Doing things right the first time pays off for Omaha installer

Swoboda Tile & Stone melds family tradition, industry training into successful business


This shower is part of a bathroom renovation with all natural stone. “A challenge that I faced with this install was squaring up the walls and making sure my substrate underneath was super flat,” Swoboda said. “Being able to wet shim behind the foam board really helped speed up this part of the project.”

Six years ago near Omaha, Neb., budding tile setter Jake Swoboda (www.facebook.com/SwobodaTileStone) was learning how to “always do things right, the first time,” as his uncle taught him the basics of the trade. Swoboda now specializes in residential renovation and new construction, specifically tiled showers and bathrooms. To achieve the excellence he sought, he supplemented the foundation laid down by his uncle with manufacturers’ trainings, online resources and interaction with other installers in the Omaha area.

Two years ago, Swoboda took his tile setting career up another notch, by joining the NTCA and successfully passing his Certified Tile Installer test, becoming CTI #1398. 

“I joined the NTCA to help further my own knowledge and skills of the industry,” Swoboda said. “What really makes it worth it, for a younger installer like myself, to join the NTCA is the online resources and amazing technical support that is available to every member. Any tile question I have on the job, I know I can call the NTCA for an answer and solution.”

His CTI status adds another boon to his business. “Being certified has helped me and my business immensely,” he said. “I explain the certification to my customers, and I think it puts a lot of minds at ease that I know what I am doing. It shows them that it’s not just me saying that I know how to install tile properly, but that I have been tested and certified to install tile to industry standards.”

The biggest challenge on this project was the large-format tile on the walls. It is a 32”x48” tile. Proper substrate prep and the appropriate thinset helped Swoboda deliver a rock solid install for this customer.

 

 

 

 

Swoboda Tile & Stone projects

Swoboda has a passion for the artistry and technical excellence in his work. “The greatest joy that I get from being a tile contractor is working with customers to make their vision for their projects come to life, and knowing that the prep work underneath the tile will be rock solid for many years to come,” he said.

This kitchen renovation had many challenges that Swoboda had to overcome. The floor tile is a 8”x48” plank tile with electric heat underneath. Swoboda had to pour self leveler over the cable to get the floor flat enough for such a long tile.

This tub surround, completed early in Swoboda’s tile career, posed unique challenges. He had to frame in and tile the arched ceiling. Swoboda said, “The customer was ecstatic with how it turned out.”

Cutting Edge Tile meets client needs in a “Flash!”

Carl “The Flash” Leonard, owner, Cutting Edge Tile

Carl “The Flash” Leonard is a third generation tile setter, and owner of Cutting Edge Tile
(www.cuttingedgetilenj.com) in Florence, N.J. Leonard explains that he got his nickname because “I’m primarily known for my speed and quick turnaround of projects.”

Leonard has done commercial, residential, remodel work, new construction and custom work including gauged porcelain tile panels (GPTP), exterior pedestal tile installation and bonded large-format tile on exteriors. 

Cutting Edge Tile prides itself on attention to details and offering new and exciting ideas helps it stay ahead of its competition and set the company apart. “I pride myself on being a well-rounded installer in my field of expertise,” Leonard said. “Listening to the client and understanding their needs is very important! I am also certified to install and use a variety of products to aid in providing the best installation available.” The company motto is “Quality YOU can afford.”

Carl “The Flash” Leonard poses with a group of fellow Global Tile Posse members in the module used for the CTI tile setting competition in the Installation Experience during Coverings ’18 in Atlanta.

Leonard joined NTCA in 2015, primarily for the education membership offered. “I love to learn new installation techniques and correct practices,” he said. “Also joining allowed me to be in contact with a network of tile professionals that I can reach out to for help or just advice.

Walk-in shower – in process: “This walk-in shower project posed many challenges,” Leonard said. The shower pan had a linear drain with large-format tile, so prep was the biggest challenge. The shower floor was recessed to allow the foam shower pan to be flush with heated flooring in the main floor area. To get the main floor level flush with the pan, self leveler was poured over the loosely strung heat cables. Once this was done, waterproofing could be completed and tile installation could start.

 

“The greatest reward of being an NTCA member would be all the knowledge I’ve gained through educational programs and events,” The Flash added. “This has helped me and my business to grow tremendously. The education and knowledge gave me the confidence to do tile installations properly. It also puts my clients at ease knowing that I’ve invested in my company to ensure proper installation on their projects.”

Leonard took his Certified Tile Installer (CTI) test in Cherry Hill, N.J., in 2017 with nine other installers, and successfully passed to become CTI #1393. He makes it a point to tell potential clients all about his certification. “It is the determining factor in them choosing me over others in most cases,” he said.

