Respect and skill distinguish Florida tile contractor

CTI #1511 – combined with treating people right – makes Shawn King, Inc., a client’s delight

Shawn King, owner of Shawn King, Inc., New Port Richey, Fla., is a State Certified (CRC #1331429) residential Certified Tile Installer (CTI #1511), specializing in bathroom remodeling. He’s been in and out of the construction industry for 30 years, initially going to work for a friend who has a tile business out of necessity. “I quickly found that it was a way for me to create!” he said. “Life just got too busy and I did not have enough time to do my artwork, so I’ve been able to transfer that creative nature into my tile work.” Being a tile setter allowed him to channel his creativity into his tile installations.

He is all about continuing his education, and decided to open his own business about five years ago. To that end, he joined NTCA two years ago, as a way to connect with tile industry professionals, amp up his education and, “hopefully contribute in some way.” He’s helped with three CTI exams in Florida. He says his NTCA membership gives him an “immense amount of knowledge whether through the website, phone call or regional training.”

In addition to the skills and expertise he brings to his tile jobs, his business model is very relational, with respect for his client at the front and center of all he does. This makes him stand out from other installers and tile contractors in his area: “I return phone calls,” he said. “I show up on time, respect and protect their homes and communicate with them during the process.”

In fact, his greatest joy is in “creating a memorable experience for my clients,” he said. He receives comments like “‘We’re going to miss you,’” and “thank you cards expressing gratitude for giving them more than they were expecting.”

And his CTI credential helps him set that stage of professionalism and excellence for his clients. “Taking and passing the CTI has given me an additional tool in my tool box,” he said. “I use it to show potential clients that I am one of almost 1,700 people in the country who are passionate enough about the craft of tile to test their skills against industry standards.”

King brought in another CTI to help on a recent project – Melissa Swann, CTI #1670. The kitchen backsplash and shower job required King and Swann to demo two brand-new, never-used showers due to improper installation methods on the substrate and tile. The result was two beautiful showers and glowing praise from the client.

“The challenges we faced were pleasing a client who has a sour taste for tile guys and had done her research on the John Bridge forum because they had been burned and had not been able to use their showers for a year,” he said. “We were able to restore her faith in tile people. I am confident that she will recommend using Certified Tile Installers to all of her friends and family. In the end, she wrote an amazing thank you letter to Melissa and myself.” See excerpts below:

As you know, over the past year, we have hired a series of Florida general and sub-contractors that continually failed to deliver the quality and service we expected as we completed our whole home remodel. Time and time again, we reiterated we were interested in quality – not speed – because we were willing to pay for it to improve our ‘forever home.’

Our experience with the company we hired to install Schluter shower systems and tile our bathrooms and backsplash was disastrous. When that tiler quit, we set out to find a Schluter expert that was also a Certified Tile Installer. Our Facebook virtual meeting was a great introduction and your trip to look at our job in person sealed the deal. We knew we had found the right person for the job and you were worth the wait.

Thank you. Thank you for planning and thinking ahead, for protecting our home as you worked, for your Schluter and tiling expertise, for your artistic attention to detail in setting our tile and for your consistently cheerful disposition. You (and Melissa – thanks for bringing her with you!) have been such a delight to have in our home.

You are at the top of our very short list of professionals that we would use again. Although we know that you have plenty of references that are delighted with your work, please add us to the list. We would hire you again in a heartbeat and would be happy to share our experience with prospective clients. 

While we’re sure you won’t miss the two-hour round trip commute each day, we are going to miss having you around. We will stay in touch via Facebook. 

Husband-wife team packs a retail/installation punch in Columbia, Mo.

Eric and Jennifer Blumer run EJ Flooring and Legacy Bath and Tile

EJ Flooring of Columbia, Mo., got its start as a hard surface floor installation company in 2005. Prior to establishing this company, owner Eric Blumer worked for his soon-to-be father-in-law, a general contractor. Eric preferred indoor work to putting up decks in the cold Missouri winter, so he took his Bruce Certified Hardwood Flooring Installer credentials, partnered with his soon-to-be-wife Jennifer, and started EJ Flooring, specializing in the installation of hard surface goods. 

During a slow time in 2012, Eric and Jennifer registered for their first Schluter Systems training. Not only did they learn a lot about Schluter products, they also gained a wealth of information about tile installation in general. This was a springboard to focusing more on tile installation, especially showers. 

Encaustic-patterned porcelain tile entryway recently installed by EJ Flooring.

“Jennifer and I have always worked well together,” Eric said. “I was mostly on my own at the beginning, but if I needed help she would come help me.” When they decided to open the Legacy Bath and Tile retail showroom – also in Columbia – Jennifer took it on as her own, while continuing to maintain Eric’s installation schedule. In a stroke of serendipity, Eric and Jennifer celebrate their wedding anniversary on the 17th of this month!

“Jennifer and I pride ourselves in being a mom-and-pop showroom and installer,” Eric said. “We only have two other employees – Brent, who installs with me on the job, and Jennifer’s mom who works part time at the store.

“When you work with us, we know who you are, what we have talked about – and we get to know our clients,” Eric said. “We work hard to listen to customers and help them find their perfect tile. I think that is what sets us apart.”

The Blumers mostly do residential work with homeowners on projects they are supervising themselves. They specialize in custom-tiled showers and are moving into gauged porcelain thin panel tile for countertops/vanity tops. “We strive to bring out the customer’s personality in the project, and give them something beautiful and useful,” Eric said. 

