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Concrete innovation

Tue., June 5, 2007

Few homeowners bold enough to take on do-it-yourself projects around the house end up making a career out of it. But Chris and Dana Oxford are among those few.

After relocating three years ago from the Bay Area to a 1909 bungalow on the South Hill, the Oxfords took on a major kitchen renovation that incorporated new concrete countertops fabricated in the couple’s garage.

Today, what began as an ambitious kitchen overhaul has turned into a small, home-based business.

“It was a combination of making the counters and then the response from other people that made me want to do this,” says Chris, who along with wife Dana recently founded Oxford Fabrications, a company that makes custom countertops and other products that can be made with concrete.

Dana, who previously worked as the controller for Thomas Hammer Coffee Roasters, now runs the business end of the company, while Chris provides the design savvy and building expertise.

In addition to studying sculpture at the University of California at Davis, Chris also spent several years working as a building contractor. He later returned to school to study product design from the California College of Arts and Crafts.

With all of this training, experience and talent under his belt, the 41-year-old was amply qualified to take on the kitchen counter project. Armed with a concrete “recipe” developed by master craftsman Fu-Tung Cheng that is now the industry standard, he set to work.

“If you follow Cheng’s instructions, you’ll get a perfect mold every time,” he says.

Judging by the rich, polished surface that runs along one wall of the Oxfords kitchen and beneath a window to create an outdoor breakfast bar, Chris appears to know his concrete. The counter even incorporates a built-in drain board near the sink to prevent water from pooling under the dish rack.

In addition to concrete, the couple chose a rich, red butcher block made of eucalyptus to break up the counter surface and add texture and color to the room. Stainless steel appliances, period-style lighting, navy blue cabinets and key lime walls with red and gray accents complete the cheerful but contemporary look.

Dana says the concrete surface is highly durable and can even withstand a piping-hot pan straight from the oven. However, anything acidic – wine, lemon juice, tomato sauce – will gradually wear down the finish.

Chris says a good polishing with mineral oil and Carnauba wax every couple of months will help build a protective layer and maintain the finish.

“Or you can let it wear all at once,” he says, noting that a distressed effect caused by such stains has its own appeal.

Although the concrete alone makes for a beautiful, lustrous surface, the couple say a variety of effects can be achieved. For example, voids that can develop in the concrete can be filled with a contrasting pigment for added color and contrast.

In addition, stone, tile, metal, glass, even shells can be embedded in the concrete, he says.

Concrete is also highly versatile and can be used to make shelving, fireplace surrounds, shower trays and bathroom floors – just about anything that can be designed using a mold.

“That’s what sets concrete apart,” Chris says reverently of his medium. “You can customize it infinitely.”

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