Leonard said, “being a professional tile installer brings a lot of satisfaction, knowing that my clients will be using something that I built and will last a lifetime!”

White bathroom – In this project, Leonard used a recessed foam walk-in shower pan with a heated floor and underlayment on main floor. This was an old farmhouse, where nothing was level or plumb. “We sistered new 2 x 4s to all the wall studs and poured self leveler on the floors,” Leonard explained. “This was key to the success of this project. Prep is essential!”

NTCA transcends countries to attract quality-minded tile setters

Modern Aspect Tiling & Stone works to establish and update standards in Australia


Of NTCA’s nearly 1,600 members, a number of tile contractors make their homes and operate their businesses outside of U.S. soil – allowing our membership to spread to Australia, Mexico, Canada and other countries around the world.

Tim Christopher, owner of Modern Aspect Tiling & Stone

One such world member is Tim Christopher, owner of Modern Aspect Tiling & Stone in Canberra, Australia, who has been a tile contractor for 20 years in Australia. Upon completion of his three-year apprenticeship, Christopher was awarded Apprentice of the Year in his state. 

From there, Christopher formed his own company, Modern Aspect Tiling & Stone, which has completed various types of work including rural, residential and commercial. Modern Aspect Tiling & Stone has been contracted to work on several of national buildings such as Parliament House of Australia, and Australian Treasury.

Attentiveness to new technologies and products keeps Modern Aspect Tiling & Stone on the cutting edge of new products as they have become introduced in our market. “Moisture-sensitive stone would be a good example of this,” Christopher said. “My company was one of the first in my region to successfully install this type of product in a market where many failures were occurring through misunderstanding products such as reconstituted stone.”

Christopher is currently vice president of the Tile and Tiling Industry Association of Australia (TTIAA). “This is a small association set up to benefit the industry here, in an environment where tile is not particularly well supported as far as up-to-date training or establishment of relevant guidelines,” he explained. “I am actively supporting the update of our Australian Standard for tiling, as it is very outdated. Indeed, our standard was written when the iPhone wasn’t even in existence.”

In a quest for better training, standards and guidelines for his company and his country, Modern Aspect Tiling & Stone became a member of the NTCA. “It is evident to me that the USA is probably the most active region for ongoing support of the tile industry across all areas,” Christopher said. “The development in the area of setting tile is second to none. The Gauged Porcelain Tile Standards are an example of this. The guidelines in the USA are established with relevant input from all concerned to produce practical standards. I believe this approach would be of benefit to us here in Australia.”

Currently Christopher is undertaking some consultancy work for tribunals. “There is a certain failure rate of tile installations in Australia as in the USA,” he said. “I hope to help educate our industry through the knowledge I have gained by continuing to be a member of the NTCA.”

Modern Aspect Tiling & Stone Projects

Avalon Flooring: flagship store grows to 15 locations in 60 years

Expansive offerings and emphasis on training contribute to success


Avalon Flooring (AvalonFlooring.com) was started by John Millar in 1958 with a single store in Avalon, NJ. It has since grown to 15 stores in New Jersey and Pennsylvania with 330+ employees. In 2018, Avalon Flooring became 100% ESOP (employee stock ownership plan). As an employee-owned company, with its corporate office located in Cherry Hill, N.J., it prides itself in providing professional service and an exceptional range of quality products for each of its customers.

Original store opened by John Millar in Avalon, N.J.

The original store opened by John Millar in Avalon, N.J.

Avalon Flooring services the retail, contractor, builder and commercial segments in both new construction and renovation projects. It offers a variety of flooring and window treatment options and installs all the products it sells. 

Robert Showers

Robert Showers,
Avalon Flooring

Avalon Flooring has been a member of NTCA for 14 years. “At Avalon Flooring, making sure our tile installations are done the correct way the first time is extremely important to us,” said Robert Showers, Director of Estimator Sales at Avalon’s Cherry Hill location, and a NTCA Regional Director.

Inside Avalon Flooring’s corporate offices.

Inside Avalon Flooring’s corporate offices.

“To help guarantee a successful process, we take the time to educate our subcontractors to better their installation performances to ensure positive customer satisfaction.” Avalon has been a huge supporter of the NTCA education program, often serving as host for the regional workshops and training programs and Certified Tile Installer (CTI) exams.

“Being a NTCA member helps our contractor sales teams provide helpful and proper installation information to their clients by citing the NTCA Reference Manual, which is a very beneficial tool,” Showers added. “It also opened up the opportunity to learn more about the CTEF certification program, and we were fortunate enough to have hosted a certification this past December.” 

Avalon Flooring corporate office

Avalon Flooring’s Cherry Hills corporate office today.

