Sunday, May 7, 2006

Many pieces to tile work, with good pay for those who meet mental, physical challenges

By Liz Garone
Special to Sunday Jobs

For John Frampton, tile setting was a natural fit. Growing up, he watched both his father and older brother master the art of working pieces together like a puzzle. "I wanted to work with my hands and I wanted to learn a trade, and I was interested in ceramic tile," says Frampton, the owner of Modesto Ceramic Tile.

But for Frampton, it wasn't a direct route to tile setting. Initially, he worked in the grocery business. "They both have their ups and downs," he says. The downside to groceries was working weekends, something Frampton didn't want to do, and not learning a trade, something he did want to do. Eventually, he found his way back to the tile business.

In addition to enjoying working with your hands, a strong back and knees are essential to tile work. "Otherwise, you can't do this trade," Frampton says. Many job sites are inaccessible to large equipment and everything has to be carried in by hand.

The job is not for someone who lacks the necessary physical strength, agrees Brett McBay, the owner of McBay Tile Inc. in Ceres. "You have to be able to lift 200 pounds," he says. That may account for why all of McBay's 65 tile setters are male, and why he has never once met a female tile setter.

Adding to the harsh physical demands are mental challenges, say both veterans of the trade. "Every single thing you do has to be measured accurately and quickly," McBay explains. The job can be high stress as projects are almost always subject to tight deadlines. "You have to stay focused on what you're doing. You have to be a pleaser.

In other words, you have to want people to be pleased," he says. "You have to see it as a craft, not just another job."

Special schooling isn't required for tile setting and "hands-on" experience is the best way to learn, McBay adds. Many of his tile setters didn't finish high school, but what they all have is the innate ability to see a straight line - a skill McBay can't teach, he says.

In addition, "You have be something of a neat freak," he notes. "Everything has to be clean, neat, and straight. You can't teach that either."

A good grasp of numbers is also essential. "You have to be good at math. You're constantly measuring," Frampton says. "You also have to be able to visualize the start and the end of the project."

Tile projects can range from small kitchen areas to whole bathrooms and beyond. One of McBay's biggest jobs was retiling 25-foot-high walls inside St. Anthony's Catholic Church in Manteca. Frampton once tiled his-and-hers bathrooms on a small, privately owned island in the San Joaquin Delta. "There was no road to it. You had to take a ferry," he recalls. "It was a lot of fun."

There are three levels for people working in tile setting: helper, apprentice and journeyman. The pay depends on the level of experience and can vary greatly. At McBay Tile, helpers make from $10 to $15 an hour. Their jobs involve preparing and cleaning as well as observing the more senior crew. Apprentices are paid $15 to $20 and journeymen make $20 to $35 an hour. They are the ones who actually set the tiles in place one at a time.

In general, the tile industry pays a little better than other skilled trades partially because of all of the training involved. McBay says, "I tell my helpers, 'You need to look at this as going to college.'" Had they gone to college, he says, they would have paid tuition and lost those two to four years of wages. But by working as helpers, tile setters can make a living, learn a trade, and in a few years, make $60,000 a year.

Once you're at the journeyman level and you're good at what you do, you shouldn't have any trouble finding work, Frampton says. "Good tile setters are few and far between, and all good tile setters have jobs. They're not looking for work."

For McBay, one of the most rewarding aspects of tile setting is seeing the finished product. Compare that to an electrician, he says. Once all of the hard work is done, it is all covered up and clients rarely appreciate it. "With tile, people might not understand the process of your work, but everyone can appreciate the beauty of it," he says.

McBay Tile is always looking for help and interested applicants can print an application online at or visit the company at 4111 Brew Master Drive in Ceres.

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