New Tools for a New Era
September 1st, 2004


by David Gobis September-October 2004

Selling the right tool is a win-win-win. The installer benefits by making a single investment that pays dividends with every job. You benefit with a profitable product line and a satisfied customer. Ultimately the consumer-and the industry-benefit from a job well done.

Good tools used correctly make any installation easier, safer, more professional and more profitable.

We have good news and we have bad news. The good news is ceramic tile continues to grow in popularity. New formats, finishes and designs have dramatically expanded the marketplace. So, what is the bad news? Those new formats, finishes and designs can be a challenge to install. At the same time, the customer expects the install to be faster, better, and cheaper. Can’t be done you say? Maybe your installer just needs the right tools for the job!

Today’s tools can make short work of the most challenging tile and job conditions. Those of us who are real tool junkies are always willing to try something new. The rest of us hate change. Buying anything beyond a new trowel or float is a difficult decision. But the distributor who takes the time to acquire knowledge about a tool, who can talk about what tool works with what material, and who sells professional-grade tools, can develop loyal customers. I thought we might explore how you can make the installer’s life easier and more profitable, while adding to your own bottom line. And develop a loyal customer in the process.

Sorting out the various claims made by tool manufacturers is challenging. There is a good, better, and best. Installers should really only consider the best. The installer’s tools need to be treated as an investment, not an expense.

I remember bragging to the manufacturer that I had been using the same wet saw-purchased from him-for 30 years. He may have been disappointed that my investment failed to produce any income beyond the sale of a few switches and table wheels during the course of my ownership. However, I did become a walking testimonial for the value of his product. I don’t know how many of that manufacturer’s saws I have sold, but I have been doing it for many years. This equipment has provided untold returns on the investment and this is the way you can sell quality equipment.

Installers don’t necessarily think in terms such as return on investment. So if you’re selling tools, part of your job is to teach them this value. In these times of critical qualified labor availability, the right choice of tools is like adding another person to the payroll without the associated burden.

Cutting tile

As an employer or subcontractor one of my pet peeves was always having everyone doing their cuts on the wet saw. Depending on where your saw is located, it may take five minutes or more for one cut. Add up the cost of that time over the course of the week. You will find we are talking about a substantial sum. If you really want to scare yourself, multiply it by workweeks in a year! Yikes!

The higher quality cutting boards or snap cutters available today will do straight cuts through most porcelains on the market, regardless of size. Using a cutter like the one shown here, we have encountered only a few instances where we could not get a decent straight cut even on porcelain tile. Such cutters may cost upwards of $300, but are well worth the investment. They allow for angle cuts, as well using a fixed stop.

If the installer is only going to buy one cutter, he should buy a big one. It may be more cumbersome to carry around, but when he is installing large-format, he will thank you.

For those who need a wet saw, the best value is a quality tool. Today’s large-format tile sizes make it unwise to consider anything less than a saw capable of an 18-inch straight cut. A 24-inch capability would be better.

When it comes to motors, bigger is also better. My 1½ HP 10-inch saw is 30 years old and still has the original motor. One of the differences in motor cost is whether it has a continuous or intermittent duty rating. A 1 to ¾ HP motor is acceptable, but has to work much harder and cuts slower. Obviously, if an installer’s primary work does not include large tile, a smaller motor may be appropriate. But anything less than ¾ HP should be considered disposable when using it for floor tile on a regular basis.

Available accessories like table extensions and the availability of replacement parts are important considerations in selecting a saw. Switches wear out, tables may need to be replaced or have new bearings installed. Pay close attention to the parts availability of the saws you are selling. If everything is one component and welded or forged together, repairs later could be impossible. No installer wants to replace a major tool because one component failed.

This quality thing may be getting old, but we can give it a new perspective talking about cutting blades. I have found it very difficult to get the cuts I want in all materials with one blade. We have always used several, a regular tile blade and a porcelain blade. Just last week we made numerous chip free cuts on a glazed porcelain tile. The cost of that premium blade was well worth it! If an installer does a lot of quarry tile work, a fast and smooth cutting blade is available for that purpose.