Handmade mosaic of the local university mascot Truman the Tiger. 12”x12” glass sheets were cut down to 1/2”x1/2”, then shaped to fit from there. 

Running the store offers benefits as well as challenges. One benefit is helping homeowners choose their material early in the process, the Blumers said. “We can help them see the end product before anything starts and give them confidence in their selections,” Jennifer explained. “Dealing with suppliers can be very challenging. It’s unfortunate to say, but many suppliers just don’t care about smaller shops. This can make shipping timelines and deliveries unpredictable.” 

Through their work, Eric and Jennifer aim to do good for those in the community. A local contractor that the Blumers are working with has been using government grants to remodel and improve homes for veterans. “We take care of installing a curbless shower for them as well as the tile installation,” Eric said. “The contractor isn’t very knowledgeable in the construction trade, but he surrounds himself with professionals that are. We all work together for the same goal, to improve the life of someone that volunteered to protect the rest of us.”

Educating themselves; educating others

EJ Flooring has been an NTCA member for seven years, joining for the education and networking opportunities. 

“The business connections, education opportunities and resources are some of the best parts of being an NTCA member, along with the friendships,” Eric said. “Helping spread the knowledge and grow everyone’s business is great. I am a CTI (#1329) and hoping to get to some ACT classes, too.”

EJ Flooring/Legacy Bath and Tile also set out to help support and educate other area installers. 

“Within the retail store we like to work with other installers to educate and provide the best products for their project,” Jennifer added. “At our store we have done training with Schluter and ARDEX companies. “We have hosted round tables with other installers and fed them a meal. Any time someone comes in or calls with a question about the use of a product or how to do the job, we are happy to assist them. 

A very challenging Arabesque tile backsplash. EJ Flooring made a template to install this project, which worked very well. 

“We had a contractor call me out on a job once to see what materials he needed,” Eric said. “I told him what I thought was necessary, then said let’s call the rep and make sure. We called the rep for the manufacturer that we use and he helped us over the phone. The other contractor was blown away that help was that easy to come by and thanked me for making his job much easier. We were able to come up with a solution to waterproof directly over a brick chimney on the interior of the home without having to do a lot of extra framing.”  

The Blumers’ businesses have not been immune to the ravages of COVID-19. Walk-in traffic nearly stopped as did phone calls, and a few jobs had to be rescheduled. 

“We are starting to open back up now, although our shop never actually closed,” Eric said. “I believe we are going to start getting busier again; it’s just a matter of time. We are using this opportunity to ramp up our thin tile installations. A few contractors seem to be interested in them, and the cost is very comparable to quartz.”

Florida contractor makes detail-oriented projects its specialty

At Trendsetter Tile & Stone, shower systems are built to last

Trendsetter completed this job in Westin, Fla. last December. The 12” x 24” porcelain running horizontally was installed with 2” x 2” tiles on the shower pan, with bonded waterproofing throughout. As part of the job, Gaspard had to remove a spot-bonded installation. 

In Coral Springs, Fla., Trendsetter Tile & Stone (floridatrendsetter.com) has been specializing in curbless entry showers, manufacturer warranted showers and outstanding communication with clients since 2007. Owner Mike Weaver said the company – which is locally licensed in Palm Beach and Broward County, Fla. – focuses on residential and commercial remodels, shower installations, bathrooms and backsplashes, “wherever the details matter most. Our motto is ‘Shower Systems Built to Last’,” he said.

To keep a steady stream of excellence in its installations, Weaver said, “We take part in every seminar and training event whenever possible. The NTCA Regional Training was excellent, and we’re looking forward to more of those.”

Trendsetter Tile & Stone jumped on the NTCA bandwagon in 2013, with Weaver serving as NTCA Region 4 State Director. Together with NTCA Arizona State Ambassador John Mourelatos, Weaver helped establish the NTCA Round Table Discussions. 

This backsplash was completed in Fort Lauderdale in 2018: a Carrara marble and glass mix. 

“I meet a lot of installers from around the United States, and I have told them the reason I am a member of the NTCA is because while I don’t have to know all the answers, I do have to know where to find them,” Weaver said. “The NTCA provides me with resources, and community to get my answers fast.”

One of the greatest values NTCA offers Weaver is staying “current with the pulse of the industry and continuing our education year round. We have an excellent understanding of the TCNA Handbook and ANSI manuals thanks to the NTCA. The ability to determine the appropriate method needed for a specific shower receptor, as well as knowing how to communicate that to the client, all stems from the NTCA keeping us well supplied with educational material.”

Similarly, certification offers Trendsetter great value. Weaver himself is Certified Tile Installer (CTI) #146, and Garrett Gaspard, co-owner and lead installer, is CTI #6131. “Taking the exam to be certified is a very gratifying experience,” Weaver said. “Our clients are delighted in the fact that we have had hands-on testing in combination with a knowledge-based exam.”

Trendsetter’s ability to take on as much or as little work as it likes, along with the specific type of work it likes to do, makes being in business very enjoyable, Weaver said. “We know shower systems well and it makes the work feel easy; the actual work of installing is the least stressful thing about being in business.”

Just completed in February of this year, these black feature wall tiles are actually hexagons made of cement and can be oriented in several different directions. Sterling silver grout was used to complement the design within the tiles. This feature wall is behind a free-standing tub. That bathroom also contains herringbone 4” x 12” and white penny tile on the entire bathroom floor that flows straight into a curbless entry shower.
This half-bathroom project, located in Delray Beach, Fla., was installed in 2013. It features a low-temperature coated glass with straight patterns, as well as diagonal around three pieces of 12” x 12” Honey Onyx. This was a very small bathroom with a lot of detail.

