uhmm, perhaps that's not a great point to mention in their favour!). The integral sinks can also be seamlessly joined to the worktop.
• the thinner, cheaper, solid surface worktops need to be fitted to strict guidelines - otherwise they're prone to cracking - and they can't be used for unsupported breakfast bars ... but they're available as blanks, don't need templating and can be fitted on-site - so they're much cheaper (Maia, Minerelle, GetaCore, Encore etc.)
• solid surface materials - at least the more expensive, thicker, acrylic based ones, like Corian, Avonite, Hanex and LG Hi-Macs - are thermoformable and can be made into great curves in almost any dimension - you can have curvy worktops, with bull-nosed front edges, swooping down to the ground and rolling up again ... if you want to!
• the more expensive solid surfaces come in a HUGE range of colours
• solid surface material is translucent - so lends itself to creative lighting effects (especially for splashbacks)
• they're all made from mineral powders and bits, mixed with acrylic or occassionally polyester resin (the latter is nastier to work with, even less heat resistant, less thermoformable and small radius curves can be a problem - but it produces much brighter colours, is actually easier to work with and more fire resistant - the two can be mixed) ... I think! It's difficult to get definitive info. (I believe Minerelle has polyester in the mix.)
• quartz composite worktops are basically artificial stone - made in big 30mm thick slabs - and treated in exactly the same way as granite worktops
• they're made from 93 - 95% quartz/stone particles - just stuck together (so to speak) with acrylic resin (and pigments, pieces of mirror etc. are also added)
• they're much harder than solid surface worktops and stronger (because they're slightly more flexible) than granite ... so less likely to crack and can be cut into more complicated shapes than granite
• the big advantage of quartz composites is that they (like solid surfaces) are completely non-absorbent and hygienic (they don't need sealing like granite, to protect from curry sauce, coffee, red wine and the like) but they're VERY much more scratch and heat resistant than solid surfaces
• the disadvantage - compared to solid surfaces - is that joins are just like granite; the two ends are just butted up and any gap filled with resin/silicon. The neatness depends on the fitter.
• sinks can't be seamlessly joined (apart from a newly introduced integral sink in Silestone) - but are usually undermounted (or you can just use standard inset sinks)
• all good quality, 30mm thick, quartz composite materials are made on one type of huge (Italian-made) Breton machine, reportedly costing 12 million Euro - so there aren't that many about - and the manufacturer also provides the resin material. There isn't usually room for more than one manufacturer per country and all are keen to export, As far as I know there isn't one in the UK. Quality is governed by the quartz/stone mix, small variations in additives and the rigour of the quality control in the factory. The market leader is Silestone (made by Cosentino, Spain) - which is the only one that includes anti-bacterial Microban in the mixture - and they're very innovative with colours and using re-cycled material in their stone mixture. It's also the most expensive. The other main players are: Quarella/Pianoforte - Italy; Caesarstone - Israel; DuPont Zodiaq - USA; Compac - Portugal (but Spanish company); Cimstone - Turkey; Technistone - Czech Republic. The waters are muddied slightly, though, by own-brand names (most of which will be from one of the manufacturers already listed). Rumour has it that there are cheaper and inferior materials on the market, from China and India - not made on a Breton machine - which are not as strong and stain easily. I don't know how true that is. There is certainly a Breton machine in China and one bought in India (although I don't know if the latter is in production).
You can see now, why I write blogs - naturally garrulous when it comes to writing! (I shall now turn this into a blog, of course). The distinction between the two types of worktop is being blurred because manufacturers are bringing out thin layer quartz composites fitted to boards - in the same way as the thin, solid surface materials are - and there are also some 30mm thick, solid, solid surfaces, such as Apollo Slab Tech and Velstone . I don't know whether or not the thin quartz surfaces are still made on Breton machines ... I suspect some aren't ... and they don't have a track record yet, to see if they have problems - with cracking - or with the join between the top surface and the 30-40mm upstand at the front.
You wish you hadn't asked now, don't you!
Great stuff, Majjii. If anyone knows of anymore sites or blogs like hers, let me know and I'll pin them up in my blog roll.