Oregon contractor chooses education, certification and community to build a business of excellence

Davis Solutions, Lebanon, Ore.

Robert Davis and his faithful friend, Sage

My name is Robert Davis, Owner of Davis Solutions in Lebanon, Oregon. On Instagram I am @tiling.the.world and my Facebook page is facebook.com/tilingtheworld. I don’t have a website. I run a crew that services the Mid-Willamette Valley, including Corvallis, Lebanon, Albany, Salem, and outlying areas. Our focus is the design/build market; 85% of what we do is high-end residential with an even mix of remodel and new construction.

In 2007, I was an unemployable framer. The unemployable bit was partly from the housing market crash, and partly a result of my misspent youth; I had just gotten out of prison for various tweaker antics. My parole officer sent me to Teen Challenge in Shedd, Ore. (don’t blink, you’ll miss it), where I was farmed out as a day laborer. My construction experience got me placed with a tile guy, Jeremy Vonruden. We hit it off pretty quickly, and he was very gracious in bringing me up as I slowly learned to be an adult at the age of 27. Jeremy is a patient and generous man who, along with his father Alan, gave me many opportunities I didn’t deserve. They lent me tools and helped me figure out how to adult; when I was finally able to get my driver’s license, I took the behind-the-wheel test in Jeremy’s work van on our lunch break. I owe a great debt to the Vonruden family.

My training was of the anecdotal sort, “We do it the way we were taught and you’ll do it the way we teach you.” This is not necessarily a bad thing; it’s a necessary step in the training process. It isn’t as though what we were building was failing. The men who taught me had been building showers and floors for decades, and many of them are still in service. 

When comparing ourselves to our local tile-setting brethren however, we had no metric for performance. We’d see them at the tile shop and have very little communication. Trades with no communication are inherently insular; we didn’t interact with other tile crews because we had little occasion to converse. There was a mistrust of the unknown; everyone was trying to keep bread on the table, and making friends with the locals was low on the priority list.

Davis Solutions did custom fabrication and install for a home on the National register.

Right around the time the housing market began its upward turn, I stumbled upon Tile Geeks. My worldview changed very quickly. I was learning faster than I could implement what I learned; my ego was shredded apace with my install techniques. Craftsmen like Armen Tavy (RIP, bud) tore down my defenses and offered a helping hand, in equal measure. I had found a calling, and a burning desire to stand among those I admired. This lit a fire under me to start my own business; the shop I worked for at the time was very resistant to updating methods, and I was sick of doing things the hard way. I needed to specify methods and materials to make my jobs go smoothly.

The CTI exam: competing against myself

One day, Dirk Sullivan of Hawthorne Tile mentioned to me that there would be a Certified Tile Installer (CTI) evaluation at Portland Daltile, and I knew I had to participate. I had no notion of competing against my peers; I just had to know how I measured against the accepted industry standard. I really didn’t even know what the metrics were. The CTI grading rubric gave me a fairly clear idea of what was important, and I put my nose to that grindstone. At the time I was living hand-to-mouth as an installer. I couldn’t afford the testing fee, and someone (probably Dirk, I’m guessing) paid it for me. CTEF’s Scott Carothers called me and told me it was taken care of. 

Davis Solutions also offers design services.

Test day was a rough day for me; I know some have had an easy time of it, and my hat is off to them. I am blessed to have survived a few early mistakes; I had to start over at 11 a.m., and managed to beat the clock. In a few weeks I’d gotten my number (#1246). I’ll never forget the crew of guys that took the test that day. I still speak to most of them regularly. 

For me, becoming a CTI wasn’t originally about gaining a competitive edge. I only wanted to compete against myself. In regard to my local competition, I would rather be in community than seek the upper hand. There’s enough work out there for everyone.

