Take a look around at new construction in your community, and you’ll likely see buildings clad in stone. Take a closer look, and you might find that, rather than full-bed stone or cast concrete stone veneers, thin stone is taking center stage. For many reasons, mason contractors are opting for thin stone. When compared to a full stone veneer or a manufactured concrete product, it just makes sense.
By Jennifer Morrell
Thin stone veneer is no longer a slick industry buzz term used by stone quarry spokespeople in scattered areas of the world. It is, instead, a viable and increasingly popular building material seen on everything from banks and restaurants to outdoor fireplaces, entranceways and residential homes. While some companies focus solely on thin stone, others have made it an offering of their companies or are considering doing so. But across the board, everyone accepts thin stone veneer as an exterior treatment that is pleasing all parties involved, including contractors, masons, bricklayers and customers.
Thin stone has the ability to offer the beauty of natural stone at an affordable price. And, this material has time — four to six million years — on its side. Unlike manufactured stone, this is a natural product through and through. Chip it, and you’ll only see more colorful beauty that won’t fade or wash away. With all of these plusses, one has to ask, “What’s not to love?”
Thin stone veneer is a facing product that does not need a ledger, footings or wall ties required by full-bed stone veneer. With a weight restriction of 15 pounds per square foot, thin stone is light enough to be supported by the wall to which it’s applied. The builder can construct a wood frame or block backup and apply thin stone over the surface. It is cut to a 3/4- to 1 1/4-inch depth, so it offers the dimensional beauty of full-bed stone. Thin and full natural stone used on the same product would mix in a way that one couldn’t tell which was thin and which was four to six inches thick.
Consider a builder begins construction on a building requiring 2,000 square feet of stone veneer. If he has two masons laying full-bed stone veneer, each can lay about 35 square feet per day, for a total of 70 square feet per day. To lay all 2,000 square feet would take the two masons about one month.
For two masons to lay 2,000 square feet of thin stone veneer would take about 10 days, in comparison, due to lighter weights and ease of installment.
The builder completes the project more quickly, saves on labor, and saves on potential workman’s comp claims in the long term, since the veneers are so much lighter and easier on the back and body.
“Full stone veneer has to be hammered or chipped into place,” says Jim Hambleton, sales manager for Denver-based Robinson Brick, a division of General Shale Brick. “Thin stone veneer is more like a jigsaw puzzle. Our product goes out of the box and into place. Both full and thin use the same Type S mortar, but full veneer needs ties, etc., to adhere to the wall, and the mason has to wait on it to dry before continuing.”
Natural thin stone veneer can be applied over any masonry surface, concrete block, brick, cement, etc. Painted surfaces must be sandblasted or stripped of paint. If it is difficult to remove paint, or if the surface is frame construction, an 18-gauge metal lath should be nailed to the wall securely, six inches on center. If it’s an exterior wall, a vapor barrier should be applied first, and then the metal lath. Next, a scratch coat is applied to the lath, assuring the lath is covered completely with a thin coat (1/2- to 3/4-inch thick). The mason should use a metal scraper or small scrap of lath to lightly rake horizontal grooves into the scratch coat, and allow it to set or cure. At this point in the process, the surface is ready for the thin stone veneer to be applied. From this point, the mason follows a basic application of the thin stone using Type S mortar spread 1/2-inch thick.
Something to think about: Consider the term “concrete stone.” Can the word “concrete” describe a pre-existing, natural material such as stone?
The thin veneers usually are shipped on pallets, though New Hope, Pa.-based Delaware Quarries packages its TruStone product in boxes made of corrugated polypropylene to protect from the elements, according to George Cannell, director of the company.
“The containers also have stacking cleats for added safety,” Cannell says. “To make things easier for the thin stone ‘mechanics’ who will lay the material, installation instructions are included on the outside of the box in both English and Spanish. The installer can start applying the thin stone to the top of the wall and work his way down.”