Maryland tile setter pursues a path of excellence; starts social media group for women

“I’m so passionate about the industry as a whole, and always want to be a part of it,” Michelle Blomquist Hamilton of Tile Maryland/Creative Tile & Stone said.

Michelle Blomquist Hamilton is a relative newcomer to the tile business. She runs Tile Maryland, LLC (soon to be Creative Tile & Stone, LLC) in Conowingo, Md.,with her husband John, and her youngest son Josh, who is learning the trade as a helper. 

Though her time in the industry may be short, her passion for the industry, and tile installation excellence is strong.

“I actually got into the business five years ago when I started dating my husband,” Hamilton said. “He asked me to take over the business and wanted me to run the office. I could not effectively run the business without having full knowledge of it.”

So, Hamilton quit her job in finance and set out to learn everything she could. “I am still learning new things and have become really passionate about it,” she said. “I took my Certified Tile Installer (CTI) test twice and did not pass, and am taking it the end of June. I took it right after my mother passed away and I should have waited but I’ll do it until I pass… I may have convinced my husband to take it as well! 

“The CTI is important to me and to the industry,” she added. “There needs to be guidelines set and standards for tile installation, and the CTI is a good start.”

Hamilton gets tremendous satisfaction seeing the job finished and having a satisfied customer. “I try to do something different on each job to further my skills and make each job better,” she added. 

Hamilton makes it a point to sign up for every training available through the manufacturers and through NTCA. “I stay active in the groups and actually go visit other installers in and around my area to network with them as well. I’ve learned a lot from other installers and always want to try new things and be challenged.”

Tile Maryland/Creative Tile & Stone predominantly serves the residential customer, specifically bathrooms and showers as well as swimming pool tile coping and replacement. Hamilton enjoys assisting in the design process, taking the challenges of being a small business owner in stride – staying up to date with products, proper methods and design trends. 

“I’m so passionate about the industry as a whole, and always want to be a part of it,” she said. “Being challenged and being able to inspire and encourage others are what motivates me.” 

She gets tremendous satisfaction seeing the job finished and having a satisfied customer. “I try to do something different on each job to further my skills and make each job better,” she added. “The organizations and groups I belong to have been a great resource in this regard. Lots of tips and ideas are gained from these associations.” 

NTCA benefits

One of those associations is the NTCA, which HamiIton joined last year. “I wish I had joined sooner,” she said. “The workshops they offer are a great way to learn new things and stay up to date on new techniques. Being a member of an organization like this heightens your professionalism. I think it shows that you are serious about your business and growing in the industry. 

“As a member you have access to not just training, but the opportunity to get credentialing, like the CTI,” she added. “Being a member of NTCA is well worth the money. It is not only a tax deduction, but the vouchers more than pay for the membership expense. “

Tile Chix

Hamilton mused about the advantages of being a woman in the tile industry. “We are often intuitive and good listeners, and this goes a long way to understanding your customers,” she said, noting that she finds most women open and eager to participate in available training opportunities. 

“Because we don’t often come with many years of ‘always did it this way’ experience, I think we do not have as many pre-conceived or rigid notions,” she said. “We are open to new information and practices, which is so important.”

The job above was the most challenging for Hamilton. The customer had removed a wall between the kitchen and formal living room and a small wall at the end of their island, leaving space for seven tiles in the middle of the floor. They had no extra tiles and the only ones Hamilton had access to were the remaining seven between the living room and kitchen. 
“I had to remove those seven tiles – and not break any – and move them to the middle of the kitchen around the island,” she said. “I managed to carefully get them up and didn’t even chip any. It looked amazing, was time consuming and I challenged myself as well. Coming up with a way to transition the two rooms was also a challenge and I used the slate and installed diagonally.”

A few months ago, Hamilton decided to reach out to fellow females in tile via the social media group Tile Chix on Facebook. “I noticed that some women in the groups didn’t post too much or would only comment occasionally,” she explained. “We can support each other and create a welcoming place to learn and grow.” 

Hamilton also hopes Tile Chix becomes a catalyst for young women to enter the trades. “Not all students want to go to college,” she said. “Participating in community events, schools, and Girl Scout camps, career days or other demonstrations at the schools – all these can bring exposure to the trades and welcome more young people in. There are opportunities for a career as a contractor, installer, tile artisan, mosaic artist, designer, or company rep. There are many options in the trades to enjoy what you do and make a great income.”

A third reason for the group is for women to discuss challenges in the industry specific to women. “Having a place to discuss things and encourage each other is important,” she said. 

The rapid growth of Tile Chix made Hamilton realize how many women are in the industry. 

“I’ve seen many talented and creative women and the interaction among the ladies is great,” she said. “Having a great group of admins has helped tremendously. It will be nice to meet many of the group members in person at events.” 

NTCA Five-Star Contractor report

For those not familiar with the NTCA Five-Star designation, this is a group of NTCA member contractors who have demonstrated integrity, professionalism, and craftsmanship, and have a proven track record of success in tile and stone installation and business management. This report is an overview of developments in store for the NTCA Five-Star Contractor membership this year.