Right after I got my CTI number, I joined the NTCA. It was a purely economic choice; the vouchers I got with my CTI had helped out a lot as I was starting my business, and the return on investment with the NTCA voucher program made the choice easy. Since then, being a member has proven its worth in other ways. It has helped me overcome a bit of imposter syndrome. Sitting in on technical committee meetings satisfies my inner nerd. And of course, the relationships that have developed along the way have given me a sense of belonging that is necessary to professional satisfaction. I’m not ashamed to say I just wanted to be like the pros I saw on Facebook. Developing personal relationships with many of you out there has been a highlight of my life. I can’t imagine going to the next event and not having a drink with Dan Hecox (Ed: Fellow installer and NTCA member Dan passed away in September 2020). Friends like that don’t come along often.

Focus on education

I have been very fortunate to work my way into a loyal client base in my area. I generally don’t mention certification to my clients; it feels a bit like tooting my own horn, and being a CTI doesn’t mean I’m the best there is. Education is something I’m passionate about, however, and it tends to work its way into a lot of conversations. My design/build clients all had initial reservations against bringing all installations up to industry standard (and beyond). Those conversations needed to happen. Scott Carothers’ tagline has helped me immensely in this area: “If you ever get sued over an installation, the lawyer suing you will have a TCNA Handbook at the ready. Doing things by the book is the only defensible position.” That closes the door on a lot of arguments. Those conversations can’t be unhad, and by educating my clients I have brought accountability to my business. Now they have the book in hand as well, and I find myself able to speak to the planning process from a position of authority. I get a lot of calls at the beginning of the process, along the lines of, “How do you want this built?” This makes everyone’s lives easier, and makes me part of my client’s team.

Davis has developed a relationship of trust with some designers, and they give the contractor some latitude. Davis fabricated a drain grate from solid surface to match the seat and vanities. 

Focus on education is a founding principle in my business. We need to educate our clients (especially GCs and designers). We need to educate young people coming to the trade; I love being involved with the Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (JATC) apprenticeship program that has started in Portland, Ore. We need to continue in personal development as installers and business owners. My commitment to education has also led me to invest in becoming a CTI evaluator. Hopefully the world will calm down enough that we can start administering the hands-on test again soon.

As my business has increased, I have hired installers to meet demand. Training is vital to growth, and I have been quite fortunate to attract installers with a similar mindset. Ben Boling CTI #1373 joined my crew two years ago; he ramrods the install side of the house, which has been critical to business development. We split training duties, and he keeps me from planning myself into a corner a lot of the time. Trevor Simko CTI #1513 took a leap of faith and moved here from Georgia last summer. He’s a fine installer that fit my crew like a puzzle piece. I think all three of us are ready to take the ACT battery. The other guys on my crew are at various stages of readiness for the CTI. Everyone is growing. I take a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction from that. We all have skin in the game. We’re doing life together.

I can’t say that certification has been the main difference in winning a contract here or there locally; I live in a small town, and I close a very high percentage of the bids I submit. What it has done is set me apart from installers that are willing to continue doing things “the way we’ve always done it.” Recently a client told me straight out, “We only send you RFPs for the top shelf work. If budget is a determining factor, or quality might need to be a secondary consideration to getting it done quickly, we don’t bother you. We’d prefer to use your company exclusively, but not everyone can afford what you bring to the table.”

I can positively say that being in community with those I respect and admire on both personal and professional levels has been a determining factor in my development as a business owner and installer. We rise by lifting others. 

Now bring those ACTs to Oregon!

Simply Intricate Designs LLC

The artists of installation in Baton Rouge, La.

Anthony Moses, owner of Simply Intricate Designs (simplyintricatedesigns.com), LLC in Baton Rouge, La., may have been a member of NTCA for only about six months, but already he is finding great value in being part of the association.

The company, which specializes in residential renovations – particularly bathrooms – joined NTCA to tap into the Apprenticeship Program that was just approved by the Department of Labor in 2019. 

“It is difficult to find quality help that understands the mission of your company and knows how to properly install tile, so when I found out about the program I instantly joined,” Moses said. 

