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More Than Meets the Eye
The perfect shower or kitchen backsplash isn’t just about the tile you select. Installing tile (well) is an art form.
By Joohee Muromcew • Photography by Cole Buckhart
“Everything will always be different in the field,” observes Joe DiMarco, a master tile setter who with his wife, Alicia, owns Architectural Stone & Tile in Jackson. He’s speaking of the inevitability of unexpected changes during any building project, but also about the deeply human craft of tile setting.
“The hardest part is planning and layout,” he says. Either a client will come in with ideas and need a shower or a kitchen backsplash, or a general contractor arrives with an architect’s plans and fairly precise expectations. DiMarco considers the plumbing and electricity, the durability of materials, and the budget. There is, however, a more nuanced process, part aesthetic eye and part paper-and-pencil math that can elevate tile setting to an art. The floor or wall must first be squared. The center of the room can be measured in, but then the shape and size of the tiling must be considered so the completed surface looks balanced. If you have a square room, but one side ends with tiles cut to half size and another side ends with whole tiles, the room will look naggingly uneven. The subfloors, even with new construction, can also be uneven. A quarter-inch slope on a floor can be mitigated by the careful hand of a tile setter, or you can end up with an awkward gap below your kitchen sink.
The true artist is revealed during the layout process. Even a simple, white, three-by-six-inch polished ceramic tile, perhaps the most popular and classic choice, requires an artful eye in spacing and design. When does a project call for varied spacing and when does it call for strictly uniform placement? Should there be a border, or no border? How will edges and corners be treated, and what color should the grout be?
Tile setters usually arrive to find a plywood or concrete subfloor and are tasked to finish it at a certain elevation. A backer board is adhered to the subfloor, then often to an anti-fracture membrane. “The greatest advancement, technologically speaking, has been Schluter-DITRA,” DiMarco says. Schluter Systems produces polyethylene membranes that provide a variety of functions in the tiling process.
The company’s DITRA line is especially useful as a waterproof “floating” layer to prevent fractures in tile and grouting. Cracks in tile are usually symptomatic of poor installation underneath. Schluter makes other lines for radiant in-floor heating systems, which formerly required setting heating tubes in massive, heavy sheets of concrete before laying down the floor.
For most tile setting, thin-set mortar is applied with a trowel, one end smooth and one end notched, then tiles are carefully set with spacers and left for the mortar to cure for twenty-four hours. The setter returns the next day to apply the grout. This is a long process that cannot be rushed. The DiMarcos have seven full-time tile setters, along with Alicia managing the business, Angie Friesen in the showroom, and previous owner Mike Slavin consulting on a few projects.
Projects can go on for years. DiMarco recalls that early in his career, shortly after arriving in the valley in 1993, he worked exclusively for six years on two main houses and their accompanying guesthouses. This kind of commitment to a craft is often in the blood; Joe is the fourth-generation descendant of a family of Italian masons. His college summers were spent working for masons and tile setters, and he learned as an apprentice like so many in the building trade and crafts.