2- Patina. Am I really letting my expensive zinc countertops rust?

No- They’re actually undergoing a mild form of tarnishing. Rust is oxidation specific to iron, which zinc alloys do not contain.

Zinc vs Stainless Steel

Two types of metal countertops exist: stainless steel, and all others, commonly referred to as living metals. Stainless steel dominates the industry, by far.

Stainless steel earns the name “stain-less” because it resists staining and rusting more effectively than carbon steel. This is because it replaces iron with chromium, which is a common oxidizing element in most steel. So stainless steel is not immune to rust.

This is the same phenomenon that causes air-exposed clay to turn red when iron is present, but grey when found submerged under water.

Patinated Metal

Certain metals, like zinc, copper, brass, and bronze, react with their surroundings. This reaction causes the formation of a tarnished layer called patina. The formation of patina is a result of oxidation. 

This later will change over time, taking on different hues and tones, generally in the blue-gray, brown, and green/blue color families. Manufacturers can manipulate this during manufacturing, but it will also occur naturally once installed. Despite our best efforts, we cannot stop it entirely, but it can be easily altered.

One customer I had in New England absolutely loved his bar top and stood by his promise to polish it daily. Years later, I revisited the project to examine the progress with the patina. The customer, who may have been a bit obsessed, exhausted themselves from constantly polishing the huge surface. I could not believe he had kept up with this daily task for more than two years!

The point here is that you have to understand your personality and the patina. You can spend time making the top shiny every day without protection, or let it naturally age. Regardless, you will achieve a stunning result.

Strategies for Patina

Controlling patina is a double-edged sword that must be carefully handled. You desire your projects to maintain a specific appearance and remain in like-new condition. However, it is impossible to replicate the natural wear that occurs over time when these tops are used in a commercial setting.

Everyone in the industry fights this battle for education and understanding on a daily basis. I believe in letting the tops naturally wear from use, but avoid handprint patterns when initially installing them.

You can achieve this in a number of ways, but primarily by wearing gloves and designing tops that two people can install.

If the top is bigger, there will be more hands involved, which increases the risk of unwanted handprint patterns. These patterns are likely to occur when helpers are not familiar with the patina process.

I believe the tops should have an initial protective coating. This is usually a carnauba wax to seal the surface and retard the oxidation. However, this coating does not remain permanently, and it should be reapplied often.

I also developed a special coating that lasts longer than wax, and it can be easily reapplied to the top for extended countertop maintenance. I will discuss this more in a later post.

On this note, I also get a lot of questions about clear coats, varnishes, and, my personal favorite, “lacquer”. When someone asks if we can permanently seal the top without upkeep, I must clarify why the answer is typically no.

The patina, natural or synthetic, is a bond inhibitor. Products like Ever Clear, Clear Guard, and Smart Coat promise to solve these problems, but they never succeed. Instead, they make things worse by making it harder to remove the product and restore the metal’s original condition.  

I have installed each of these in multiple instances, and I have seen each of them fail multiple ways. They have their uses, but they are not for commercial bar top applications.  

You are better off investing in a sander and Scotch-Brite pads to use once a year than applying a poorly formulated sealer on high-use, living metal tops. You can even pay a service to complete this task. This serves as fair warning to you.

I have found that handling during installation and the subsequent rogue handprints that form are often customers’ biggest objections. Photography is set to take promotional photos, but there’s a handprint in the middle of a prominent shot. Because it’s a new product, contractors are reluctant to touch it.

More than once, some unsuspecting contractor approached and proceeded to wipe a 6-foot streak down the center of a project with a sweaty hand. This always results in additional time on site to remove for photography.

Develop a Game Plan

So for any metal top, I suggest you talk with your team and develop a plan before the tops ever arrive. What is the strategy going to be once the product arrives on site and develop a plan with everyone on the team.

Will you let the tops wear from day 1 or install them at night and take photos the next morning? When will this installation happen in terms of finish sequencing? I suggest as near the end as your schedule will allow.

Are you going to have some signs printed and placed down the bar that say “do not touch”, or are you going to rope off the area?

You can either have someone watch over it or cover the top with brown paper or ram board to protect it. To prepare for your project, make sure to plan ahead. You can remove marks easily with steel wool, Scotch Brite, a microfiber cloth, and extra patina.

These finishes are easy to work with, giving them an advantage over stainless steel, which is hard to polish on site.

Learn about patina, and create a plan for receiving, installing, and safeguarding your tops on location. Understand that imperfections are normal and that they can be easily fixed.

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