Use your tool expertise to educate your customers about maintenance. Make your customers aware they need to clean the blade occasionally with either a dressing stick or a piece of concrete block. After several passes, the blade will be cutting like new; this is especially helpful when cutting soft stone. You may lose that sale, but make a friend.

Diamond drill kits are available from many manufacturers and are essential for cutting tile around a faucet or showerhead. The jigs offered in the kits provide more safety and longer bit life by providing a stable means of drilling small to medium size holes in the middle of a tile.

A diamond band saw will cut a smooth radius tile, porcelain tile, and natural stones effortlessly. The throat is adjustable for varying material thicknesses.

A laser level is a valuable new tool. The best ones are self-leveling and give a plumb line, level line, or combination of the two on either the floor or wall. No more snapping and moving lines to get that layout just right. These levels take some getting used to. When we purchased our first one, it sat around the shop quite a bit. Little by little, it began to see use. Within six months we bought two more; after a year, we had six.

Laser levels are also handy for estimators to show the customer the outlet locations on walls and out of square conditions, thus avoiding problems later when installation begins.

Cleaning up

How long does it take to grout and clean 2000 square feet? The power grout and sponge machine can do the job and spare sore knees or dried out hands. This equipment is also available from several manufacturers. The machines work on both cement and epoxy grouts, leaving the surface streak free. It only takes a few decent size epoxy or cement grout jobs to pay for the investment in these work savers. Everyone I have met willing to make the investment in this equipment is now aggressively looking for profitable epoxy jobs and leaving the competition behind.

These are only a few of the great time saving devices that allow your customers to work faster, better, and-in some cases-safer. One of the best benefits, however, is that once installers make the investment in good or labor saving equipment, the expense is in a large part pretty much over. The right tools never ask for wages, benefits, or vacation. They don’t call in sick either. With the shortage of quality labor and the competitive nature of the installation business, maybe it is time for your installers to invest in equipment that can make them faster, better, and more profitable.

David M. Gobis, a 3rd generation tile setter, is the Executive Director of the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation. He has been in the trade for over 30 years and owned a successful contracting business many years prior to his current position. Mr. Gobis is a member of the NTCA Technical Committee, ANSI A108 and TCA Handbook committees in addition to being a speaker at many industry events. He can be reached at 864-222-2131 or © 2004 Dave Gobis, Ceramic Tile Education Foundation

Special thanks to Q.E.P. Company, Inc. for providing product images for the magazine cover.


Tools that are Selling
TileDealer talked to some distributors who sell tools, just to see what’s selling right now.

Mike Firkins, Tile Wholesaler, said he and his customers are impressed with a new rail saw in which the moving parts sit above the water, saving service and replacement and extending the lifetime of the unit. Both Paul Mudd at Unique Tile and Jerry Fabian at Tile Distributors of America said their current best sellers include a rail saw with a tilt capability to cut angles and miters. It’s especially good for large format materials.

Mudd says installers doing a lot of large format work are also raving about a large format trowel with large u-notches alternating with smaller notches. Users say they are getting great coverage. Firkins says ergonomically-handled floats and trowels are popular because they prevent hand and arm fatigue. He also says a new, spring-loaded hand cutter that applies pressure to both the top and the bottom of the tile is especially useful for cutting residential and commercial porcelain tiles. The real advantage, according to Firkins, is that the installer can keep the cutter at his side, saving trips to the wet saw.

Fabian says some installers are returning to simpler hand-cutters for large format work. It gives them more control. The saw (already noted in the main article) that cuts a smooth radius is also useful with large formats.

What advice do these successful tool salesmen offer?

  • Offer high and low end tools. Most contractors prefer professional grade tools.
  • Understand what the contractor needs and speak his language.
  • Tools on a shelf won’t sell themselves. Understand how to use them yourself.

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