Currently Avalon has eight CTI subcontractors that handle part of the ceramic installations for Avalon Flooring. “We also just hosted a certification on December 1st, at our Cherry Hill location, where 11 out of our 13 participants passed and became certified CTI contractors!” Showers said. 

“Our goal at Avalon is to keep working on the growth of our expert installers, as well as creating the awareness of the fact that tile installation is a very skilled trade that’s more than worthy of being considered a full-time career.”

The company’s employee cantina.

The company’s employee cantina.

Avalon Flooring also takes pride in maintaining an active role in the communities where its customers and employees live, donating both time and money to charities and non-profit organizations in order to give back to the community and raise awareness for important causes. It’s also a good steward of the planet, taking seriously the responsibility to care for the environment, so it constantly strives to preserve natural resources and reduce its environmental impact. The company features high-quality, green flooring options in its showrooms and operates its own recycling program that successfully diverts approximately two million pounds of used carpet and pad per year from landfills throughout the region.

What keeps the company going, Showers said, is “The sense of accomplishment when you step back, and realize you are part of a great company that started with one man’s dream that now employs over 300 people.”

Avalon Flooring is 100% employee-owned, with more than 330 employees.

Avalon Flooring is 100% employee-owned, with more than 330 employees.

Homegrown tile company

Deen Contracting melds art and problem-solving with great results


In the prairie of the Midwest – Springfield, Ill. – my career started with a broom, and the willingness to clean up construction sites and use a shovel. I was a summer helper for my friend’s father who built elaborate houses in Springfield, and worked on part of their extensive remodel on an old mansion. 

Andy Deen standing in his most recently completed residential shower.

My job was to tear out a custom shower that was installed pre-WWII. I still remember the lath cutting through my young hands as I burned through saw blade after saw blade – everything we had that day. Then I got to the pan, which was a bed in a lead liner base. Instead of a 40 mil or foam liner, this was a lead sheet. Amazingly, it never leaked, and lasted about 60 years. I thought to myself it is awesome how something so beautiful could last so long. That is when I said to myself, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could construct functional beauty that lasted longer than me?”

At the end of the summer, I worked finishing concrete for a year after high school and eventually got in the electrical trade, but it didn’t satisfy me. There was an itch inside me that needed to create. I needed to explore construction and art; I needed to set tile. It was the only thing that would pass the time in an enjoyable way for me. I went to a local box store and picked up some material and tiled a kitchen in 2000, and then a friend’s mom’s backsplash, and then a shower. 

The prep work involved before the shower pans are poured and any tile is set.

Next, I met Rob Yates – a NTCA member – at the supply house. We had not met before, but had mutual friends and started talking. He mentioned that I should check out the TCNA Handbook and go to a NTCA seminar when it was in town. I did – and everything completely changed, again. I was invigorated with new knowledge and access to years and years of previous work the handbook contained. 

A homegrown tile company had been created: Deen Contracting, Inc. (deentile.com), based in Rochester, Ill. In the middle of a cornfield in Central Illinois, I got a job with one of our local farms. I was dying to try tile installation on a 3D-scale and I wanted to do crown molding with a waterfall off it for bathing. I had an idea and the homeowner, Dennis, made the plumbing work – he can probably fix an alien space craft if it crashed in a field! I field-framed the crown ledges from 1”x 4” pine and then I clad it in cement board and membrane. Next, I used foam. I have even used .050-gauge aluminum sheets and bent them into forms to be filled with mortar. My first ledge was in 2006 with a lot more geometric tile installs since. 

There are endless possibilities of which we have only scratched the surface. When I say “we,” I am referring to installers who truly care about their art. I have been on course to manufacture kits, however, funding to change an industry can be hard to obtain, so I have been utilizing my print reading skills from my electrical experience to bid commercial jobs. We have gone from 10% commercial work to 80% in about four years. 

Support through NTCA

Commercial restaurant project, recently completed.

The first time I had real guidance in the industry was in 2012 when Mark Heinlein from NTCA had a seminar in Springfield. His knowledge and approach to explaining setting techniques was top shelf. By attending the meeting and joining the NTCA, I was empowered with a great deal more knowledge. The TCNA Handbook has all of the ANSI ratings for products and installation, so by being aware of this, I was able to cite the proper pages and explain installations on my scope of work for commercial products. When I placed these references in my scope of work, I found that I was getting more jobs. By just attending a NTCA function and utilizing the information they gave me, I have increased my business.

Until now, I have been pretty guarded about my creations and patents. However, the February 2019 TileLetter featured RodKat and it inspired me to share as well. I am impressed and always intrigued when a fellow tile mechanic installs in three dimensions. Just because we have a two-dimensional material to work with doesn’t mean we must stay there. Hats off to setters who are pushing the limits and exploring new designs. 

Tile crown molding with waterfall feature.

