Recently, I was on a large residential project doing a little problem solving as a favor for one of my former competitors. They had managed to win a bid on a very large and intricate installation but had become “married” to the job. There was a substantial amount of floor field pattern fabrication created by the interior designer in addition to a steam room, tiled Roman tub, and body shower -- all of which had angles, radius work, and a seemingly endless amount of holes to drill.
The tile selected had little, if any, trim tile available in addition to employing multiple sizes types and thicknesses. In short, while it will probably win some type of award or a place in Architectural Digest, it was going to require a tile magician to figure it out, cut it, drill it, and get it installed.
While they did have first-rate tile magician on the job, he lacked the tools needed to cut and fabricate all14 types of porcelain tile and two types of glass selected. Such projects are not everyday run-of-the-mill tile work, but with the right cutting and fabrication equipment, they could be if that type of work was available. Most building trade’s guys are tool freaks, including myself. My mantra is that a man or woman in the trades can never have too many tools. If as an installer, you own more than four wet saws, you may qualify as a tool freak if you are under 35. The older you get, the more saws you collect (I think I currently have seven). Each was purchased for a special need, and if I was working daily, I would have to add number eight, (something to cut a 24” on a diagonal), but, my trusty big score and snap cutter has filled that limited need thus far for porcelain tile.
Buying the right type of tool for installing ceramic and/or stone, and the desired quality of that tool, really depends on what you anticipate the actual use is going to be. Wet saws are a great example of this. Does anyone seriously think a $499 saw is comparable to a $999 saw or a $1,299 saw for that matter? There are always going to be trade offs in the price and quality of saws.
Rail saws are efficient for straight cut production work and large tile, though they can be bulky and water management is pretty rough. On a commercial site, that typically doesn’t really matter.
The most popular type of saw, which has a sliding table, also comes in many formats. You also have a choice, depending on whether you want the product for daily production, moderate or occasional use. Some have features such as plunge-cutting abilities large diagonals, a tilting head for angle work, and water management. If you’re working in downtown on the 10th floor, then the type of saw you select has a lot of considerations. It could determine if you’ll be riding the elevator a lot. If you don’t want to ride the elevator, then the weight of the saw, water management and means to get it in the work area are purchase considerations. There is a lot of realistic thought that has to go into purchasing any saw. Once the need is determined, the quality and life cycle of the products available varies widely even with similar features. The age-old saying of “You get what you pay for” holds true.
The Right BladeThe best saw in the whole world won’t be any good without the right blade. The general consensus during various contractor get-togethers seems to be that everyone uses three or four different blades. Good quality blades last a long time with daily use, clean water and occasionally sharpening.
The cost of specialty blades is well worth the expense. Various materials have different needs and all blades are not the same. A blade consists of core, metal powders and diamonds. The size of the diamond, the concentration (how much) of diamond, the quality of the diamond, and the type and mixture of bonding agent or powders used -- all affect the way a blade will cut.
Less expensive blades use lower quality diamonds, which fracture more quickly. Since the diamond fractures more quickly, the powders used to hold the diamond in place have to wear more quickly too so that the used diamonds will fall out and new diamonds will be exposed. That is why inexpensive blades tend to wear more quickly.
For tile applications, porcelain and granite are some of the harder materials that have to be cut, while glass requires a different composition. There are blades on the market that are designed specifically to cut all these materials. These specialized blades may use larger, better quality diamonds to grind more effectively on harder materials. In the case of glass, a larger amount of smaller diamonds works best.
When cutting soft body tile, it is possible to use smaller and lower quality diamonds, hence the lower cost of the “general purpose” blades. However, all blades need sharpening occasionally as long as there is rim left and the blade runs true. Sharpening exposes new, sharp diamonds by wearing away a layer of dull diamonds from the rim’s surface. The nice thing about diamond blades is that once sharpened, they work as well as new. You can sharpen by cutting cinder block, a piece of concrete or even soft bricks, but if you like to spend money, conditioning sticks are sold for that purpose.
Specialty SawsWhat about specialty saws such as band and ring saws? That is what is required for the job mentioned earlier. These can be purchased inexpensively (around $300), or for as much as $4000. Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to use three different types.
We purchased an inexpensive saw for one particular job and managed to keep it for several more small projects, but when a larger scale project came up and a water jet was out of the question due to time constraints, we purchased a more professional version that served us for many years.
When you have the luxury of time, a water jet may be the way to go. Water jet cutting involves water pressurized to about 55,000 pounds per square inch (psi), with an abrasive (usually garnet) entrained in the water jet stream. The water is forced through a precision nozzle (approximately 0.013” diameter), and directed by a robotic arm and computer programming, to make precision cuts that allow for small, perfectly spaced grout joints. If it can be scanned into a computer, then it can be cut. I saw a small water jet unit on sale recently for $54,000, plus training and installation. However, most are priced $100,000 and up.
Happily, the price of such work has seen rather dramatic reductions in cost from its initial introduction to the market as popularity of this method and those with the ability to perform the work have increased.
DrillsAnd what about drilling? Softer ceramic tile and stone is easily cut but many a vulgar word has been uttered when trying to drill granite or porcelain. CTEF has been the lucky recipient of many different types of medium for cutting holes in porcelain. Some are a complex series of stages, some several stages, and a few with no unusual effort at all. As you can imagine, the easier it is, the longer it lasts, and the more costly the tool.
Porcelain tile can be easily drilled with the proper bits and technique. The most important part of drilling porcelain is water, good clean cool water. On a floor, adequate water is not much of a problem. On the wall, it can be challenging depending on the system you’re using. How you get the water to the drill doesn’t matter, whether it is a ring of putty on the floor or a garden sprayer on the wall, it needs water. Some manufacturers offer core bits with a water feed kit in the bit itself.
After water, the next problematic area is drilling speed and pressure. We all naturally seem to think that faster and more pressure means faster cutting. And we all break a fair amount of tile finding out it does not. With each system, recommendations vary and when followed, result in good performance with rare exception
There is a dizzying array of tools available for the tile professional today. The simple days of the typical tub saw, chipping hammer, and 8” tile cutter are not to be seen again, they are as rare as salt and pepper 4-1/4” wall tile.
The tool investment required of professional installers is more substantial than it was 30 years ago. It is not at all unusual to find that a tool purchase creates a whole new profit center. We found this to be true in our company with specialized tile cleaning equipment. We were able to charge five to six times the going janitorial rate for tile cleaning and guaranteed satisfactory results. If nothing else, well-selected professional tools continuously make money - they never call in sick or ask for a raise. It doesn’t get any better than that!