Countertops using Corian are man-made material that don’t look man-made, is more durable and often more affordable than natural stone. Its history dates back to the early sixties and was part of an industry that promised much excitement and promise. The following exchange reflects the enthusiasm at the time.
Mr McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
Once a common popular culture reference, these 20 seconds of dialogue from the 1967 film “The Graduate” (staring an almost unknown Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock) just barely make any sense today. But back then, as the first moon landing loomed only two years away (even though the Apollo 1 mission had blown up on the launchpad that year, killing three astronauts), the plastics industry was what the computer industry became in the 1990s: an area of infinite possibilities, where business and science formed an alliance set on delivering a popular future.
It’s not so surprising that one of the more familiar plastic products of our time, polymer-based solid surfaces for countertops and other building purposes, emerged out of that chemically creative period. DuPont was the original developer of this class of products, launching its version, Corian, on the market in 1971.
The real story of its development, however, begins eight years earlier, in 1963. In a process that would later become something of a pattern in the later personal computer industry, DuPont found itself with a group of “malcontent” and “misfit” scientists on its hands, which it threw together into a group to come up with products for the building industry.
Don Slocum, PhD, was one of that group, though he was by training a bio-scientist, not as a materials chemist. Nonetheless, he and the others applied themselves to the problems at hand, and after four years of work, in 1967 Corian — or at least the Corian patent — was born. This was the start of an industry that in later years became known as “solid surfaces”.
The original patent lasted the standard 20 years, and by 1989 there were four other competitors in the field: Avonite, Formica, Nevamar and Tuff Top. Formica and Nevamar were both laminate companies, and while Formica continues to produce its solid surface product, Nevamar seems to have dropped out of the business. Tuff Top no longer seems to be around at all.
Of all the original competitors, Avonite had the most direct effect on the market. It was the first company to develop and release a wide range of colours — though this was soon copied by DuPont and other companies. Avonite continues to be a leader in the field of solid surfaces, in the US and Australia, offering both acrylic and polyester based products in a very wide range of colours.
The overall solid surfaces market has undergone a large number of changes over the 28 years since those four companies joined DuPont as solid surfaces manufacturers. There is now something like over 20 major companies in the field, with new ones — such as the Indian firm VELO during 2017 — cropping up all the time.
Aside from the original Corian, one of the most significant is LG’s Hi-Macs range. While US big-box retailer The Home Depot stocks and sells the original Corian solid surface, its main competitor, Lowe’s Home Improvement, stocks and sells Hi-Macs. Hi-Macs has also achieved significant market share in Australia’s commercial sector. It has been used, for example, at Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne, and in Westfield shopping centres in Sydney.
Other major brands include: Krion Porcelanosa Solid Surface, LOTTE Staron, Hanwha Hanex, Meganite, Samsung Staron, Swan Swanstone, Wilsonart Solid Surface, and Kerrock Kolpa.
Each manufacturer of Corian-like solid surfaces (for convenience, we will use the non-standard acronym “CLSS”) brings something unique to the product in terms of tweaking the manufacturing process, in colours, availability of sizes, training, sourcing, and so forth. As the market has evolved, it has tended to return to the core qualities of the original product.
The main reason for this is that this form of plastic fabrication is a very clear illustration of the standard engineering mantra “you don’t get anything for nothing”. Every change and shift to the formulation of CLSS brings both advantages and disadvantages.
A simple example of this is that early attempts were made to increase the hardness of CLSS by introducing harder substances as part of the formulation, such as quartz. However, this tended to produce more brittle products (products that could not, for example, stand up to the constant vibration of in-sink garbage disposals and dishwashers), and that were then just as difficult for installers to work with as materials such as granite and engineered quartz countertops.
The basis of CLSS production is the combination of four types of substance: a filler, a resin, a combined catalyst/initiator (catalysts help reactions occur, while initiators are “used” by reactions), and additives that largely affect the appearance.
