Mortar work on walls is a skill not often seen in most areas. It allows a craftsman to establish the ultimate bonding surface while keep the walls perfectly square.

That has to be a question we always ask ourselves numerous times during the course of a week. This has long been a source of frustration for residential customers as well. Seek four quotes and get 4 different prices for four different methods. How is one to choose the best course of action for their investment? Tile is assuredly an investment, it is not something one needs but rather hopes to be able to have. As we all know when it comes to bidding or installation things can be very subjective. That is to say that one person’s opinion may vary greatly from another even though both may have merit. In commercial work these decisions are often made for us and are part of the contractual terms in accepting the job. However, making the right installation choice for a residential job can be very challenging even for the most experienced tile installer. This is never more true than when it comes to remodeling projects where we do not possess the x-ray vision that would make our decision simpler. There are always unknowns in each project, whether new construction or existing, which more often than not fail to get due consideration in selecting the appropriate method and its implementation. Then occasionally, there are those jobs that come along that just were not meant to be.  While nearly any structure can be made suitable for ceramic tile installation, at some point in time the expense may overwhelm both abilities and common sense. Not wanting to lose any job, especially under the current market conditions, we occasionally tend to be overly optimistic about the ability of our knowledge, skills and the products we use. When a problem occurs, remembering what our parents told us as a child about being so smart,  it is seldom our knowledge and skills we question; it has to be the product right?

Experience tells me otherwise. As an installer with over 28 years of experience I would often bristle at the notion it was always the installer’s fault as I heard so often. It simply cannot be true that 90 percent of the time it is installer error. I have spent the last 10 years of my career being educated by countless numbers of knowledgeable individuals on the manufacturing side of the fence in my quest as an industry educator and technical adviser after putting down my production trowel. Each has had their own specialties be they ceramic, cement, engineering or any number of other specialty fields. In my experience, I have found that while there are certainly some cases of over ambitious manufacturers and the occasional product performance failure, these compromise a very miniscule percentage of actual claims. If I were to pick an installer failure percentage based on my personal opinion after these additional years, I would say 98.5%! I would also like to clarify; my opinions are related to ceramic tile and allied products, not other floor covering products. My knowledge of other products including stone is not as intimate. Yes, stone is another product with different performance needs and attributes that not all ceramic tile installation methods will accommodate.

Here is a wonderful example of where knowledge, skill, and artistry intertwine. There is an increasing demand for those capable of doing such intricate work. Photo courtesy of State of Illinois Workforce Development Center.

There are a myriad of products available today in both ceramic tile and to assist in ceramic tile installations. Life in the days of old was a much simpler time. If we were to time travel back to 1960, a scant 48 years ago, we would find things much different. Typical construction of the day was an over engineered structure be it commercial or residential. In residential wood structures, common construction was 2x12 Doug Fir floor joists with either plywood or more typically 1x6 board flooring recessed several inches to allow a wire reinforced mortar bed to be flush with the hardwood or linoleum floors. Slab on grade floors also had recessed pockets for mortar beds in both commercial and residential applications. The membrane of the day was roofing felt used as a cleavage membrane (or true slip sheet) under the mortar bed.  All floors were mortar as they had been for thousands of years; there was no need to deal with cracks whose promulgation was eliminated by a floating mortar bed. Besides thinset mortar had just been invented not long ago but was only used by some jackleg hack interested in shortcuts, not a true tile man. Similar sentiments were expressed with the entry of cement board, a product originally designed for wall application in the late ‘60s. Why? Because thinset applications had become so popular in such a short time there was an acute shortage of tradesmen who could float mortar, especially walls. All the basic knowledge required to install ceramic tile in this not so long ago era was to understand sand, cement, water and three types of tile. The skill required was placing sand and cement on floors and walls over a cleavage membrane followed by bonding the tile with pure Portland cement.

Today things have gotten considerably more complicated. The typical consideration today’s installer needs to make is which one of a 100 different thinset mortars are right for the job and the tile. Then will it be compatible with one of 50 floor preparation products whose use seems inevitable on almost every job these days. Is one of over 40 membrane products required or will you be using one of 10 different backer boards? Then we have our grout selection which has also become no simple process given all the various epoxies and cement products. To make these selections we often consult with the warehouse man who drives a forklift for a reason, the counter sales personnel, who have been educated by the sales representative, who won’t have a job if he does not sell product. Is this really an over dramatization? I don’t think so. Tile setting along with sales of tile and installation products has grown into a complex equation even I have trouble keeping up with, and it is my only job. The knowledge required for successful installations far exceeds what was typical for a tile professional 40, 30, or even 20 years ago. While skills remain important they take a backseat to the amount of knowledge required to work effectively and profitably in today’s market. We see the lack of knowledge and its effects on installations increasing in the current down market as more try to expand their floor covering offerings into ceramic tile. Education is a necessity if new entrants want to be profitable. My phone and email traffic lately indicate it is of great urgency. I will save some stories for another article sometime.

Speaking of education, I often get the question what is the best product, be it thinset, membranes, grout, or backerboard. Truth is, there is no “best.” Each has their own performance features and price points. The educated installer understands the differences and makes his decision for use on a given project accordingly. If you work for a shop as an independent installer you should use this knowledge to guide your account to using the proper materials for a job. You have presented yourself as the installation specialist and they have accepted you as such. That being the case, despite the great price they got on a pallet of whatever, it just may not be the right product for the job at hand. If you don’t understand the difference between such things as standard and lightweight thinsets or sheet and liquid membranes, you should. There is simply no way around not increasing your knowledge if you want to remain both competitive and successful in ceramic tile. Installing a hard brittle surfacing material over a moving structure takes a uniquely qualified individual. Now is a great time to take advantage of educational opportunities. Things may not turn around for awhile but they will and always do.  This is one of those periods where the cream rises to the top and will survive. Take a look at all the offerings listed in the back of this issue for just a smattering of the opportunities available. If you don’t see what you like, call your favorite manufacturer or association. I work with them all the time and can tell you they look forward to these types of calls.  Something I learned a long time ago: there is never a good time to go and always a reason not to, so now is as good a time as any.