This month’s profile focuses on one of the most unique areas within flooring design and installation: waterjet cutting. Euro-Floor Design’s owner Steve Soulsby sat down with CFJ to talk about how the technology works, what it’s used for, and how he got involved with it in the first place.
Initially working as a shopfitter, Steve quickly saw space in the flooring market for a dedicated tile cutting specialist.
‘I had a contact who did floors when I worked as a shopfitter, he used to do cutting of flooring materials. Back in the day all he did was cut borders and make tiles, so we had some of the old click presses, which you can’t use now because they’re illegal, and we made tiles and cut borders.’
Steve subsequently bought out the entire company, and removed the shopfitting side, which he wasn’t interested in, to focus on the flooring side.
‘I could see there was something in it,’ he adds.
It would be easy to assume waterjet cutting is a radically new technology. The use of water, shot at pressures of 55,000psi and combined with aggregates, to precisely cut through hard materials could be taken from science fiction. In reality, the machines have been in use for a significant period of time.
‘This technology goes back years. When it was first invented I don’t know exactly, but Forbo Nairn were the first company in the UK to have a waterjet cutting machine.’
That isn’t the only type of machine though, he adds, noting other companies use a solid cutting machine with a blade. These machines only cut soft materials however, and can’t cut hard materials or materials with an abrasive in them.
‘I’ve been working with the technology from only a few years after that. I remember the Forbo Nairn representative coming in to see me, and handing me a business card, inlaid using the waterjet machine itself. That’s what first impressed me about it,’ says Steve.
Once Steve purchased and began to use the machine, the scale and scope of jobs he could take on increased dramatically overnight. More than that, it allowed detailed designs to be created on a large scale which simply couldn’t be accomplished by hand.
‘Part of it was technology and part of it was necessity. We had a job coming up in London, to do the floors for the first hospital in a long time, called Evelina, a children’s hospital.’
Steve explains the hospital consisted of 5 levels, and each had a different theme, including an ice theme, forest theme, and others. They hospital had hired people to do special designs for the hospital so the children could find the animals depicted on the flooring.
‘The designs began with just a foot, and then the foot became something else, and it slowly led up to a big design on the floor which showed you a complete view of that particular animal. That is actually how we got the job!’ He says: ‘It was just too intricate and too complicated to do it by hand. Your hand couldn’t do it, but on top of that, the material wouldn’t allow it, some of the pieces are so small.’
He explains in particular, pieces which are smaller than the thickness of the material are impossible to cut by hand. The hospital job alone financed half of Steve’s machine, he adds: ‘So that was my deposit in a way!’
The potential for intricate design work in flooring is expanded to such an extent with the waterjet cutting machine, Steve says, it has become an almost artistic pursuit.
‘It’s even down to the type of pictures we can do, we cut out an image of the Queen from rubber!’
Euro-Floor made an advert based on that job: ‘Have you ever seen Queenie in rubber?’ In addition to the Queen in rubber, the company has cut David Bowie from woven vinyl.
‘You can recreate art with floor materials. What we do is art in floors. The demand for that hasn’t quite happened yet, but it should’ve done.’
Euro-Floor Design is by no means limited to artistic recreations however: ‘Football logos, we’ve done a few of those,’ he adds: ‘There’s just no aspect of business we haven’t done anything for. Hotels, most of the big stores as well.’
The machine itself is an impressive spectacle, taking up a large proportion of the room it occupies, and surrounded by complex apparatus for its operation. Steve goes in detail about how the machine is used.
‘It interfaces with a program called Surfcam. There are other programs that you can get that work with other machines but that particular one works with that particular program.’
After the Computer Assisted Design (CAD) work is completed, Steve inputs it into Surfcam and the design is broken down into separate pieces.
‘If it’s done in the right format,’ he continues: ‘Surfcam will understand all the lines, then put it into my machine. We then break the design down into pieces, because they can be taken apart, and finally you put it in the program and it gets cut.’
As might be expected, machinery operating at such a high level of pressure and intensity has to be handled very carefully, for both efficiency and safety.
‘We’ve got earmuffs and goggles for when the material goes over the bars. Even with the mesh sometimes, the water won’t go into the tank directly, and that’s when you get spitting.’
The mesh, Steve explains, sits between the material and the tank beneath, so waste can be cleanly disposed of but material doesn’t get lost in the tank.
‘I’ve got an even finer mesh which is only one millimetre, for even smaller material, otherwise you can’t retrieve it! The background is usually the biggest part, and that’s usually ok because its bigger than the holes.’
The smaller parts however, below 10-20mm, will fall through the gaps unless the correct size of mesh is used.
‘The machine is only dangerous if you get on it! You could possibly get caught on the machine and that could drag you across or do anything. It could cut through you definitely. So you have to be careful,’ he adds: ‘I’ve had the machine hit me with the jet. I was going to retrieve something and someone distracted me. It cuts through you like a blade, just like a Stanley knife. I’ve got marks where it’s done something to my hands and that’s it.’
Beyond the challenges posed to Steve in using the machine, he adds the complex and often relatively small nature of the end-product means contractors need to take extra care when installing waterjet cut flooring.
‘Sometimes the jobs I do require a bit more expertise on the part of the floorlayer. Some jobs are down to the fitter laying it correctly.’
The issue, Steve explains, is if it is a fraction wrong at the beginning, by the time the job is 6 metres down, it will be wildly out.
‘But by that time it will be too late, and then the blame falls to me, and I have to prove that it was cut right. Which we can do!’ He adds: ‘That kind of thing is very rare though.’
Keeping the subfloor flat is especially important for design work. ‘It’s not so bad for things that are very wide, or something that’s already inlaid into another material’ Steve says, ‘But when you’ve got smaller pieces, it’s very important it’s done correctly.’
Despite its complexities and challenges, Steve still considers the waterjet cutter an ‘amazing machine,’ and backs the technology wholesale.
‘You can’t beat it. Most of the time its far quicker. There are very few jobs it’s not quicker for. Straight cutting primarily, that’s when cutting by hand is an advantage, and it’s the only time to be honest.’
With the waterjet cutting a machine, a relatively smaller company like Euro-Floor Design isn’t limited to small jobs.
‘We can appear very big’, he says: ‘And it shows that you don’t have to be big to get into the big market.’
While Steve still operates the same machine he bought 14 years ago, waterjet cutting as a technology is still being innovated upon, advanced in all respects. The pump that creates the pressure is now much easier to make. It works faster and the pressure outputted by the machine can be increased.
‘As you increase pressure,’ Steve points out: ‘You can increase speed, and it doesn’t change the accuracy. The accuracy will always remain the same, as long as you maintain the machine! As long as you do that it’s all fine.’