Through Thick and Thin
What are the advantages and disadvantages of thin stone veneer and how does it “stack” up to full-dimension stone?
By Jennie Farnsworth
According to most sources, thin stone veneer is lighter in weight, faster to install, and — in many cases — more economical to use than traditional, full-dimension stone veneer. If that’s the case, wouldn’t thin stone veneer be specified every time the owner wants that old world stone look? Not necessarily.
Although the two veneers are very similar, each type has distinct advantages over the other.
“One item is not the right item for all types of work,” says Jamey DeMaria, owner of Jamey DeMaria Masonry in Carmel, Calif. “So, thin stone veneer is a nice option, just like manufactured stone is a nice option for some jobs. There’s not one thing that’s the right option for every job.”
Probably one of the most debated advantages to thin stone veneer is the overall cost savings that mason contractors will reap in using it.
Jeff Leonard, President of Leonard Masonry, Inc., in St. Louis, Mo., won one out of his three 2003 MCAA International Excellence in Masonry awards for his stonework on a private residence, which included thin and full-dimension stonework.
“When we look at the pros and cons between the thin and the full-depth, the number one factor is that the thin veneer is a faster installation,” says Leonard. “The more thin the veneer that we can talk the owner into, the more cost savings we’re going to have. You will probably have twice as much production on thin veneer than you do on full-depth veneer. So, first and foremost, it’s the fact that it is faster and you get your job done quicker.
“The main cost problem with thin stone veneer is there are certain types of stones that are so hard, they can thin veneer it but it would take so much time to cut through these hard stones, that it’s probably not cost-effective,” continues Leonard. “If it’s a hard material you’re going to have to spend more money and the cost-savings may be gone in the end. It gets evaporated because of the material costs.”
Scott Buechel, Co-owner of Buechel Stone Corporation in Chilton, Wis., somewhat disagrees.
“If you’re making it yourself, the stone itself is going to be more costly per square foot because you will need to make it into a four-inch veneer before making it into a thin veneer,” says Buechel. “So it adds a little bit more cost per square foot, but you will be able to get two pieces out of that same stone as opposed to one.”
Another aspect is the overall savings in freight.
“Because of the weight, the freight is cheaper,” adds Leonard. “You can ship more material, which keeps the material costs down.”
Which brings us to our next point…
The lighter weight of the thin stone means that masons can haul and install it that much faster than the heavier, full-depth stone.
“My nephew completed a remodel on his house. Two masons laid 100 sq. ft. of thin stone veneer each in a nine-hour day with one tender,” says Buechel. “Typically, they would have probably gotten about 40 or 50 sq. ft. of full veneer a day.”
Also, thin veneer can be essential for bringing stone to non-loadbearing walls, as well as help architects and engineers in the overall design.
“One of the advantages of the thin veneer is that, yes, it’s less weight and a lot of times weight is a problem,” says DeMaria. “If we’re veneering an entire two-story house, how that weight is distributed throughout the building and projects down the walls and into the footings — that’s the engineer’s nightmare and they like thin veneer because of that.”
Obviously, another main advantage of thin stone veneer is how much — or should we say, how little — space it takes up. Traditional, full-dimension stone masonry can range anywhere from two inches and up depending on the structure and building needs. Therefore, thin stone’s slimmer profile, ranging from 3/4-inch to two-inches, can be a great alternative for projects with limited space or other special considerations.
Jamey DeMaria Masonry also won Honorable Mention in the Residence category of the 2003 MCAA International Excellence in Masonry Awards for his full-depth and thin stone veneer work on the Schilling Carmel Stone Chateau.
“We put about 225 tons of full-dimension Carmel Stone — our native stone — on that job,” says DeMaria. “There was a lot of detail work that we actually designed and fabricated on the job site. Since I had my full-dimension stone there, we were able to accomplish whatever the owner chose to have done. There were a couple of fireplace inserts inside that were not specified to be stone, but the owner decided he’d like stone, so we cut one-inch thin veneer. We had all of the flexibility that way.
Photo courtesy of Jamey DeMaria Masonry
“There have been plenty of times when we’ve done Carmel Stone jobs and you’ve worked your way up to an area and, for one reason or another, the framing didn’t leave you the dimension that you wanted,” adds DeMaria. “We’re usually going to use six inches for the veneer with Carmel Stone, and for whatever reason, a lot of times there will only be two inches left in certain little areas. So we’ll just create our own thin veneer to do that.”
DeMaria states that the thinner thickness is also an asset to engineers.
“It’s sometimes easier for them to tie it all together when they don’t have to deal with the six- to eight-inch veneer,” says DeMaria.
Full-dimension stone veneer has a slight advantage over thin stone veneer when it comes to the details. Without proper materials and preparation, mason contractors can sometimes be limited in their use of return corners, corbels, lintels, keystones and other details when it comes to the use of thin stone.