I have been to the Coverings conference in Tampa, Fla., and had a great time. I plan on attending in Orlando this year as well. The conference is the best way for me to see new products and ideas and it is also the best way to re-charge my creativity.

The key to staying busy in a small town is diversity. My wife Karen, who is a ceramicist, has been an irreplaceable asset and inspiration helping run the business, making payroll and putting bids in on time, as well as executing simple organization that I have botched for years. So, with our small crew of 3-5, we have been remodeling commercial restaurants. We go in and demo all the tile, and then polish the floor with mechanical grinders and install new tile throughout the lobbies, kitchens and bathrooms. 

Waterfall feature in use.

Commercial restaurant tile job.

In the course of doing this work, I have noticed the commercial kitchen is under attack. This is where I got my start at age 21, repairing epoxy grout in commercial restaurants before I landed my first residential builder. Epoxy grout is a must. Incorrect installations and/or poor grout choices have hurt tile’s reputation in the commercial kitchen. Owners are switching to other products when they shouldn’t have to. A properly installed quarry kitchen could and should last 30-40 years with proper cleaning and minor maintenance. 

Residential tile bathroom project.

All in all, I love tile and I love to problem solve. To me, residential tile is art and commercial tile is problem solving and accuracy by the scheduled deadline. They are two different worlds that make both a great challenge and a rewarding career. I have been fortunate enough to have great product suppliers and so many local residential clients who have allowed me to create artistic spaces in their home. In addition, I want to give a big thanks to the people before me who have helped inspire me and continue to do so! 

Creativity and attention to detail characterizes Artisan Tile

Sometimes, good things can come from bad beginnings. By his own admission, Michael Moreno, the owner of Artisan Tile, was a “horrible helper” when he started out in 1987 in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he was employed for a husband/wife tile setting team. Eventually this couple went out on their own, hired Moreno, and over a period of 14 years, taught him everything he knows today. 

“I was still a bad helper,” he said. “I’m unsure if they felt sorry for me or if they saw something in me. I would like to think the latter. They were and still are an incredibly artistic team that started me from scratch.”

Michael Moreno, Artisan Tile owner (left), with his son, Michael Jr.,

Michael Moreno, Artisan Tile owner (left), with his son, Michael Jr., who recently moved and works for a tile company in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Moreno was 18 when he started working with them, and was their first employee, so he watched their outfit grow into a premier high-end company. In 2002, he left their employ, and started working for a one-man show out of Lompoc, Calif. But after two years, he was dissatisfied by the lack of learning anything.

“I was spinning my wheels, with no path forward,” he said. 

Though he never felt “good enough” to go out on his own, his two years with the Lompoc company made him feel that he was “going backwards. 

“That’s when getting my license ‘clicked’,” he explained. “It was like, 1+1=2. It was that simple and that jarring. It was like I woke up. This was unequivocally my path! Once that had entered my head there was no going back.”

Moreno got his license in 2005. “With no business sense, and a little skill, I put my head down and charged forward,” he said. “I’ve made all the common mistakes you can make when transitioning from being an employee to having employees. But I was learning and still moving forward hard.”

This 200-sq.-ft. project of round Saltillo was planned, and in great detail.

This 200-sq.-ft. project of round Saltillo was planned, and in great detail.

In 2008, he had six employees and spent most of his time on estimates. The recession was not kind to him, and his company fell apart. “But I did not give up, though it was one of the hardest personal struggles I’ve been through. I kept my license current and by 2010/11, I was back in the mix.” 

Today, he owns Artisan Tile in Lompoc, Calif., that gets 90% of its business – mostly residential – from referrals, without a website! Why? He stands out from the crowd due to his attention to detail and a certain artistic flair that stems from the artistry and precision he learned when working for the tile setter duo. 

“I was taught the trade by an artist couple, and their emphasis on meticulous details and creativity has stayed with me to this day,” he said. “I will always be far from perfect but the joy from that challenge of trying to be so strikes new on every single job I do. There are guidelines and proper methods, but there are few limits to the artistry of installation itself. I love to tile.”

This spontaneous, unplanned Saltillo corner sun was just fun to do, Moreno said.

This spontaneous, unplanned Saltillo corner sun was just fun to do, Moreno said.

Moreno has been a NTCA member for only a year, which he joined to bring himself up to date with proper installation methods and materials. Though he is still feeling out the ultimate benefits of the association for his business, he said he has “found great value in having access to a variety of tested methods, materials and professionals through the NTCA. What I do take away from it is knowledge and a community that wants to bring this age-old trade into the future with informed and educated installers.

“My greatest satisfaction is solving problems, and the finished product,” he concluded. “I thoroughly enjoy the challenges of the intricate and often monotonous details that make my work stand above my competition.”

