While natural marble and other stones are increasingly popular with homeowners, these materials are expensive, difficult to maintain, and hard to work with and install. Cultured marble, on the other hand, is a less expensive alternative, and many homeowners find it just as attractive as natural marble.
"Cultured marble's big benefit over natural stone is price. It's more affordable than real granite or marble," says Bill Kennedy of Gruber Systems, a supplier to cultured marble and granite manufacturers.
Cultured marble is a cast polymer product, along with solid surfacing, cultured granite, and cultured onyx. A filler of crushed limestone or marble dust gives it a natural stone appearance and feel. Primarily used for bathroom applications, cultured marble can be cast into vanity tops and sink bowls, shower pans or shower wall surrounds, tubs, tiles, flooring, and wall panels. It can also be used for fireplace surrounds and molding accents. Shapes, sizes, finishes, veining, and colorations depend on the capabilities and specialties of the manufacturer. A gel coat protects the material from stains and scratches and provides a non-porous surface.
"It provides the most bang for the buck," says remodeler Patrick Benkowski of Roadrunner Custom Remodeling, Fountain Hills, Ariz. Benkowski specializes in bathroom remodels and says he prefers using cultured marble because it is easier to install than natural stone or tiles.
There are thousands of small shops in the United States, serving their local areas or regions, that custom manufacture cultured marble products. "The advantage of the smaller regional producers is that they can be more responsive to custom sizes and colors," says Steve Embler of cultured marble producer Glenmar Manufacturing.
"Because all the work is customized, and each piece is manufactured specifically for a job, ambitious and unique designs are possible," says Sabeena Hickman, associate director for the International Cast Polymer Alliance (ICPA), the trade group for cast polymer products.
Many local manufacturers depend on word of mouth, repeat business, warranties, and their reputation as testimonials to the quality of their product. However, the ICPA has recently endorsed a product certification program to assure consumers (remodelers, builders, and their clients) of the performance of the cultured marble products they use.
The third-party product certification program, Performance Standard for Solid Surface Materials, certifies that a manufacturer's cultured marble products (and other cast polymer products) have been tested and verified by an independent laboratory to meet or exceed the performance requirements of the American National Standards Institute.
The ICPA also offers manufacturers an employee training and certification program: the Certified Composites Technician -- Cast Polymer program (CCT-CP). The program is designed to raise the level of skill and knowledge of professionals working in the cast polymer industry.
The certification programs are both voluntary and are still new, so participation is small thus far. "We have 35 people certified so far, and [the program] was launched last year," Hickman says. The ICPA provides product and industry information on its Web site at www.icpa-hq.org.
For more product information, visit ebuild, Hanley Wood's interactive product catalog.