Veneer Stone vs. Real Stone for Walls

Stone Wall Next To Modern Staircase

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If you have a difficult time telling veneer stone apart from real stone on walls, that is entirely by design. The veneer stone industry is doing its best to displace natural stone as the masonry covering of choice for home exterior cladding, fireplace surrounds, and all sorts of interior touches. How can you tell the two apart? Is one better for homes then another one? 

Real Stone and Veneer Stone Basics

Real Stone: Real stone is just that: real.

It is 100-percent stone quarried straight from the earth, with nothing added or removed, and no color added. Real stone can either be wholly real in shape (river stones, for example) or carved to a desired shape (blocks, for example).

Veneer Stone: This product is a slurry of Portland cement, aggregates, and iron oxides "baked" in molds to look like stone. Cement lends stability to the product; iron oxides provide pigments. Cultured Stone (a Boral company trademark), architectural stone, veneer, and manufactured stone are different names for what is essentially the same product. Veneer stone should not be confused with faux veneer stone, a high-density polymer product that feels closer to Styrofoam than to stone.

Structural Use

Real Stone: Real stone can be used structurally, but this is a rare practice in modern building. Some real stone, such as slate, is too brittle for structural uses.

Veneer Stone: All veneer stone is far too weak to be used structurally. Veneer stone can hold up its own weight, but it cannot carry additional weight.

Size, Weight, and Thickness

Real Stone: On the consumer market, natural stone mostly comes in two sizes. Full-size blocks approximately the size of one or two retaining wall blocks can provide full-dimension coverage.

For a veneer-style cover, real stone is quarried and then cut into slices with what is essentially a giant wet saw. Though veneer, this is still 100-percent real stone and measures about 3/4-inch to 1 3/4-inch thick. Face sizes for natural stone depend on the type of stone, but tend to stop at around 18 inches diameter. Natural stone is vastly heavier than veneer stone. As one example, real veneer fieldstone is about 13 pounds per square foot, more than twice the weight of manufactured veneer stone.

Veneer Stone: Full-dimension veneer stone starts at around 2 inches thick and increases from there to as thick as 6 to 8 inches. Thin stone veneer maxes out at 2 inches and can even go as low as 1-inch. Veneer stone face sizes range up to 14 inches diameter. Veneer stone is about half the weight of same-sized real, natural stone.

Appearance and Color Fastness

Real Stone: Most natural stone does not fade with sunlight; or if so, it fades at such an incredibly slow rate that it will not be noticed within a person's lifetime.

Veneer Stone: Veneer stone's colors can fade over time. Cheap manufactured stone can be a tempting purchase, but often its appearance is lacking. It can have highly repetitive patterns (or monochromatic colors) and be only 1-inch thick.

Be sure to read manufacturer's specifications before purchasing and order samples, if possible.

Types of Stone

Real Stone: For block, any type of stone is available. For veneer, popular stone types are fieldstone and ledgestone.

Veneer Stone: Fieldstone, ledgestone, and sandstone are best-selling veneer stones.

Installation

Real Stone: You can install natural stone directly on porous concrete, stone, or block. Or if the surface is smooth, you can attach metal lath and a scratch masonry coat to provide a surface for the stone to grip. Grout is added between the stones or the stones can go grout-free for a dry-stack appearance. Real stone cannot be installed on drywall or other thin materials. Natural stone is difficult to cut. Natural stone is beautiful and desirable, but don't overestimate your masonry skills if you are contemplating a do-it-yourself project.

Veneer Stone: Manufactured veneer stone installs generally the same as natural stone, with lath, a scratch coat, mortar, and grout. The main differences, though, are weight and density. Manufactured stone is far easier to handle and cut than natural stone because it is porous and light-weight.

Manufacturers

Real Stone: Stone suppliers tend to be local since the cost of shipping to individual buyers can be prohibitive. Two major suppliers of real stone veneer (as opposed to real block, full-dimension stone) are:

Veneer Stone: The list of manufactured veneer stone companies increases all the time as the popularity of this product increases. Some well-known companies include:

  • Coronado
  • Cultured Stone/Boral
  • El Dorado
  • Stonecraft

Deciding Between Real Stone and Veneer Stone

Why use man-made veneer stone if the resulting product is a bit blander than natural stone? And why do this if the installation process is roughly the same between the two? Predictability is one reason why do-it-yourselfers prefer manufactured stone over real stone. Manufactured stone comes is predictable sizes that are easy to carry, cut, and hang. Some manufactured stone, like Boral's Versetta Stone line, install as larger square panels (2-foot by 2-foot) and don't even require mortar or grout. For historically accurate installations, then 100-percent real stone may the wisest choice.