“When you’ve got full-depth you can make the corner return whatever depth you want it to be,” says Leonard. “Thin veneer can’t do that.”
Much like other types of masonry, weight can work against thin stone with the use of certain details. Craig Swirzon, Technical Representative for Arriscraft International in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, had this to add concerning one style of thin stone veneer: thin bed adhered stone wall system.
“For the United States, we refer to ACI 530 [ASCE 5/TMS 602],” explains Swirzon. “Basically, what that states is the weight restriction for a thin set masonry application is 15lbs/sq.ft. You can’t go above 15lbs/sq.ft. because, essentially, what happens is the unit becomes too heavy.
“Let’s say you start with a 3/4-inch thick unit and you want to get the corbeled look, so you step it out another half-inch, which brings you to 1-1/4 inches. At 1-1/4 inches, for our material, you’re right on the line — you’re right at 15lbs/sq.ft.”
“If you then take our material and want to go another half-inch, you’re at 1-3/4 inches thick,” Swirzon continues. “That will be too thick because now the weight is above the 15lbs/sq.ft. limitation. So there are some weight restrictions in terms of how you apply it.
“Now, again, that would be true of any masonry you are using,” he cautions. “You can only go up to a certain thickness and you have to take into consideration the weight of the units.”
“If you are going to do more detail work, like corbels, lintels or keystones, you’d have to prep for it in advance for the thin veneer,” adds DeMaria. “That’s not a big deal, but a lot of times as we’re working the client might come up with ideas and the house is already framed. With this scenario, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish the changes for the client. With full-dimension stone, you have a little bit more flexibility.
“You have to remember when you are going to use the thin veneer, you have to frame the wall correctly to receive it. The stone itself needs to adhere right to the wall that you are going against,” states DeMaria. “So, if you have a battered wall — an angled wall that started out wide at the bottom and narrow at the top — then, of course, the framework would need to be battered so that you can create the battered stonework.”
“It’s really important, number one, to get the details right from the beginning,” agrees Swirzon. “So the designer has to make sure that the details are right, that moisture is being flashed away from the wall system. Then, secondly, we have to get it constructed properly and making sure that we get a good marriage between detailing and construction.”
Another advantage to full-stone veneer is it’s ability to accommodate various joints and dry-stacking.
Photo courtesy of Douglas Abel “If the homeowner wants a dry-stack look, I’m going to encourage at least a minimal mortar joint to prevent moisture from getting behind the masonry wall,” says Buechel. “Whether it’s freeze-thaw climates or not, if you get moisture behind it and you’re not using good masonry practices, you’re going to get stress fractures up through your scratch coat.”
“If the detailing isn’t 100% perfect or it wasn’t constructed correctly, moisture can get into the assembly and behind the masonry units,” he says. “If you’re applying it like a tile and moisture gets into your mortar bed or attachment system, when the moisture freezes it will expand by 10%. When it expands by that 10%, you can get the units actually popping right off the wall.
“Thin veneer works very well in the Southern United States, where they don’t have freeze-thaw cycling. Once you get a little further north where there is freezing, there can be a potential issue with the moisture causing the unit to fall off the wall.”
The final factor is not a physical, economical or technological point, but rather a state of mind.
“In the Carmel/Pebble Beach area, which is a high-end residential area, the emphasis on the houses I’m working on is almost the complete opposite of thin veneer,” states DeMaria. “They’re going about their housing project with the idea that their home is going to last for generations, and they’re not really looking for shortcuts to finish it. Usually when I’m talking to them, they want an authentic stone-style of lay, what generations of masons have done, and they want to create a very authentic style of house.”
“There’s a psyche about all of this,” Leonard agrees. “Even though thin veneer is natural stone, it’s not the full-depth natural stone.”
“There is absolutely very minimal difference, if any, on probably 90% of the thin stone as opposed to the full masonry,” states Buechel. “There’s something about it; it’s the prestige of having the full stone on a house, but when you look at it you can’t tell the difference. It’s a mind over matter syndrome.”
So what’s the answer when it comes to using thin veneer or full-dimension stone veneer?
Buechel weighs the advantages of each type and simply states: “What are you trying to accomplish out of your project?”
Meanwhile, DeMaria answers the question from a proud stonemason’s point of view.
“You could do two houses, side-by-side, one full-dimension stone and the other thin veneer, and literally not be able to tell the difference if the jobs were prepped correctly,” says DeMaria. “My background is I’m a fourth generation stonemason here in this area and we still do our installations the same way our great uncles did. In my opinion, price-wise and authenticity-wise, the top of the line is full-dimension stone.”
Then there’s one aspect that’s on everyone’s minds.
“There are so many different materials you can put on a building now that we’ve got to figure out a way to compete,” Leonard states. “Masonry can be replaced by so many different materials on the skin of the building that we’ve got to get more cost-effective. We have to figure out better ways of keeping masonry materials on the skin of these buildings. Thin stone veneer just happens to be one of them.”