Thin vs. full-bed stone veneer
For thousands of years, stone has been the building material of choice. Castles and monuments were constructed of stone blocks a few feet in thickness, because their builders wanted them to last forever. That endurance has translated into a symbol of lasting beauty today, as stone is a part of any project that commands a high-class appearance. Natural stone is thought to be simply a timeless building material.
Though natural stone is loved by many, it was, for a long time, afforded only by some. Thin stone makes a natural stone product a possibility for many reasons. The material is less costly to ship, usually about one-quarter the price of shipping a load of full-bed stone veneer. Stone is often quarried on one continent, sometimes fabricated on another, and used in construction on a third, meaning transportation costs cannot be ignored. Depending on the distance, this could mean tens of thousands of dollars and more in savings when shipping a thin stone veneer.
The intensity of a considerably heavy stone product is reduced through the use of thin stone, which is much kinder to the backs and other body parts of mason and bricklayers. It is safe to assume that with fewer workman’s comp claims, the cost of workman’s comp insurance in this particular industry might decrease over time. This insurance is costly as any mason contractor will attest, so anything that helps reduce the price is helpful to the industry as a whole.
Finally, natural stone is considered a green product, as it comes from the earth as a natural resource. When only one-quarter of the amount of stone is lifted to quarry thin stone, the environment is further preserved. Every bit of the quarried stone is usable product, which is also good for our planet.
Thin vs. cast stone veneer
Natural thin stone veneer will not fade in color, and its texture and aesthetic qualities can never be reproduced. A manufactured concrete thin veneer material is poured into a mold with (usually) dry pigment, so the pigment can fade or weather away. If this product is chipped or hurt by outdoor elements, its concrete interior will show through. Since the concrete is poured into a mold, the shape has limitations regarding how unique its shape can be.
Cleaning Thin Stone Veneers
It’s simple. Wash thin stone veneers with mild detergent and water. Some masons prefer to seal stone veneers. This can be a good alternative but may require the owner re-seal the product after time.
Thin stone can be cut — right on the jobsite — to any size needed or into any shape, including corbels, lintels and keystones.
Natural thin stone veneer offers a color advantage in that color palettes are seemingly endless. Matt Mueller, VP and general manager for Siloam Stone in Canon City, Colo., says thin stone is relatively new for the company. Mueller says at Siloam Stone, colors are particular, and custom sorting is done for the companies they supply. One such company is Robinson Brick. “Robinson Brick cares a lot about color,” says Mueller. “Also, the stone is sorted for thickness and height. All ‘other’ stone is put into regular production for the other customers.”
Mueller says available colors from Siloam Stone range from tans and buffs to light grays, golds, browns, rusts and other earth tones. “These are great for fireplaces and exteriors,” he says.
Through thick and thin?
Why the overwhelming and recent popularity of stone? “The popularity is based on a timeless look,” says Joe Buechel, sales manager for Fond du Lac, Wis.-based Natural Stone Veneers International. “It’s what we saw in history.”
Natural Stone Veneers International was formed five years ago to specialize in the natural thin stone veneer industry. “Stone is oldest building material on earth, 2 to 4 million years old,” says Buechel. “It’s a class above.”
Masons may be slow to change, but at least stone is now mixed into projects like fireplaces and entranceways. In addition to the forethought to consider thin stone, application and skilled labor are important. “The mindset needs to change from full-bed stone to thin stone veneer,” says Hambleton. “The biggest issue with thin stone veneer projects is to install the material correctly,” he says. “Typically, installation error is what can make a thin stone project fail, if an instance is created where water penetrates through the mortar and creates mold.”
Another example Hambleton gives is regarding freeze/thaw issues. Particularly with dry stack projects, where mortar is applied to the back of the thin stone, if installation is not correct, the stones can pop off. Aside from needed repair work, this challenge leads contractors and customers to think thin stone is not reliable.
“There is a difference between a true brick mason and a bricklayer,” says Hambleton. “True masons are a dwindling society. You have to have a good contractor.”