Anyone with a little care and patience can install beautiful ceramic or glass tile work. You will find that with a little care in layout of the tile, choosing the right color combinations and sizes of your tile and then carefully installing the tile can result in work that you will be proud to show off to your friends and you can save large sums of cash as an extra bonus.
TOOLS AND MATERIALS REQUIRED – Paper pad, pencil, measuring tape, 2″ level, chalk line, tile cutter (you may rent one by the day at most rental stores or buy an inexpensive one for less than $25), sponges, bucket for clean water, bucket for mixing grout, grout, pre-mix tile adhesive, latex (rubber) gloves and a sponge float or two and a water bucket.
LAYOUT – Start with a small project. Perhaps a countertop or backsplash in the kitchen or perhaps a sink backsplash in the bathroom. Using a pad and pencil sketch the surface you are going to apply tile to and measuring each dimension of the work. A typical area sketch will show all dimensions from wall to wall, floor to ceiling for whatever surface where you are going to install tile. Keep your measurements accurate. Tile is expensive so limit your waste.
COUNTERTOP – The countertop must be very stable and solid. A double layer of ¾ plywood or ceramic tile cement backer board and a layer of ¾” plywood is a minimum. Cement backer board is available under different trade names but is especially made for ceramic tile. Make sure it is secured properly. Cutting can be done with a power saw and carbide blade but causes a great deal of dust so cut it outside and use safety glasses and a dust mask. Backer board in sink areas is recommended.
For this example, we are going to install tile on a kitchen countertop. When we measure the countertop area, we find it is 2′-0″ (24″) deep or wide and 10′-0″ (120″) long. A little math tells us we have 20 square feet (SF) of surface to work with. (2’x10’=20′). Now we pick out our tile. The most common kitchen countertop ceramic tile size is 4 1/4″ x 4 ¼” but you may use any size tile you would like. Tile comes in 12″ x 12″, 1″ x1″ (mosaic), 6″ x 6″, 8″ x8″ and even larger tiles are available. Some countertops are done in broken tile pieces to create a really different design of your own. Off to the store we go. You will find dozens of sizes and colors to choose from at most tile stores, and large retail home stores. Making this choice can sometimes be the hardest part of this job. Purchase the tile you like and get 20SF plus 2SF extra for special cuts. If you have chosen a stock tile, you can always go back and get a few more pieces to finish. If you have chosen a close-out or special sale tile, get plenty (perhaps 30SF) as there may not be any left when you go back. Purchase all the other supplies at this time. The salesperson can help you figure out the amount of adhesive and grout you need but all packages have approximate square footage of coverage on them.
INSTALLATION – Start by dry laying the tile on the countertop. Place full pieces at the front edge and working to the back of the counter. If you find you have a very small piece at the back, say ½” wide, try spreading out the tile a little to increase the grout joint width to take up this space. You do not want to try and install these tiny pieces of tile. Do the same for the length of the top. If you find you have approximately a ½ tile or more at the back of the top that’s great. It is the least seen part of the countertop. Once you set your toaster, blender, bread box and can opener on the counter, the back edge almost disappears. Using your 2′ level as a straightedge, make a pencil line from front to back and square to the front edge of the counter. If you have a 2′ framing square this is the time to use it. Just place one leg against the front of the counter and the other leg will be square. Make sure the trim along the front edge of the counter is nailed tightly and is level with the top of the tile. Front trims are usually wood but counter edge tiles are available if you like that look. Purchase enough lineal footage of edge tile to go end to end of the counter top. If you are using edge tile, these will be the first pieces installed. Edge pieces come in 6″, 8″ and custom lengths but is not recommended to try and line them up with the countertop tiles. Starting with a ½ tile, install the edge tiles from one end to the other. A support ledger should be installed under the bottom leg of the tile as a temporary support until the adhesive dries. Spread some adhesive along side the pencil mark you made for the square line. Spread only a little at first until you get used to the time it takes to install the tile and the setting time for the adhesive. You don’t want to try and remove dried adhesive. As you place the tile, twist the tile slightly to assure you have full contact with the adhesive below.
Ok, you placed the first 6 tiles. Are the lines straight? Are the tops of the tiles level and even? Are the spaces between the tiles all the same? Plastic spacers are available for various widths of grout spaces and are a good idea for your first project but your eye is usually the best way to judge this. For a short time, you can move the tile around to get the best spacing. Now go ahead with the rest pf the tile making sure you do not place adhesive where the cut tile will go. A small spackle knife can easily remove any adhesive accidentally spread into those areas. Return the adhesive to the bucket ONLY IF IT’S clean! You don’t want dirt or other debris in your adhesive as it will make a bump under your other tile. You will find it gets easier and easier. Install all your full tile first. Take another good look at your work. Are the tile joints straight from end of end of the counter? Adjust them now. Tile cutting is really easy but try a piece as a sample. Measure the space you have for the cut tile and deduct the width of your grout joints. Carefully mark the tile and place it in the cutter. Follow the cutter instructions. You will find it does not take a great deal of pressure on the handle to score the tile. Press on the handle and it will snap the tile on your score mark. Practice a little. (remember the extra tile you bought?) Don’t get upset if you crack a few or the tile does not snap on your mark. They are cast ceramic and contain air bubbles and other imperfections that sometimes causes them to crack unevenly. Install the cut pieces but hand “buttering” (placing the adhesive on the backs of the tile) and placing them one by one until you have them all installed. Clean all you tools carefully. It is almost impossible to remove dried adhesive. Check over your work and make sure you did not leave adhesive sticking up out of any joint or on the face of the tiles. Using a damp sponge and your spackle knife, carefully remove any excess adhesive. Let the tile dry 24 hours.
