Over the years we have spoken with many contractors who are reluctant to install custom waterjet fabricated patterns. Some of the fear is well-founded from back in the early days of waterjet fabrication, when one would get patterns that were basically just boxes or crates full of loose parts that a contractor would spend days putting together in the field.
The method of installing custom fabricated flooring has been vastly improved. Modern custom flooring has been redesigned to make this a much easier and orderly process. What used to take days of crawling around on the floor, trying to figure out what part went where, has been replaced by a few hours of placing tile or sub-assembled sections in place.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to these types of projects. For this article we will talk in terms of general installation practices that would cover about 90% of the custom installation situations one would encounter. The manufacturer should be able to advise you with any questions you have about the install and any possible special situations.
Working with the fabricator. The fabricator should be able to advise you, at the time of bidding, of any possible changes to the design and how the install should proceed – provided they have all the relevant information at hand. They should also have a rough idea of any potential sticking points.
For example, let’s take a simple 12” wide arc out of 12” wide material. You should be asked if you want the field cut to match the radius or intend to scribe to the arc on site. If you want the field cut to match, then the premise is the project would be fabricated to be reassembled into tile at the end of the cutting process. If it is an arc of only one color then you would only have to deal with two different pieces. (I say two pieces because by the time the radius is fabricated into the material, the material will no longer be 12” in height, requiring two 6” sections to make the arc. Width would also be lost as the sides were trimmed down to make a more aesthetically pleasing pattern.)
Once you have placed an order for a custom fabrication you should receive an approval document and/or shop drawings. Review these carefully. These describe in general terms how the project should look, including any specifications relevant to the project. It is always best if the head of the project – be they an architect, building owner or general contractor – approves the project. Once the approval is received by your fabricator, then and only then should they proceed with the actual fabrication of your materials.
The fabricator should fabricate the designs and check the fit of the parts as they go. Ideally a full layout of the project is desirable for small-scale projects. They may have to create sectional layouts for large-scale projects, but the important part is the projects are inspected during the process. Your project should then be packaged and sent to you with all accompanying layout/installation drawings and anything else that may be pertinent to the installation.
Once you receive your products you will want to inspect the packaging for any damage. If you notice any, contact your manufacturer immediately. Products can be held in storage for a period of time after you receive them; however, we recommend the installation occurs within 15-30 days of receiving the product. We have had products successfully installed in the six to 12 month range after being received, but we would not endorse that simply because the longer the products are held in storage the greater the chance for damage. Pliable materials such as VCT, vinyl and linoleum can distort after being subjected to longer-term storage in heat, cold or extremes of humidity or moisture.
Site preparation. There are many site conditions to take into account. For the purposes of this article, we are going to assume the base is a concrete slab, and that the slab is new or in good repair. The slab should be properly cleaned, free of any curing compounds or oily residue, and leveled using a patching compound. Moisture levels need to be tested and at the proper level according to the original tile manufacturers’ and/or architects’ specifications (three lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft. or less than 80% RH are the most common recommendations we encounter from manufacturers, but always follow your specific manufacturers’ guidelines).
Some manufacturers also recommend testing the pH level of the slab to make sure you are at a neutral range before you install. You need to confirm the site is properly heated or cooled to the manufacturers’ recommendations for the base product. The materials for the project and any flooring need to properly acclimatize to the site conditions as well, generally 24 to 48 hours ahead of the installation.
Installing VCT and LVT.In normal circumstances VCT custom flooring will be provided to you assembled back into a tile format, generally at the same size as the original tile. It is normally provided to you with a clear, clean release tape covering the face of the tile so you can see exactly what you are getting. Each tile will come with a number on the tape or some type of marking. That number or marking will correspond to a master sheet/layout diagram that shows the locations of each tile in the design.
Begin with unpacking the logo or pattern and dry-fitting the custom flooring to double-check the fit of the tile. The design as fabricated should have minor openings where the cuts are located, typically in the range of .005”. Occasionally the tape will contract and you will need to peel it back to reposition the parts. Peeling it back for these slight adjustments is fine, but do not remove it yet.
If you are installing patterns into an existing floor you will want to make sure your opening for the custom flooring has straight edges so nothing will telegraph into the design. You may have to trim out your opening a bit to make your install straight and clean and keep proper alignment of the design elements.
If it is a new install we recommend you start with the design elements, then fill out the rest of the floor. At this point you are ready to install your custom flooring. We strongly recommend using a new, 1/8” notched trowel following the adhesive manufacturers’ recommendations.
Once your adhesive is ready you can begin installing the tile as you would any other VCT. Once your adhesive has set, go back and carefully remove the clear tape from the face of the tile. If you encounter any parts that are not fully adhered, you can apply additional adhesive to the back of the tile and reinsert them once the adhesive has reached the proper tack to bond them into place.
The last step is to seal your custom flooring. We normally recommend a neutral epoxy grout, working it into the small openings to seal the design and keep moisture from working its way under the tile. However, the vast majority of contractors simply seal the design with standard floor wax. As of yet we have heard of no ill effects from sealing floors with that method.