These products are mixed to form of raw material which is placed (usually) in moulds. The material is a loose paste when added to the mould, at which point catalysts begin a process referred to technically as “curing”. This is the process where the kinds of atomic links that, basically, make plastic “plastic” are created in the material.
During curing, the material hardens and over a short space of time increases its durability. Curing in any such material never really reaches completion, i.e., not all the possible atomic links ever really get made.
To go through those four elements, the majority of the product is made up of the filler, making up 60% to 65%. The most popular filler is Aluminium-trihydrate (which is refined from the Aluminium ore Bauxite).
The resin is usually a form of acrylic, and it makes up around 30% of the product. Resins made with Neopentyl glycol and Isophthalic acid are the most popular because they offer a high heat distortion temperature, better chemical resistance, and lower water permeation. Polyester resins are also used, though these alter some of the fundamental characteristics provided by acrylic resins, such as the ability to thermoform the material.
The third component consists of additives such as catalysts, initiators, and a range of additives that affect (mainly) the way the product hardens and cures. The most common catalyst system would be Methyl Ethyl Ketone Peroxide. A range of additives can affect things such as the time and completeness of curing, porosity, and enhance specific surface characteristics.
The fourth component consists of elements that largely alter the appearance of the material, including colours, and objects such as glass beads.
Every manufacturer tweaks these elements to suit their needs, and every tweak provides some advantages and some disadvantages. For example, the original filler material used at the inception of Corian in the late 1960s was calcium carbonate (essentially marble), which helped to produce a harder surface, less susceptible to scratches, but also made it much less stain resistant.
It is possible to grind the usual Aluminium-trihydrate filler very fine, which would reduce porosity, and add to stain resistance. However, such a fine grind means that the curing process is significantly inhibited, which would eliminate that advantage.
Different resins and catalysts can be used to affect the overall curing process. For example, a catalyst can be used that requires an elevated temperature for curing, but results in a faster and more complete curing. Yet, most of these bring concerns of introducing colour variations.
Pros and cons
When listed in isolation, the disadvantages of CLSS for use of kitchen countertops (less so for bathrooms) seem quite severe. CLSS cannot tolerate high heat, and is subject to stains from a wide range of substances including: vinegar, coffee, tea, lemon juice, vegetable juice, dyes, tomato sauce, saffron, shoe polish, marker pens, iodine, blood, red wine, perfume, grease, fat, oils, and nail varnish. They can be severely marred by substances such as oven cleaner, paint thinner, acetone, and drain cleaner.
The surfaces also require care when being cleaned. In particular the use of even mildly abrasive products can mar the surfaces. This also applies to the use of any kind of cutting implement, such as knives, which can easily create significant scratch marks.
While all that does sound very dire, the truth is that just about every kitchen countertop surface material has some vulnerabilities. Marble is, of course, infamous for its tendency to stain easily, engineered quartz can scorch at higher temperatures, and quartz can crack and also will absorb stains if it is not resealed every couple of years.
More importantly, CLSS does have a number of specific advantages. No other countertop surface can boast its range of both colours and finishes — which can include translucency. As most CLSS can be thermoformed (heated and moulded to a new shape), this means that the designs can be customised to meet the stylish requirements of some customers, in ways no other material can match. That includes the ability to have near-invisible seams — again, something other countertop materials cannot offer as an option.
Where engineered quartz, granite and marble all require high-specialty tools, such as diamond blades, to cut and customise countertops, CLSS can be worked using standard high-end woodworking tools fitted with carbide blades. Working with CLSS does require specialised training, so this doesn’t mean that most DIYers can directly use the product. It does mean, though, that custom kitchen builders can work directly with the material, instead of having to source finished countertops from specialist workshops, reducing both costs and ordering time. And, if there is a mistake in the length of the countertop, for example, this can often be fixed onsite.
Another big advantage is that if CLSS is damaged, it can, most of the time, be repaired by a professional. Scratches and marring can usually be sanded out, and even deep blistering due to heat can be blurred out, then seamlessly fixed by applying a patch.
