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An Ancient Form Made New: Waterjet Fabrication Expands The Designers Repertoire

By Jim Belilove, President, Creative Edge and Ron Blair, Creative Edge

ABOVE & BELOW: The Cherokee Nation Military Memorial — This project again shows the versatility of the waterjet technology. The memorial wall is composed of 1-inch granite slabs; the war feathers are inlaid granite, while the lettering, in Cherokee and English, is stainless steel overlay. The accompanying colored medallion of The Cherokee Nation is made of porcelain tile set in a radiating pattern. The porcelain pieces were factory assembled and ready made for installation. Location: Cherokee Nation, Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

John Deere
Cost of Wisconsin
Ferris Industries Playworld
Teak Warehouse Valmont
BCI Burke Company The Cedar Store

The advent of waterjet technology has dramatically expanded options for shaping and combining architectural materials. Landscape architects will benefit from this remarkable process in their core mission of creating functional, meaningful and beautiful outdoor spaces.

Bella Terra Shopping Center — Graphic Artist, Marc Romero of Santa Monica’s Romero/Thorsen Design, fully exploited the potential of waterjet to build these colorful outdoor medallions. The broad range of materials including, glass tile, glazed ceramic, porcelain, slate, limestone, and bronze, work together under his bold masterful vision. Five total medallions were installed on 4-inch concrete platforms among sand set brick pavers. Location: Huntington Beach, California.

Waterjet technology made its first appearance in the 1980’s. The technology is based on energizing water to extreme pressures, and the focusing of a tiny stream through an orifice of sapphire, ruby or diamond. This stream becomes a powerful cutting tool, which can cut an unprecedented variety of materials, without heat or mechanical force. With the waterjets, the process of shaping and combining materials has greatly expanded flexibility.




Today, waterjet technology is used in fabrication of aerospace parts, laminates, auto glass, frozen pizza, paper products, ceramic molds and much more. For the landscape architect the waterjet is important for its ability to work with the basic materials used in the outdoor landscape: granite, marble, glass, brass, bronze, stainless, ceramics and terrazzo.

Waterjet technology, under computer guidance, can make precise cuts in all these architectural materials. Because this technology does not exert lateral mechanical force, the brittle materials such as stone, glass and ceramics can be intricately shaped. Complex holes, inside corners and tight radiuses are easy to achieve with waterjet, yet are severely limited with other fabrication methods.

I had a startling moment of insight, and realized how important this technology will be for artistry and design. All the beauty of stone would now have endless possibilities for shaping, inlay, graphics, various colors, textures and combinations.—Harri Aalto, sculptor, fine artist, founder of Creative Edge Master Shop

Waterjet pressures are usually developed through a two-step pump. Initially hydraulic fluid is brought to a conventional high pressure of about 3000 psi; in a special intensifier cylinder, the hydraulic pressure is then converted at 20:1 ratio into water pressure of 60,000 psi. As one might imagine, the plumbing, joining and valving components are highly specialized for containing the flow of such fluids.

An interesting fact about water, is that even at such high pressures, compression of volume is minimal – perhaps 10 percent. This contrasts greatly with the results of pressurizing gas where volumes generally shrink 90 percent or more. One happy result is that pressurized water, even at 60,000 psi does not have the potential to explode.

ABOVE & BELOW: U. S. Astronauts Memorial — This monument, known as the “Space Mirror” is on display at Cape Kennedy, Florida. This project, embodying the ultimate in dissimilar material, where 2-inch thick granite is inlaid with 2-inch lexan letters, is made possible by waterjet. The lexan forms “windows”, which sunlight illuminates from behind the letters. Diffraction gratings etched on the lexan surface cause the letters to sparkle. The entire 40-foot space mirror rotates on a bearing and tilts with the season to track the sunlight. The design by the San Francisco firm, Holt Hinshaw Pfau & Jones won the design competition for this installation, sponsored by Progressive Architecture Magazine.

Is Waterjet Green?

Today landscape architects are challenged to design structures taking into account their total impact on environment and ecology. Waterjet supports green building goals in that its main elements have low impact. Regular city water (with filtering) carries the energy; naturally occurring garnet sand is the cutting medium. No particulates or harmful by-products are generated. The sand and water may be recycled. Local and indigenous rock and stone are made more useable in decorative materials. All components and technology are made in the USA.