One key factor that you find in NTCA members overall is a culture of dedication to the tile industry. NTCA members are companies that love the tile trade, invest in training, and stay connected with current standards and methods. Many NTCA Five-Star 2020 objectives will work to cultivate this dedication. These objectives include the process of reverifying NTCA Five-Star Members, reaching out to artisan tile manufacturers, updating the format of our annual meeting, continuing to promote qualified labor language, and changing our application requirements and process.

The importance of reverifying members

This year the NTCA Five-Star program has started to reverify current members. As qualified labor grows, interest in this group has steadily grown with it. Because the NTCA Five-Star members are a unique blend of contractors of all sizes, labor pools, and specialties, it is important for NTCA to re-verify that they are continuing the practices that are required by the program such as licensing, insurance, safety program, ongoing education, certified labor, etc.

Outreach to artisan tile manufacturers

Artisan tile, while often offering rare beauty to a space, can sometimes be a challenge to install. Because of the unique nature of these specialized tiles, it is especially important that the right contractor be involved in the installation process. With that in mind, a contingent of high-end NTCA Five-Star contractors will take part in an outreach effort to artisan tile manufacturers. By reaching out to the manufacturers, the NTCA Five-Star contractors hope to learn more about their specialized products, be better prepared to install their products, and be a resource for each other.

NTCA Five-Star Partnership Summit

Much of the value of the NTCA Five-Star group is the education and peer interaction it offers. This is especially true at the annual meeting which has traditionally been a NTCA Five-Star trip during the summer. This year, to ease schedules for members and sponsors, the NTCA Five-Star Partnership Summit will take place in conjunction with the Total Solutions Plus (TSP) conference in Palm Desert, Calif., at the end of October. This year’s format and curriculum really elevate it above a mere meeting, and this new name for the gathering represents that. The curriculum for the meeting will expand to cover both the field and business components of members’ businesses and will bracket the TSP conference. 

Sunday, October 25th before TSP starts, the first part of the Summit kicks off with a Foreman/Superintendent Bootcamp. Project foremen and superintendents have some of the most difficult jobs, and represent a key component to a successful project, so this program gives them an opportunity to learn and grow. The more they know and understand about leadership, communication, planning, organization and cooperation, the more value they bring to the project team.

Part two of the Summit takes place on Wednesday, October 28th, after TSP. A full day of business education is planned with a speaker, and time for program sponsors and NTCA Five-Star Contractors to come together to talk about how we can best help each other and the industry.

Specifications and NTCA Five-Star Contractors

From day one, specifications have been a focus for the NTCA Five- Star group since they are key to the qualified labor cycle. The introduction of qualified labor language into Masterspec/ARCOM was the first major hurdle. Then in 2019, the NTCA was able to get the language into BSD SpecLink as well. This new platform has seen steady organic growth – a step in the right direction to help give projects a resource to finding qualified labor in its many forms. When architects/designers and owners’ representatives include qualified labor language, they are signaling that they value the craftmanship that trained labor brings. It shows they do not see our trade simply as a commodity.

That craftsmanship recognition is why as a community we need to embrace the certification process on all levels: at the Certified Tile Installer (CTI) level and the Advanced Certifications for Tile Installers (ACT) level. The ability to demonstrate and quantify basic and advanced skills elevates the trade for all involved.

Changes to the NTCA Five-Star Contractor Program

This year, you will see significant changes to the NTCA Five-Star Contractor Program. The most notable change is in membership requirements. We have begun accepting applications from non-NTCA members into the program. I am excited to say that the NTCA Five-Star Contractor Program has become a recognized asset to the industry. Because of this, I, along with NTCA leadership, feel the program will have an even bigger impact if it is open to both NTCA members and non-members. Non-members will be subject to the same terms and conditions as members, but there is a separate fee structure. 

A final change we are making is we are working to have the application process reviewed by a third party for group inclusion recommendations. We feel these changes will enhance the group and our focus as an association to improve our industry. 

The NTCA Five-Star Contractor group has one clear intention: Do what is best for the tile industry. NTCA is committed to keeping this focus when working on programs for members, with the goal of continuing to bring value to them in many forms.

To learn more about the NTCA Five-Star contractor program, please visit the website at http://bit.ly/FiveStarMembers. If you are interested in becoming a Certified Tile Installer, visit CTEF website at: http://bit.ly/BecomeaCTI.

Passion for excellence, knack for creativity drive Utah tile setter

Tarkus Tile brings award-winning true craftsmanship to Salt Lake City area

Mark Christensen, owner/craftsman of Tarkus Tile in Lehi, Utah

You never know where your path will lead. Such was the case for Mark Christensen, owner of Tarkus Tile, whose passion for tile work was ignited on a road trip from Utah to Arizona. In 1998, as a 21-year-old college student with dreams of visiting Mexico and beyond – but little cash in his pocket – he worked a few days with a tile setter friend to make a few bucks. 

“I was immediately intrigued with the work, and ended up staying for six months,” Christensen said. His boss “threw him into the fire immediately,” setting tile straightaway, and Christensen loved it. When his boss decided to relocate, he passed on his Target tile saw to Christensen. 

It makes sense that this exposure to tile could ignite Christensen’s passion. “From the time I could walk, I was working alongside my dad, installing carpet in his business and building stuff around the house,” he said.  “I was very fortunate to learn construction skills and common sense from him, which helped me so much.”

Once he returned to Utah to complete college, he did jobs for friends and family. Happy with the level of income tile work afforded him, at 22, he started Tarkus Tile in Lehi City, Utah, near Salt Lake City, and got his contractor license a year later. 

