We’re taking a different tack for our Craftsperson feature in this issue. We reached out to NTCA member, Erin Epperson, Owner of Whistling Bee Artisan Tile (whistlingbeeco.com) in Ft. Collins, Colo., to get a female perspective on being a craftsperson in the tile industry.
Epperson literally was born into the trades, since her dad Alan Epperson has been a flooring installer for 50 years, and still runs Quality Carpet in Ft. Collins. Epperson cut her teeth on installation – learning from and being mentored by her dad, then working in cabinetry for many years before returning to tile installation.
She’s gained acclaim on social media for her recent “Pebble Tree” installation, as well as tiled skateboards in the last few years for the All Hands on Deck art show and auction that benefits the Launch Community Through Skateboarding. She’s also been willing to lend a hand to other tile installers and share her wisdom to help them succeed. And her passion is now focused on pursuing public art and tile mural making as part of the stunning services she offers.
We caught up with Epperson in early October, when she shared her perspective on being a craftsperson.
What does “artisan tile setting” and “craftsmanship” mean to you?
Twenty years ago, a carpenter gave me this advice when I had done something on a job site and was freaking out: “Being a craftsperson doesn’t mean you don’t make mistakes. Being a craftsperson is knowing how to fix the mistakes when they happen.” So, being a tile setter, for me, is learning the rules – directional troweling, grouts and their uses, different ways to cut – all the techniques. These rules are in place for a reason, but they don’t stop mistakes or irregularities. However, understanding the purpose of the rules and proper techniques becomes your guide when fixes become necessary.
The other big thing is that in construction, you have the epic trilogy of cost/speed/quality – and you can pick two out of three – but you can never have all three. You can be fast and cheap, or quality and fast. But a craftsperson ALWAYS chooses quality. “Fast and cheap” are not craftspeople. Most people don’t believe quality can be fast, but we have methodologies to speed things up – like rapid-set mortars, so you can grout that night. But if you aren’t using a rapid-set mortar, you shouldn’t grout until the next day, minimum.
Does being a true craftsperson differ from traditional tile setting or contracting?
Well, there is the epic construction trilogy to consider – the craftsperson will never compromise quality.
I was born into construction, and my dad is known as one of the tile craftspeople in the area. He knows the trade and aims to make the highest quality product he can put out.
When I worked in cabinetry at 16, it was custom cabinetry. I worked for two years on the same project in a mansion, for a full kitchen, mud room, built-in beds and furniture, and bathrooms. Every person I’ve worked with in my entire history feels like somebody who aims for as high a quality as possible.
I learned from true craftsmen in all the trades I’ve worked in. They are masters of their trades. When I’ve been asked to do a job quick and cheap, I don’t operate that way. I stopped taking that kind of work.
What’s the biggest challenge you encounter as a craftsperson?
I am not fast. I’m not super slow either. My methodology is stepping back, taking pictures (which especially reveal sheet lines), going outside to look at the pictures. Sometimes I have to push through, but if I get overwhelmed or too stressed, I kill my mud, clean my tools and disappear for the rest of the day. Stop, go away and come back to it – and often dream the solution.
Another challenge – in Ft. Collins, there are not a lot of skilled tile setters – and I am friends with those who are. We sit and have discussions about the work done by shops. We put out living wage bids and we are losing them to people who are charging clients $6-$7/sq. ft., and paying installers $4/sq. ft.
When I say it will take me a week to do a shower, I’m told “That’s unacceptable. You have two days.” There is a discrepancy between appropriately-done tile and the norm in this town.
I don’t work with GCs anymore, and everyone else who is skilled has done the same. My clientele has been exclusively private contract and most of it is word-of-mouth or referrals from trade houses, or my dad.
What kind of training should a craftsperson obtain?
It’s foundational to learn how to set tile from a person who knows how to do it. I am definitely a firm believer in the idea of apprenticeship or putting together trade school programs. Why not tap into existing community colleges that have trade programs and learn how to tile as one of those programs? Learn coverage, backers, thinsets, when you should prime and when you should NOT prime, waterproofing and advantages of liquid and sheet membranes. Once you hit the point of knowing the rules as a foundation, you can decide to stay at that level or continue expanding your horizons. But your methodology is solid. These things are foundational for me as I move into tile art, as well as my relationship with manufacturer reps.
There is value in the NTCA workshops and regional events – but I hadn’t even heard about NTCA until four years ago. Florida Tile brought NTCA in for a workshop and that’s how I was introduced. First thing I learned from NTCA is the Trowel and Error video and had an argument with my dad about swirl troweling! Then when I took the CTI and did research to pass the written test, I realized some of the things I was taught was good for installing vinyl, but maybe not for tile.
The 2022 skateboard with stunning display of jellyfish by day – and glowing jellyfish by night. Epperson said she would never have attempted this design has it not been for her experience with the pebble tree, which allowed her to gain mastery with creating organic shapes with materials.
What would make it easier to become a craftsperson?
The shifts I have seen online in the artisan field – there’s a difference between craftsmanship and art. People who do the art are ones who have had to be super creative to get it to function. Lee (Callewaert), Jane (Callewaert), Josh (Nordstrom), Angie (Ré) and all of them are so willing to help teach, like with pre-mounting – you can use it to put together your own mosaic, or use it in really nice installs. I love their heart and willingness to share and teach and finding people who want to pass on their knowledge and not be the stingy a$%^&*@s who want to die with that knowledge.
And though some of the online groups can be degrading, once you sift through the degrading comments, there is worthwhile stuff.
It would also help to branch out with education and workshops that aren’t in the major metro areas. From Ft. Collins, it’s hard to get to Denver – it can be a five-hour roundtrip to get there and back and pick up materials. But Cheyenne is a 45-minute drive one way, and it opens up Nebraska and Wyoming. Even Greeley or Laramie are more accessible than Denver. But these places are extremely underserved.
How could it benefit a young person to pursue a career as a craftsperson?
Good tile craftspeople are extremely rare. There are three people I feel comfortable referring, and they are all booked out for one to two years. This market is underserved. Maybe if you are a great shop installer, you can go on to start your own business, and “write your own ticket.” I’m starting to look at mural work and public art, and moving away from working directly with clients.
What’s the biggest joy or satisfaction you experience as a craftsperson?
It’s always the END – when you step back and look at it and say, “There it is!!! Now I can see what was in my mind’s eye from the beginning!” It’s when I am not absorbed in the minutiae, and the final product makes it all worth it.
Editorial Director and Senior Writer for TileLetter and TileLetter ARTISAN
Lesley Goddin has been writing and journaling since her first diary at age 11. Her journey has taken her through a career in publishing and publicity, landing her the editor position of TileLetter and its special publications in 2006. Her goal is to educate, inspire, recognize and encourage those in the tile industry -- especially the tile and stone contractor. Other interests include the soft, purring marvels known as cats, labyrinth walking, drumming and percussion, and a range of spiritual, musical and artistic pursuits.