Water Only Waterjet

The water only cutting head can be used to cut soft floor finish materials such as linoleum, vinyl, cork and carpet. For the outdoor environment, the most interesting capabilities of the water only head are indoor-outdoor carpet, artificial turf, rubber matting, and athletic surfaces. Waterjet has been used to make team emblems and logos on soccer fields, numbering and sponsor logos on running tracks and designs in outdoor play areas.

Water Only Head Diagram

Abrasive Head

Abrasive Waterjet

In abrasive waterjet, powdered abrasive sand, usually garnet, is fed into the water stream. The resulting mixture of super high-pressure water and garnet traveling at 3000 mph, becomes an extremely potent cutting tool. The cutting stream thus formed is only approximately 1/16-inch in diameter, yet this tiny stream carries 30 to 50 HP of energy. The cutting action is like accelerated erosion, which wears its way through the material a particle at a time. This cutting action is the basis of the waterjet’s ability to fabricate brittle materials such as glass, stone, ceramics and the like. With water as the cutting medium, heat is carried off as material is cut.

The self-cooling water stream is the basis of waterjet’s ability to cut metals such as stainless, aluminum, copper and bronze, cleanly without burning, warping or oxidation.

Advantages of Waterjet


  • Small cutting tool means tight inside radiuses of .015-inch
  • On-material piercing for interior holes down to 1/4-inch in diameter
  • Brittle materials cut into intricate shapes
  • Metals cut without burning or warping
  • Dissimilar materials can be combined – stone-metal, glass-metal, ceramic, stone, etc.

Abrasive Head Photo – Nozzle with Stream

Technology Enables Artistry

As ever, new technical methods give rise to new forms of artistry. Freed from many of the constraints of the fabrication of architectural materials, designers, and landscape architects have embraced the possibilities of waterjet fabrication. Harri Aalto is a sculptor and fine artist as well as founder of Creative Edge Master Shop. CEMS was among the first to recognize the potential of waterjet applied to decorative materials. Writing in 1988, Aalto said, “Waterjet is being used for many useful tasks, but when I understood its characteristic, I had a startling moment of insight, and realized how important this technology will be for artistry and design. All the beauty of stone would now have endless possibilities for shaping, inlay, graphics, various colors, textures and combinations. My dedication is to explore that potential.”

Mall of South Carolina — Located in Myrtle Beach, this indoor landscape has brilliant colors of epoxy Terrazzo, with compass animal shapes, lettering, etc. This 80-foot in diameter floor was poured in place using aluminum dividers, which are waterjet cut from metal plates. The adjacent illustration shows the use of masonite templates to position waterjet dividers prior to on-site pouring. Factory made dividers of this type greatly improve the accuracy of shaped details, and letters and drastically reduce the job-site set up time.

Elaborate stone floors, of course, have been made for many centuries. However, working with chisels, grinders and saws, technical limitations required most shapes to be straight lines or gentle curves. If detailed inlays were attempted, the material was very thin and the resulting pieces not durable. The modern waterjet can accomplish stone fabrication detail in minutes, which could take days or weeks by hand. Complex installations are done in weeks, which would take decades by manual methods, and waterjet can fabricate inside curves and opening details in thick durable pieces, which could never be achieved by manual methods.

Stone Pattern, Old Way

Stone Pattern, Waterjet

At Creative Edge, Harri Aalto acts as a designer for custom projects, but more often CEMS is a fabricator realizing the design ideas of its client: public artists, architects, interior designers and landscape architects. The partnership between a creative designer and experienced fabricator is a key to realizing the potential of this technology. Designers and artists are thinking of colors, textures, shapes and the purposes of their client. The fabricator has essential insight into what can be made, how it can be made functional and durable and what the relevant cost trade offs are.

South Pasadena Florida — This town entry mural on Florida’s West Coast contains stone, porcelain and metal, all cut by waterjet. The sub-assembled tiles are cemented to a concrete structure and grouted using sanded outdoor latex. Ceramic glaze and through body porcelain ensure permanent colors.

Pricing and Specifying Waterjet

The project architect must always be mindful of the costs of specifying project features. Although waterjet has seemingly amazing abilities to add features and design, it also has costs. Waterjet costs are mostly related to the amount of time the material spends on the waterjet machine. Thus a simple chart shows the main factors in waterjet costs.

