If you’ve ever taken a shower, you know how important tile is. After thirty years of finessing heavy squares onto walls and back splashes, Ron Mielke is a master craftsman. He’ll outfit your bathroom with Italian marble or your kitchen with handmade tile – all with skills he learned from old Italian tile setters in the bowels of the New York City subway system.
“Sometimes I think, ‘I like what I do so much that I’d work for free if I didn’t have bills to pay,’” says Mielke. “Sounds corny, but it’s the Bohemian in me.”
When Mielke was eight years old, he built a garage with his father from the ground up, beginning his life-long love affair with creating space. As a young man, he became a carpenter for the city. “It was hide-and-seek for adults,” he explains. “They don’t give you any work to do but you can’t get caught doing nothing.”
So he spent his time with the older men setting the distinctive tile patterns in the Manhattan subways and peppered them with curiosity. “They just loved it because I was a young guy asking questions and hanging out with them and wanting to learn,” he says. Traditionally, trade skills were passed down from father to son, but when Mielke was starting out, that culture was beginning to fade. “Atari had just come out, so all the kids were busy with that,” he explains. “Kids didn’t want to do what their parents did any more.” He stepped into that gap and soaked up all the knowledge he could.
Master Identifier #1: Being the Superhero of Bathrooms
Mielke recently did a job for a couple expecting their first child. While trying to fix up the house before the baby came, they ended up $15,000 over budget – and the bathroom was still a mess.
Built in 1873 by one of the founding fathers of Madison, Wisconsin, they were hoping to have their house registered with the historical society. “But once you register your house, you’re very limited on what kind of work you can do,” Mielke explains. The stressed out couple kept running into problems of biblical plague-like proportions. Finally, they found Mielke on Thumbtack and, after he fixed their bathroom, they told him he saved the day.
“They were a young couple and didn’t know where to go,” he explains. “I think they’ll probably always use Thumbtack from now on.”
Master Identifier #2: Installing Fancy Stuff
Italian marble bathrooms and exquisite old kitchens are Mielke’s forte. In another recent job, he outfitted a 120-year-old home with handmade tiles featuring dragon flies and oak leaf clusters. “It was just a beautiful old kitchen,” he says.
He can recreate old-fashioned bathrooms – the gorgeous handiwork, not the antiquated plumbing. “We did the whole thing in marble,” he says of another job. “I put my touch on everything. I was taught by the old guys and this is what they would’ve made.”
Master Identifier #3: Telling You When Your Tile Is Ugly
One small kitchen he worked on took several tries to get the tile right. “The first time I went over there to do the work, I looked at the tile and said, ‘You don’t want me to put this stuff up.’” He showed her why and won an “Oh, jeez” from the client, along with a promise to pick new tile. When he came back, he was presented with stainless steel.
“The stainless steel is a trendy thing,” he says. “I told her in ten years it’s going to be out of style – if you try to sell your house it might work against you to have this stuff.” She finally ended up with a nice slate tile. “It came out looking great in the end,” he laughs.