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Mechanical Engineer Chooses Concrete over Current Job

Cantilevered concrete countertop with a crevasse for water to run through.
Photos courtesy of Thiel Studios

For as long as he can remember, Joshua Thiel has had a passion for creating and building while also finding innovative solutions to problems. After going to school for mechanical engineering and spending years fabricating and learning how to work with different materials, it seemed like a natural fit to dive into concrete.

“I’ve worked with high-tech materials such as Kevlar and titanium alloys but found the crude nature of concrete to be interesting,” says Thiel.

He fell in love with concrete while renovating his first home’s kitchen and realizing throughout the process that it encompassed everything he enjoyed. “It entailed problem solving, designing, creativity and innovation — all while getting my hands dirty. I had no idea this would lead me to being a concrete artisan,” says Thiel.

Square sloped concrete sink in a floating vanity design.

Discovering GFRC
After playing with wet casting for a couple of years in his garage, Thiel took one GFRC training course to add to his skillset. This form of concrete was just another element he wanted to add to his arsenal of materials, he adds, to bring his ideas to life.

“GFRC opened my eyes to the endless potential of form ability,” says Thiel. “That class really fueled my passion for creativity and I just couldn’t turn my brain off to all of the things I now wanted to create.”

Seamless kitchen countertop with integral sink and drain board GFRC.

This was the spark that made Thiel decide to quit his career as an engineer and start his own decorative concrete business. After working for several innovative corporations right out of college and working at a computer for endless hours, he wanted a change.

“I didn’t want to live a monotonous, passionless career waiting for 5 p.m. each day,” says Thiel. “In my 20s, I had this absurd goal I would find a way to be retired at 35. Little did I know that I would have a career path shift at 35 to follow my passion for innovative creation as a concrete artisan.”

He hasn’t “worked” a day since, he insists. “I truly enjoy what I do every day and have a passion for it. I tell people I was able to retire after all.”

Large GFRC table for an outside kitchen with bolts on the corner.

A time to grow
Thiel sees concrete as a big step in his journey that will evolve as he learns new things. Thiel Studios, a decorative concrete design studio, opened its doors in Palm Beach, Florida, in 2013. It specializes in custom, handcrafted concrete.

“I’m proud of the growth I’ve experienced since (we opened) and I have been privileged to work with amazing clients and have a hand in some amazing projects,” he says.

Huge concrete coffee table that would take many people to move.

Thiel notes that he opened the studio hoping his work would speak for itself. And sure enough, it did and his business continues to grow. “I still have my studio in Palm Beach and I recently expanded to Charlotte, North Carolina, which will be my home base where I live with my wife and two young children.”

Currently, Thiel is developing a manufacturing process and is considering moving in the direction of mass producing specialized concrete panels. He hopes this will free up some time to find his next creative venture. But, “For the time being,” he says, “I’m still producing one-of-a-kind pieces.”

Rob VanWinkle with Josh Thiel showing off the gfrc bath tub.

His favorite things
Some of his favorite handcrafted projects include elements of water, fire or lighting. In his mind, the perfect trifecta incorporates all three.

One of his favorite projects to date is a cantilevered water feature in an outdoor kitchen that overlooks the ocean on the 27th floor of a private penthouse in Palm Beach. It incorporates stacked glass and a water feature that trickles down the center of the bar table as water falls off the end. At night, it glows with embedded lighting.

“This is all while engineered to withstand a Category 5 hurricane,” says Thiel. “From a design standpoint, it’s beautiful. From an engineering standpoint, it was both challenging and exciting.”

Concrete hearth and surround for modern fireplace.

As far as favorite experiences, “Working with Rob VanWinkle, aka ‘Vanilla Ice,’ on his TV show, ‘The Ice Project,’ has produced some great and innovative ideas,” Thiel notes.

“Rob and I work well together. We feed off each other. It’s rare that I work with a client who wants to push me past my comfort zone. I’m usually the one trying to push clients beyond their comfort zone.”

Some of the projects they’ve worked on together include a walk-in sunken bathtub with chaise lounger, vanities with ambient lighting and a state-of-the-art hibachi table with embedded fiber optics.

“One of the most challenging projects I worked on was a staircase which appears to just float as it’s supported only by the wall it’s hanging from,” says Thiel.

Sleek concrete countertops with a step up eating bar.

The more complex, the better
What makes him different from others is that as an engineer, he received a national award for moving a complex-shaped, 7-ton concrete mural. Since then, Thiel has found enjoyment in making pieces as large and seamless as possible, yet still be able to fit them through the doorway of a client’s home.

“I find pleasure in the challenge of moving large complex pieces as opposed to the alternative of dividing a project into several pieces,” says Thiel. “While it can keep me up at night, it’s a welcome and exciting challenge that makes me feel like I am doing exactly what I was made to be doing.”

Interior corner modern fireplace with upper concrete hearth and stoop.

Thiel does like to keep it simple when it comes to the products he typically uses. He notes that he exclusively uses Buddy Rhodes mix and materials for their quality and consistency with a focus on GFRC supplies.

“I also love mixing textures and other raw materials with concrete, particularly metals and wood, whenever possible,” says Thiel.

For efficiency of production, Thiel typically uses bagged mix designs. However, he thinks that the mix design itself is just as important as the process of using and understanding the mix.

Cool sunk-in kitchen attached to a swimming pool where the concrete bar top hangs over the pool.

“My technical background has allowed me to focus on a meticulous forming process that maximizes the concrete’s characteristics and produces a superior product,” says Thiel. To those wanting to get into the concrete industry, Thiel’s advice is to “let concrete be concrete as it’s going to do what it wants anyway.” He also finds he needs to share the tips and tricks he’s learned along the way to help advance the decorative concrete industry.

“Though some artisans choose to be more secretive, I have chosen to share what I have learned with others to challenge myself to always push the limits by encouraging others to improve their capabilities. I try to offer exclusive training seminars to other artisans at least once a year” says Thiel.

Thiel works directly with designers, architects, contractors and homeowners to collaboratively create designs that are truly custom and functional pieces of art for a certain space.

Worn pit like opening in concrete sink

EDITOR’S NOTE: Josh Thiel will lead a workshop titled “Step-by-Step: Build a Floating Bathroom Vanity with Integrated Sink” Nov. 7 and 8 at the upcoming Concrete Decor Show in Palm Harbor, Florida. In it, participants will learn how to plan for and fabricate a lightweight wall-mounted vanity using GFRC.

Copper Blues Rock Pub and Kitchen logo made of copper and concrete.

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