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How To

Tiling basics

Intro to tiling
Ceramic Tile Tools and Preparation
Choosing Adhesive
Choosing Grout
Dry Runs
Laying Tile
Grouting
General Tile Tips

The ingredients of a quality ceramic tile installation are tile, some sort of specialized adhesive, grout to fill in the gaps between the tiles and, perhaps most important of all, a good surface for the tile to rest on.

Because it is VERY important, let's start with the surface to be tiled. needs to be flat, dry and smooth. Any buckles or bumps of any substance in the surface will turn into cracks or loose tiles down the road.

If the surface is not flat, you need to remove it or cover it with something that is flat and will accept the adhesive. Existing tile, plywood, cement board and drywall are the best options, assuming they're in good condition.

In the course of tile shopping, you may hear the word substrate. It's a term for the material beneath the visible surface, like the wood underneath the laminate on many countertops.

Once you've got a good substrate, gather the equipment you'll need to do the job. Raid the toolbox or head to the hardware store for the following:

Safety tools check list:

  • dust mask
  • safety glasses
  • rubber gloves
  • knee pads

Working tools check list

  • tape measure
  • pen/pencil
  • chalk line
  • level
  • carpenter's square
  • bucket(s)
  • sponges
  • sharpening stone
  • rubber mallet
  • tile nippers
  • tile cutters
  • V-notch trowel
  • square-notch trowel
  • putty knife, scraper
  • toothbrush
  • squeegee
  • polishing cloth


Now that you have a clean, flat surface and all the tools you'll need, check out what kind of adhesive your tiles will require.

Choosing Adhesive

To put together a quality tile job, you need the right tools, a clean, flat surface and an adhesive that will help your tile and substrate bond and become pals for life.

Choosing an adhesive is easy if you keep in mind where you're going to be tiling. Generally, thinsets are your best choice. They're called thinsets because you slap them on about 1/4" thick, which in the tile world is kinda thin. There are two catergories of thinsets: organic adhesive (mastic) and cement-based (mortar).

Organic adhesives are also divided into two categories: Type I and Type II. Type I is water-resistant. Type II, made with latex, should only be used in dry areas.

Cement-based adhesives also come in two types: dry-set mortars (a mixture of Portland cement with additives) and latex-Portland cement mortars. Latex-Portland is similar to dry set but is easier to work with because it is more flexible and bonds better. It is made of Portland cement, sand and latex.

For plywood countertop substrates or floors in wet areas, your best bet is an epoxy-based adhesive becuase it resists chemicals, has high bond strength and can take a pounding.

Tile professionals recommend these mortars for these areas:

Walls--Type I, or a multi-purpose mortar such as dry-set or latex-Portland.

Floors--Type I, or multi-purpose mortar.

Countertops--Type I, latex-Portland or epoxy-based.

Because you will be tiling in the kitchen or bath, keep in mind the tiled areas will be getting wet, so concentrate on a water-resistant adhesive. Also, once you have chosen the adhesive, read all instructions and precautions on the package.

Now that you've chosen your adhesive it's time to decide on a grout.

Choosing Grout

By now, you're probably thinking, OK, I've got the tools, I've got a good surface and I've got this adhesive thing down. So what's that stuff between the tiles? That's grout. There are two catergories of grout: cement-based and epoxy-based.

Cement-based grout comes in three types: dry set, latex-Portland and sand-Portland. Epoxy-based grouts are chemical-resistant and must be used with epoxy adhesive.

How much space you leave between the tiles (the tile joint) and where the grout will be (wall, floor, countertop) helps determine what type of grout to get.

For the wall or countertop:

For a joint less than 1/8" use non-sanded grout, such as a commercial Portland cement, dry-set or latex-Portland.

For more than 1/8" use fine-grain sanded grout such as sand-Portland, which consists of varying percentages of sand mixed with Portland cement.

For floors:

For a joint less than 1/8" use non-sanded grout.

For a joint from 1/8" to 3/16", use fine-grain sanded grout.

For a joint of more than 3/16", use coarse-grain sanded grout.

Now that you've gone through all the trouble of selecting the right adhesive and grout, guess what? You don't need them. Not for a bit, anyway. It's now time for a dry run, laying your tile with no adhesive.

