Contractors Share Tips and Comments About Pattern Work

You’ve got the job or the contract – now it’s time to determine the pattern.
Installing ceramic/porcelain tile or stone tile in a pleasing, attractive pattern is as critical to the project as the color, size or texture of tile with which you’re working. The pattern needs to compliment the dimensions of the room and the overall setting without overwhelming the demands of the space.
In this story, we’ll talk to two prominent contractors about the intricacies involved in determining and setting patterns: Elizabeth and Dan Lambert of Lambert Tile & Stone from Eagle Colorado and Andre Hutchinson, of Dillon Stone Corp., Virginia Beach, Va.

First up is selecting the pattern. For Lambert Tile, budget provides a framework from which a range of options can originate, keeping in mind the available space on floors or walls, and “what they can accommodate without looking too busy.”

Since Dillon Stone does almost strictly commercial work, it takes its cues from the architect, offering recommendations “if we think we have a suggestion that will improve the appearance of the installation as well as make better sense from a tile contractor’s perspective,” Hutchinson said.

The running bond or brick pattern for both walls and floors is a consistent favorite, contractors say. This clean geometric look is encouraged by the popularity of 12 x 24-inch tiles, Hutchinson said, adding that ceramic mosaics “carpets or “rugs” of two decades ago have been nearly forgotten. The Lamberts agreed, saying, “most large format tiles come in 24 x 24-inch, 12 x 24-inch or 24 x 18-inch formats and only allow you to set in a straight pattern, on a diagonal or in a running bond.”

Contractor favorites
But favorite patterns for contractors to tackle are a different story. For Lambert Tile & Stone, herringbone patterns offer a thoughtful challenge. Large format tile as well as glass and metal tile make patterns more technical, Elizabeth and Dan said. “Everyone wants their house to be different from anyone else so we are always trying to stay on top of any new tile introduced into our market and reading all the design publications to get idea’s that are new and fresh,” they said.
At Dillon Stone, mathematical or intellectually challenging patterns are favored, like the ellipse, or classic patterns like the Greek Key motif. “There is an intangible, hard-to-describe satisfaction that comes from working with products (ceramic mosaics or marble) and installing patterns (Greek-Key borders or compass-rose) that create a present-day connection with our industry’s timeless past,” Hutchinson said. “I believe our work is the continuation of a common thread that unravels backwards through time for literally thousands of years.”

Estimating materials
But before considering HOW to install the pattern, you’ve got to size up the room, and estimate how much material you need. Contractors use standard equipment such as water-levels, squares, tapes measures and chalk lines, with additional assistance from laser levels when carrying a line over long distances, Hutchinson said. Though online visualization tools and software exist, many contractors prefer to do things the “old-fashioned way,” by sketching out the room by hand or use one provided by the designer. From there, material and overages are estimated.
Hutchinson approaches measuring by contemplating an optimum layout that is centered and balanced with as few as possible half tiles or fragments, developing at least two possible scenarios. Then the space itself is checked for “real-life, jobsite variables,” such as the framing of the substrate of the floors, framing of the walls, free-standing columns, or the need to align the pattern to architectural elements unrelated to Dillon’s work. “All of this is taken into consideration before the first tile or stone is set into place,” he said.

Tile materials also need to be estimated. Hutchinson takes the perspective of an installer when he estimates a job, calculating what size cuts are needed, or how many square feet of tile or stone will need to be purchased to create the pattern. “If I am dealing with slabs, I am thinking about veining and piece size, optimum slab layout and how many pieces will each slab yield, waste-factor, etc.,” Hutchinson continued. “Sometimes I will suggest a slight change that will optimize material. For example: getting six 24 x 24 stones from a slab, with significant waste, vs. getting eight 22 x 22-inch stones, with virtually no waste.”

Patterns that change materials constantly can be difficult, according to Lambert Tile. “This usually requires you to dry-set each row to make sure you do not end up with bad cuts anywhere. Patterns that have to flow out of the shower into the backsplash and wainscot without the finished countertop in place have to be well thought out so everything flows together at the same elevation.”
Hutchinson also adds that patterns with the highest waste-factor – such as those that must align with other components of the building — are toughest to estimate because they have the lowest yield in terms of tile used vs. tile purchased. Such is the case of an ellipse Dillon once installed of hand-cut 2 cm 24 x 24-inch granite stones in the floor that had to perfectly align with an ellipse in a ceiling, over 20 feet above. The company had to use coordinate geometry to compute the minor and major axis of the ellipse; some pieces were mirror images of each other but no two were exactly the same. “It was a very challenging and yet extremely rewarding installation,” he said.

The finished installation features a precisely-situated center stone, surrounded by concentric bands of 2 cm Breccia Oniciata marble, framed by an outer ring of 2 cm Dark Emperador marble.

Installing the pattern
Walls and floors pose their own unique challenges. Though the math and geometry may be the same for walls and floors, Hutchinson said, floors require you to keep transitions and elevation issues in mind and how patterns may intersect columns. For walls, he added, “we may be contemplating countertop heights, or the heights of fixtures that occur in the wall, and how those things are going to intersect with our layout.”

Don’t focus so much on the aesthetics of the pattern that you forget to include expansion joints. “In some cases, we can install the pattern up to the expansion joint, at which point we install the expansion joint and ‘resume’ the pattern from that point forward,” Hutchinson said. Other times, “the overall width of the expansion joint must be deducted from the tiles or stones spanning the expansion joint, so that the modular dimensions of the pattern stays consistent, even after taking the joint into consideration.”
Tile textures or thickness may require further planning too. Elizabeth and Dan Lambert said, “When mixing different types of tile that have different edges or thickness can be challenging and require more labor to install.”

Accents and decos may be specified by the architect or the designer – or may express the contractor’s creative flair for an installation. The Lamberts noted, “Accents allow us to make original designs for our clients by picture framing areas in the showers or on the shower floor.”