This shower featured blue encaustic tile with 3”x 6” subway tile.

This shower featured blue encaustic tile with 3”x 6” subway tile.

This shower featured blue encaustic tile with 3”x 6” subway tile.

RODKAT: Integrating high design with function!

I grew up working in a custom cabinet shop that my parents owned. I was always building something and learned, at a young age, the skills of working and creating with my hands.  

At age 16, I started working with a schoolmate that had seven older brothers, all with their own tile company. That first day I was blown away when I saw how much prep went into the tile installation process. My job was carrying buckets of mortar to the bathrooms where the brothers were floating showers. I knew those guys were doing something very specialized that not everyone could do. They explained to me how they were making the walls plumb, square, and flat with the mortar and float strips. I knew right away this was the career I wanted to pursue.  

Rod Katwyk playing in the mud

Rod Katwyk playing in the mud, age 20.

At age 18, I moved to the Bay area of Northern California to work for my cousin. He was a union tile contractor and learning from him was like going to the Harvard of tile setting. We did very high-end, custom residential and occasionally commercial work. 

As the trend turned to natural stone I used a lot of what I had learned in the cabinet shop as far as cutting shapes, miters, and book-matching. I really liked working with natural stone and having some freedom to custom cut to achieve better layouts. 

At age 22, I moved back to Utah and got a job with a company installing tile in custom homes in Park City. The skills I acquired while in California really helped me to advance to the top of the class, so to speak. These new developments were attracting owners who were building homes similar to the kind I had worked on while in California. I decided it was time to get my license and start my own tile company. So at age 23, Katwyk Tile was born. I specialized in custom, high-end residential and enjoyed the challenges of making the homeowner’s vision, the designer’s choices, and the contractor’s reality all come together.  

Social media skills paid off for Rod Katwyk! The fortune cookie confirms it!

In 2009, a Facebook friend introduced me to the John Bridge Tile Forum. This was the start of networking with other tile people from around the world who are just as passionate about the trade as myself. I am still very close with a handful of people I started conversations with the first day on the Forum. From there, another Facebook group was hatched – Tile Geeks. This is where I was able to share and get feedback on installation ideas and techniques.

3D Stone and Tile is born

In 2012 I installed the exterior of a home with 3D wedged stone. The designers loved the look of the 3D tile and wanted to use a 3D wedged Calacatta Marble, herringbone set on a fireplace. Since 3D wedged Calacatta wasn’t available I told the designers that I would come up with a way to give them that look. I was doing some

The EPS foam was waterproofed with
fabric and flexible sealant. Katwyk’s cut
shop made templates and cut the top pieces for the tile installer.

second story exterior balconies using wedged foam that I had custom made to create the slope. I had a light bulb moment. Why not attach a wedge to the back of the tile creating a 3D look using any tile? After obtaining a patent, this was the beginning of 3D Stone and Tile. This became a niche market for me as I started picking up jobs installing 3D feature walls in both commercial and residential applications. I also started selling my product to tile suppliers and installers. Because of social media, my product was introduced to an internet tile tool company that wanted to distribute my product. This opened the door to introduce other products I developed. The line was branded as RodKat products. I started enjoying having tile contractors as customers more so than dealing with owners and builders. This has allowed me to put together a cut shop where I offer water jet cutting, strip cutting, bullnosing, and custom foam cutting services. Thanks to a great staff at the shop, I can actually walk around in circles all day and be productive. 

NTCA workshop paves the way for membership

Katwyk came up with this bullet inlay a few years back and has been asked to do four more since the first one.

I went to a NTCA workshop in 2014 and met Michael Whistler and Mark Heinlein. I joined the NTCA that night and spent the next day with Michael and Mark driving them around Park City showing them some of my projects. We shared a lot of knowledge back and forth, along with some laughs. Best of all, I made a couple more phone-a-friends that I could call on when I had technical questions.  

In 2016 I hosted an NTCA workshop and met Robb Roderick, who was presenting. I was happy to host the workshop because it brought in tile contractors from my area that had never attended a workshop or heard about the NTCA.  

I read the TileLetter cover-to-cover every month and always learn something new. The 2018/19 NTCA Reference Manual has also been a great source of information that I turn to often and refer others to as well.  

(L to R) Dirk Sullivan, Brad Denny, Jimmy Reed and Rod Katwyk

(L to R) Dirk Sullivan, Brad Denny, Jimmy Reed and Rod Katwyk

The best things that I have made while being in the tile industry are the friends along the way. Social media and events like Coverings and Total Solutions Plus have led me to my second family.

 

Katwyk was commissioned to make this water feature for a home and garden show.

Katwyk was commissioned to make this water feature for a home and garden show.