“The first years were hard,” he said. “I was self taught for the most part, having to figure a lot of things out on my own, making a lot of mistakes, but I stuck with it, learning and growing with every job. Twenty years later, I have managed to build a decent reputation and client base in my area. I work mainly solo with the assistance of my three teenage sons on occasion.” Tarkus specializes in mainly high-end residential work, both new construction and remodeling, with an emphasis on luxury bathrooms.

Christensen discovered the John Bridge Forum online in 2008 and eventually the NTCA. 

When his sons were little, Christensen read to them from the TCNA Handbook. From the look of it, it paid off!

“I remember being literally sick to my stomach when I saw the caliber of work that was being done out there,” he admitted. “I thought I was good. Turns out I had so much to learn. And I was intrigued that there were actual standards for our trade, and guidebooks to follow to do things the right way. I was so excited to have found a group of like-minded people, passionate about the tile craft and committed to doing things the right way and to a higher standard.”

Around 2010, he joined NTCA, reading the TCNA Handbook from cover to cover within the first few weeks. “I would even read it aloud to my young sons to put them to sleep at night,” he said. “I love that there is a wealth of knowledge at my fingertips and an answer to any problem I may have on the technical spectrum. And if there isn’t a specific solution in the Handbook, there’s another member who has experienced it and will share their knowledge.”

He credits his membership with getting in the door on some projects, and having the confidence to approach clients and projects with standards-based knowledge and techniques. “This newfound confidence helped me take my work and business to the next level, always progressing,” he said.

Christensen considers this juncture a huge turning point in his career. “The bar was raised and I grew immensely over the following years, pushing my limits and taking on more challenging projects, trying my best to do things the right way,” he said, even serving as the NTCA Utah State Ambassador for a time. 

“In 2014 I had the honor of receiving a Coverings Installation & Design award,” Christensen said. “This was such an awesome and a surreal experience to have my work recognized and celebrated on that level. What an honor. This was definitely the pinnacle of my career up until that point.”

This Residential Stone Installation Award was presented at the 2014 CID Awards. It took Christensen more than 350 hours working solo on this master bath, reframing the steam shower and removing and re-engineering the subfloor and joists. He created a 5’ wide sloped-back bench, and arranged for two-pound spray foam insulation  throughout the shower. He installed a linear drain, two niches, and electric underfloor cable heating. 

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Christensen should be an award-winner: his company is dedicated to breathtaking custom installs that are technically challenging. In fact, early on, he upped the ante on his expertise by immersing himself in the craft of setting with mud, inspired by the John Bridge Forum and some online tile friends.

On his CID-award winning project, Christensen assisted with the selection of Calacatta Gold honed marble and Honed Piana Limestone. He developed the design by sorting stone piece by piece to get a pleasing layout that featured book-matched pieces, and he hand-cut and installed the herringbone accent band. He wrapped all corners with the same piece of marble to create a continuous flow of veining throughout. Then it was time to tackle the bathroom floor.

In 2010, the John Bridge Forum held a two-day mud event in Dallas. “I went and soaked it all in from some good teachers like Dave Gobis, Gerald Sloan, John Cox and John Bridge,” he said. “When I got back home I made a commitment to myself to learn it and go all in. For the next six years, I floated every chance I got. I was doing a lot of work for an up-and-coming custom home builder, back-to-back high-end homes with four to eight bathrooms each. I floated them all, learning and getting better with each one. It was an extremely challenging and humbling experience full of long days and learning the hard way, but to this day I still believe it to be the single best thing I ever did for myself as a craftsman.  It sharpened my skills across the board and gave me a new excitement about the craft. And while I don’t always use mud, it helped me to approach everything with a new perspective of flat, plumb and square, and built to last.”

This emphasis on custom craftsmanship sets his creativity and enthusiasm on fire, bringing versatility and custom attention to every job. “I feel like this has gotten me in the door on some very unique projects, and left a trail of happy clients. I treat every job as if it’s the most important one I’ve ever done.”

The bathroom floor was out of square, so care and precision were used to position an inset limestone border to lay out exactly 4 inches from the cabinet toe kicks. Christensen worked with the cabinet maker to get dimensions and adjusted accordingly for a perfect fit.

The act of creating energizes Christensen and is the joyful core of his work as a tile contractor. And his attitude towards his craft is positively inspiring.

“It’s my outlet, my place of solace,” he said. “I pour every bit of my heart and soul into my work. I see so much beautiful craft and art every day from around the globe, and I know that it all comes from a passion deep inside its creator. It’s so much more than just a job; it’s part of us. Our work is an extension of our very being, and we want nothing more than for it to be enjoyed. This is the highest compliment, to have someone smile and feel emotion when they see my creation.”

Terra-Mar, Inc.

Oklahoma contractor prides itself on doing the job right

Mike DeGuisti, Terra-Mar, Inc.

Back in 1964, Mike DeGuisti’s father started Terra-Mar, Inc., in Oklahoma City, Okla., with an emphasis on terrazzo and marble (hence the name Terra-Mar). The company installed tile, but got away from it for awhile in the early days. DeGuisti himself – a third generation Italian craftsman – got involved in the company in 1968, and around 1980, the company started turning back to tile. 

Back then, “setting tile was simpler, and it was easy to find qualified tile help and people who wanted to work,” DeGuisti said. 

