Frederick M. Hueston, PhD

I hope the title of this month’s column is not going to offend anyone, but the it is fitting for a case I was asked to evaluate. Read on and you’ll see why…

It was a cold winter morning here in Florida … heck, I think it got down to 65 degrees F. (Sorry, had to rub that in for all my friends in the North.)

 So, I put on my overcoat, grabbed my fedora and headed out the door to go you know where. Yup – off to my favorite greasy spoon for some cold-fighting carbs and a cup of joe – or maybe this morning I should change it up a bit and grab some hot chocolate. 

Just as I was starting the ole Woody, my cell phone rang. “Stone Detective here,” I said, shivering. The voice on the other end was faint, as if they were talking from a distance. The gentleman started saying something about a tile job he did, and the tile wasn’t bonding properly. Well, this is a common problem – I see it all the time. There are dozens of reasons why a tile can debond, so this was going to take some investigation. 

I started asking him all the standard questions. What type of tile was it? What type of setting mortar? Etc. etc.  I asked him over 100 questions and every answer was well within industry standards. I realized this was going to be another puzzling case.  I told him I would have to come and inspect the job to see what was causing the debonding, and he agreed. 

Well folks, if I thought I was cold now, sitting in my 60 degree car, this project was in Minnesota – and it was January. Talk about cold! It was time for this old man to break out his long johns, or maybe even wear the snow mobile suit I use for riding my Harley in Winter. Anyway, we made arrangements for me see the project the following week.

When I arrived at the Minneapolis airport, there was this white stuff on the ground. I felt cold just looking at it. I rented a car and headed to St. Cloud where the project was. On the radio, I heard it was even colder there. Why is it I always get these projects in the winter? If anyone has a project in Hawaii…let me know ASAP –  LOL!

I got in my rental car, cranked up the heater, and headed down the frosty road for the inspection. Wouldn’t you know – just as I was leaving the parking lot, it started to snow. I mean really snow. I have never seen snowflakes that big in my life! Luckily, I had rented a four-wheel drive SUV. It amazed me how people seemed to be zipping around, driving without a care in the world, in these conditions! They acted like nothing was on the road. I passed several semis that were stuck on the side of the road as I crawled my way down the highway at 30 MPH. 

I eventually arrived at a large office building and managed to find a parking spot amidst the piles of snow. Just as I placed it in park, I noticed a large gentleman looming beside my car. He looked just like Burl Ives, and for a minute I thought he was going to break out into the Frosty the Snowman song. (I realize that some of you youngsters might not have a clue who Burl Ives is – so Google it, kids.) 

I got out of the car and he greeted me with that well-known Minnesota accent. You know the one. If you’ve seen the movie Fargo, you know what I’m talking about.  

“I assume you’re the stone detective,” he said. I extended my shaking hand out to him and said, “ Yes, I am, and boy, I’ve never experienced this level of cold and snowy!”  He mentioned something about a blizzard on Halloween in 1991. I assumed that’s a Minnesota thing.

He led me into the office building, where they were still laying tile.  He pointed to the area that had been completed, took a suction cup and pulled up a tile as if it was just laying there. I examined the back of the tile, looking for a fiberglass backing or something. I asked him for some water, so I could test the absorbency of the tile. He handed me a bottle out of a near-by cooler ( I didn’t ask why they needed a cooler in this weather), and I placed a drop of water on the tile. It absorbed it, lickity-split. So, my next guess was it was a setting mortar issue.  

He showed me what they used, how they mixed it. “As a matter of fact,” he said, “my guys are setting some now. Let’s go take a look.”

 I watched his guys work for about a half an hour and did not see a thing they were doing wrong. Just as I was about to ask to have a sample of the mortar tested, one of the installers got up and went outside and brought in some more tile. BINGO – or should I say “Holy Frosty Buckets!” I knew right away what might be wrong.  I looked around for Burl and found him outside smoking. I asked him to come inside and I would tell him what I found. 

I walked over to the tile that the installer had just brought in and picked it up. I handed it to him and asked. “How does that feel?” He looked at me and said, “Like a tile.” I chuckled and then asked him if it felt cold. He shook his head yes. I then told him the reason the tile was debonding was due to temperature difference between the tile and the setting material. The setting material was inside a warm building and the tile was out in the cold. The temperature difference was not allowing for proper bonding. He shook his head in agreement. I told him they should bring the tile inside and let it acclimate to the temperature inside, and it should then bond, with no problem. He agreed that would solve the issue, and sang, grinning, “Baby, it’s cold outside.” I almost told him he even sounded like Burl Ives - but I didn’t want to offend him -  LOL!

The Stone Detective is a fictional character created by Dr. Frederick M. Hueston, PhD, written to entertain and educate. Dr. Fred 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. Send your email comments to him at