Using waterjet technology to build a custom stone business
In less than 30 years, Artistic Tile has become one of the leading domestic manufacturers and distributors of high-end stone and tile products
Artistic Tile is a unique company, which has evolved into a distributor and producer of high-end stone and tile product lines. Aside from “putting the art in Artistic,” as their employees like to say, the transformation of the company has been an interesting, yet eventful, journey from the beginning of its creation. Today, the company has a fabrication shop equipped with top-of-the-line waterjet machinery to produce high-quality, one-of-a-kind designs.
It all began in 1987 with founder and entrepreneur, Nancy Epstein, who has always had an underlying passion for tile and stone. After taking over a bath remodeling cabinetry business and tailoring it to also offer tile and stone products, a little more than five years later in 1993, she established an import and wholesale distribution company to service her showroom, which ultimately became Artistic Tile.
Since its beginning, Artistic Tile has continually made investments to expand its product offerings and line of services. Approximately 10 years ago, the company started manufacturing products in its 110,000-square-foot facility in Secaucus, NJ, which serves as its corporate headquarters. Shortly afterwards, it invested in waterjet technology, which has since opened a lot of new doors and possibilities. A little less than a year ago, in November 2014, the all-inclusive production facility, warehouse, training center, customer service center and design studio was expanded to incorporate a 25,000-square-foot slab gallery, which has only strengthened the company’s presence in the tristate area. Today, Artistic Tile is one of the largest wholesale distributors of luxury tile and stone, with nine showrooms nationwide and a range of products distributed throughout more than 165 luxury tile and stone showrooms across the U.S.
“Early on, we were developing a ceramic line, which was very complicated to develop,” explained Josh Levinson, Epstein’s cousin and President of Wholesale for Artistic Tile. “It was a triple-fire ceramic line with a luster glaze, but we ran into problems with it; with larger sizes, the third firing was very finicky and it reacted to changes in the kiln, so the development of that line was very slow. But somewhere in the process, Nancy said she wanted to be able to make mosaics. So, we bought a multi-disc saw and a mesh-mounting line from Italy. They came in and the ceramic line was nowhere near ready. We started cutting mosaics for our stores to complement the jobs they were selling — 20 square feet here and 30 square feet there — and it just evolved.”
Levinson explained that Artistic Tile originally had a company in California produce a stone and glass mosaic line for them. When that production company moved to Mexico, they decided to take over and produce the line themselves. “We started cutting glass and stone and mixing it, and then took over the production of that line, and then really started to get into more cutting,” he said. “In terms of the mosaics, we expanded into cutting sizes and shapes. And then we expanded into waterjet.”
Utilizing waterjet technology
About 10 years ago, Artistic Tile started imprinting some waterjet products and developing more intricate patterns. “We decided to start waterjet production in-house to cut down on overseas production, time and costs,” explained Levinson.
The ability to say “yes” to its customers is something Artistic Tile takes a lot of pride in, especially when it comes to the design of its stock and custom-made products. Whether it’s a Grateful Dead head that’s desired in the middle of a kitchen backsplash or a rendition of a unique flower imprinted on a bathroom floor, the company’s in-house design team and custom cutting capabilities make saying “yes” a reality in almost every case.
Jill Cohen, who serves as Vice President of Design, explained how Artistic Tile has tried to perfect what they call “seamless interlocking” patterns, where you can’t tell where one piece of a pattern begins and another one ends. “One of the things we really focus on is creating designs that have very visible grout joints,” she said. “They don’t butt up against each other. There is intentional space between the pieces that need to be filled up with grout, which then becomes part of the overall design. The patterns that we develop with this method are both ‘seamless’ and ‘interlocking.’ When you lay out a whole floor or wall with these patterns, you can’t see the beginning or the end. The care and precision required to create this effect has made us a leader in the industry and it’s an important part of the artistry in our designs. It’s a real departure from what other people are doing.”