Time brought a lot of changes to the company, including DeGuisti becoming a second generation owner. The company is very hands-on and family oriented, with his sons Adam and Noel, who are both Certified Tile Installers (CTIs), running all of the tile jobs.  

“They are hands-on, and do their own estimating from start to finish,” DeGuisti said. “The two of them know everything that is going on. As the superintendent, Adam goes by every job almost every day; he pulls up tiles and checks coverage. We play by the rules.” 

In the late 1980s, Bob Young, who purchased the other half of the company the DeGuistis bought in the ’60s, encouraged Terra-Mar to join NTCA. 

“I learned all the things I thought I knew,” DeGuisti said, adding, “I do not see how you can be a tile contractor and not be an active member of NTCA.” He contends that there’s so much that tile contractors don’t know. When he does local workshops, he says, “I am not here to teach you to set tile, but I can teach you how to make more money. You should get paid for leveling, control joints, etc.” 

This Oklahoma University Football team locker and training room project challenged Terra-Mar to be done by football season, after other trades took so long. The NTCA Five-Star Contractor ran into pools built wrong, which required the crews to chip out considerable concrete and rebuild. In addition, pools would not hold water, and logos came with unacceptable mounting. But DeGuisti said, “Through it all, thanks to our excellent crews, we were done on time, with a job to be proud of.”

About five years ago, DeGuisti took his NTCA membership to the next level by becoming an NTCA Five-Star Contractor. Because Terra-Mar was already a high-caliber company, it was a perfect fit. “We didn’t do anything except fill out the paperwork, and wait for Adam and Noel to complete their CTI exams,” DeGuisti said. “I tell A&D professionals who ask why we are Five-Star Contractors and others are not: ‘I don’t know if we are any better than [our competition], but I’ve gone through the trouble to prove it.’ Any other trade that is licensed has a continuing education program like our Five-Star Program. So why shouldn’t we?”

DeGuisti currently sits on the NTCA Board of Directors for Region 8, the NTCA Technical Committee, and chairs a committee for a new section in the NTCA Reference Manual called “Submerged Applications.” 

For DeGuisti, tile work is a good living, and he enjoys cashing the check at the end of the day. But the joy and satisfaction he has in his company’s work comes down to pride. “I love to take my grandkids or customers to see some of the beautiful, hard, complicated work we do,” he said. 

What’s more, by doing things by the book and keeping on top of jobs – knowing everything has been done right – he leaves the job “with a clean conscience,” he said. Though a GC may not hire his company back because of cost or Terra-Mar wouldn’t agree to cutting corners or skimping  on prep work, he explained, “We’ve never had litigation on a job, and we have never not been rehired due to our craftsmanship.” That allows him to sleep well at night, confident in a job well done and proud of the craftsmanship that went into the project. 

This private residence took three two-man crews just over 12 months to complete. The pool area floors and walls were done using stone from Jerusalem, and floors had to be fresh set and laid dry first to ensure a similar pattern from end to end. The pool interior encompassed six different tiles from different manufacturers, ranging anywhere from 3/16” to 5/8” thick, which made the mud work critical. The entry speaks for itself, with stones up to 24” x 24” with mosaic emblem.  

Warrior spirit puts Blue Toolbox ahead of the competition

North Carolina tilesetter puts the focus on constant improvement

Carlos Castaneda said “The difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge, while an ordinary man takes everything as a blessing or a curse.” 

Kenneth Lambert

Why is this important to a tile contractor? Well, to Kenneth Lambert of Charlotte, N.C.’s Blue Toolbox, it’s his company’s motto, its raison d’etre or reason for being.  And it speaks to the company’s constant drive to increase its quality, from improving dust control during demolition, refining its timeline, improving turn-around time on estimates and following up after the job is complete.

Lambert’s crew carved this floating, heated bench out of xps foam, and then had to figure out how to hang it on the wall.” We put our heads together and came up with a great solution – and the bench is still there three years later,” Lambert said.

In fact, it’s what Lambert says is what sets the company apart from the competition. “Constantly improving in tile work is so very important, but constantly improving in all areas of the job is what really sets us apart and what is going to push us light years ahead of everyone else in the days ahead.” He said his company embodies the Carlos Castaneda quote, adding, “The more challenges we overcome, the smaller our competition looks in the rear view.”

Lambert’s career in the tile business was born in challenge. In 2010, in the throes of the recession, he had just been laid off from his job – and his wife moved out four days later, leaving him with no income and a son to care for. 

“In the beginning, I was doing odd jobs and anything I could to put bread on the table,” Lambert said. “I remember the first tile job I sold, I took a small deposit, bought  a 7” RYOBI tile saw from Home Depot, a trowel and a how-to-tile book. I fell in love with the trade from there, and a few weeks later answered an ad on Craigslist for a tile helper. I worked with him off and on for a year and learned how to lay out a room and the difference between floor mud and thinset.”

This steam shower included a custom-built chaise lounge inside that needed to be contoured comfortably to the client’s height and body type. Blue Tool Box built a full size mock up out of wood that they tailored to the customer’s measurements and preferences before crafting the template and building the final bench out of foam.

He discovered he had an eye for tile, a creative edge and the hand-eye coordination to pull it off. Add to that a strong drive. “I not only wanted to be the best but I needed to,” he said. He navigated through many challenges – electricity cut off, insurance cancelled, buying an extra blanket when he couldn’t afford heat in the winter, but he kept going. 

