Harry Aalto of Creative Edge designed this water-jet for Coverings ‘08 using glass and porcelain tile. Such detailed fabrication requires a high investment in equipment and knowledge skills. Photo courtesy Creative Edge

Fresh from seeing all the latest gadgets at Coverings ’08, it seems like a great time to write a tool article. I may have missed it, but nothing revolutionary jumped out at me during the show though there were certainly many exciting improvements in products currently on the market.

Cutting ceramic and stone products can be done with a general-purpose blade. However, specialty blades, such as the one shown here for porcelain (left) and the other for granite, offer cleaner and faster cutting. As materials differ, so does blade selection in hi-performance applications. Photo courtesy Raimondi and Diamant-Boart.

The challenge for an installer has always been, “Do I really need the best or can I ‘get by’ with a tool from my local discount outlet?” That question is best answered by asking yourself a bigger question: Are you serious about a career in tile installation? If so, save your pennies, get by with what you can until you can afford real tools. I am both reminded often and remember well my first big purchase - a professional 1 hp wet saw purchased roughly 30 years ago still set up out in the shop and used as recently as last week. The machine has gone through many rollers for the tray and almost as many on/off switches, but it is still running great. As a matter of fact, in stopping by the booth of the manufacturer last week, who has under gone four ownership changes since then, parts are still available. Another benefit of professional equipment - replacement parts!

Cutting ceramic and stone products can be done with a general-purpose blade. However, specialty blades, such as the one shown here for porcelain (left) and the other for granite, offer cleaner and faster cutting. As materials differ, so does blade selection in hi-performance applications. Photo courtesy Raimondi and Diamant-Boart

Once a decision has been made to buy professional grade, you need to be realistic. As I was leaving the Coverings show last week, a relatively new and aspiring contractor approached me and wanted to ask a few questions. He had heard that I had run a 100+ man shop of tile setters and had vast experience with custom tile work. Somebody had obviously had embellished the description of our shop size by a factor of 10 and while we did enjoy some custom work, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to keep 10 installers busy doing custom work in our market area. He was contemplating the purchase of a water-jet with a basic price of $200,000 to expand his abilities. He currently has one helper in his employ and operates out of a trailer. So to make this work, he would have to add two or three more qualified people (who make good money) and some new real estate, the kind without wheels, to house his equipment. I asked about his current volume of custom water-jet work and how much fabrication was he jobbing out, to which the answer was none. Nothing wrong with being aggressive and having aspiring goals but currently, I don’t think his desire to purchase a $200,000 piece of equipment with similar costs to get it in operation is very realistic when you have no work for it even if it is “cool.” Examples of good but not very realistic ideas abound unused in warehouses across the United States and the world for that matter.

Gone are the days of only owning a 6” and 8” score and snap cutter. Big tile takes big saws, real big saws if you cut 24” tile on a diagonal. Carry weight can become a factor in larger equipment. Many offer either integrated or separate roller stands allowing for one-person set-up. Photo courtesy Raimondi.

Buying the right type of tool for the job of installing ceramic and/or stone should be based on what the actual use is going to or intended to be. Wet saws are a great example of this. Does anyone seriously think a $499 wet saw with a 10” blade is going to be in any way comparable to a 10” wet saw costing $1,000 or even $1,500 for that matter? There are always going to be trade offs in the type, price, and quality of saws. Rail saws may be very efficient for straight cut production work and very large tile. Conventional wet saws typically allow for a greater number of applications. Some conventional wet saws are also able to cut a 24” tile on a diagonal.

Another consideration is whether you seek a product to do daily production, moderate or occasional use. Manufacturers create products with a design life in mind, nothing lasts forever. Many newer wet saws also have features such as plunge cutting abilities, tilting heads for angle work, and effective water management. If you’re working on the 23rd floor of an occupied high-rise building, the type of saw you select for that application has a lot of considerations which could determine whether you will be riding the elevator a lot. There is a lot of realistic thought that has to go into purchasing any equipment. The nice lightweight, quiet, self-contained, and a little slow saw I use in a high-rise would probably not be my choice for the new Civic Center where work area with water and noise abound.

This saw is about six-years old and still serves us well. As with most inexpensive specialty equipment, it does not see nor was it intended for everyday use. It has, however, been a participant in numerous custom fabrication projects we have done. Take care of your equipment and it will take care of you.

The best saw in the whole world won’t be any good without the right blade. The general consensus at various contractor get-togethers seems to be that everyone uses three or four different blades. That has been the experience of our shop as well. Good quality blades last a long time in daily use with clean water and occasional sharpening. The cost of specialty blades is well worth the expense and returned in labor savings if used often.

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 of diamonds, the quality of the diamond as well as the type and mixture of bonding agent to adhere it to the rim all affect the way a blade will cut. Less expensive blades use lower quality diamonds, which will fracture more quickly. Since the diamond is fracturing more quickly, the powders that are 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.

While there may be a ceramic product somewhere that cannot be both drilled and cut, thus far I have not met it. With the right equipment, the impossible is very possible.

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 these harder materials and will use a specific mix of powders with the diamonds so they work together. In the case of glass, a larger amount of smaller but high-quality diamonds works best. When cutting soft body tile, it is possible to use smaller and lower quality diamonds effectively, hence the lower cost of the “general purpose” blades.

All blades need to be sharpened occasionally. As long as there is rim left and the blade runs true, it can be sharpened. Sharpening exposes new, sharp diamonds by wearing away a layer of dull diamonds from the surface of the rim. 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, as well as conditioning sticks sold for blade sharpening. Remember that you are wearing a layer of dull diamonds off the rim and that may require multiple passes to accomplish the task. Dull blades are one of several reasons tile can chip at the final edge of the cut.

What about specialty saws such as band and ring saws? These saws can be purchased inexpensively from around $500 or for as much as $5,000. 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 sending the work out for water-jet fabrication was out of the question due to time constraints, we purchased a more professional version of a band saw, which served us for many years. When you have the luxury of time, a water-jet may be the way to go for extensive narrow joint fabrication. Water-jet cutting involves water pressurized to about 55,000 pounds per square inch (with an abrasive, usually garnet) entrained in the water-jet stream. The water is forced through a precision nozzle whose orifice is approximately 0.013” in diameter. A robotic arm, driven by computer programming, then directs it. You can take nearly any desired image to be scanned and digitized. The cutting is very precise allowing for very small perfectly spaced grout joints. With today’s programming, it can be scanned and cut.

Quality score-and-snap type cutters are capable of straight and diagonal cuts in most types of even the largest porcelain tile. It takes both equipment and technique.

And what about drilling? Softer ceramic tile and stone is easily cut but many vulgar words have 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 to use or the longer lasting, the more costly the tool. Any porcelain tile can be easily drilled with the proper bits and technique. The most important part of drilling porcelain once you have the proper equipment 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 lots of cool, clean water. Some manufacturers offer core bits with a water feed kit in the bit itself.

The next problematic area in drilling following water seems to be 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.

I can recall my early days of installation when all drain hole openings, in both floors and walls, were cut with a chipping hammer. We were one of the last shops to mechanize our equipment. Once we made the commitment and saw the labor savings, we became a strong proponent of power tools. It is not at all unusual to find that buying a tool creates a 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 we guaranteed satisfactory results. If nothing else, good 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!