My Concrete Countertop Sealer Epiphany

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Recently I had an epiphany that I would like to share with the world. It isn’t earth-shattering, it isn’t revolutionary and it’s not even that radical. However I believe that it is important, so I’m taking the time to write this.

For many, many years I have used coatings to protect my concrete countertops. I am a strong and vocal advocate for using a high performance coating to protect concrete from stains and acid, and I’ve invested an extraordinary amount of time and resources testing and reporting the stain performance of a wide variety of sealers. My recent epiphany isn’t really about sealers directly, and it doesn’t contradict my position on them. What it does do is paint a broader and more coherent picture of their place and how we all can be successful with our concrete.

We, the concrete countertop industry, are in a strange and precarious position. Other countertop materials have well-defined and widely accepted identities. Everyone who looks at, buys, wants, uses and works with those materials has an idea of what those materials are, and everyone’s pretty comfortable with the way they are. Those countertop materials are accepted, even coveted some may say, at face value. Concrete isn’t given that freedom of acceptance; it’s not given the same benefit of the doubt. So we, purveyors and crafters of concrete have to dig into our bag of tricks and make compromises in an attempt at satisfying challenging, difficult and sometimes impossible demands.

I’m not going to start a dialog on the virtues of such-and-such sealer, or what fantastic new technology is going to solve all our problems. We all are wise enough to know that right now there’s nothing that satisfies everyone; someday perhaps, but not right now. What I am going to say has to do with responsibility. When I’m done, perhaps it will become the map that helps you find the path you’ve been looking for.

When a client chooses Carrara marble, she does so deliberately. Carrara marble has a very rich heritage that is at the source of its wide appeal. It was prized by the Greeks and Romans and widely used as a sculpting material during the Renaissance; Michelangelo carved the statue of David from a block of Carrara marble. The historic and contemporary value of Carrara marble is unquestionably high. Its luminous beauty and refined texture elevate it to super-premium status where it exemplifies high design and expensive taste.

Carrara marble countertop

Although it is highly valued for its rich heritage and aesthetic qualities, Carrara marble is actually a relatively poor material to make a kitchen countertop out of, in a practical sense. Marble is a soft and porous stone, and Carrara’s light color makes almost any stain stand out. Marble is vulnerable to common acids like vinegar and lemon juice.

Despite those limitations, Carrara marble is still viewed as a desirable and valued material. The natural stone industry and consumers are aware of and accept Carrara marble’s physical limitations, yet little is done to improve or protect the material. It is unheard of to apply a coating to Carrara marble. At best a penetrating repellant or a coat of wax is all that is tolerated.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Carrara marble is a relatively new and popular countertop material. Engineered quartz is a synthetic composite of quartz aggregate in a durable resin binder. This combination yields an extremely durable countertop surface that often carries 10 to 15 year warranties, and its physical properties convey a nearly stain- and acid-proof surface. Its manufacture provides all the protection, so no sealing and no maintenance are required. These factors, along with the broad range of aesthetic choices offered by the engineered quartz manufacturers make it a popular choice and a strong competitor to granite.

woman's hands cutting lemons on bright blue engineered quartz countertop

Not to be outcompeted by a synthetic material, most granite on the market today is resin impregnated. This makes the granite nonporous and greatly increases its stain resistance.

Both of these materials, engineered quartz and resinated granite, provide very durable, virtually maintenance free surfaces that can stand up to most anything a homeowner can spill on it.

So where does concrete fit in? From a custom, high-end material standpoint it’s in league with Carrara marble. No other material can look and do and be what concrete can.

Unfortunately, most of the clients concrete is presented to think it’s just another countertop material, and that almost all home-center grade countertop materials perform similarly, providing nearly maintenance-free stain-proof performance. It’s not surprising that most clients ask for, or even demand that kind of performance.

And that leads me back to where I started. You can, and have always been able to, provide your clients with a surface that will stand up to heat, mustard, vinegar and oil (amongst many other sauces and lotions and liquids). Not only do they want “stain-proof”, they want absolutely zero maintenance. No waxing, no resealing, nothing, because even if they had to do it they wouldn’t. After all, if they can’t even keep the countertops clean, do you think they’d apply a sealer every so often, or even once? Not likely. Such performance is possible, but it comes with a price, and that price is that you must use a coating.

These homeowners want to be absolved of any responsibility for keeping the countertops looking like new. In their mind, that’s what the sealer is for. They want to be slobs and not have to worry. And they can, but to get close to what most clients want requires a very high performance coating. A coating that stands up to everything a homeowner can spill on it, and one that does so every time it’s used and on any kind of concrete it’s used on. This places all of the responsibility on you, the concrete countertop manufacturer.

You bear the burden of choosing a finish that stands up to everything you anticipate the client will do. Choose poorly, and you’ll pay the price with callbacks, lost revenue and even lost business. Choose correctly and you can sleep well, knowing your concrete will look like new for a long time.

So where am I going with all of this? I’m not driving you towards one end solution. What I want you to do is think about your concrete and your clients and your message. Are you selling Carrara marble or are you selling engineered quartz? Neither is wrong, but both require an explicit and very clear understanding of responsibility.

If you choose to sell concrete like Carrara marble, tell your clients that 100% of the responsibility for upkeep and maintenance is on them. If you choose to sell concrete like engineered quartz, then take 100% of the responsibility for engineering its performance so that no care and maintenance are required of the client.

Think about this: Whom do you want to bear the responsibility for keeping your concrete looking like new? You or your client? 

While either choice is acceptable, the end product, the concrete, looks, feels and performs differently. You’re not making the same “stuff” and packaging it two different ways. They are different animals, and are looked at and valued in fundamentally different ways. Both are high value. Both are correct, but both must be matched to the right client. If not, then no one will be happy.

Lastly, a word of caution. I believe most of the headaches, callbacks and problems people have had stem from the fact that the finishes conflicted with the defined roles of responsibility.

If I use a finish that provides a good deal of protection, but it gradually wears off, then that finish requires periodic reapplication. If I select a finish that stands up to some common staining agents but not others, then that finish doesn’t provide the kind of protection the client wants. The line of responsibility is vague and shifts. Using some kind of finish that offers limited protection is worse than using none at all because at some level the client knows I’ve sealed the concrete, so the expectation is that staining won’t happen, or it won’t happen so badly, or that it shouldn’t happen. But it will, so in their mind I’ve let them down, even though I set their expectations up front.

This scenario has played out for many concrete countertop makers over the years.

If I simply wax bare concrete, then the client knows, up front, that just about anything will stain the concrete and that they had better take great care and clean up any spills. If they do that then “bad things” won’t happen. And if they do, it’s obvious where the fault lies.

On the other hand, if I coat the concrete with a high performance, reliable coating, then nothing short of gouging the concrete will damage the finish. The homeowners don’t need to do anything. In fact they don’t even need to keep the countertop clean. All the responsibility is on me.

It’s that gray area in between, with finishes/treatments/coatings/whatever that provide limited protection, or only work some of the time for some of the people, or are too difficult to get to work, or simply don’t work when tested despite what’s written on the bottle or posted on a forum. With these types of finishes the line of responsibility is vague. It shifts. It’s movable, and you can be sure that when bad things happen the client will push the line in the direction most favorable to them. And that means you pay the price.

So, are you selling Carrara marble, engineered quartz, or are you caught in between, in the gray area of frustration, callbacks and lost profits? It’s up to you. Just be clear about where you stand.