Tooling Around with Tile
September 26, 2007
Quick survey, everyone reading this who owns a wood handled tile-chipping hammer raise your hand! I thought so; guess I have one of the few remaining relics of a simpler time in the tile world. There was a time when if you wanted to cut a hole or a circle, there was no other choice. Of course during that time, we only installed wall tile, mosaic, quarry, and the occasional 8-by-8 button back tile. Nearly everyone had an 8-inch score and snap cutter, and there was no 12-by-12. Life was simple then and almost all your hand tools fit in a canvas or leather satchel, common in those times as were the whites we wore to work everyday.
The most popular saw of that era was a tub saw, one which fit nicely in a square tub, of which all tile contractors had many. 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. Grout came in three colors, black, grey, and white. Sponges? What sponges? Grout was field mixed, joints pointed, and rubbed with either cheesecloth or a burlap bag and occasionally sawdust when needed to help with the cleaning. Total tool investment was under a $500 for a good installer tool set including trowels and straight edges. Of course, this was in the 20th Century, maybe 40-50 years ago.
In today’s world of tile installation, most whom I know have twice as much invested in one tile saw, and usually they have several. Tile products and installation methods have changed dramatically in the last 50 years, without question, more than the preceding 1,000 years. Installations today are much more complicated.
The ceramic tile products come in numerous formats using multiple methods of manufacturing. 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. I cannot think of another trade that requires more intensive investment or versatility in equipment than that of the flooring or tile installer. I would be surprised if someone chose to argue that point. Without the proper equipment it is impossible to competitively and consistently deliver performing and aesthetically pleasing installations. As everyone’s installation market varies, we will attempt to focus on common tile-related tool areas for the purpose of this article.
Tile-setting tools have changed dramatically over the years and then again some have not changed at all. The basics still apply but through trial and error, frustration and accompanying innovation, many new tool products have become available to enhance the basics and deliver performance.
Unfortunately, we rarely have a properly prepared substrate where we can get right to work and do what we get paid to do, lay tile. I always looked at floor prep as income opportunity.
One machine I would never be without is a swing arm machine or buffer. The variety of attachments for these machines is constantly growing. You can scarify adhesives, diamond grind high spots, sand or scrape sealers, cure compounds, and become exposed to dirt, drywall, paint overspray and other surface contaminates. There are numerous dust containment systems available for use with these machines that 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-contained units, which hurl hardened steel abrasive at the floors and then suction up the abrasive, reusing it again. Numerous units are made in varying sizes for any type of situation. For simple removal of the high point on cold joints, you will find many self-contained grinder systems. If you find yourself doing a lot of labor-intensive surface prep, you may find that only one or two jobs will pay for some of these items, while greatly increasing efficiency, not to mention the health and safety of the individual.
With the proliferation of modified thinset mortars and grouts, mixing thoroughly has increased importance. The mix, slake, and remix topic will have to be an article for another time but it actually is much more of an issue than most realize.
There has been some recent research on mixing paddles and methods believe it or not. Power mixing thinset with a low speed 1/2-inch using a cage type paddle works pretty well. 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 you incorporate, the weaker the thinset will become.
There are some new double handle drills with hi-torque, but low operator impact. They typically come with a spiral-designed 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 noticeable improvement in the bonding abilities using this type of equipment.
Cutting equipment is another product category that has seen dramatic increase in both types available and manufacturers. 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. Porcelain tile is the overwhelming choice in floor tile and 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. This is really not a good place to save money. I plead guilty to not wanting to pay the expense of purchasing big quality equipment. I’m 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-inch tile. There are a few very good wet saws on the market today that are lightweight, durable and versatile. You really need to choose wisely in this area as they 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. You should really give strong consideration to purchasing an unplugged version of a cutting device, the tried and true score and snap cutter.
In our presentations, the alleged inability of a manual cutting device to consistently cut big porcelain tile is proved inaccurate on an almost weekly basis. I consistently can cut a 1/2-inch off a 24-inch porcelain tile with few exceptions and with one particular model, cut a 24-inch on a diagonal until I get down to a 3/4-inch piece. 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 rep on their products’ abilities quite often. Installer complaints about “poor quality” hole drilling products are pretty much normal in any group of installers. We simply have not found this to be true with the multitude of drills and drill devices we have in our possession. Consistently when observed in service conditions, failure is due to the absence 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 laborsaving 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 that would go back to a sponge and bucket.
Further, if you don’t own a laser, you probably should consider one. That is another tool with a learning curve that proves indispensable once it 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.