Welcome to the first installment of our new series aimed at helping do-it-yourselfers tackle tiling home projects with the knowledge and confidence of a seasoned contractor—or at least find their way out of the common pitfalls.
This isn’t intended to be a comprehensive, step-by-step guide. There are plenty of easy-to-follow videos out there for that. Our goal here is to cover their gaps by addressing and resolving the issues that can arise in even the most straightforward of installations.
First up: Installing ceramic and porcelain floor tile.
Leading Up up to Installation
Be patient and meticulous in your planning. We can’t emphasize this enough. The slightest miscalculation early on has a way of snowballing. Before you know it, you’ve tiled yourself into a corner, and none of it’s aligned. None of it is even level. So, before you place a single tile, spend as much time as needed preparing the subfloor. If it’s wood, make sure it’s level. Fill any dips with a self-leveling underlayment. Then—and only then—install a cement-based backer board over the entire subfloor. For cement subfloors, clean up any residue, coarse them with muriatic acid to give the thin-set mortar something to hold onto, and then apply a liquid latex membrane that’s going to act as a moisture barrier.
Once your subfloors are squared away, find your starting point. You do this by measuring all four walls and pinpointing their midpoints. Run a chalk line from those spots between two opposing walls. Snap it at its center. Repeat the process for the other two walls. Their intersection is, effectively, the center of the room and your starting point. Sometimes, though, the actual center can look a little off-centered once the tile’s in place. So, working from that intersection, dry-fit a row of tile (simply lay them on the floor and insert spacers between them) and stop when you run out of room for another full tile. Place another one on the opposite side of the line. If you end up with less than a half-tile space at either end, adjust your center, because a third of a tile on one end means you’ll have two-thirds of a tile at the other end, which will make the room look off-kilter, even if your measurements are accurate.
Laying the Tile
Time to start laying some tile. Open all of your tile boxes and mix their contents. This’ll help offset slight variations in tone and pattern. If your tiles have directional arrows on their backs, make sure they’re all facing in the same direction as you place them. Thin-set mortar is what you’re going to use to bond the tile to the subfloor (or the backer board). All you need to mix it is a large bucket and a drill with a paddle extension. Give it five to 10 minutes after mixing it before you begin applying. And, both in mixing and applying it, work in small batches. Thin-set dries fairly quickly, and adding water to it after it’s been mixed will dilute it and render it that much less effective. Make enough for a quadrant, and apply enough for one or two tiles.
And, this may seem obvious, but plan your exit strategy. You don’t want to become absorbed by the process only to realize that you’ve tiled yourself into a corner. The thin-set’s going to need about 24 hours to harden, so you need to avoid stepping on the tile in the meantime. Also falling into this category, make sure your spacers are sticking straight up. Lay them on their sides, they’ll set with the mortar right along with the tile and become a giant headache to remove. (If it never happened, we wouldn’t be bringing it up.)
Lay all of your full tiles—and allow the thin-set to set—before you start worrying about the partial ones around the perimeter. When that time does come, consider renting a wet saw if you need to cut more than a handful of tiles. (And if you’re cutting natural stone, you must use a wet saw.) To determine the size of a partial tile, lay the tile you’re going to cut on top of the last full tile in the row. Stand two more tiles upright against the wall. They’ll account for the expansion gap. Place a fourth tile across the space and against the upright tiles. Draw a line along its other end. Just to be safe, mark the side of the tile that’s not going to be used. And do a couple tiles at a time. This will help avoid confusion. It’ll also enable you to work in small batches of thin-set.
Grout & Admire
Grout comes in several varieties, so feel free to ask, and we’ll point you toward the right one for your project. Before you apply it, protect any baseboard and trim with painter’s tape. Spread the grout in broad arcs that run diagonally to the joints. This will help you from dipping into them. Fill those joints completely. As soon as you’ve covered a small section, start wiping away the excess with a damp sponge—again, diagonally. It could take several passes, so be patient, rinse your sponge often, and even change the water when it becomes murky. Use an old t-shirt to wipe away that last bit of haze. Grout sealer’s optional, but it’ll preserve that polished look from grit and mildew for a year or two. Plus, it’s fairly easy to apply.
Nothing left to do now but stand back and appreciate that sexy floor.