Adds to cost


  • Number of cuts per square foot – more intense detail raises cost.
  • Thickness of material – heavier materials – e.g. 2-inch and 3-inch stone are more expensive then 3/8-inch tile.
  • Quality of edge – waterjet edges get substantially rougher with speed of cut. In many landscape architect projects, a smooth edge is not required, but where edges show or where tight fit is required, slow cuts and higher costs result.

China Town San Francisco — This design of traditional Chinese calligraphy is realized entirely in waterjet cut, inlaid 2-inch thermally finished granite. All colors are natural stone. Notice intricate brush stroke details. Such pieces of stone are fragile when intricately cut, but are extremely durable once inlaid and epoxy grouted. The 30-foot in diameter artwork was factory assembled and delivered in 42 pieces.

Not Much Effect in Cost


  • Variety of materials – it is not especially expensive to add an additional color or material
  • It is not more expensive to make a curve than a straight line

Smooth Edge

Rough Edge Photo

All these factors and others, of course, are considered and reflected in the fabricators bid for a project. This information should help the landscape architect understand the sensitivities.

Setting Methods

A fundamental element of the waterjet method is epoxy setting and grouting materials. When brittle materials are cut into small delicate shapes, breakage would seem to be an issue. With the proper epoxy for making joints and backers, stone, glass and ceramics actually can become stronger than they are before cutting. Joints actually add strength, flexibility and traction; they can be a positive part of the artistic and technical design specification.

All hard surface patterns over 1 to 2 feet in size must be subdivided for handling, shipping and assembly. There is no limit to pattern sizes. They run from 4 square feet to 10,000 square feet and up. In larger patterns, of course, it is essential that subassembly is carefully thought out, documented and labeled.

Vartek Building, Lancaster, Texas — This historic building in the town center of Lancaster, near Dallas has a waterjet fabricated porcelain mural. This 18-foot medallion shows scenes from Lancaster’s past, present and future such as a stagecoach, oil well, space shuttle, etc. It was set in a unitary concrete platform using a medium bed and sanded grout.

Assembly Methods

Since waterjet involves cutting materials into pieces, sometimes very small pieces, the project designer must specify how the joints are to be made. One basic distinction involves whether the project is assembled in grids or is sub assembled in curving joints that relate to the shapes in the image.

These images illustrate the different approaches to sub assembly. Grids are used where material substrates are small – such as ceramic and stone tile, where patterns are large and simple, or where the designer’s vision uses a grid for artistic reasons. Grid patterns are easier to install.

Grid Diagram

Grid Photo

In general higher quality projects with larger format slabs and sheets of material will use irregular patterns. The joints are planned to work with the shapes in the image and are part of the design not apart from it. Note: The complex medallion whose 1200 pieces are sub-assembled into 62 interlocking shapes.

Irregular Piece Photo

Irregular Piece Diagram

Isolation and Crack Protection

Waterjet patterns are usually a focal signature piece in a landscape, or are a public art piece themselves. It is all the more important that they do not deteriorate, crack, or become discolored. The waterjet piece should be set on its own foundation not connected with surrounding materials. Anti fracture, drainage mats and anti moisture membranes are vital as are precautions for drainage and the upward migration of ground water. The modern setting systems, which include fortified concrete, dry pack beds and epoxy grouts form the repertoire for the landscape architect to protect these installations.

The Federal Reserve Plaza - Minneapolis – Entrance Medallion — This piece composed of 2-inch Minnesota materials from Cold Spring Granite Company forms the entrance to the 1997 Federal Reserve Building. Five colors of granite are cut in detail to represent the historical development of Minneapolis on the Mississippi River. The 22-foot medallion is composed of 850 pieces of stone. Engineering considerations on this project included: the Minneapolis climate with its 150-degree annual temperature swings, vehicular traffic and the combination of bronze plaques with the granite matrix. There are 16 photo etched bronze pieces showing details of historic buildings. Lettering is solid bronze inlaid in stone. An integral 22-foot in diameter concrete base was used as an isolation platform for the medallion, with moisture barriers and anti-fracture membranes.

Pour-in-Place Materials, Terrazzo, Concrete, Etc.

Waterjet methods can also make possible innovative effects with poured surfacing materials such as terrazzo, concrete or similar agglomerates.

Colored agglomerates are often poured into bent metal divider frames to make letters, logos, maps or artistic patterns. Where detail is intense or the exact shape is important, the waterjet can be used to cut the divider frame, on its x-y table. The result is an exact reproduction of a coastline, for example the Caribbean area shown at left.