Katwyk intentionally set the tile planks crooked for rustic effect

Katwyk intentionally set the tile planks crooked for rustic effect, worked the metal to patina the rails and hand set the pebbles, one by one.

 

 

Sacramento contractor strikes out on his own after recession; invests in certification

Russell Laird, of A+ Tile & Stone in Sacramento, Calif., (aplustileandstone.thebluebook.com) has made a name for himself in the tiling world, aiming for excellence in his typically commercial, public works projects. 

“Quality is what sets me apart from my competition,” Laird said. “I personally oversee every project and train my employees to do an excellent job so we don’t ever have any patch work or callbacks.” Though his company considers itself a commercial contractor, it applies this same level of quality to residential work for friends and family. 

It wasn’t an easy start. When the recession forced the company Laird was working for to close, he decided to go out on his own. “It was slow going at first,” he explained. “I had to bid very low to land work, but managed to grow each year. Now I am doing large commercial projects for the big reputable contractors like Turner and pricing has bounced back to a respectable level. I hope it stabilizes for a while.”

Laird’s firm foundation allowed him to springboard into his own company in 2010. “I starting doing tile in 1989 for Custom Tile in Oroville where I learned residential (mud work) and some commercial,” he said. “Around 1994 I started working for companies in Sacramento, where I learned larger commercial, which I prefer, and have found my niche today.”

For this pool deck in the San Francisco Bay area, A+ Tile & Stone floated an entire deck that was stamped concrete to make it flat enough to receive large format 12” x 24” tiles. The crews used uncoupling membrane over the entire floor and expansion joints per EJ-171. They finished off with stainless steel edge trim at pool edge and bottom of skirt.

About six years ago, Laird chose to join NTCA, “to be associated with like-minded people who constantly strive to improve and learn. The greatest value from being a member is meeting and learning from other members.”

After three years of association membership, Laird decided to pursue NTCA Five-Star Contractor status. 

“What led me to seek Five-Star is striving to be the best in my field,” Laird explained, adding, “It levels me with union companies as far as some bidding opportunities, and allows me to bid on some commercial projects that I would otherwise be excluded from. It has benefitted my company by allowing me to bid these projects – and I really like including the Five-Star logo on my company shirts.”

Laird is a big believer in the strength of qualified labor, and has made it a goal to get his installers credentialed. “We currently have four installers certified, which is 100% of my full-time installers including myself,” he said. “We all took our test at Surfaces in Vegas, which is about a 10 hour drive for us.” Laird himself is CTI #1091 (See TileLetter’s Qualified Labor story in December 2015, for details), and passed his exam in January, 2015.

“Every year I try to take one person to Surfaces to get certified,” he said. “I took two in 2016, one in 2017 and missed 2018. But I believe I have one ready for this year.”

Being a tile contractor holds many benefits for Laird. “The greatest joy I get from being a tile contractor is I get to pay my bills,” he said.  “Each job is different, so it’s not boring – and I am passing on my knowledge to my two sons so they can take over my company some day when I retire, if they choose. It is also satisfying to see the completed project – which completely transforms the area – and have satisfied customers.”

This lobby at Truckee Public Utility Office features an inlay of Donner Lake with blue tile and river with pebble stone. This remodel had an existing slab that varied 1-1/2“ in elevation, so Laird and his crew ground 1/2” off the high spots and floated everything level to that. They chose this strategy because the elevator was at that elevation and not movable. The floor angled down to the front door to meet that elevation, bending at a grout joint. The contractor employed a tile band saw for some of the radius cuts.

 

John Roberts Designs, LLC: from mud to membership and beyond

Roberts tells the tale of 40 years in the tile industry, and still going strong

I started in the tile industry almost 40 years ago, working as an apprentice. My first day on the job was spent at a mud box with a mud hoe in my hands. When I started out, everything we did was mud. All walls and floors were hand mudded. It wasn’t too long that my tile mechanic had a hawk and trowel in my hand and was teaching me how to mud walls and mud floors. We did mostly commercial work and I traveled all over the Southeastern U.S.

We did a lot of work at Walt Disney World, and one of the coolest projects at Disney was working on the world’s largest sundial building, when it opened in 1991. It was designed by architect Arata Isozaki and holds the Guinness World Record of

Roberts worked installing tile on the world’s largest sundial at Walt Disney World, in 1991.

being the world’s largest sundial. We helped tile the outside facade with 3” round green circles, one at a time. 

After traveling for 15 years doing tile work in the Southeast, I hung up my commercial work boots and married an interior designer and formed a design-build business based in Orlando, Fla. I continued to install tile, but in high-end residential projects. One memorable project was in Telluride, Colo., for a vice president of Marriott Corp., who hired our firm to completely remodel a ski house. After living in sunny Central Florida most of my life, I learned quickly about Carhartt jackets and bucket heaters for your wet saw in February.