NTCA held additional appeal for Moses. “I wanted to get some of those vouchers I was seeing other people talking about. I knew that I would make connections with some great tile setters that had much more knowledge and experience than I have and being able to call on those people when you need them is priceless.

“The knowledge and resources that the NTCA offers is the greatest value,” he added. “The tile industry is constantly changing because of the many different products there are, and being able to access the proper techniques and requirements for those changes through the NTCA makes being a member worth every penny. After joining the NTCA, I am extremely cautious of making sure I follow all of the guidelines when I’m installing tile. Before joining the NTCA there were things that I was doing that I was unaware were wrong.”

Doing things right is essential to Moses and his company, which prides itself on residential custom shower designs and creative layouts – and seeks to connect with a custom home builder who “wants to push the envelope on custom shower designs/layouts,” he said.

Excellence is the name of the game for the company, which consists of Moses, his wife Eboné and helper Dremmel Adams. “Simply Intricate is all about striving for perfection, having fun, and being creative,” he explained. “I believe our dedication to being the best we possibly can be sets us apart. We invest a lot of time into our brand, our customer service, and our knowledge.”

Moses was hoping to certify his knowledge this year, through the CTEF’s Certified Tile Installer (CTI) program. “I started the process of becoming a Certified Tile Installer then COVID happened,” he said. “I passed the written portion of the test and I was looking for the right date and location to take the hands-on test but everything was shut down. I’m patiently waiting to take the hands-on portion so I can be the only current CTI in Louisiana.”

“Simply Intricate is all about striving for perfection, having fun, and being creative,” owner Anthony Moses explained.

Simply Intricate Designs takes education and sharing information up a notch, not only for its own edification, but for its customers. “We noticed that there are a lot of customers that don’t fully understand the flooring industry and what is required to make a project successful, so we started a podcast called The Floor Masters Podcast,” Moses said. “We wanted to share our knowledge – as well as the industry knowledge – to as many people as possible so customers could make informed decisions when hiring or dealing with a contractor.”

Simply Intricate Designs extends this excellence into every area of its operations, and how it reaches out to potential customers. “I believe our creative design aspect separates us from other companies. We have an in-house media team that can produce high-quality commercials and social media content that allows us to market ourselves across the world.”

COVID not only derailed Moses’ plans to take the hands-on portion of the CTI exam, it also has posed a challenge in “keeping up with all the work that is coming through the pipeline,” Moses said. “There has definitely been an increase in inquiries about home renovations since COVID started. It has taught us patience and how important project planning is. It is extremely important to make sure there is enough material for the job because delivery times have slowed down. The pandemic has helped increase our awareness of potential hangups on a project and to consider all of the possibilities in the beginning so the customer is well taken care of.”

Moses experiences his greatest joy as a contractor “learning the versatility of the trade and applying that to the crazy designs I have in my head,” he said. “I refer to myself and the rest of my crew as the artists of installation because I want us to be known as the guys to go to when you need a true custom project.”

Knoxville-area contractor taps CTIs for reliability and excellence in installation

Able Tile credits Battles and Battles legacy of NTCA membership, education and certification


Linette Brown (left) is partner of Able Tile and Specialty Flooring in Kodak, Tenn., near Knoxville. She’s shown here vacationing with her family at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. 

Family-run Able Tile and Specialty Flooring is a professional tile, flooring, kitchen remodeling and bathroom renovation contractor in the Knoxville area. The company is a specialist in curbless shower design, kitchen tile and bathroom tile floor installation.

Partner Linette Brown has been in the tile business since 2011. She got her start working in tile sales with Battles and Battles Tile, another NTCA member in Knoxville, that closed up shop in 2018 after 25 years in business. 

The company is a specialist in curbless shower design, kitchen tile and bathroom tile floor installation.

Able Tile focuses on high-end custom bathroom projects, with custom cabinetry and custom tile showers. But the company also tackles small commercial jobs like restaurant floor repairs and commercial bathrooms for smaller restaurants. 

