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How to Lay Ceramic Tile

I recently purchased a rental property that was in desperate need off flooring. After doing my research, I decided to go with ceramic tile. While there were several reasons why I chose this product, the deciding factor was durability. Under normal circumstance, ceramic tile will last for years.  It does not retain odors such as smoke and pet urine and will not blister or warp like laminate when exposed to water – making it the ideal floor covering for a rental property or even you own home. Best of all, it can be inexpensive.

Material Selection

I chose a Sahara Beige ceramic tile made by Surface Source. These tiles can be purchased from Lowes on sale for around $.58 per square foot. As an armature tile layer I could not find anything wrong with them. They were easy to work with and appear to be durable.

While $.58 per square foot sounds cheap, there are other costs involved – especially if you plan to lay tile on top of a wood surface. In this case it is necessary to first lay cement hardy board. This board will bring the subfloor up to the necessary thickness while fighting off mildew and mold that can form on the wooden subfloor. The National Tile Contractors Association recommends a subfloor thickness of 1.25”. James Hardie Board is commonly sold at home improvement retailers and comes in thicknesses of ½” and 3/8”. It comes in 3’ X 5’ sheets which weigh more than a 4’ X 8’ of plywood. In my case I had a ¾ subfloor so I used ½ cement board to get the subfloor up to the necessary thickness. The board cuts similar to drywall. To cut it you simply score one side and snap it on a straight edge such as a 4 x4 block of wood. I was able to cut the vent holes with little effort using a jigsaw.  You will also need a box of self-drilling cement board screws to secure the board to the subfloor.

Mortar and grout must also be used to install a tile floor. The mortar bonds the tile to the subfloor while the grout fills in the cracks between each tile. You can purchase mortar in the color grey and white. For some reason, the grey is a little less expensive. Ultimately, the mortar will not be seen so I went with the grey. As for the grout, choose a color that complements the color of your tile. I choose marble beige which looked pretty good with the Sahara Beige tile. I believe I used 4 large bags of Mortar and 2 small bags of grout for about 600 square feet.

You will also want to choose a grout sealer to prevent stains from penetrating the grout. There are several different products available on the market. I choose an aerosol product that requires very little effort. After installing 600sqft of tile you will appreciate the convenience of this product which keeps you off of your knees. Two cans allowed me to put 2 coats on my tile.

Tools

  • Mortar trowel
  • Grout float
  • ¼” tile spacers
  • Score and snap tile cutting tool
  • Angle grinder with ceramic cutting wheel
  • Utility knife
  • Power drill with paint mixing attachment
  • 5 gallon bucket
  • Large sponge or sponge mop
  • Knee pads
  • Floor scraper

Preparing to Lay Tile

The difficulty level of this project depends on your ability to kneel and bend. If you have bad knees and or a bad back, even the smallest area can be painstaking. Aside from the physical strain on your body, laying tile can be fairly easy.

Prepare the Subfloor

The process starts by first preparing the subfloor. If you have concrete floors, use a scraper to remove any contaminates from the floor such as glue. Use a broom and vacuum to ensure that all foreign material is removed from the floor. If you have a wood subfloor, you will need to lay a cement subfloor first. This is achieved by building the thickness of your floor up to 1.25”. Clean the wood subfloor well before laying the cement board. It is a good idea to remove the base molding; otherwise it will be necessary to lay ¼ round molding to give it a finished look. Lay the cement board and secure it using self-taping cement board screws. On most cement board you will find x’s where the screws should go. If these x’s are not present, place a screw every 8” or so. Ensure that the screw head is countersunk into the board and that each board buts up against one another evenly. Once finished, sweep the cement board clean to ensure a smooth surface that will promote bonding. With a clean subfloor, you are ready to move on.

There is already a lot of bending over and moving tile around while doing this job. One tip is to spread the boxes of tile out around the work area so that you will not have to make several trips back and fourth to pick up another box. This is also a great time to open each box and remove the tile. Removing the tile from the box ahead of time really cuts down on trash and clutter in your work area. Look through each box and check for cracked or chipped tile.

Mix the Mortar

Mix up a 5 gallon bucket of mortar in an old paint bucket. I used a paint mixer; however, there are special mixers that are heavier duty. You should only mix up the amount that you can use in a few minutes. To start, I mixed about half a 5 gallon bucket full. After a few boxes of tile, I became much better at laying the tile and was able to finish a whole bucket before it dried up. Mix your mortar to the consistency of thick pancake batter. It should be thick enough to stick to a trowel briefly yet still easy to spread. You will want to scrape all around the bucket to ensure that there are no pockets of dry mortar stuck to the bottom or sides. If mixing a large batch, you may want to mix a small batch and gradually add more mix and water until you have a full bucket. This helps to prevent having dry pockets of mortar mix in your bucket.

