Surfacing Walls with Stone Veneers

Stone veneers are really stone at half the weight. They are beautiful, natural, come in many colors and textures, and require little maintenance. A stone veneer is a facing applied to a surface for decorative purposes; it’s not designed to bear a load. "These are purely aesthetic facings, but they offer permanence, a maintenance-free exterior finish, and a look that’s totally unique," says Michael Sylvia of Champlain Stone, Ltd., a natural stone quarrier in Warrensburg, N.Y.

Exterior uses of stone veneers include siding, garden walls, barbeque pits, pool decks, paths, and piers to support porches or entryways. Interior applications include chimneys, fireplaces, floors, kitchen backsplashes or islands, wine cellars, bar areas, lower walls or accent walls. "Stone just creates so much warmth and texture and character in those spaces," says Brent Spann of Eldorado Stone, a maker of manufactured veneers based in San Marcos, Calif. "That’s one reason you see the popularity growing."

Manufactured vs. Natural Thin Veneers
Manufactured stone (also known as architectural stone, Cultured Stone®, and faux stone) is made of lightweight cement mixed with stone aggregates like shale or pumice and iron oxide dyes. It comes in myriad colors, shapes, and textures designed to mimic practically any natural stone, including limestone, field stone, river rock, ledge, rubble, granite, sandstone, and quartzite. Manufactured veneers used to look fake and were prone to fading and cracking, but today’s products can be nearly indistinguishable from the real thing on the surface. Major manufacturers guarantee their product for 50 years.

Natural stone veneers used to cost much more than manufactured veneers because of their thickness and weight. The older, traditional full bed-depth veneers are four to six inches deep and are sold by the ton. A ledge or shelf must be attached to a structure to support these heavy cut stones and a professional mason with special tools is required to install them properly. More efficient technology has made it affordable to produce natural thin veneers ranging from 5/8 inch to 1 1/2 inches thick at a price almost comparable to that of manufactured veneers. Both manufactured and natural thin veneers must weigh 15 pounds or less per square foot to meet building codes.

Stone Surface Possibilities
With the tremendous variety in stone veneers, you can choose any decorative style. "You can go from contemporary all the way to French country or Mediterranean," says Mark Johnson, owner of Architectural Stone Company, a supplier and installer of cut and hand-carved stone in Plano, Texas. "You can make your house look completely different just by the veneer you put on it." There’s no right or wrong when selecting a veneer—go with what you like. However, some colors are more popular than others in specific regions—darker colors in the Northeast, lighter ones in the Southwest. Your choice may also be determined by the kind of stone that’s available locally since shipping can be expensive.

Some veneers are irregular in shape, others more square or rectangular. Irregular veneers are installed in a random pattern that is eyed and set by the mason. Rectangular or square shapes tend to have mortar lines that are straighter, tighter, and more predictable. Random patterns are easier and cheaper to install since pieces don’t need to match as carefully, but it’s important to hire an artisan with a good eye to make the design flow.

Both manufactured and natural thin veneers are sold by the square foot, with prices varying greatly by region for materials and labor. Stone veneer costs more to install than vinyl, wood, cement or stucco, but once installed it will last many years with no maintenance. "It might be more, but down the road, over 100 years, you’re not replacing it," Johnson says. "If you want your building to last, it’s worth it." It may also be worthwhile when it comes time to sell. "You’re going to see a tremendous gain in your property value," says Spann.

Installing Stone Veneers
Many manufactured and natural thin veneers can be installed by homeowners who are willing to read and follow instructions. Some manufacturers post installation guides on their websites and recommend that you review them carefully before starting. "Follow the manufacturer’s method of installation and don’t cheat," says Terence Meck at Rolling Rock Building Stone, a quarrier in Pikeville, Pa. "It’s critical to do it right and to do it right the first time." Stone veneers are very low maintenance and only need to be sealed if exposed to extreme temperatures or a lot of snow.

To install thin veneers you need a clean, dry surface. It must be waterproof or the masonry will eventually fail. Surfaces like new, untreated brick, block, or concrete, require no special preparation, but wallboard or wood will need a vapor barrier, weep system, metal lath, and a scratch coat of mortar. The stones can be trimmed or adjusted with tools like a brick hammer or angle grinder with a diamond blade.

To apply the veneer, butter the back of the stone and press it onto the surface. The mortar should squish out the sides to partially fill the joints. Hold the stone in place for a few moments until it sets. After all the stones are placed, grout the joints with the same mortar. When the mortar has set for a couple of hours and is firm, rake and clean the joints, and brush off any particles.

Credit: Renovate Your World