Deen Contracting melds art and problem-solving with great results
In the prairie of the Midwest – Springfield, Ill. – my career started with a broom, and the willingness to clean up construction sites and use a shovel. I was a summer helper for my friend’s father who built elaborate houses in Springfield, and worked on part of their extensive remodel on an old mansion.
My job was to tear out a custom shower that was installed pre-WWII. I still remember the lath cutting through my young hands as I burned through saw blade after saw blade – everything we had that day. Then I got to the pan, which was a bed in a lead liner base. Instead of a 40 mil or foam liner, this was a lead sheet. Amazingly, it never leaked, and lasted about 60 years. I thought to myself it is awesome how something so beautiful could last so long. That is when I said to myself, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could construct functional beauty that lasted longer than me?”
At the end of the summer, I worked finishing concrete for a year after high school and eventually got in the electrical trade, but it didn’t satisfy me. There was an itch inside me that needed to create. I needed to explore construction and art; I needed to set tile. It was the only thing that would pass the time in an enjoyable way for me. I went to a local box store and picked up some material and tiled a kitchen in 2000, and then a friend’s mom’s backsplash, and then a shower.
Next, I met Rob Yates – a NTCA member – at the supply house. We had not met before, but had mutual friends and started talking. He mentioned that I should check out the TCNA Handbook and go to a NTCA seminar when it was in town. I did – and everything completely changed, again. I was invigorated with new knowledge and access to years and years of previous work the handbook contained.
A homegrown tile company had been created: Deen Contracting, Inc. (deentile.com), based in Rochester, Ill. In the middle of a cornfield in Central Illinois, I got a job with one of our local farms. I was dying to try tile installation on a 3D-scale and I wanted to do crown molding with a waterfall off it for bathing. I had an idea and the homeowner, Dennis, made the plumbing work – he can probably fix an alien space craft if it crashed in a field! I field-framed the crown ledges from 1”x 4” pine and then I clad it in cement board and membrane. Next, I used foam. I have even used .050-gauge aluminum sheets and bent them into forms to be filled with mortar. My first ledge was in 2006 with a lot more geometric tile installs since.
There are endless possibilities of which we have only scratched the surface. When I say “we,” I am referring to installers who truly care about their art. I have been on course to manufacture kits, however, funding to change an industry can be hard to obtain, so I have been utilizing my print reading skills from my electrical experience to bid commercial jobs. We have gone from 10% commercial work to 80% in about four years.
Support through NTCA
The first time I had real guidance in the industry was in 2012 when Mark Heinlein from NTCA had a seminar in Springfield. His knowledge and approach to explaining setting techniques was top shelf. By attending the meeting and joining the NTCA, I was empowered with a great deal more knowledge. The TCNA Handbook has all of the ANSI ratings for products and installation, so by being aware of this, I was able to cite the proper pages and explain installations on my scope of work for commercial products. When I placed these references in my scope of work, I found that I was getting more jobs. By just attending a NTCA function and utilizing the information they gave me, I have increased my business.
Until now, I have been pretty guarded about my creations and patents. However, the February 2019 TileLetter featured RodKat and it inspired me to share as well. I am impressed and always intrigued when a fellow tile mechanic installs in three dimensions. Just because we have a two-dimensional material to work with doesn’t mean we must stay there. Hats off to setters who are pushing the limits and exploring new designs.
I have been to the Coverings conference in Tampa, Fla., and had a great time. I plan on attending in Orlando this year as well. The conference is the best way for me to see new products and ideas and it is also the best way to re-charge my creativity.
The key to staying busy in a small town is diversity. My wife Karen, who is a ceramicist, has been an irreplaceable asset and inspiration helping run the business, making payroll and putting bids in on time, as well as executing simple organization that I have botched for years. So, with our small crew of 3-5, we have been remodeling commercial restaurants. We go in and demo all the tile, and then polish the floor with mechanical grinders and install new tile throughout the lobbies, kitchens and bathrooms.
In the course of doing this work, I have noticed the commercial kitchen is under attack. This is where I got my start at age 21, repairing epoxy grout in commercial restaurants before I landed my first residential builder. Epoxy grout is a must. Incorrect installations and/or poor grout choices have hurt tile’s reputation in the commercial kitchen. Owners are switching to other products when they shouldn’t have to. A properly installed quarry kitchen could and should last 30-40 years with proper cleaning and minor maintenance.
All in all, I love tile and I love to problem solve. To me, residential tile is art and commercial tile is problem solving and accuracy by the scheduled deadline. They are two different worlds that make both a great challenge and a rewarding career. I have been fortunate enough to have great product suppliers and so many local residential clients who have allowed me to create artistic spaces in their home. In addition, I want to give a big thanks to the people before me who have helped inspire me and continue to do so!