Knowing Your Way Around a Tile Saw
Manufacturing advancements in recent years have made tile products easier to maintain and more durable.
By Peter Fabris
Tile, always a popular choice for flooring and wall coverings in new homes and renovation projects, is growing in popularity. Manufacturing advancements in recent years have made tile products easier to maintain; provided better aesthetics and durability; and created more moisture-, fire- and scratch-resistant models.
“The biggest change recently is that tiles no longer have to be squares,” says Robert Delahaut, president, MK Diamond Products, Inc., a manufacturer of tile saws. “You have tiles that are 6 feet long and 4 or 6 inches wide that simulate wood flooring.”
Because tiles are more versatile, sales figures show consumers seem to be excited to use tile for their projects. The global ceramic tile market is forecast to grow 6.7 percent per year by value from 2016 to 2021, according to market research firm Research and Markets.
Choosing the right tile saw
To achieve high quality tile installation, a dependable, high-quality tile saw is critical for contractors. Tile saws haven’t changed drastically for many decades, but in recent years manufacturers have refined their offerings in a few ways. Today’s models come with added features, improved durability and lighter weight.
A key improvement within the past decade has been the transition in the manufacturing process from metal sand casting to die casting, Delahaut explains. Die casting produces parts more precisely—no machining is necessary after the casting process. While this change isn’t something users will notice by looking at the saws, Delahaut says, it has extended the longevity of motors. Contractors expect to get at least five years of life from their tile saws, and die cast increases the odds that they will get their money’s worth. The die cast process has also resulted in lighter weight motors, he adds.
A simple sticker with an imprinted Quick Response (QR) Code on many new models accounts for another improvement. Users can use their smart phones to instantly access electronic versions of parts lists, user guides and safety information. Rummaging through the work van to find paper versions of these documents won’t be necessary thanks to this improvement.
When shopping for a tile saw, contractors should consider a few factors to make sure they buy the right model for their specific needs.
Size. A key consideration is to buy a machine that can cut the size of tiles to be installed. Square tiles are available in larger sizes than ever before – up to 36 inches by 36 inches. For best results, a saw should be large enough to cut them in one pass. The MK-212 Rail Saw is one example. While you can use a smaller saw to make a cut in two passes (half in one pass, half in another), it’s difficult to achieve high precision using that method. You should also consider the length of a diagonal cut that the saw can accommodate.
Alignment. Another important trait of a tile saw is its ability to hold its alignment. Higher-end machines tend to remain in correct alignment better than lower-cost models, making for consistently more accurate cuts. This is particularly important when making beveled cuts. Some models such as the QEP 900 XT come equipped with a laser cutting guide for an added level of accuracy.
Portability. In addition to cutting performance, contractors should consider portability. Professional models can be heavy to move around. The QEP 900 XT, for example, weighs in at 121 pounds. That model comes with built in wheels on a heavy duty stand making it more mobile, which is a welcome feature if you’re moving from job site to job site frequently. If lugging that much weight around causes concern, it may be worth comparing the weight of different models. Another model used by professionals, the RIDGID R4092 10-inch Wet Tile Saw with Stand, for instance, weighs in at a considerably lighter 99 pounds and also comes with wheels.
For contractors who need tile saws only occasionally, a light weight table top model such as the RIDGID R4020, may do the job. It weighs in at just under 30 pounds. “We’ve been focused on producing some lighter weight models for contractors that just need them to finish up a punch list,” says Jason Swanson, vice president of communications, TTI Power Equipment – the company behind RIDGID and Ryobi brands.
Blade choice. Manufacturers offer a variety of blades in different styles, cutting ability, and durability. When working with porcelain tile, a high quality blade is a must. Higher-priced blades will hold up better to the demands of cutting the hard material in porcelain tiles. “You get what you pay for,” Swanson says. When working with clay tiles, though, lower-end blades can be suitable. Delahaut advises workers to use a dressing stick, which is like a sharpening stone for diamond blades, two or three times a day to keep blades sharp.
While you can use a smaller saw to make a cut in two passes, it’s difficult to achieve high precision using that method. You should also consider the length of a diagonal cut that the saw can accommodate.
Tile saws are fairly simple devices but can be dangerous if not used properly. Installing the blade the right way is critical because a blade that wobbles can produce sharp shards. “Be sure that the blade is mounted on the blade shaft properly,” Delahaut emphasizes.
The most concerning risk when operating tile saws over the long term is exposure to dust. “Exposure to fine particles of silica has been shown to cause silicosis, a serious and sometimes fatal lung disease,” according to an OSHA document about masonry saws. “Construction employees who inhale fine particles of silica may be at risk of developing this disease.”
OSHA requires tile saw users to control dust. “Stationary saws should always be used with dust control measures,” OSHA says. “At worksites without dust controls for these tools, studies have found that employee silica exposures can be as high as 20 times the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) benchmark …” (At the time that this article is being written, OSHA is set to begin enforcing a new rule on crystalline silica dust exposure on Sept. 23, 2017.)
Water is most effective as a dust control measure for tile saws, and most professionals opt for wet saw models. Wet tile saws that continually expose the blade to water are considered an acceptable method of dust control, as far as OSHA is concerned.
Manufacturers have added some features to make it easier to maintain a steady supply of water during cutting. Many models come with a water tray or small tank acting as a water reservoir. Water is filtered and recycled during operation.
“It’s important to keep water in the reserve clean,” Delahaut says. “You should change it twice a day for best results.”
When using any type of power saw, some commonsense safety measures to protect eyes and hands are in order. “Chips can be sharp, particularly with small cuts,” Delahaut says. Always use safety glasses and rubber gloves. If you are using a tile saw throughout much of the day, hearing protection is also advised.
Tips for better cuts
If your cuts are producing chipping, put the glaze side of the tile down to reduce this effect. You can also apply masking tape to the finished side to reduce chips.
When working with small tiles, particularly when making notch cuts or some other “finicky cut,” Swanson says to consider using a small handheld saw. Contractors tend to overlook this option, he says, but a four-inch handheld saw comes in handy on occasion and can be an effective back up tool when you forget to bring a larger workhouse model.
When contractors keep these safety, maintenance and performance issues in mind, most professional grade tile saws should help create top quality tile projects for several years.