November 6, 2008
In simpler days tile setters could easily fit all their tools in a canvas satchel, as was typical of most building trades. When you wanted to cut a hole or an “L” you got out your chipping hammer and started tapping away. No drills, no bits, just a little bitsy hammer with a carbide end. Nearly everyone had an 8” score-and-snap cutter; there was no 12x12. You did not really need a drill; thinset was not very popular, but you could not install tile without soaking tubs to saturate your tile with water before you placed it in fresh mortar. Notched trowels were something you saw used with glue, definitely not tile setting. Grout came in 3 colors, black, grey, and white. Sponges? What sponges? Grout was field mixed, joints pointed, and rubbed with either cheese cloth or a burlap bag and occasionally sawdust when needed to help with the cleaning. Total tool investment, a few hundred dollars for a good installer including trowels and straight edges. Ah the good old days! $200 today desn’t buy much in the way of tools; most of us have thousands of dollars invested and still waiting for just the right opportunity to spend a little more.
Structures along with tile products and installations to accommodate them have changed dramatically in the last 50 years and continue to evolve. Today’s installations have without a doubt grown much more complicated. Ceramic tile products themselves come in numerous formats using multiple methods of manufacturing, each often favoring a specific approach to field fabrication on the jobsite. They are for the most part harder, and definitely bigger. The structures we deal with and the methods used to build them often require the use of non-tile-related equipment to prepare them for installation. Without the proper equipment it is impossible to competitively and consistently do a good job and still make a profit. Tools can definitely make or break both a successful installation and the profit picture. Both floor preparation and tile setting tools have changed dramatically over recent years from a historical perspective. Many of the installation basics still apply but with the needs of today’s structures, products, and expectations of end users, there has been resulting innovation from the manufacturing community. Many new tool products have become available to enhance the basics and deliver the performance demanded in the current construction environment.
Perhaps nowhere is this more true than the dreaded floor prep. Unfortunately we rarely have a properly prepared substrate where an installer can get right to work and do what we get paid to do, lay tile. Myself, I always looked at floor prep as income opportunity. You don’t have to give floor prep away; it should be treated as an income opportunity. In our own company we could have easily had a separate profitable floor prep division but I chose not to. It was our preparation and equipment which allowed us to do jobs that scared others such as epoxy grout, thinset, and adhesive removal, especially in large footage. One machine I would never be without is a swing arm machine or buffer. The variety of attachments for these machines is ever growing. You can scarify concrete remove adhesives, diamond grind high spots, sand or scrape sealers, curing compounds, dirt, drywall, paint overspray and other surface contaminates. There are numerous dust containment systems available for use with these machines which reduce operator exposure and occupant discomfort caused by dust. Perhaps no method is more efficient for removal of the surface contaminates than shot blasting. These machines are self
With the proliferation of modified thinset mortars and grouts, mixing thoroughly has increased importance. The mix, slake, and remix has been an article topic many times. It is a much more important issue than most realize, and is growing. There has been some recent research on mixing paddles and methods, believe it or not. Power mixing thinset with a low speed 1/2 “drill using a cage type paddle works pretty good. The two-blade propeller types on a 3/8 drill will usually entrain too much air in the mix and cause more rapid setting in cement products. The old square drywall paddle may be great for drywall but it is not kind to the bonding abilities of thinset mortar, way too much air entrainment. The more air, the weaker the thinset. There are some new double handle drills with high torque but low operator impact. They typically come with a spiral design mixing paddle, also available separately. These mixing paddles bring the thinset up from the bottom to the top and avoid creating an air vortex. Testing has shown a noticable improvement in the bonding abilities of cement products using this type of device.
Cutting equipment is another product category that has seen dramatic increase in both types available and manufacturers. I almost hate to mention the simple days again, but it sure was relatively easy compared to what we have to deal with now. Tile has grown in both size and hardness. The overwhelming choice in floor tile today is large porcelain and it presents some challenges to be sure. It takes good quality equipment to consistently perform cutting and fabrication of porcelain tile products. With the increasing use of ever larger sizes it also takes big (and expensive) equipment. Fabrication equipment is really not a good place to save money. I plead guilty to not wanting to pay the additional expense of purchasing big quality equipment. I vividly remember delaying the purchase of my first saw for 18” tile only to hear about 24” the next year. I am pretty sure that is why many of us own multiple saws and cutters. Sooner or later, you will end up buying the big stuff; I doubt small size tile will be making a comeback anytime soon. With saws, there is also the weight of carrying and setting up 150-pound saws to cut 24” tile. You really need to choose wisely in this area as these saws represent a major investment. Do some research and be realistic about your needs and use. I have bought more than a few things because it was a neat gadget and unfortunately that is what it remained, a gadget. Don’t count out the tried and true score and snap cutter if most of your work is straight cuts. In our presentations the alleged inability of a manual cutting device to consistently cut big porcelain tile is proved inaccurate on a regular basis. I consistently can cut 3/4” off a 24 “ porcelain tile with few exceptions and with one particular model, cut a 24” on a diagonal till I get down to a 3/4” triangle. We don’t sell cutting machines; we just like to show people how to make money and not running to the wet saw all the time is making money.
When you speak of challenges with porcelain there is probably no greater dread than having to drill a bunch of holes. Inexpensive dry carbide hole saws work great on soft tile but attempting to drill porcelain tile with one will just result in a nice red hot drill bit. There are some carbide bits that will perform light duty when kept cool but for the majority of hole drilling, diamond bits are required. Diamond drilling equipment must be kept both cool and lubricated with copious amounts of water. Drill manufacturers get a bad wrap on their products abilities quite often. We simply have not found this to be true in most cases with the multitude of drills and drill devices we have in our possession. Consistently when observered in service conditions, the reason diamond tools fail is due to absence of or lack of water. Diamonds, expensive though they may be, are a tile setter’s best friend and need to be treated with respect if you want to see them another day.
There are numerous items of lesser expense that still deserve equal consideration. As simple as it may seem, the lowly grout float can be one of the most labor saving devices a tile installer owns. A good grout float removes excess material leaving the tile almost clean. While they take some getting used to a grout bucket and cleaning pad do a great job. While I am sure there are those who feel otherwise, I personally have never met anyone who learned the technique using the proper equipment who would go back to a sponge and bucket. If you don’t own a laser, you probably should consider one. That is another tool with a learning curve that proves indispensible once the use is mastered. The list of great ideas that work could go on for many more pages. Many are very low volume, highly specialized products the average installer never hears about. Think about how many trowels you would have to sell to mount a national marketing campaign. My favorite resource has always been trade shows. Anybody who has a good product and is serious about their business tends to exhibit at major trade shows. The best thing about tools is they show up everyday, never call in sick, and never ask for a raise or increase in benefits. That is my type of best friend.