In this edition, we sat down with Lee Callewaert, co-owner and senior craftsman of Dragonfly Tile & Stone Works, Inc. in Grafton, WI. Callewaert, a Certified Tile Installer (CTI) with the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation’s CTI program, was recently awarded the first-ever Tile Setter Craftsperson of the Year Award from the National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA), which was created in 2019 as a lifetime achievement award for tile setters.
How did you first get involved in the tile industry? Please explain a little bit more about yourself.
Callewaert: I was raised in Wisconsin. My two favorite classes in school were art and math. The rest, not so much. I have A.D.D. (didn’t know that at the time) and was wrote off as inattentive and spacey. I’m a musician; I write music and I played in a few bands. I come from a long line of artists and musicians. I’m also a nature lover. I live on a property with plenty of opportunities to fish and enjoy the wildlife.
My parents moved to Tennessee when I was in my late teens and I joined them there for a bit trying to figure out what I wanted to do. My mom introduced me to Dave Brown who was running his father’s company, Ted Brown Tile. He took me on as an apprentice and tolerated and taught this young, dumb kid. I liked working with my hands, creating, and the precision involved. Basically, I am an artist who found his niche in tile and stone installation.
I moved back to Wisconsin following my apprenticeship and went to work as a journeyman and later a foreman where I specialized in high-end residential work. In 2003, I had an opportunity to start my own business when a custom high-end general contractor and a previous homeowner I’d worked for were about to start another project and approached me directly. My wife has a strong business background and played a major role in helping me get things up and running. She’s still my partner today and invaluable to our business. Together, we raised four great sons who are now out of the nest. We remain a very close family and we couldn’t be more proud of the young men they’ve become.
Are you a company owner? If so, what were some reasons for starting your own business?
Callewaert: I knew for some years that I wanted to have my own business. When the opportunity was presented, my wife asked me to articulate my reason. It may sound trite, but my sincere answer was that I just wanted to make a difference. I had worked in many historical homes over the years and the level of craftsmanship always blew me away. I was concerned that we were becoming just “tile setters” and the craftsmanship was not as valued. I wanted to preserve the appreciation for the craftsmanship and artistry in the trade.
Has the tile industry changed much since you first started? If so, in what ways?
Callewaert: There are new technologies and products today. This requires diligent study and education. Back in the day, structures were built to support most tile and stone installations. That might not be the case today. The prep methods were pretty clear, but now we have options that, if educated, help us make the best decisions based on the application. You need to stay abreast of all the new technologies while still having faith in your goal of beautiful and lasting installations.
Is there a particular job you’ve completed that stands out? Why?
Callewaert: That’s a tough one. I guess you always refer to the more recent, as you are constantly learning and challenging yourself. The latest incorporate so many things you have learned over the years. I enjoyed this custom powder room floor, which was inspired by the customers’ artwork (“Serpent” by Fornassetti). The 13-foot-long serpent was designed, templated and fabricated out of stone at the shop, and mounted on Laticrete sheeting (allowing for serpent inset and field tile to move more independently). The floor was prepped with mud over hydronic heating. Laticrete sheeting was installed over mud, then an anti-fracture membrane. The field tile is fretwork mosaic marble. The inset (all stone) was scribed into field tile. The serpent was set just a little higher than the field tile and then ground and polished for a slight domed relief effect.
What are some common issues you have to deal with on the jobsite? How do you overcome them?
Callewaert: Relationships with your customers and the other trades on the job are crucial — and in residential, that is more easily achieved. Because of the nature of our work, which is mostly high-end and direct to the customer, that relationship is paramount to all else. When you have earned the respect of both the customer and other trades, everything runs more smoothly. Our goal is to cushion the customer from issues that we can handle before the customer even knows there is a potential problem, and if necessary, find the solutions with our trade partners. I also have a “5 reasons why rule” if we need to do something a certain way given a challenge or question. I’m thinking about every option, every solution and formulating the response before the question is asked. And as always, most important, earning a place at the table in the early stages of planning goes a long way in reducing the problems later on.
What are some steps you take to educate your customers about their tile installation before you begin?
Callewaert: I have always seen myself as a consultant and that role begins in the earliest stages. There are technical design considerations that I want the client and team to understand. I usually assist my clients in material selection as well. Even if another designer, architect or the customer themselves select the tile, I am able to review their selection with them and discuss its appropriateness for the application, as well as any considerations that may impact the layout and final aesthetic. I also educate them regarding the maintenance required for their particular material. We make sure that our clients know what they are getting before one piece of tile or stone is installed. Prior layout and review with the client is done on each job. I also review all aspects of the project with them in advance, including what the transition will look like from one space to the next based on the acceptable prep methods, the direction a shower door may open, where lighting should be, shower seats, niche options, where bars (backing required) or hooks could be located, and all the other details.
If you could lend any advice to professionals just beginning their careers, what would it be?
Callewaert: Get educated. Work for someone who is highly skilled and respected. This will accelerate your growth. Take advantage of all the industry training programs. Network with other people in your trade. Study the work of others and pay attention to details and execution. Be a sponge. One mistake I’ve seen too often is that younger setters use their mouths more than their ears. Practice with tools after hours. Our apprentices spend time at the shop practicing cuts with wet saws, ring saws, grinders, shapers and polishers, and it goes a long way to developing those skills. Be a good trade partner; people will want to work with you and the end result to the customer will be better. Always be upfront with potential clients. Educate them about the possibilities and the resulting costs. Don’t over-extend yourself. Don’t promise things you can’t do. Develop good relationships with suppliers. Treat every customer with respect and appreciation and every job like it’s the most important one you have done.
If you or anyone you know is interested in being featured in a future edition of the “Contractor Spotlight,” please email Heather Fiore at firstname.lastname@example.org.