Decorative concrete contractors can add an exciting new technique to their repertoire that always elicits a “wow” reaction from clients: embedding fiber optics in concrete countertops.
Imagine peering into a telescope at the clear night sky. With fiber optics, that scene can be replicated on a gleaming, polished bar top. The tiny points of light can form star patterns, a company logo, or even an outline of Mickey Mouse.
“It’s certainly dazzling for customers, even if they don’t end up choosing it,” says Lane Mangum of the Raleigh, N.C.-based Concrete Countertop Institute. In the CCI showroom, for example, a huge array of color samples is displayed on what she calls the “rainbow wall.” While clients are impressed by what’s available, they’ll end up with gray or another low-key color.
The same is true for fiber optics. While the effect may not be for everyone, contractors who master the technique can give themselves a competitive advantage. It demonstrates, skill, patience, innovation, creativity and an attitude that they’re not afraid to try something new.
And it definitely attracts attention. Elizabeth Maurer, who owns Liquid Stone Concrete Designs with her husband, Gerry, brought a countertop embedded with fiber optics to a bath and kitchen trade show in Valley Forge, Penn., recently. Twenty people at a time crowded into the booth, crouching under the countertop looking for drill holes, and asking how the bulbs are changed.
Maurer brought a child’s toy — a wand with a spray of glowing fiber-optic tips — to explain that the points of light are the tops of those fibers, which are as thin as fishing line. Instead of drill holes, all that’s seen from the underside of the counter is one black cable. The light source is placed elsewhere. There’s no electricity running through the countertop, and no fancy maintenance program is needed. “It’s a lot less complicated than they think it is,” Maurer says.
The key to figuring it all out was a class offered at CCI last summer by Robert Sapp of Coastal Concrete Counters, she says.
Sapp is the artisan who created the Mickey Mouse design, on a bathroom vanity for a fan of the Disney cartoon character. He first encountered fiber optics underfoot during a trip to Epcot at Walt Disney World, where sections of sidewalk are embedded with elaborate fiber optic designs. “I stood there mesmerized,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’ve GOT to figure out how to do this. This is amazing.”
This countertop design was done with a fiber optic product from Illumi-Crete. The fiber-optic display has three modes: a daytime phase with only the white glass and mirror showing, a romantic mood-setting phase that only shows the Illumi-Crete stars, and a “total party” phase in which the fiber optics and black lights pulsate to music being played. Photos courtesy of and copyright Cutting Edge Decorative Concrete.
An engineer by trade, Sapp experimented with the technique and eventually developed Illumistone lighted concrete surfaces, and he now shares his knowledge at CCI a few times a year. In a one-day session, he covers the fundamentals: the specific adjustments that must be made to the concrete mix so that it flows around the fibers without damaging them during the pouring and casting process. Sapp discusses proper ventilation and design considerations, as well as how to terminate a fiber-optic cable bundle and connect it to an illuminator unit safely. After the students build a 3-by-3 piece, he pulls out the project done by the previous class so he can demonstrate the demolding and finishing process that ensures the fibers don’t get broken or abraded.
The technique is actually more tedious than it is technical, says Jeff Kudrick, product manager of J&M Lifestyles LLC. It’s labor-intensive and involves handling up to 1,000 individual strands. “If you’re an impatient person, don’t even attempt it,” he says.
A contractor who is well versed in lighting techniques and presenting new ideas to a client has a better chance of being successful selling concrete countertops with fiber optics, Kudrick says. “You really have to have a knack for imagining how it will look before you’re done.”
J&M Lifestyles, a Randolph, N.J., company that has its own proprietary system for incorporating fiber optics into surfaces, has logged 15 years of experience lighting water and waterfalls for the pool industry. Now it is involved in commercial designs where eye-catching lighting effects are used throughout the entire space. A modern, low-lit bathroom in a restaurant looks great with the addition of a countertop in which pinpoint lights shine through the glossy top. “Lighting makes even the most mundane surface that much more exciting,” Kudrick says.
J&M sees most of its demand coming from bar and restaurant owners looking for sparkle on a table or bar top, but Sapp finds that he sells more bath vanities to residential customers than anything else. At $125 to $175 a square foot, the costs add up pretty quickly on bigger pieces, he says.
Maurer says outdoor kitchens are hot now, and concrete countertops with fiber-optic designs would be a great addition. Since a separate illuminator provides the light, it’s safe for outdoor use. Kitchen and bath designers are starting to become interested in the technique, and requests for residential applications — in home bars, powder rooms or children’s bathrooms — are starting to increase.
Casi Morris, marketing and communications director of Cheng Concrete Exchange, which has about 275 members, says fiber optics is just one aspect of the growing popularity in concrete countertops. Clients are looking for creative ways to enhance concrete walls, islands and fireplaces with fiber optics. Concrete Exchange members who have studied under Fu-Tung Cheng are looking for new ways to use decorative concrete, as their clients are requesting innovative applications.
“Clients who want to distinguish themselves from the norm and those with a sense of cutting-edge or modern taste tend to request this concept,” Morris says. Selling fiber optics to someone unfamiliar with it could be a challenge, though. Throwing out the term “fiber optics” in the midst of a general discussion about concrete countertops can confuse matters. “But it definitely adds a sense of flair for a customer wanting to raise the bar in terms of modern design.”