In 2008, after the economy had crashed and the Central Florida market died, I decided to move to Atlanta, Ga. Fast forward 10 years – I am now outside Dalton, Ga., close to the mountains. 

After many years of commercial tile setting, Roberts now installs tile in high-end residential projects.

 

Joining NTCA

Roberts is a Regional Evaluator, helping to bring CTI tests to interested tile setters all over the Southeast.

Through social media and tile groups I found out about and joined the NTCA in the fall of 2015 – one of the best decisions I have ever made. I have made many friends in the tile industry and am very proud to call a lot of them tile brothers and sisters. I attended my first NTCA workshop early in 2016 and met Scott Carothers, the director of the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF), who encouraged me to take my Certified Tile Installer (CTI) test. In Dec. of 2016 I took my test in Pendleton, S.C. at CTEF along with a special Tile Love/ Schluter sponsored workshop. The best Christmas present ever was finding out I passed my test to become CTI #1278. I then volunteered to become an NTCA State Ambassador. In 2017 I became a Regional Evaluator for CTEF and hold CTI tests all over the Southeast. This has been truly meaningful to me, as I love teaching younger installers the trade and it has become a passion, to teach them industry standards.

In March of 2018, I helped NTCA Five-Star contractors Woody Sanders (DW Sanders Tile and Stone Contracting, Inc., Marietta, Ga.) and Rod Owen (CC Owen Tile Co., Inc., of Jonesboro, Ga.), and NTCA member Cain Curtis (A Tile Experience, Atlanta, Ga.) with the Georgia Skills/CEFGA high school tile competition. I helped to build the modules and judge the competition. This was a great experience for me, as I got to help instill a love for our industry to these young students.

The camaraderie of Coverings

Roberts joined DW Sanders Tile and Stone Contracting, Inc, to set tile in the Installation Design Showcase Tiny House project during Coverings 2018.

In May of 2018, I was asked by my friend Woody Sanders to help install the tile in a tiny house at the Coverings Installation Design showcase in Atlanta. This brought me back to working my commercial days with big crews in tight spaces. It was a great experience for me, and I am grateful to be asked to participate. These tiny houses were later towed to my hometown of Orlando, Fla., where they were set up in a park and rented out as Air B&Bs. Maybe some lucky person will stay in one of them for the upcoming Coverings 2019, which will be held in Orlando.

I highly encourage everyone involved in the tile industry to attend this show. You will not be disappointed. I have attended many Coverings shows, and Orlando is one of the top venues. This year I met so many people that I knew from the tile groups. One that comes to mind is “the man, the myth, the legend” 2018 Coverings  Rock Star Jason McDaniel. Jason runs a Facebook group called Global Tile Posse (GTP) and it was a pleasure getting to spend time with him at the Golden Trowel Challenge.

Roberts made his mark in wet clay during the Global Monumental Hand Print Mural Project held at Coverings 2018.

I will never forgot attending Coverings in Orlando, back in 2015. While I was online in the Tile Geeks social media group, a guy was disappointed that he couldn’t attend, since his travel partner bailed at the last minute. I reached out to him, offering him lodging at my mom’s house with me for the show. I picked him up in South Georgia, on my way to Orlando and we drove straight to the show. Donovan Lucero of Lucero Flooring Company, Jesup, Ga., and I have become lifelong friends and brothers in the tile industry. 

We also met up with another great guy that I knew online through Tile Geeks, who has become one of my best friends: Ben Ernst. We walked in the Orange County Convention Center, and the first person we ran into was Brad Denny, NTCA Five-Star contractor (Nichols Tile & Terrazzo Co, Inc., Joelton, Tenn.) We knew him from Tile Geeks, but not in person. He grabbed us and brought us over to the NTCA lounge and made us feel at home.  What a great guy; I am proud to call him a friend.

CTEF

Roberts enjoyed a private, behind-the-scenes tour of the TCNA headquarters while helping present a CTEF introductory course in nearby Pendleton, S.C.

I just finished helping Scott Carothers teach a weeklong class in Pendleton, S.C. at the CTEF in early November. The class was an introduction to ceramic tile and mortar shower bases. It was attended by people from all over the U.S., including staff from the Tile Council of North America (TCNA) – headquartered close by in Anderson, S.C. – and NTCA’s new Marketing and Communication Director Avia Haynes (see related story on page 54 of this issue).  Some of us got a special behind-the-scenes private tour of the TCNA. This was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and am very proud to have been invited. 

Who would have thought that 40 years ago, mixing mud in that mud box, I would be where I am today: a proud member of the NTCA, NTCA State Ambassador, CTI #1278, CTEF Regional Evaluator and a tilesetter who takes pride in doing things that will last the test of time.