Make a Dry Run

Now that you have your adhesive and grout, set them off to the side. Let them get used to your fine home. You won't need them right now, because you're going to make a dry run. That is, you're going to lay the tile with no adhesive.

To lay out the setting of your floor, you need to snap chalk guidelines. For this you need: a tape measure, a chalk line and a carpenter's square

Working with the main rectangle of your room, ignoring any little jutting alcoves, measure and find the center points of all four walls. Then make lines connecting the center points of opposite walls. These lines will intersect in the center of the room making a cross. Check with the carpenter's square to make sure you have right angles.

Start by laying tile at one of the right angles of the cross. (Remember, no adhesive at this point.) Tile the right angle making an L. So you will have two lines of single row tiles starting in the center of the room and going out toward the walls.

Now, if you tile all the way to the walls, and there is a space of about 1/2 the size of a tile, adjust your center line so that a full tile will fit in that space. For example if it takes you 10 tiles to fill a line from one of the center right angles to the wall, but an 11th tile won't fit, shift the rest of the tiles so the 11th will fit.

Where your tiles end in the center of the room will be the new center line, even though it is no longer really in the center. That's OK. You're going for a uniform look with the tiles.

Continue laying tile, starting each in the center and making an L and working your way towards the walls. Once you have a single row L, then fill in the space the L outlines making a solid square. When you are done, notice where cuts will need to be made. It is best for cuts to be made in inconspicuous places. Adjust tiles if necessary.

"Cuts? CUTS? Are you guys loopy? How on earth am I supposed to cut tile?" For those of you concerned about having to cut ceramic tile, relax. There's a way.

For walls, mark your lines by locating the lowest level of the wall. (That's the lowest place a tile will go. For example, you would not use the part of the wall right above the tub). Measure up one tile height. Make a horizontal line at the tile height. Then find the center of the wall. Make a vertical line at the center making an upside down "T".

Now you need to do the dry run on the wall. No, we haven't lost our minds. We realize that gravity is not your friend when it comes to dry running your wall tiles. But trust us; you can do this. Start by placing a horizontal row from the center line, along the floor, to the wall. If you need less than 1/2 tile for completing the tile row, move your center point to the left until you can end with a full piece. This will give a more uniform look when tiling is finished.

For the vertical portion of the dry run, just walk the tiles up from the floor. That is, hold a tile on the wall with one hand, then hold another above that one with the other hand, then move the first tile above the second tile, and so on until you've reached the top limit of your tile. (Remember to allow for space between each tile.) If possible, tile up to a height that will allow you to use full tiles, or full tiles with a trim border. If you're tiling the whole wall, consider using rows of trim to fill in leftover spaces and jazz up the appearance of the wall, to boot.

For countertops, follow the same basic preparation steps as for floors and walls. Lay out the tile so that all cuts will be made on the back row against the wall. Special trim pieces are made for recessed sinks, appliances, etc.

For backsplashes, match up joints with the countertop tile. Begin with full tiles at countertop level, working up so that all cuts are made on the top row under the cabinets. Follow adhesive and grouting information.

It's time to actually lay your tile, *with* adhesive.

Cutting Tile

When you hit walls, corners or any obstructions, you will need to cut tile. You may be thinking, whoa, tile ain't exactly paper. It may seem impossible to cut tiles, and yes, you'll probably ruin some in the process. But you have extras; so if you bust a few tiles the first couple of times, that's OK. Cutting tile is almost always necessary. So go for it. Give it a try.

To cut tiles, you need nippers (and we're not talking about the dog from the RCA ads), cutters and a sharpening stone. Everybody must get stone, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, and you'll see why.

Measure carefully what needs to be cut and mark the tile with a pencil or pen. Make straight cuts with a tile cutter; make curved cuts with a tile nipper. When using the nipper, chip away small pieces at a time. Use the sharpening stone to smooth rough edges.

We can't stress this enough: Don't be afraid to cut tile.

Laying Tile

Now, let's get to the good stuff. Let's spread some adhesive. Grab that trowel. While you're at it, grab some spacers and a rubber mallet.

(We're assuming you've gotten to this point by going through the very important dry run, right? If not check it out. It's crucial to the success of your tile work.)