He worked for a year with his mentor-turned-friend, who then decided to leave tile to open a restaurant. Lambert pressed on. His business turned into “something that now not only pays my bills but pays the bills for a couple of other families as well, and this is where the story really gets good,” he said. “With the talent that’s on the team now, we’ve only scratched the surface. Todd Neubauer is an experienced and talented tile setter who can flick his pinky and make tile magic happen. Joey Chiappetta, who only has a year or so of true tile experience, is dedicated to the craft and catches on to new things so damned fast. He’s going to have a great career in the tile industry.” Lambert declared, “You’re going to see big things come from us over the next few years. Don’t blink, because its going to happen fast.” 

The company is now firmly established in residential, with a few custom commercial jobs thrown in and the occasional remodel, he said. “Our focus is on high-end residential, working directly with homeowners. We plan to continue to grow in this segment. We really enjoy jobs that other contractors can’t figure out and take pride in finding solutions for tricky installs.”

This project was an example of how the community came together to make a bathroom accessible for a man who had been involved in a car accident over the summer. Blue Tool Box  provided labor, Frank Donahue and Best Tile of Charlotte donated thousands of dollars in tile and setting material, and Sophia Lodge in Salisbury organized a fund raiser to take care of the rest. “It is maybe our proudest moment of the year,” Lambert said. Pictured is Todd Neubauer grouting and Joseph Chiappetta surveying the work.

Lambert is new to NTCA, joining in 2019 “because [tilesetter and CTI evaluator] John Roberts said he was going to send the tile mafia to my house if I didn’t,” he joked. “John is a great friend and yes, he said I should join but I really joined for the business education and connections that are available through the NTCA.” Lambert’s company recently experienced a “fall from glory when a couple of contractors got into us for multiple thousands of dollars. It was a really hard hit and we’re still dealing with the effects today,” he said. “I pridefully thought that I could dig myself out of the hole we found ourselves in, but it just felt like I was spinning in circles. I thought that the NTCA might have some great resources for me.

He found what he was looking for. “Jim Olson was kind enough to connect me with some great people who are much wiser and more experienced in business than me, and while these relationships are just beginning, I feel that it truly is the beginning of something special and great things are going to come from it,” he said. 

This was before scribing was cool and popular. The challenge for the bubble tile project was to precut all the field tiles (with lots of core bits and lots of time) to fit the bubble tile that was going in the corner. In the funky drain photo, Todd Neubauer hand scribed the field tile to fit the drain the homeowner bought.

Though Lambert is not yet a Certified Tile Installer (CTI), he has vowed that his coworkers and he will take and pass the test this year.  Here are Lambert’s reasons:

  1. We want to be part of the effort, raising industry standards. This not only benefits the installer but the homeowner as well. 
  2. It’s silly to produce the quality of work that we do and not have this certification. 
  3. John Roberts said I had to. 
  4. After speaking to several CTIs, I really do see the benefit. I was one of those prideful installers who thought, “I don’t need a piece of paper to tell me what I can do.” I realize how silly that is now, and know that it has more to do with improving the industry that I love than it has to do with me.

Lambert summed up his work, saying, “The greatest joy for me is the homeowner’s happiness. I had a client walk in one time as we were finishing and her eyes filled with tears of joy. She said ‘I just can’t believe that this is my house.’ I don’t know how you could ever top the joy and satisfaction that I felt in that moment.”

MM Floor Coverings Passion and education build a successful business

Even though the owner of MM Floor Coverings, LLC, Michael McConnell, left the tile industry for over a decade, he came back to the first trade he learned and has been making his mark ever since. He has used his passion for his trade and knowledge he has received from continuing education to build his business into a successful company.

Located in Cody, Wyo., MM Floor Coverings offers customers interior tile installations for both new construction and remodeling residential projects. McConnell said his passion for his work sets his company a part from the competition. “I am extremely passionate about each and every install I am apart of,” he said. “I do everything within my power to give my customers the best experience with me in their home.”

McConnell and his father at Schluter. McConnell said he put additional pressure on himself to pass the CTI test because he didn’t want to let his father down. McConnell’s father, Paul, has been an installer for almost 40 years and taught McConnell the trade.

McConnell is a second-generation tile setter. His father, Paul, has been installing tile for almost 40 years and introduced his son to the trade at a young age. “So growing up of course I was always ‘expected’ to learn the trade. I remember fabricating bullnose tile at around the age of eight, which is a great memory now to look back on. As the years progressed, I was always the helper – cleaning buckets and tools and sweeping and cleaning the jobs. And of course, the always-dreaded task; I grouted the jobs for my dad,” McConnell said. 

McConnell formed MM Floor Coverings in 2012 after spending 12 years working as an auto mechanic, while doing tile work on the side for extra money. He said he started out with small tile jobs and worked his way up to the projects he specializes in today. “I started off taking any job possible to get my name out there,” he said. “[I moved from] doing small installs and spec homes to now doing high-end residential houses. I now even put my Dad on my projects, which is always fun.”

McConnell believes being a Certified Tile Installer (CTI) also gives him and his customers an advantage. The knowledge he needed to become a CTI gave him the certainty to stand behind his work and confidence in knowing he is giving his customers quality craftsmanship that meets industry standards. “The biggest impact [of] becoming CTI #1439 is simply that I am giving my clients an install that I can stand behind because I know that the things I do are within TCNA standards,” he said. “Another way CTI has impacted me and my company is the value of the education and the humility the CTI test itself provided me.”