Able Tile installed this wood plank tile and used HVAC vents custom made with tile – cut to fit – so there are no unsightly floor grills in the way. Able Tile installed uncoupling membrane throughout. Plank tile is consistent all through the first floor with soft joints added as needed for expansion. 

“My favorite project is a custom-designed curbless shower and bath that will serve the customers for a lifetime,” Brown said. “We do some new homes, but most of our work is upgrading an existing bath or turning current bathtub spaces into a big shower.”

Brown gets a lot of value out of her NTCA membership. “I have personally been an NTCA member for two years but [Battles and Battles] had been a NTCA member forever,” she said. “I joined the NTCA to keep in touch with like-minded people and to stay informed of new or other products and techniques in the trade.

“The greatest value of membership is using the resources offered for improvement of my company and to have people to go to who can help me resolve issues or answer questions,” she added. “The biggest asset to being a member is to have a pool of experience that I can reach out to. I try to continue my education in the tile business because I want to be able to offer the best application to my customers.”

Legacy of CTIs

Able Tile does not have installers on staff, but turns to NTCA and Certified Tile Installers (CTIs) as much as possible. She got into the habit of doing this, following in Battles and Battles’ footsteps of advocating for training and education and being CTIs themselves. 

“Using Certified Tile Installers makes my job much easier because they think through the job and are sure I have not overlooked anything,” she said. “They understand the importance of using the right materials, and how waterproofing systems work. I work with a local glass company who installs all the shower doors and glass in rooms that we have installed. They always comment about how there are never any problems when my guys have done the work. 

“I can leave the job and know that everything will still be done properly, with minimum supervision,” she added. “This is important to me, because I am basically a one-person operation currently. [CTIs] also realize that their name on a project is as important as having my name on a project – actually more important.

“I would like to give Battles and Battles the credit for insisting that all jobs were done to the highest of standards and with that bar so high, I have carried those expectations into my own company,” she said. She carries the tradition forward with a goal of educating “the general public about how important proper tiling methods are, and that the proper systems are in place so that everyone gets not only a beautiful bath or kitchen but a long-lasting one also.”

This shower features a 10’ tall water-jet accent wall that was almost 10 feet wide. Able Tile used two curbless pans and drains and hid them in the border on the floor. The company substituted a small accent shelf instead of a niche, and installed six other curbless bathrooms in this home plus 3,200 sq. ft. of floor tile. Able Tile made sure to meet the customer mandate of no transitions whatsoever. Large-format floor tile was used in the main bathroom areas and carried into shower floors. Mosaics were only used as wall accents. The porcelain shower and kitchen/family room projects in this story were part of the same home.

Priority one: customer satisfaction

Brown makes customer satisfaction her goal. “I strive to never leave an unhappy customer for any reason,” she explained. She reviews every single job with her customers, and has them select and approve all tile and sizes. Then she is meticulous about punctuality, and jobsite care. 

“We come on time and work every day till the job is complete,” she said, aiming for an “extra clean job site and work area.” The company never leaves “a mess in their yard or house and protects all of the areas that we work in. I also respect their pocketbook and try not to have much leftover material. 

I work by word of mouth and have been comfortably busy.”

This bathroom in an existing home had a built-in tub where the freestanding tub is now. This is partially on a wood floor and partially on concrete, so the concrete had to be leveled and screeded before any tile installation could take place. The door jambs all had to be cut because the doors were set too low to accommodate the tile floor. Able Tile installed all natural travertine stone with hand-polished edges to eliminate the need for bullnose. The curbless shower uses 2”x2 “mosaics to create enough slope to guide all the shower water to the drain. Niches have the same shelf as the top of the bench seat, which is all one piece and hand-shaped to fit. The border mixes natural marble and travertine, creating a shower accent that is trimmed with travertine pencil liner, and also embellishing the platform for the tub. The transition from tile to hardwood is thanks to an uncoupling membrane that added the correct height to the tile before installation.

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.  
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