A rising tide raises all ships.” Such is Mark Heinlein’s view of the impact developing skilled contractors through practical education has upon the tiling industry. Former Navy sailor and now Training Director for the National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA), Heinlein has spent the better part of the last five years finding manufacturing partners to share in the undertaking of improving the skillset of tiling professionals across the nation. Sika, a leading global manufacturer of industrial chemicals and premiere tile setting materials, has joined the NTCA to raise the tide.
The NTCA’s roots stretch back to the 1940s, establishing standards, methods and best practices followed throughout the tiling industry. In the 1970s, the association began offering training to contractors to ensure greater adherence to set standards. During Heinlein’s watch, he introduced Regional Training events featuring a touring crew tasked with conducting day-long, interactive events at select manufacturing partners across the country. Sika welcomed NTCA trainers and contractors to its tile-setting material facilities in Sealy, Texas, and Chino, Calif., in 2021, drawing industry professionals at all experience levels.
Heinlein sets the events’ curricula from ANSI standards and the Tile Council of North America Handbook – this year emphasizing “Substrate Prep for Large Format Tile.” To assist in the training events, pairing with Sika and incorporating SikaTile® products into the lesson plan was the obvious choice. “We use products that meet manufacturing standards, installation standards,” Heinlein continued. “We love working at manufacturing facilities like we did with Sika. We look for locations that are able to provide us the floor space, like Sika did, and the support, like Sika did, for a three-day period – couple of days for set up and a day of training.”
The NTCA Regional Training events began with a concise classroom session, bringing participants up to speed on the industry standards to be applied throughout the day. “Adhesive coverage and movement joints – two points that are absolutely critical,” NTCA Technical Trainer Randy Fleming stressed. He warned of the hazards and liabilities that follow a tiling installation on inadequately-prepared substrate surfaces. Knowing and adhering to the standards, Fleming noted, can help them avoid tiling failures. The lesson prepared the class for the interactive portion waiting in Sika’s warehouse, where the real fun began.
The Octagon and the Cubicle
Sika’s hosted event in Sealy featured a lumber and backer board structure dubbed “The Octagon.” Fleming and regional setup member Chad Jones intentionally built the enclosure haphazardly to create an immersive environment of warped walls and oblique floors. By the time the NTCA crew got to Chino, they refined the structure into “The Cubicle,” complete with additional obstacles. The goal, Jones said, was to deliver a real-world experiential installation environment requiring substantial leveling before any tiling can commence.
To flatten the substrates, the participants employed NTCA’s teachings and SikaTile materials. Sika boasts more than 100 years as global leader in specialty chemicals for construction and manufacturing sectors. Sika’s prime tile setting materials have been the steadfast choice for tiling experts throughout Europe and have recently been enthusiastically received in the U.S. as the SikaTile line.
National Sales Manager Clint Anna was on hand at Sika’s Sealy facility to welcome participants and assist with the application of SikaTile products. “I used the opportunity to invite contractors I know to participate, but I also used this as a tool for some of my distributors – people who have never really touched these new SikaTile products.”
The group was broken into teams and instructed to prepare the floor for leveling using SikaLevel® 01 Primer Plus on the uneven substrate. Fleming demonstrated proper application techniques to ensure even coverage to accept the self-leveling underlay introduced later.
As the primer dried, Fleming directed the teams’ attention to the adjacent cement wallboards – warped and worn completely through in spots. To remedy, the groups found SikaLevel® Skim Coat to be a fast, highly-suitable solution. It was here that Fleming stepped in and gently corrected several participants’ techniques.
“What we find a lot of times all over the country is even experienced installers don’t know how to use a trowel properly,” Heinlein explained. “They think they do, but they really don’t. So we train everything from that to how to properly flatten a substrate to help contractors have more efficient installations that make them more money, and installations that will stand the test of time.”
Tackling the floor
Following a well-deserved lunch – allowing the SikaTile products time to dry – the groups were ready to tackle the floor. Using a laser level and tape measures, the varying lengths of the depth markers placed around the structure painted a clearer picture of the slopes and irregularities needed to be flattened out. The teams practiced clockwork coordination between mixing and transporting units to ensure that a constant supply of dustless SikaLevel® 425 self-leveling underlay could be poured and spread across the substrate. For many in attendance, it was their first SLU pour, though certainly not their last.
The final lesson returned the groups to the cement walls they had smoothed out in the morning. Fleming reiterated best practice techniques yielding the greatest mortar coverage for proper tile adhesion, then dispersed the groups to apply what they had learned. For the oversized tile selected, SikaTile®-475 LHT Premium Set was mixed and troweled onto the repaired skim coat surfaces. The groups set their tiles and Fleming challenged participants to pry the tile off to evaluate their mortar coverage. Those who stuck closely to Fleming’s instructions were pleased with their work.
A final sum up and words of commendation from the trainers wrapped up the interactive training events. Fleming and Jones set to work dismantling and packing up their training structure to prepare for the next town. For the contractors and distributors in attendance, they walked away with new skills they will employ to be a more efficient, effective tiler. They also take away a greater appreciation for the quality of materials they used through the day.
“We are very fortunate as the NTCA – which is a not-for-profit association – to have people like Sika, like Parex USA, Merkrete and others support us, because they understand that we are the standards-based training arm of the tile industry,” Heinlein commented. “Supporting the NTCA is seen as a benefit for the entire tile industry. ‘A rising tide raises all ships.’”
“This partnership with NTCA creates stronger tiling professionals while, at the same time, exposes participants to different tile setting materials than those they’ve become accustomed to working with,” said Sika Senior Product Manager Tom Carroll. “SikaTile’s development and manufacturing are in lockstep with the standards groups like the NTCA maintain and work into their training. These Regional Training events show participants hands-on how materials like SikaTile products, engineered for stronger performance and easier workability, respond to real-life challenges faced in the trade. They begin to appreciate that working with more efficient materials helps them work more efficiently.”
The NTCA/Sika partnership continues into 2022. As Fleming and Jones perfect their next iteration of interactive enclosure participants will combat, venues and curricula are being set. “We’re going to be doing some tweaks and modifications,” Heinlein hinted. “We’re always updating and upgrading these programs. We’re adding different things, we try different things, we learn from our experiences and we’re constantly improving those programs.”