Finally, of course, CLSS has a significant cost advantage, priced at around 70% of the cost of engineered quartz, and a little more than half the cost of granite.
Perhaps the most interesting feature in the current market is the effort that DuPont is putting into a new marketing surge for its original Corian product. Starting in mid-2013, when the company announced its “Endless Evolution” strategy. After some years of introducing only incremental changes, DuPont began to bring the brand back to life, and to improve consumer awareness.
This strategy to some extent has culminated in 2017, as DuPont has used the 50th anniversary of the product’s patent to introduce a new vigour into the brand. According to DuPont marketing material: “The Corian Brand has a whole new look, a whole new way of expressing brand beliefs and most importantly a new range of products and aesthetics that invite consumers to meet the Corian they never knew. Corian Design is celebrating the role that surfaces play as the unsung heroes in the realm of design and their ability to transform a space into an environment that is truly unique to the tastes and needs of the individual with the ‘Corian Design — Make Your Space’ positioning.”
In the debut issue of its new “Corian Design” magazine, Julie J. Eaton, global business director, DuPont Surfaces wrote:
“In this inaugural issue, we look at what lies ahead for Corian, from its ever-expanding collection of colors — moving now in the direction of warmth, emotion and modernity to meet specific market and societal trends — to technological developments aimed at improving its performance and adapting it to the evolving needs of modern society.”
Part of that move towards modernity has been the introduction of wireless charging solutions for mobile devices that can be integrated into countertops made with DuPont Corian solid surface. The Corian Charging Surface technology was officially launched at NeoCon 2015 in Chicago.
Corian Charging Surface has a transmitter discreetly hidden under the surface, delivering the charge directly through the Corian. This avoids the need to make penetrations into the surface and maintains a seamless finish.
This means that, for example, the latest Apple iPhones (8 and the X) can be recharged simply by setting them down on a specific area of a kitchen countertop.
In terms of colours, 2017 has seen the launch of three style ranges for Corian: Concrete, Onyx and Prima. Concrete consists of four neutral colours, which mimic the tones of different concrete types. Onyx provides two colours with what DuPont terms “semi-transparent veining”, which, it claims are “striking” when lit from above or below. Prima, the company states, provides “embedded hues [that] create a remarkable patterning and sweeping movement”.
Of course, one of the main questions all of this raises is “why is DuPont, with its vast product range, choosing to accelerate its marketing and development spending on Corian?” A partial answer to that could be that, as new markets for kitchen and bathroom renovations are developing, those markets have very different characteristics to past markets.
The previous kitchen renovation market, for example, worked largely on a cycle of between 12 to 15 years, with some kitchens stretching past 20 years before they were renovated. A number of factors have speeded that trend up. Kitchens now are more central, and more open to, most homes, meaning that their style and condition has a great impact. Technology continues to develop rapidly, even in common-day appliances, meaning that there is more incentive to make changes. Also, kitchens have simply become more stylish, moving away from a utilitarian room, to a central gathering place for family activities.
This has resulted in something of a more 6/12 pattern, where kitchens are due for a “refresh” every six years or so, and then get a complete renovation every 10 to 12 years. The advantage of using CLSS material in this kind of renovation pattern is that it opens up the possibility of changing countertops completely more frequently.
The sheer cost of both engineered quartz and granite countertops means that most families count on getting at least 15, if not 20 years worth of use from them. With CLSS whatever imperfections have come about can be taken out by professionals at the six-year refresh, and, as they are less expensive, they can be completely replaced for a whole new look at the 12 year interval.
If that does prove to be the case, it’s likely growth in CLSS will accelerate over the next three to four years. Granite could continue to decline in popularity, with those consumers switching over to engineered quartz. But it is also likely that a number of customer that would previously have chosen engineered quartz will switch to CLSS.
It’s possible we could see both CLSS and engineered quartz effectively growing at the same rate.