Method Used to Lay Tile

There are several different methods used to lay tile. Some like to first create an “L” shape and then gradually fill in the L with tile in a stepping formation. I have used this method and also the method of picking the straightest wall. Both seemed to yield positive results. Just remember to ensure that you have square intersections.

A good friend of mine who has been laying floor for many years told me to start with the straightest wall in the room. In general, the straightest wall is usually the outside wall. Inside walls sometimes are not exactly straight. This can also be true with outside walls but less likely.

Back Butter Tiles 12” or Greater

If your tile is 12” or larger the next step is very important. Use the smooth side of your trowel to “back butter” the back of your tile. Scrape a thin layer of mortar evenly across the backside of the tile to fill in the honeycomb grid on the back. Doing so will ensure a tight bond between the floor and the tile. Many people, even professionals fail to include this step because it is so time consuming. By taking this extra step, you will never have to worry about your tile coming up. It will be strongly bonded to your sub-floor.

Embed Tile Into Mortar Bed

Use a ¼ “notched trowel to lay your mortar. When you lay it, make a row that is 5’ to 10’ long and about 1.25’ wide. This will allow you to lay 5-10 12” tile and have a 3” of mortar left over. Go back and scrape this off your subfloor if it will be a few minutes before you lay the next row of tile.

Lay your first tile followed by your second. Use rubber tile spacers to ensure a uniform gap between tiles. Ensure that this gap is exact at the intersection of each tile. Failure to do so will create major problems down the line. When laying tile, pres the tile down firmly but do not allow it to slide into the adjoining tile. This will cause a spacing problem. Just a firm press should do the trick.

Continue working and finish your first row of tile. You will probably need to use a tile cutter for your very last piece. A simple score and snap cutter should do the trick. These are available at most home improvement stores and cost somewhere around $20. In other cases you will have to use a tool such as an angle grinder to make more complex cuts. Lay each tile and pay close attention to your spacing. Wipe off excess mortar with a wet sponge. Ensure that you leave an escape path so that you do not have to walk on your freshly laid tile. Once you are finished, allow the mortar to dry for at least 24 hours.

Using a Score and Snap Tile Cutter

I wasted quite a few tiles trying to figure out how these tile cutters actually worked. The key is to ensure that you deeply score the entire length of the tile. This can be achieved by passing the cutting wheel over the tile 3 or 4 times. You will want to use a bit of pressure when using the scoring tool. I found that cutting tile with this device is much easier if you place the front of the cutter against a wall to prevent it from sliding forward.

Once the tile has been well scored, place the breaker in the middle of the tile and give it one good whack. The tile should cleanly snap in two.

Using an Angle Grinder to Cut Tile

There will be a few instances where you will need to make cuts that are not straight or have an L shape. Some make the mistake of purchasing an expensive wet saw to make these cuts. If you are only doing a few rooms an angle grinder with a ceramic disc will do the trick. I picked one up at Harbor Freight for around $20 and it worked surprisingly well. Make cuts outside because this method will create a lot of dust. It is also a good idea to wear gloves, goggles, and a dust mask. Cutting tile can be dangerous and safety is always number one. Use a marker to mark your cut. I like to place an X on the piece that is being cut out.

Grouting in Tile

Before you begin grouting, remove the plastic or rubber spacers between each tile. Choose a grout color that complements the color of your tile. Start by mixing up a small batch about the same consistency of the mortar and spreading it into the tile joints using a tile float. Hold the rubber float at around 45 degrees or less. Allow your joints to dry for around 15 minutes or so and wipe off the excess with a damp sponge or mop. Be careful not to wipe the grout out of the joints. Allow the grout to dry for 24 hours and clean off the tile using a mop and bucket of hot water. You will probably have to go over the floor several times and change the water every few minutes. The true tile color will begin to appear after several passes with the mop.

Sealing Ceramic Tile with Sealer

Sealing the tile prevents liquids from penetrating the grout, causing a stain. It is sort of like Scotch Guard for your grout. The product that I like to use comes in a spray can and was fairly easy to use. Simply allow your grout to dry and sweep the floor. Shake up a can of tile sealer and spray a light coat on all joints. Come back after 24 hours and apply a second coat. One can should be enough to cover a large room. Wipe off any residual spray with a dry rag after the sealer is dry.

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