Tile & Stone: As new products arrive, I say 'Strike the hype and set the stone'
Manufacturers are eager to put new products in the hands of installers. So those of us at the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF) are the lucky recipients of these new items. It is a logical move, given the number of people passing through the facility for installation classes and product seminars. Something else unique about our facility: We get to play with products all the time. On occasion, we even do installations destined to fail just to substantiate what some consider non-important issues, like no thinset under backer board. (Yes, it does end up cracking.)
I grew up learning how to install with just sand and cement. Thinset was still a relatively new product as was liquid latex. After about 10 years in the trade the original backer board was introduced to the market. I remember my grandfather looking at a piece (priced in 1974 at $23) and laughing so hard he nearly fell off his bucket. He had made the transition from cement to thinset, and came to love liquid latex. But he was certain this thin cement panel was never going to fly. Well, we all know how that worked out. Over the past 30 years it has become the dominant method of installation over wood floor and wall construction. In roughly the same time, sales of ceramic tile have increased from 250 million square feet a year to around 3 Billion square feet. Tile size in 1974 was 4 1/4 -inch wall, 6-inch quarry, and some 8x8 glazed tile floor. Now 12x12 and 18x18 are the norm and 24x24 is gaining in popularity. When you consider that our industry is at least 1,000 years old, all these in just three decades represents a rather swift change.
Installation materials on the other hand have evolved at a much slower pace. That's not hard to understand, really. Thinsets were only first developed in the 50's and 60's. Since that time, setting materials have played a big part in industry growth. But, with typical ceramic tile products, they have never really "driven" an installation, they are just there and made it happen. You can look at ceramic tile and see the beauty that is possible. You can easily perceive the quality and envision the dramatic look it will create in a room setting. When you look at cement based products, no such beauty exists and no value is perceived. It all looks the same and who cares what it is, as long as it sticks! There is not much incentive for manufacturers to invest heavily in product development. Well, news flash: It may all look like sand and cement product to you but the beauty is much more than skin deep here.
Setting materials are coming of age, and not a moment too soon! Today's tile products and installation environments often require a much higher level of performance. Specialty thinsets and grouts, especially those recently introduced, are long overdue products. The structures where we install are insisting on them and the tile manufacturers now require them, yet for many, the value is still hard to perceive. When we have an opportunity to put some of these new products in an installer's hands, the reasons quickly become clear just from a workability perspective alone.
So why do we need it? The tile we use now is bigger, a lot bigger. Older latex/polymer formulas are certainly up to the challenge but they also have extended drying times when used with large unit tile. Think of a liquid sandwiched under a layer of glass with no escape. A "gasket" of material forms at the outside edge giving even more resistance to drying or "coalescence."
One simple way to demonstrate this is to take some white glue or a similar product and place it between a piece of glass and a concrete block. When the glue becomes clear, the polymer has coalesced and is ready for traffic. Don't be surprised if it takes as long as four days. That's not a totally fair demonstration, because the hydration process of the cement would cause a faster set, but it is a dramatic visual. Using large unit porcelain tile makes curing times even more challenging. Newer formulations and specialty products are chemically enhanced to create a much faster drying time despite the large size of some tile. In some cases, you can begin grouting without risk to the installation.
How about spreadability? Installers often water down thinset and grout to get a consistency that makes it easier to spread the product. Remember that watering down thinset and grout has a dramatic effect on performance and in the case of grout, color variation. And there really is no need. Some of the newer thinset and grout products out now go down so smooth you may thing you are troweling ball bearings. You cannot truly appreciate the benefits unless you have an opportunity to try some. Maybe it's just because I am getting older, but easier spreading makes the day so much more enjoyable.
Another big bonus of some mortars is the contact or coverage they provide. Most everyone agrees that coverage is second only to lack of movement accommodation as the most readily identifiable installation issue. Even so, it has been my experience that most people grossly underestimate the importance that good coverage plays. Many of the new "contact" mortars on the market consistently facilitate uniform coverage.
To be fair, we should also give kudos to tool makers as well. There are now some notch trowel configurations that can run circles around the traditional square notch. Having a contractor background, I am in the business of getting the job done the best I can in the least amount of time. These newer products do that for me and I would not hesitate to buy them.
All this is wonderful; and the products we use are good and getting better. But I must add a caution: No matter how hard you try, there are only so many things you can do with chemistry and engineering. In the end, all of these wonderful products are useless if you do not read and follow the instructions while using good work practices. If you are willing to do that, you stand to reap the benefits of the setting material revolution. Many thinset and grout products today go way beyond the sand and cement products of days past but proper mixing times and water ratios are crucial. A little effort will lead to easier jobs and better sales and that in turn will ensure higher profits. I am not interested in being the low price leader. How about you?