Installer Update: Tiling for Fun and Profit
September 1st, 2005


September-October 2005

By Dave Gobis

While many may moan and groan when asked to do a custom tile pattern, for a true trade person there is nothing more satisfying. When the opportunity presents itself we know we are about to receive a break from our typical get-it-done-fast-cheap-and-now.

Whether art work, residential construction or commercial monuments these projects are long admired and remembered. Speaking from personal experience, they also typically lead to many referrals and the potential to develop a niche market, something that sets you apart from the crowd. Custom work takes patience, lots of patience and isn’t for everyone.

For those fortunate enough to be creative and skilled in specialized, installation techniques, the rewards are way beyond monetary; the job satisfaction is enormous. Just ask Colleen Stanton of Geometric Tile. She started her business after becoming disillusioned with the choices available when restoring a Victorian home in 1999. Since that time she has created over 100 patterns on a modified software program and has been traveling the country installing her patterns and fabricating patterns for other installers with detailed instructions.

Eric Rattan not only designs and installs tile but also makes it in his studio. Mr. Rattan was the recipient of the 2003 Prism International Natural Stone Design Competition Residential Award of Merit for his stone mosaic Crane Dreams and for a follow-up to that accomplishment, went on to win the Spectrum International Award in 2004 for his residential commission Fallen Leaves. He got his start in the industry as a stone apprentice and went on to study ceramic engineering and became a producer of custom ceramic tile.

Greg Andrews is no stranger to tile professionals, especially in the glass tile community. Andrews won First Prize, Residential category in the 2005 Spectrum Award for a 2000 square-foot swimming pool and spa tiled in paper face mounted three-quarter inch glass mosaic tiles. The pool floor features a circular pattern that follows the radius of a pre-mounted medallion reaching out to the brown inlay.

These are just ordinary people like you and me with distinctly different tastes who went on to develop their love for their trade into an art form.

So how does one get started in such fun work? You need to have a few creative bones in your body. If you are a tile person and love tile, that should not be a problem. Good tile people, whether they are in sales or installations, are adept at being visionaries. You are used to seeing the big picture before it takes shape. The general public is not good with abstract thoughts such as this pattern would look great in here. Affluent homebuyers, the prime market for custom work often have a hard time envisioning an end product. If you can properly present a vision, upselling is not at all difficult.

Most who do custom pattern work installation use pattern templates in the field while they are installing to keep things on track. Therefore, after you sell your vision it is important to make the installer fully aware of not only the pattern, but also all circumstances surrounding the installation. It is all in the planning when it comes to executing any project, doubly so with handmade artistic efforts.

So are you ready to take the plunge into custom patterns? Do you want to sell premium products?

First and foremost, any custom work requires top shelf materials across the board and good installation practices. I used the word monuments earlier in this article, and there is a reason for it. When doing this type of work, those paying the bill rightly expect their job to last a lifetime. This is the time to spend money on only the best tile, labor, setting materials, membranes, and substrates. This sounds simple enough, but unfortunately many dreams are ruined by shortsightedness in this area. I have seen more than a few award winning jobs go into the dumpster due to inappropriate materials and/or faulty workmanship. Quality in both should be part of the price in the project; you do not want a callback or complaint on these types of installations.

If you cannot build quality in, it is not meant to be. If there is any question about the proposed method being appropriate for the application, consult with a qualified party. You will find many setting material manufacturers offer various warranties based on method and product used. This is a good place for their inclusion and may well make the difference in being awarded the project.

Pricing these projects can be a challenge. From a sales perspective, a clear picture of costs is possible. For installation, costs can be a little cloudy. It only takes a few jobs for people to notice and set yourself apart from the competition, but you have to get them out there first. Once that is accomplished you will have more opportunities for additional jobs with higher profits.

But be aware, this art stuff can be addictive. I still drive my wife crazy with little projects. My current art project under construction is a glass tile pyramid base made of solid concrete for my mailbox post so the snowplow quits knocking it over during our Wisconsin winters. Just trying to be different.

I’ll let you know at a future date how many requests that generates—I am sure it will.

David M. Gobis CTC CSI, a third-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 for many years prior to his current position. Mr. Gobis is an author of many trade related articles and a frequent speaker at industry events. He is a member of the Construction Specification Institute, National Tile Contractors Technical Committee, and voting member of The American National Standards for Ceramic Tile Installation and Setting Materials (ANSI A108/118) and Tile Council of America Installation Handbook committees. He can be reached at 864-22-2131 or

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