Passing the CTI exam was triumph for McConnell, who suffers from anxiety and has limited use of one of his hands. “I am overly proud of myself. It was a good accomplishment for me and very humbling.”

Passing the CTI exam was a milestone McConnell will never forget. At the time he decided to take the exam, it was not offered in a location close to him in Cody, so he drove nearly 700 miles to take the exam in Boise, Idaho. In addition, McConnell suffers from extreme anxiety, and lost half the function and fine motor skills in one of his hands while he was a mechanic. He said while facing the time crunch of the exam, he fought off tremors and panic attacks. “My anxiety was through the roof,” he explained. “I was very much out of my comfort zone. But then I just kind of hit a zone and went with it.”

Jason McDaniel, owner of StoneMan Construction, LLC, and Shon Parker, Commercial Sales Manager for Schluter Systems, were evaluators when McConnell was taking his exam. Both noted his conviction, in spite of his challenges, to complete the exam. “I was fortunate to be there as his evaluator,” McDaniel said. “It was one of the most painfully impressive feats to watch. He shook his way through the entire test and passed! Michael is an inspiration; I look up to him in so many ways,” McDaniel said.

Parker echoed the sentiment and remarked on what an asset McConnell is to the industry. “I was blown away with his determination despite his physical challenges,” Parker said. “Michael passed the CTI. In the few years that have passed, I have gotten to know him very well. I love Michael’s enthusiasm to better himself and bring up people around him. Michael is a strong voice for methods and standards in his local region and an amazing advocate for the NTCA/CTEF.”

The designer for this project desired a garden path look and had requested to keep the straight edges of the tile. McConnell suggested scribing the tile to give the project the organic look she was striving for.

Beyond his passion for his work, McConnell also has a passion for the tile industry. That passion is what led him to be an NTCA member. He said the greatest value he gained from his membership are the education the association offers and the connections he has made. McConnell been a member for three years and the NTCA Wyoming State Ambassador for two years. He said he joined the association for the education opportunities and to make a difference in the industry. 

“One of the biggest reasons was the opportunity for furthering my education,” McConnell said. “I just want to be installing to the best of my ability and in the correct ways; plus, I always have wanted to be better. Another reason for me wanting to join, as well as becoming an ambassador, was because one day I’d like to know that something I did and do might make a difference to someone else.”

When asked about what he enjoys most about being a tile contractor, McConnell said it was the finished product. “The greatest joy and satisfaction I get from being an installer is when I step back and look at a finished product and think that all the planning, preparations, and hard work I put into each and every project was worth it. One of my favorite parts of a job is when the customers see the final product and I get to see their satisfaction; makes it all worth it!”

K&S Flooring Pierre, S.D.

Enthusiasm and chutzpah lead to satisfying installation career

Enthusiasm for the trade, and the willingness to go outside one’s comfort zone, are two qualities that bring immeasurable value to a tile setter’s career path and success.

Kylor Knox

Kylor Knox, owner of K&S Flooring in Pierre, S.D., got his start working as a warehouse manager at a local flooring store. He had a burning passion for learning about the flooring industry. When he went online to learn more, the first thing that he encountered was NTCA University – which led him to join the association three years ago. 

Knox sought information wherever he could find it. He went to Schluter trainings, and then to Portland for an ARDEX training. He discovered the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF) and the vast resources it offers for someone starting out. 

He learned that the store he was working at was going to have a shortage of installers and he wanted to learn the trade at the hands of an experienced installer. He asked some local installers to mentor him, and was excited when most of them said yes. When push came to shove, though, no one really came through with the help he needed.

Not to be deterred, he connected with John Roberts, who was one of his CTEF instructors. Roberts recommended Knox call someone from the CTEF site. That’s where he found an installer to mentor him, and he wound up working with him and his wife for a while, and continues to reach out to area installers to see if he can help with projects to hone his skills.

About a year ago – Knox also became the South Dakota State Ambassador. “I saw the need for more education in South Dakota,” he said. 

Knox proudly displays the NTCA logo along with his own on his truck.

“I have jumped in head first, and have been learning from all my mistakes,” Knox said. “How else do you learn? The thing that sets me apart is I’m willing to go outside of my comfort zone and try something new.”

Knox specializes in residential installs right now – both new and remodels. Joshua Nordstrom has also inspired and encouraged him to take on more mosaic projects as well.  

With the high value he’s put on education and training, Knox wants to make that available to others who want to learn too. “I’ve been working really hard this past year with the help of my local reps to bring training events and [looking for] ways to bring installers together,” he said. He partnered with Anna Langsjoen – another South Dakota installer who recently joined NTCA – to establish a Facebook group for South Dakota installers to help each other and post events. “I am working on different kind of events with all the sales reps in our area, and working on having a bigger presence of the NTCA in South Dakota,” he said. 

NTCA offers Knox resources and support that enhance his growth as a tile installer: “Networking, having a team of installers and the technical staff that you can call on,” he said, “It’s great to be able to call someone because I always have questions, and it’s great for people to critique my work. Having this team helps me become a better installer. Every day – and every job I do – I do better because there is always someone giving me guidance.” Knox plans to pursue his Certified Tile Installer (CTI) credential next year. 

Learning and helping others learn go hand-in-hand for Knox, providing him with “great joy…seeing other contractors coming together and helping. I know I wouldn’t be able to make it if I didn’t have people rooting for me to succeed.” 

Two of Knox’s projects: a mosaic floor and river rock shower pan.

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