Luxury vinyl tile (LVT) is very similar to VCT in the way it is processed. The major departure is in the formatting of the tile; the materials generally range from 12” x 12” to 18” x 18” – in some cases larger. Some of these products use the same types of adhesive as VCT, while others may require a liquid or spray adhesive. Also of note, some of these types of materials are unsealed applications. There should be no reason to deviate from the manufacturers’ recommendations.
Installing ceramic, porcelain and stone tile. Simple ceramic, porcelain and stone tile patterns will follow the same initial steps outlined previously. The biggest departure in the earlier stages is you will need to specify what the grout line spacing is for the tile and the design, as those can be different widths. If the design elements are to be assembled into tile at the manufacturing facility, they would be adhered together with a backing system and the grout lines in the design would be filled with a neutral epoxy grout. On site you would use your standard tile spacers to create the correct gap. Backing systems will add some thickness to the tile, generally about 3/16” to 1/8”, so keep that in mind so you do not end up with lippage when you get to the design elements.
Once again a dry layout of the custom flooring is highly recommended. If the tile is factory-backed, you will need to use an epoxy setting material in order to adhere properly with the backing compound on the tile. Standard setting systems used with epoxy-based backing systems are not compatible; the flooring will have no tensile strength to hold the final product in place.
We recommend using a 1/4” square notch trowel for 12” tile, a 3/8” square notch trowel for 18” tile, a 1/2” square note trowel for 24” tile, and a 3/4” square notch trowel for anything larger. Start off with a “scratch” coat on the flooring base, using the backside of the trowel then immediately coming back and using the notched side of the trowel, always dragging the trowel in the same direction. From there you can begin setting the design elements, following the installation template as a guide.
Use a clean, straight and flat wood block or grout float to press the pieces flat. Always have a clean, wet sponge ready to remove any adhesive residue from the surface of the tile or grout joints before it dries. Then wipe down with a clean, dry, soft cloth to dry the flooring. Grout film must be removed quickly or it will become more difficult to remove.
When working with more complex stone, ceramic and porcelain patterns, generally a tile format is not relevant to the project. At that point your grout lines become part of the design element, and the design is assembled in a sectional design to keep the pieces in a more manageable size to facilitate shipping and installation efficiency. In these cases the grout line width would normally be consistent through the design and you would be provided with a quantity of matching grout to use between the sections.
These designs are installed using the same basic precepts as simple ceramic, porcelain and stone tile; however, you will have to use the grout width the medallion manufacturer specifies. Additionally, it may not be possible to use a standard tile spacer as some of the joints will be on hard radiuses. Instead you may have to use a tape measure or similar device to measure the width as you go. Even though this type of installation contains various size pieces and in some cases various thickness, you should always uses a consistent-size trowel throughout the installation.
Installing rubber and carpet tile. Rubber and carpet tile are two exceptions to how the installation process as previously covered works. We have not yet found a tape that will consistently hold rubber tile parts in place. Therefore, we pack them in reverse order so the last tile to be installed is at the bottom of the last carton and the first tile is at the top of the first carton. You will also have an installation guide that shows where all the parts will go. Yes, this type of project will still require you to pull parts out of a box and put them in place similar to the early days of custom designs, but they are in a more logical order so you can see what you are doing.
With carpet tile, for obvious reasons face taping is not a possibility, so the product is arranged in a manner similar to the one used for packaging rubber tile. Some manufacturers do have a small pad that adheres to the back of their carpet tile. If that is an option, you could affix some of those to key elements in the design to aid you with the installation process.
Installing linoleum and vinyl roll goods. Linoleum and vinyl roll goods can also be utilized for design elements. Generally for large-scale designs only, key design elements are utilized for this type of fabrication. These are also generally fabricated using different technologies than waterjet, most notably with a device called an ultrasonic knife. It uses no water and removes no material in the fabrication process. The end result is cleaner cuts and a tighter fit of the end-product.
When possible these types of products are also supplied with a clear tape on the face of the materials to ease the handling process on site. Once again, the tape would be removed after the adhesive has cured. When the patterns are elaborate, you can also encounter a phenomenon where the design will start to push the edges of the sections out of square. In that case, you may have to use a strong tape to pull the corners of the sections together during the install and then weigh the design elements down while the adhesive cures. Once that process is completed, you are ready to seal your seams if needed.
Generally we would recommend a chemical weld to seal these designs, but we have also heard of no-weld being used successfully. If you are using these materials in a hospital, food service or other similar environment then the specifications of the project will most likely require the materials to be heat-welded on site. In that case, you will have to consider welding around the perimeter of the panels and extra labor in your cost equations.
Custom products are by their nature always different from project to the next, and some will present special challenges. Hopefully this article has given you the basic knowledge and confidence to tackle custom fabrication projects. Don’t be afraid of them. They are easier than you think.
Jim Belilove is president of Creative Edge Master Shop. Twenty-five years ago Belilove and his partner Harri Aalto launched the firm, offering precision computerized-driven waterjet cutting and fabrication to the architectural & design community. Marty Thomas is the general manager of the resilient products division of Creative Edge. Find out more at www.cec-waterjet.com.