Before you spread a single trowel of adhesive, you must remember this: 1) Put adhesive only over an area you can cover with tile within 15 minutes; and 2) Alternate tiles from different boxes. Your tile will come in several boxes or cartons. Color of tile may vary slightly from box to box. Alternating boxes will ensure a universal look and will keep tile from looking patchy.

Spread a 1/4"-thick coat of adhesive over a few square feet. Start in the center of the room, where the center lines have formed right angles, and work toward the wall. Spread adhesive with the flat side of trowel, then use the notched side to comb adhesive into standing rows. Do not cover your guidelines.

Start laying tile just like you did with the dry run, starting at the right angle and making an L. Fill in working towards the walls. Use a gentle twisting motion to lay tile on the adhesive. Do not just slide tiles into place. Use spacers in between tiles. (Spacers can be thin cords, thin ropes or other materials created specifically for this purpose.)

Continue placing tile until you have covered the adhesive area. Remove spacers after adhesive has begun to set. Continue to spread adhesive, place tiles and remove spacers until floor is covered. Gently use rubber mallet to tap in tile.

For walls, spread adhesive with the trowel. Place tile by building upwards in a pyramid fashion. Remember to twist the tile into place, do not slide it. Most wall tiles have built in spacers. Leave border areas open until the base pyramid dries, which should take four to five hours. Wait at least 24 hours to grout.

You have to wait 24 hours before you can move to the next step. While you're waiting, read up on that next step: grouting. (OK, it won't take 24 hours to read about grouting. What we mean is...oh, just read the article.)

Setting Grout

Now that your tile has been laid down and tapped into place with the mallet, take a 24-hour breather. That's how long you have to wait before you can grout. When you do grout, you will need bucket(s), squeegee, scraper, sponges, a toothbrush and a polishing cloth.

Mix the grout (Only mix enough to use in 30 minutes, the time it takes grout to set.) Apply grout to surface and spread it with a squeegee to force it into the joints. Fill those joints completely. You don't want any air pockets that will allow moisture, dirt and other nastiness to get between your beautiful tiles.

Scrape off excess grout working diagonally. Use sponge to wipe off remaining grout. Then use a cloth and toothbrush to clean up small areas and polish the tile. After you have grouted an area that you could handle in 30 minutes, clean up that area, throw out the mixed grout and mix fresh grout. Continue until the whole tiled area is grouted.

Well, for the most part, you'd be done at this point, save for a little cleanup. But since you're just reading about this, take in these tips, which will help reinforce a lot of what we've told you thus far.

Tile Tips

Arrange tile layout so cuts are made in the least noticeable places.

Be sure surface to be tiled is clean, flat and dry.

Shades of the same color of tile from the same manufacturer may vary from box to box. Mix tiles from different boxes throughout your layout for consistency.

Use a neutral colored grout that accents your tile.

Ceilings should be tiled before walls, walls should be tiled before floors and countertops should be tiled before backsplashes.

Soap dishes, towel bars, paper towel holders etc, should be set after the tile dries in spaces left open for them.

Wait 72 hours for heavy use. Do not apply sealers or polishes for three weeks, and then only according to manufacturer's recommendations.

Most projects will take three to four days.

You need patience, time and care to do the job right. Follow directions and don't panic.

Tips for countertops:

For kitchen countertops, use a floor-grade or strong wall-grade glazed tile that can handle a hot pot without crazing.

Because countertop tile is near a sink, it is recommended to use a cement mortar bed over marine plywood.

Do not use marble or limestone or unglazed porous tiles. Those bad boys will hold any odors and are also susceptible to stains.

Tips for floors:

Grout on floors can be hard to clean, what with all the traffic these tiles will get. So use silicon sealer on joints, and consider grout that is vinyl-based or has laytex or acrylic additives. Also, keep in mind that larger tiles mean less grout.

Tips for walls:

Pretty much anything goes on walls because they don't get a lot of heavy abuse,

Credits: Dal-Tile's Do-It-Yourself Ceramic Tile guide; The Guide to Installing Laufen Ceramic Floor and

Orthos's "All About Tiling Basics" Wall Tile; Handbook for Ceramic Tile Installation, 34th Edition, from the Tile Council of America; and internet manual by Keri Grubbs



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