GROUTING – Grout comes in both sanded and non-sanded types. Sanded types are intended for use where you have larger grout joints such as floors. Non-sanded is generally for walls and countertops. Mix your grout in a small, paper bucket available at paint or hardware stores. You will most likely want to throw it away when you are done. Grout also comes in many colors with color being the choice of the buyer. You should not however use a white grout in kitchen counters as food stuffs, oils and other kitchen items can quickly stain it. Try to stay to a darker color. Leave white for the bathroom. There are grays, pewter, off-whites and other colors than will compliment your tile color. You may want to wear gloves for this part as grout can stain your skin. Some people are allergic to latex so rubber gloves are also fine. Place a small amount of the mixed gout on the tile. Yes, right on top of the tile. Using your sponge float, push the grout down into the joints working at a 45 degree angle to the joints as much as possible. You will find you will have to push and prod the grout into corners and edges but it’s all technique. You will quickly develop one of your own. Scrape the excess grout off the tile with the edge of the sponge float. Make sure the joints are all filled and are slightly below the top of the tile just a little bit. Never leave it above the top of the tile. Work a small area at a time. As you work, keep an eye on the completed areas. They will quickly develop a haze over the tile from the drying grout. Do not leave this haze on tile. It will be extremely hard to remove later if possible at all. Using your bucket of clean water and another clean sponge (6″-8″ long is best) gently wipe the excess grout that has dried on the tile being careful not to wipe the grout out of the joints again at a 45 degree angle to the joints when possible. You will have to repeat this cleaning 2-3 times to get it all off the tile but eventually the haze will stop appearing. Remember, do not wipe the grout out of the joints. You can use your sponge to reshape damaged joints or place a little grout somewhere you missed but timing is everything. If done while the grout is still wet, you will never see this touchup work. Once all the grout is installed and wiped clean, you are done. Let the grout dry for at least 24 hours before cleaning the countertop or placing items upon it.
WALL TILE- Wall tile installation is basically the same as a countertop with a few exceptions. Ceramic tile on walls must be installed on either water resistant drywall (green board) but cement backer board is amuch better job. Tile generally is subject to high water use around sinks and toilets for example, so a water resistant backer is important. Shower areas MUST have cement backer board for long life of your wall. We mentioned the use of tile spacers and this is a good place for them. They will help keep the tile from sliding down, closing the grout joint while the adhesive is still wet. Joint spacers come loose in a package or sometimes on a card connected with those little plastic ends like model airplane parts. Just snap them off as you use them placing one or two in each joint. Once the adhesive dries, you can pull them out and use them again and again. Layout remains the same as before. In this case you want your cut pieces to be at the floor on top of the baseboard. This is least viewable area. If you are using ceramic tile baseboard, install these pieces first making sure they are level across the entire wall. Make your plumb starting line as before and start your tile along this line to assure straight vertical lines. Step back often and admire your work. Make sure the grout line spaces are straight!
CUTTING-Cutting small pieces of tile is the same as a countertop. Use your tile cutter. Once you encounter an outlet box however, these require a little extra work. If you are very lucky the outlet box is between two tile or at the edge of one tile. You can cut the sides of the box using a carbide blade and grinder or a portable ceramic tile saw. (These are also available at your rental store by the day). Cut the sides first and the score the top of the box mark. Using a pair of square jawed pliers, grip the tile firmly and snap out the piece. WEAR YOUR GLOVES AND SAFTEY GLASSES! Small chips and grinding dust can easily cause an eye injury. Ok, you broke the tile. Try again. When you get one done the rest will be easy. The cover plate will cover any space around the outlet as long as you keep the cut fairly close. Test fit the tile dry. If it fits and the cover will cover the gaps, go ahead and install it. Circles are a little harder. These can be made with a grinder if they are large enough circles but for small circles a Dremel tool or drill with a carbide drill bit works best. You can drill a series of holes along the line as close together as possible and then snap out the remaining piece. Using the grinder or Dremel, grind away any parts that need to be removed to get the finished opening. Test fit it dry first. These are the basic items you will encounter in a wall project. Grouting is the same as a countertop. Work small areas, be careful to remove the haze as you proceed and do not wipe out the grout joints. Tiles can also be installed at a diagonal to the walls to make the room appear larger or create visual interest.