Maris Tile Pro: from destiny to distinction


You never know when the tile setting bug is going to bite. For instance, Ulas Maris of Maris Tile PRO in East Moriches, N.Y. (www.maristile.com) didn’t start his career in the industry. Instead, he was originally in hospitality, hotel and resort administration in Southwest Florida, years before he left his position and moved to New York in search of a new career and life.

Ulas Maris (right) along with NTCA’s Training Director Mark Heinlein at a recent workshop.

He tried his hand at a number of things, but nothing clicked until one serendipitous morning while he was having breakfast out in Long Island. A tile setter working nearby randomly asked if he could help mix mud and carry tiles. “It was fun working with him in the Hamptons and I liked it,” Maris said. “I started going with him regularly and he taught me everything he knew about the tiling trade. It is how my tiling career started a long time ago. I worked with him about three or four years and he encouraged me to start my own business. I have been on my own for 15 years now.”

With his mentor’s encouragement and the encouragement of his wife Rachel, Maris now does high-end, custom installation throughout Long Island and the Hamptons. He works on new homes and renovations. His specialty is mosaics, handmade tile, large-format tiles and natural stones. He also works with glass slabs and other sorts of glass material, and he fabricates custom marble, granite and quartz countertops.

Maris gives equal attention to clients, no matter the project size. “My main focus and priority is my client’s satisfaction,” he said. “I give them quality work installed with the highest standards so that they will enjoy my tile installations for many, many years. I believe this is key to having a successful business.”

This philosophy has worked for Maris – he’s never advertised his business or services. Word-of-mouth recommendations from satisfied clients are all the advertising he has needed. 

He takes the time to educate clients about the importance of proper prep work and use of quality setting and waterproofing materials for their investments. Though clearly this is his livelihood, Maris said, “I do not think of money performing my skills. I am in no rush to complete and collect. It is my job to give my clients the highest standard they deserve and maintain a great relationship. I take time and focus on details. This is what sets me apart from the competition.”

Great feedback spurs Maris on to learn even more about new tile and installation systems. “When I see a five-star review online for my work with great comments, it motivates me to keep learning about new systems, to become more efficient and do better with my profession,” he said.

Drive to excel anchors NTCA membership

His drive to rise above the competition drove Maris to join NTCA three years ago. He benefits from interacting with other installers across the country, which positively impacts his business and work relationships. 

“Since becoming a member of the NTCA, I have seen that I am taken more seriously at all meetings with my clients, general contractors and architects,” he said. “I have seen that being a member gives new clients confidence in my abilities.

“From a client’s view, a company being an NTCA member and also a CTI/Certified Tile Installer (Maris is CTI #1309) lets them know how serious the company is and that they are in good and professional hands,” he said. “This makes them feel better to hire me to complete their precious projects.”

As the only CTI in his company, Maris installs most of the jobs himself. His staff keeps current by regularly attending manufacturer training classes and available education opportunities. And he is focused on being as knowledgeable about tile systems and “eager to learn more.

“Being up-to-date with everything and being able to answer all my client’s and general contractor’s questions in regards to any kind of tile installation lets them feel better with me and my company,” he explained. “My clients know they are in good hands seeing I am a Certified Tile Installer and an NTCA member. My CTI and all other certifications I have from manufacturers separate me from other installers. I am proud of all the certifications I have. It is the greatest feeling which motivates me to perform my skills at the highest standards.”

Peer and technical support: icing on the NTCA cake

Support from other NTCA members is invaluable to Maris. “I gained a lot of knowledge, experience and professional friends who are some of the best tile installers in the country,” he said of his experience with NTCA. “I have learned so much from the NTCA community, which has helped me improve my skills greatly. Support from a community of tile installers is priceless. This would not have been possible without NTCA. I can also call some members and ask for help and even answer questions when they call me about certain installations. ”

Maris – who is also a NTCA State Ambassador for the state of New York – also values the 24/7 NTCA technical support available to members. “I know they will be there if I ever need help answering questions while working on a complicated project,” he said. And the relationship that NTCA fosters between installer and manufacturer members is beyond measure. “From my viewpoint, NTCA is the ‘bridge’ between us as installers and member manufacturers,” he said. “For example, members have the privilege of having manufacturers contact and inform them ahead of time of all new materials, systems and methods. This is a huge advantage to being a member.”

In the end, it’s all about making clients happy. “I get so excited when I see my clients satisfied and happy at the end of a job,” he said. “I am so happy when I receive a call for a new project and hear that I was recommended by my previous client. I am glad I was able to achieve this kind of relationship with them. It makes me proud to be a tile installer.”

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