Frederick M. Hueston, PhD

People never cease to amaze me. Some folks have no idea of the value of things. This is especially true in the stone and tile business. You should get a kick out of the following story – I know I did!

It was one of those rare, beautiful early summer mornings. The sun was shining and the temperature was about 68 degrees. It was one of those days I wanted to shut off my phone and either take a long motorcycle ride or hop in the boat and spend the day fishing… or maybe both! It had been a slow week and I thought I might be able to sneak away… and then I got a call from a contractor friend of mine.  

I hadn’t heard from Joe in a while, and every time I saw him pop up on my phone I rolled my eyes. I nicknamed him Major Problems Joe. It seemed every little thing was a major problem. 

I remember getting a call from him one day saying that his floor machine had no power. I went through the standard troubleshooting routine: Check the breakers, is it plugged in, etc. He was in a total panic. Finally, I figured out that there was a breaker on the motor, and once it was reset he was good to go. So I wondered what major problem this one might be. 

He began to tell me that he was working on a lobby in a major hotel that had a slate floor. He said it had numerous coats of polyurethane on it and it wasn’t coming off. I asked him what strippers he was using and he said he doesn’t hire strippers… they’re too expensive… badda-boom. 

This was Joe’s way of getting a laugh and I have to admit I did chuckle a little.  

I must have told him a million times that when it comes to urethane and epoxy coatings he needs to use a strong solvent stripper that contains Methylene Chloride.  He told me he couldn’t use it since the hotel lobby was open in the center and the fumes would rise up to the guest rooms. “Simply unacceptable,” is how the hotel management put it.

Before I could say any more, he offered to fly me up there to solve the problem. Thank goodness it was spring ’cause I hated going north in the winter. This ole man can’t take the cold anymore. The next day I was on a flight and headed for the home of the buffalo. No, not the animal: the football team.

I exited the plane and was headed for the concourse when I saw Joe waving at me. He looked beat. He had major shadows under his eyes and looked like he hadn’t slept in days. 

“You look like crap,” I said, shaking his hand. He said, “Thanks, it’s nice to see you, too! Seriously, this job is killing me!”

We made it to his truck and I threw my bags in the back. I was expecting to go to my hotel, because it was a looong flight, and I was bushed.

Instead, he took me right to the jobsite. Of course, he did… after all, this was a major problem.  

I walked into the lobby and sure enough, the entire lobby floor was a (formerly nice) slate with so much polyurethane on it that it looked black. Joe told me he had only been doing tests and demos. He was still trying to figure out how to strip the urethane off without using a strong stripper and the fumes that came with it. And lucky for him I knew exactly what to use.

However, it was going to take a couple of days for the product to come in. I was going to fix his major problem with a safe stripper made with citrus peels. It contains what is known as a terpene. It has hardly any odor. The down side – it is very expensive and it takes time to work. Well, I now had a day or two to waste. Since I was up north and supposedly the salmon were running, I might still get to go fishing! Off I went while we waited for the product to come in. Not a bad deal!

A couple of days passed and the product was in. I met Joe at the hotel and we picked a spot to strip. After spending all night on a 10 foot by 10 foot area – most of the time spent waiting – the urethane was totally stripped off. Joe was happier than I had seen him in a while.

He asked if I could help him figure out a cost and if I could meet with the hotel manager in the morning. “Yeah, I can do that,” I said. 

We went for breakfast to talk it over. We sat down and calculated that the stripper alone was going to cost about $5,000. The labor and everything else would run about 10K. 

That was reasonable, I thought, to fix a major eyesore in a prominent hotel. So, Joe’s total restoration bill was going to be about $15K. Now that you know that, you had better sit down for what’s to come next.

We met with the hotel manger the next morning. She was overwhelmed with the results. She keep going on and on about how many years she has had dozens of contractors try to remove all this urethane. She just couldn’t believe it. She called the engineering head and the cleaning people to show them. I have never seen someone so excited over a floor. Anyway, after she settled down she told us that they were going to have their annual meeting here and that this needed to completed within a week. That’s not impossible, I thought, but it’s going to cost more than we calculated. Are you still sitting down?

She looked Joe straight I the eye and said the following: “I hope you’re not one of those contractors that are going to tell me that this is going to cost me $500.00 to strip.”

That’s not a typo – she actually thought it would cost less than five hundred dollars. My mouth hit the floor and I was waiting for the punch line. But, she was dead serious. 

I couldn’t wait to hear what Joe was going to say. He extended his hand to her and said, “No, I’m not.” Then he walked out the door, with her following right behind him. I just smiled and kept my mouth shut. I have to admit I was proud that he stuck to his guns.

The good news is, he did eventually get the work.

The Stone Detective is a fictional character created by Fred Hueston, written to be entertaining and educational. He has written over 33 books on stone and tile installations, fabrication and restoration and also serves as an expert for many legal cases across the world. You can send any email comments to him at