FLOORS-Floor tiles are generally 12′ x12″ but come in other sizes as well. Special made pieces such as emblems, decorative plaques and borders are all available to be included in your floor layout. Layout is a little different for a floor than a wall or countertop. You want to hide the cuts if at all possible under the toe kicks of the base counters. At the same time you want the tile to appear evenly spaced within the room. Starting at the entrance doorway, mark the centerline of the door opening and chalk a line across the entire room square to the doorway. Now measure from the layout line to each side wall. Does the tile work out to even tile? Does it work out to equally sized cut pieces? That would be ideal. A persons eye tricks them into thinking that if the tile line in the middle of the door they entered is centered and straight, the whole floor is centered and straight. There is nothing wrong if you have different sized pieces on each side. With cabinets the fridge and other appliances, the edges are barely visible but the center of the floor is always visible. Once again, dry lay some tile from your layout line at the doorway centerline to the walls. Take a good look. Is this what you want to see when it is finished? If it is, go ahead and start the installation following all the guidelines for walls and counters as to how to proceed. Tile joints in floors are always wider than walls or countertops. 3/8″ joints are common but I have seen ½” joints that look great. It is your decision as to what you want to see. You are also going to use sanded grout for your floors. It is stronger than un-sanded grout and the sand adds extra strength to the grout for the larger joints. You will use LOTS of grout for a floor compared to a countertop. The use of ¾’ power drill and grout mixer paddle is recommended but you can hand mix it. It is a lot of hard work. Placement of the grout is the same, work small areas, cleaning the tile as you go and so on. Keep off the finished tile for at least 24 hours. It may look dry but it is not. Walking on un-dried adhesive can twist a tile out of line and look terrible forever. Chiseling out a hardened tile and resetting it is no fun at all.
CRACKED TILE-I will touch on these for a moment as these styles are coming into use more and more each day. Cracked tile tops are made with bits and pieces of many different tiles that you have gathered or purchased at your local tile store. If your are looking for a mixed color top of red and green, get some red and green tiles that are the colors you like and we will break them. You can mix lots of colors for a true random colored mosaic looking piece. Place the tiles in a good paper sack and place it on the floor (preferably not ceramic). Use your sidewalk. Wearing your safety glasses and gloves strike the tile with a hammer breaking them into small pieces. Keep checking the bag. Pieces ½” to 1″ are great but the smaller the pieces are, the more pieces you have to install. Smaller pieces will give a more mosaic like look and can be well worth the effort. With your prices ready, draw the pattern or rough picture you are trying to create. If you are trying totally random, just make sure the colors are well mixed. If you are creating a picture or distinct pattern, apply your tile adhesive directly onto the piece of tile and then place it. This will keep your layout lines visible and allow you stop work whenever you tire. The rest of the installation is the same as other tile work. Work clean and keep your tools clean. Let your work dry well before applying grout.
MOSAIC TILE- Mosaic tile comes from the factory glued to an often sized 12″ x 18″ plastic grid sheet as a base to hold dozens of tile at once. When installing mosaic tile on a floor or wall, this saves hours of labor in that you can set 12″ x 18″ of tile at once and not have to apply each 1 x1″ tile by itself. When doing custom work, you want to install each tile one at a time. The tile will simply snap off the sheet or you may use a razor knife to slice off sections to infill your pattern perhaps 2,10 or 20 pieces at a time. Mosaic tile is used by artists and craftsmen worldwide to create beautiful pieces of work from pottery to wall and floor designs or a picture to hand on the wall for decoration. The designs are limitless and are limited only by your imagination. Mosaic tiles are very, very hard but can still cut with great care. When working with small pieces be careful when using power tools to cut the pieces and keep your fingers away from the blade. Always, always use your safety glasses and gloves. Cut tile can leave very sharp edges to cut you. A gentle rubbing of the tile edge on sandpaper will help remove this sharp edge. HINT-Watch in your local tile store or home center for busted boxes or odd sheets of tile people have returned. You maybe able to get a great price on these far less than retail and the stores clean up the mess. It can provide you with a far greater choice of colors to work with without having to stock whole sheets of odd colors. Create away!
A few extra hints. There are various products on the market for waterproofing your tile grout joints. Most are silicone based products that are applied with a brush or self-contained roller applicator. These do work but need upkeep by the reapplication of the silicone to maintain the seal. Oft times, the silicone discolors from cleaning agents or sunlight and does become unattractive. It is difficult to remove in these cases so caution should be used in using them. Keeping the joints clean and the occasional touchup of the grout should be all that is needed for long life.
With practice you can create some rather outstanding ceramic tile work. There is no limit what you can do with designs, colors, or even pictures within your tile work. Try it!
We have covered the basics of ceramic tiles setting along with helpful hints on safety and buying. Keep you safety glasses and gloves handy and use them! Eyes cannot be replaced! Good luck with your projects.