Terrazzo Forms Old Way

New Way

Mosaics Old Way

Waterjet Way

Also special shapes of metal, stone or glass can be made by waterjet and set in place. Terrazzo or concrete may be poured around the shapes to form a permanent feature of the landscape.

Insectarium Audubon Museum – Entrance Medallion — As part of New Orleans’s recovery and revival, the Audubon Society is creating a major attraction on Canal Street. A museum is being built dedicated to bugs, ants, beetles, termites, moths, etc., known as The Audubon Insectarium. The entrance medallion, fabricated by waterjet consists of granite slabs with bronze outlines. The Butterfly image is 12 feet long and is inlaid into the surrounding pavers. Installation segments are approximately 2 feet by 3 feet. They weigh 50 to 80 lbs. and can be installed with a two-man crew.

In recent years a variety of precast agglomerate products have become available. These pavers, in 18 by 18-inch to 36 by 36-inch grids, can be factory fabricated with contrasting colors and textures, preassembled and installed on site to make large colorful patterns. Some of these pre-cast materials gain their color from the chips used in the mixture; others feature colorfast high temperature pigments directly in the matrix. All such pre-cast pavers: concrete, rustic terrazzo or cementitious terrazzo are ideal for a grid based waterjet pattern.

ABOVE & BELOW: Canyon of Heroes New York — This outdoor educational narrative spans 45 blocks on Broadway in lower Manhattan. Each waterjet cut block of granite with inlaid stainless lettering commemorates one of the 200 Ticker Tape Parades celebrated in “The Canyon” over 100 years. The resident or tourist traveling the Canyon of Heroes route learns of the Voyage of Lindbergh, American Red Cross, Sukarno - President of Indonesia, Emperor Haile Selassie, Pershing’s Army 1918, John Glenn and The New York Yankee’s. Sponsored by Lower Manhattan Downtown Alliance, designed by Pentagram and managed by Dale Travis Associates NYC, these 3-inch granite slabs are inlaid with stainless and grouted with epoxy setting materials.

Mosaic Floors and Murals

Mosaics have been made for thousands of years. Small pieces of stone or glass are used to approximate shapes and patterns. Mosaics with a high degree of artistry were particularly developed in ancient Rome and subsequent Mediterranean countries. The “pixilated” look of mosaics is of course, integral to its charm, but represents a basic technical limitation. With waterjet, smooth cuts through both large and small pieces and “pixilated” textures can be combined with resulting new effects and artistry.

Material Combinations

Close up Material Combinations

A particularly attractive feature of waterjet technology is its ability to process different materials with the same fabrication technique. Thus dissimilar materials can be combined and exact fit assured. Examples include glass and marble, metal and granite, and coarse and fine agglomerates.

Glass Sculpture, Corporate Plaza — This sculpture by artist Edwina Sandys was fabricated from 3-inch thick laminated tinted glass. It forms a central decorative piece at Monsanto Corporation’s, St. Louis Headquarters. Glass edges have a sandblasted texture, and are smooth enough to remain exposed without protection. 16-by-5-foot panels were cut by waterjet at a speed of 1.5 inches per minute.

Hotel Lobby — In 1995, hotel owner, Kerim Merali renovated and updated the Radisson Hotel in Rapid City, SD. Merali became interested in the work of Harri Aalto of Creative Edge and sought his vision in creating art for the lobby that reflected the region and its attractions. The resulting waterjet Mt. Rushmore floor contains 40 varieties of stone and is composed of 2000 pieces. The outdoor mural displays the eagle of the Black Hills, and the front desk landscape mural contains 1200 pieces of ceramic and porcelain depicting a hidden Badlands waterfall.

Fireman’s Memorial in Chicago — Composed of five panels of three-foot by 8-foot metal, this 17 foot long installation was designed by artist Chris Yoko. Thousands of cuts (with a line width down to 1/16 of an inch) were required for this highly detailed piece which represents a panorama of Chicago’s architectural landmarks such as Hancock Tower, Buckingham Fountain, Water Tower Place and Sears Tower. The main artistic concept was to use two different kinds of steel—stainless, which stays bright, with Cor-Ten™ steel, which rusts to a dark, rusted patina.

For more information contact Ron Blair, Creative Edge, 800-394-8145,


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October 15, 2019, 4:54 am PDT

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