Don’t tell Troy Bassett and Joe Snell they can’t learn anything by watching television.
As they watched one of the first episodes of “Orange County Choppers” on the Discovery Channel, a steel plate was cut cleanly and accurately with a water jet tool. The friends and business partners were intrigued.
After running a successful tile business for 18 years, Bassett and Snell were ready for a change. The granite countertop business was attractive.
“It was a natural progression for us to go from tile to granite,” said Bassett, co-owner of Precision Water Jet, 207 S. Columbia St. in Wenatchee.
But they knew one of the drawbacks of cutting tile with a blade is imperfect edges caused by high heat and the resulting blade deflection. The partners began researching a better way to cut the thick and rock-hard countertop material.
After seeing how the steel plate was cut so cleanly and accurately on the TV show, the water jet tool was worth a serious look.
With research, the partners discovered the water jet technology was developed to precision-cut metal for the aviation industry. The advantage of cutting metal with a water jet tool is its accuracy and cutting temperature; it doesn’t get hot and temper the metal’s cut edge. A tempered edge is a weak point, and therefore unsuitable for aircraft construction.
“The water jet machines were not designed to cut rock,” said Snell, fellow co-owner of the business.
But that fact didn’t stop the entrepreneurs from thinking outside the box. They were impressed with the concept and knew it was worth further investigation.
“We wanted to see if a water jet tool could cut through thick granite,” Bassett said. “So we picked up some granite seconds from a couple of stone warehouses in Seattle and took them to the Omax Corporation, a manufacturer of water jet equipment in Kent.”
Omax obliged. Test cuts on the granite pieces were done at the manufacturing plant, and included straight lines, curves and circles.
“We saw firsthand how quickly and accurately a water jet tool could cut granite,” Bassett said. “It worked quite well, and we were impressed with both its cutting ability and its accuracy.”
The partners learned about 5 percent of water jet machines were being used to cut stone at that time. The Omax Corporation provided phone numbers of a few businesses across the nation who used a water jet tool to cut stone.
“We called them and they had very positive things to say about the technology,” Bassett said.
Armed with a rock-solid idea and the promise of a bright future, the optimistic business partners sought financing.
“After hearing our pitch and seeing our samples cut with a water jet tool, the bankers weren’t as excited about it as we were,” Snell said. “They chuckled and sent us out the door.”
But some things are just meant to be.
“Word somehow got out that we were seeking financing, and out of the blue, an independent investor stepped up to finance our endeavor,” Bassett said. “He told us that someone had helped him finance his successful business years ago, and he was happy to pay it forward.”
So, in 2005, with financing secured, a $205,000 Omax water jet tool was purchased, and Precision Water Jet (precisionwaterjetinc.com) opened its doors in a 2,000 square-foot facility on Columbia Street.
Customers immediately appreciated the clean lines the new water jet tool cut in granite.
“It’s nice to have a local slab stone and quartz fabricator who is capable of doing it all,” said Joel McDonald, owner of Inside Design Carpet One Floor & Home. “Precision Water Jet’s capabilities are remarkable. There are not really many limitations as to what they can produce design-wise. Your only limitation is your imagination.”
Customers’ imaginations must have run wild, because business exploded as soon as Precision Water Jet opened its doors.
“It was tough to keep up with demand,” Bassett said.
In 2006, Joe Ahl joined Precision Water Jet as the third co-owner. Ahl lives in Pateros and handles jobs for the business in the Chelan area and north.
In just 18 months, the thriving business outgrew its space. It moved to its current location and bought a second Omax water jet machine to double its work capacity.
“One of the main reasons we chose this building is the bridge crane,” Bassett said. “Wells and Wade constructed this 8,000 square-foot building back in the 1970s as an irrigation pipe distribution center. They put the crane in as part of the construction of the building. We use the crane all day long, every day.”
The crane makes lifting the heavy and awkward granite slabs easy work. The rock slabs typically weigh about 1,200 pounds, measure 6-feet by 10-feet and are 1.25 inches thick.
Most granite slabs used at the business are imported from Italy, India and Brazil, but some come from Canada and the United States. Precision Water Jet buys granite slabs from 6 wholesalers in the port of Seattle.
Granite slabs are cut from a mountain with cables sprinkled with diamond dust and water. Each slab is given a UPC sticker identifying its lot (section of the mountain from which it is cut), block (cube cut from the lot) and sequence in its bundle (6 to 8 slabs in a bundle). This allows customers with large jobs to order adjacent slabs to maintain consistent coloring.
Precision Water Jet uses laser equipment at the job site to custom measure exact as-built dimensions for a perfect fit. Back at the shop, the information is uploaded to the Omax software program. Once laid out in the auto-CAD program, the information is sent to the Omax water jet machine. The machine operator decides how to divide up a job to make it buildable. The operator sets up each project piece and the computer-controlled water jet tool does its work.
The granite slab is immersed just below the water surface to reduce noise during the cutting process.
The Omax water jet machine produces 55,000 pounds of water pressure per square inch and uses 80-grit garnet sand to cut one linear foot of granite per minute. Sand is stored in a small tank attached to the water jet machine, and fed through a narrow tube into the high pressure water stream. It takes three to four hours for the water jet tool to completely cut an entire job for a kitchen countertop. The high pressure water will cut granite without the sand, just slower.
“The Grand Canyon was cut with just water,” Bassett said. “But it took some time.”
The Omax water jet machines are watertight and hold about 3 feet of water. The deep water slows down the cutting stream and disperses the energy. The bottom of the water tank is covered with armored plating to keep the pressurized water stream from cutting into the bottom of the tank. Slurry from the cut fills the tank in about six months, and a vacuum truck comes to remove the sediment.
But when it comes to water use, the business is as green as it can be.
“Our shop is 100 percent closed-loop on our water system,” Bassett said. “The machine uses a third of a gallon of water a minute. Everything that goes through the water jet machine is filtered and recycled.”
In addition to the two Omax water jet machines, Precision Water Jet also has a specialized edge polishing tool equipped with a series of diamond cutting wheels, from 100 to 3,000 grit.
When the job calls for thickened countertop edges, a second piece of material is epoxied and clamped along the edge. Edge finishes, such as bullnose or bevels, are cut with a diamond bit on a 3 horsepower router.
Granite accounts for about 80-percent of Precision Water Jet’s business. It also works with marble, limestone, quartz and steel.
The business recently acquired exclusive selling rights to Cambria, a producer of quartz countertop material with a manufacturing plant in Minnesota. It’s the only Cambria dealer between Seattle and Spokane.
“Cambria is a very green product that is mined all over the United States and Canada,” Bassett said. “We believe in this product and are pleased to carry it. Quartz is harder and more scratch resistant than granite, and it doesn’t absorb as much water. It’s almost an indestructible countertop material.”
The business owners see the economy improving. And, unlike the bankers who didn’t share their vision, they’re upbeat about the future. They also like their location in downtown Wenatchee.
“At lunch time I jump on my bike and ride around the Loop Trail,” Bassett said. “Things are looking good and we’re living the dream.”