Cohen compared the process to that of sewing an article of clothing, such as a dress, on a piece of fabric, except the only difference is that the materials Artistic Tile works with can be waterjet cut. “Waterjet can basically cut anything, except tempered glass, which will implode,” said Levinson. “Stone comes in block form, slab form and tile form. Theoretically, you can cut them all together, but they would be varying in thickness, and that would present a problem for the installer. So, to just say, ‘we can cut anything and mix it together without a problem’ would be false because it’s going to drive the cost of the project up. These are discussions that you want to have upfront, early in the process and set the parameters, based on what somebody’s looking to do. The benefit of slabs is that they allow you to do bigger, seamless pieces, which when you’re talking about custom projects or a medallion, can be very dramatic.”
Artistic Tile has between 40 and 50 stocked patterns, a handful of which are the most popular amongst its customer base, which it cuts on the three waterjet machines it has invested in since it began its waterjet operations. The company first invested in a single-head Dynamic Waterjet machine from Flow International Corp. of Kent, WA. The two newest additions are a two-head and four-head Omax Maxiem 1515 waterjet machine — from Omax Corp. of Kent, WA.
“The Omax waterjets are very efficient production machines, while the Flow is better suited for cutting large-format materials,” said Gerard Esmail, Vice President of Operations. “The Omax four-head machine is the only Omax machine in the world of its kind. It’s the only Omax machine of its size with this four-head set-up, and it has a tremendous amount of technology.”
Cohen explained that the Flow waterjet is used to cut waterjet sheets of particular patterns. “We call it ‘carpet cutting,’ where we do all the work that the installer would do, and we make sure that it’s perfect (centered, etc.),” she said. “We cut out the patterns, put them in boxes by number, so when they get to the jobsite, the installer knows exactly where they go. That’s what’s happening on our Flow machine all the time.”
Esmail explained that the machines utilize what is known as “abrasive waterjet technology.” “Water goes in an orifice, which is made of Diamond, at Mach 3 speed (2,300 MPH), and comes out of that hole at 2,300 MPH (or 50,000 PSI) — which is about 40 times the speed of a power washer,” Esmail explained. “The mechanics have to not only be able to unclog the heads and perform basic maintenance, but have to be able to take apart the machines with their eyes closed, as some of the parts are tiny and in some cases you have very limited vision while working.”
Artistic Tile has four main operators that work with the waterjets — two junior operators and two master operators. Junior operators, which take about one year to train, have to know the basic operations of a waterjet machine, such as how to operate and dissemble the machines, while the master operators, which take about four years to train, have to endure a much more complex process. “Our master operators used to make human hips and knees,” said Esmail. “They’re very precise and much more into accuracy — down to thousandths of an inch. In the stone industry, you generally only have to be within 1/32 of an inch, and these guys laugh at that. They say it’s like throwing darts.”
Going the extra step
To dispose of the garnet that is used in the waterjet process, which is introduced along with the water during the cutting process, the company now utilizes an extractor, a centrifugal air dry pump, which is a more efficient process than when they used to shovel it out of the machines. “When the garnet enters the waterjet system, it’s about 80 grit coarse, and when the garnet leaves the waterjet, it’s about 400 or 600 grit, so it doesn’t have any purpose [for Artistic Tile] at that point,” explained Esmail. “[GMA Garnet, who we work with,] currently is working on a way to recycle it, but it hasn’t happened yet. The recycling plant is supposed to be opening this fall. GMA Garnet is building a plant in Philadelphia, PA, to be able to take used garnet at 400 grit, and be able to sandblast it and repurpose it. It’s not a cheap process, but it is cheaper than throwing it away.”
As of now, Artistic Tile dumps all of the used garnet into a larger dumpster about 15 to 30 yards away, which then is disposed with all of the crushed rock and scrap stone. The garnet from the waterjet machines needs to be dumped every other day, according to Esmail.
Water filtration system
When Artistic began its waterjet cutting operation, it didn’t see it coming this far, this fast. However, as the years have progressed, the company has adapted its operations to fulfill its demands. One of those adaptations includes the incorporation of a custom-made water filtration system, which was created with the help of PSI, after they saw the need to revamp their original filtration system.
“The water that we use in our shop is 100% recycled rain water; we do not buy water for any machinery that we use,” said Esmail. “Rain water comes in, is drained, collected and trapped outside, and when it evaporates, we add more rainwater (which is years old), and keep recycling. The only reason we lose water is to evaporation. In the summertime, 400 to 500 gallons per week evaporates. We only cut with clean water. Most shops cut with ‘gray water.’”
The system begins with the “gray water,” that is streaming at 250 gallons per minute through a pit in the floor, which is 12 feet wide x 12 feet wide x 14 feet deep. That water is then pumped up into a huge slurry tank, which spans from the floor to the ceiling; then, a series of controls turns pumps on and off, brings the slurry water up and through a filter press, which is actually from the original Polaroid factory (it was refabricated and retrofitted for the stone industry), and goes out of there, through another filter and into another huge clean water tank, where the water is then crystal clear.
“We don’t allow water bottles in the shop because you can’t tell the difference between our water and Poland Spring,” said Esmail. “You can’t drink it, but it’s crystal clear.”
Since waterjets are very sensitive machines, Esmail explained that they designed this secondary filtration system only for the waterjets. “The water then comes out of our clean tank, goes through a series of other tanks, where it flows and continues to get clean,” he said. “Then it goes through charcoal, diatomaceous earth, hurricane filters, light, reverse osmosis, and a series of six different types of filters, so when the water comes in, it’s drinking water quality. We cut on our waterjets with drinking water. It keeps the machines running longer.
“Nobody has this; we’re the only one,” Esmail went on to say. “It was custom designed for us. If you don’t have a water filtration system, you will go through $250 to $300 worth of filters each week. With this [system], we only change filters every eight weeks. So, this will actually pay for itself in another 14 months; it was worth the investment. But, it was a gamble. No one knew if it would work. We took a leap of faith.”
Although Artistic Tile has invested a lot of time, effort and money into its waterjet operations, Levinson is confident it’s been worth it. “What’s interesting, from a mosaic standpoint, is we feel like we’ve created something here in New Jersey,” he explained. “We’re manufacturing here in New Jersey. We’re supplementing the importation. We’re employing a significant number of people in mosaic production, whether it’s straight-cut mosaic or waterjet mosaic, in an area where businesses are leaving New Jersey. You couldn’t go and find people who knew how to make mosaics. We had to hire them and train them, all on our own, so now we have people who know how to make mosaics, and, they love it. They enjoy what they’re doing. It’s very fluid; it’s not a manufacturing job where you’re making the same thing every day.
“The nice thing about doing it in New Jersey is that we’re based here and we have a big market in the New York/Metropolitan area,” Levinson went on to say. “Designers can come here and look at their material being cut and can select the material being cut from, so they can be involved in the process, as opposed to doing it somewhere remote, where they don’t have the ability to really be involved and see what they’re getting.”
Although Epstein still serves as CEO and principal product designer of Artistic Tile, lending guidance wherever it’s needed and traveling the world to find stones still not seen here in the U.S., she has passed the torch on, so to speak, to the next generation of her family. However, when strategizing a business plan for the company, Epstein was conscientious in ensuring the success of her business, which is why she established a reliable team of several family members to help her carry on what she’s built.
Artistic Tile is known for being a family-run business, which offers thousands of stocked tile and natural stone products for immediate delivery, as well as in-house design services and complete custom capabilities. Aside from Levinson, a trio of family members hold leading positions at the company, including Levinson’s sister, Lauren Cherkas, President of Retail; Epstein’s youngest son, Zach Epstein, a Vice President in the company, who oversees various aspects of the wholesale and retail divisions; and Epstein’s middle son, Michael Epstein, Vice President of Marketing. “We’re trying to create a bigger tradition,” said Levinson.
Type of work: Primarily high-end custom residential, as well as commercial
Machinery: a Dynamic Waterjet machine from Flow International Corp. in Kent, WA; and two Maxiem 1515 Waterjet machines from Omax Corp. in Kent, WA (one with two heads and one with four heads)
Number of Employees: 135 (in Secaucus), as well as staff throughout its nine retail showrooms nationwide
Number of Shifts: 2, with an average production rate of between 200 and 400 square feet of material per day