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How to Lay Tile: Tips & Video Resources

If you are looking for information on how to lay tile, read our short and practical guide which includes video resources.

For some homeowners, the range of their handiness stops at tile. This is not, however, because it is a particularly difficult project, however. It is probable that the reason many people are quick to call a contractor when it comes to tile work, or even go with a lower quality option like linoleum in order to update their flooring, is because the perceive tile work as potentially messy and precision based.

While this is not an untrue characterization of tiling, any mishap that can occur as a result can more times than not be avoided with careful preparation and attention to detail.

Below is your full proof guide to laying a new tile with specific focus on all the steps where mistakes tend to happen and tips for how to avoid them. Follow this guide and after a few at bats mixing grout, snapping chalk lines, and working the wet saw you will never call another flooring contractor again!

Step 1: Gather Your Tools and Prep Your Surface

Here are all the things your will need in order to make this project run seamlessly (no pun intended).

For hand tools, it is wise to employ a level in order to ensure the surface is flush. This is also true of the subfloor, which is actually more important. After all, if the surface is level, more times than not the tile will be.

You will also want a tape measure for the obvious purpose of figuring out how much material you need and where your cuts will take place.

Snapping chalk lines with a chalk kit will also be helpful to keeping group lines and tile edges straight.

For material, in addition to grout and thin set, you will want some sort of tile underlayment. Depending on where you are laying your tile there are different options for underlay. The best and most universal is plywood or cement board.

For plywood, use a double layer of ¼ inch thick sheets. The reason for this is so you are able to overlap the seams of the wood, or the joints where the boards meet, on the two layers. This will inherently seal up those seams making for a nice dry surface.

Cement board is exactly what it sounds like: cement based sheets of material. Make sure to check with your local home improvement distributor before you go with cement board as it often comes with specialized securing hardware.

It is also reasonable to tile over existing tile. In this case, though, it is super important to make sure the tile surface you are covering is flush and aggregate so that your thin set has something to sink into, bonding the new tile with the old, subfloor tile. If you are covering smooth faced tile, you can easily scuff the face with utility knife or sand paper to create that good rough surface.

Step 2: Plan the Pattern

When it comes to laying a tile pattern it is best to work from the middle out. This way you can hide any cuts along the edge of the room. It is easier to work middle to edge if you break the room into quadrants. Do this by finding a mid-point, measuring both length and width, and snapping chalk lines to create an intersection. These lines will act as a guide that will ensure your tile edges, and subsequent grout lines are straight.

Even if you think you have perfectly straight chalk lines, it is best to do a dry run of tile before you start spreading thin set along your subfloor. The dry run will also give you an idea of what kind of cutting you will need to do once you have reached the point where tiles will butt up against walls or have to be shaped into corners.

Step 3: Make the Cuts

Since you have done your dry run, you know exactly where you will have to cut tiles, into what shape, and at what length or width. There are a couple of ways to do this. You can use a manual snap cutter, which is more suitable for smaller, thinner tiles. This device is outfitted with a sharpened wheel that allows you to score the tile face at the length or width in which it needs to be cut. Once it has been scored, a tile is easily snapped, albeit with a rough or jagged edge. A file or stone can then be used to smooth out the edges.

The second option for cutting tile is a wet saw, which is exactly what it sounds like: a diamond blade that is spun through a constant stream of water in order to limit dust creation and to keep the blade itself from overheating. Using a wet saw will ensure clean soft edges regardless of whether you are working in ceramic, porcelain, natural stone, or even delicate glass mosaic style tiles.

Step 4: Making the Mix

Next, you will need to make your thin set mix. This is arguably the most difficult part of tile work, only because it can be finicky. If there is a place to royally mess up this job, it is in the thin set mix.

Someone with masonry experience will be able to eyeball the consistency of the thin set mix pretty accurately. Another professional tip is to use a hand trowel to do your mixing rather than a mixing bit on a drill. The reason for this is, even though it will take exponentially longer to get your mix right, you will get a better feel of how wet or dry it is becoming and whether or not you need to add water or dry material to correct it. The texture to strive for is that of peanut butter. If your mix moves like Skippy, you’re golden.

Step 5: Apply the Thin Set

Using a notched trowel, spread your thin set so that the notches that dig into the material (from the trowel) run parallel with the chalk lines you’ve snapped. To do this, start with your material the same way you will lay your tile. Keeping the notches consistent with the guide lines serves the purpose of keeping you oriented to where you are working in the room.

Step 6: Lay the Tiles

Start tiling from your grid intersection lines, working your way out towards the walls. It is never a good idea to take on tile jobs alone for a couple of reasons. First, the job will go so much faster if you have someone to carry material back and forth from wherever it is being stored to the work site. This will help you work in smaller loads, and thus a cleaner space. It is difficult to envision the layout of the tile as you are laying it if the room is cluttered with backup material.

A helper can also serve the purpose of keeping the layout vision firmly envisioned while you are down in the weeds, so to speak. In other words, it can be easy to lose sight of how the tile you are laying fits into the grand scheme of the pattern. Having someone there to step back and look at the big picture is of huge importance. This will also be helpful in ensuring you don’t tile yourself into a corner, which is much easier to do than it sounds!

As you lay each tile, you will want to “bed” the tile into the thin set material. Do this using a rubber mallet, gently hammering each corner, and then the middle of the tile so that every inch of its underside is bonded. The force of the mallet will certainly move the tiles around and about if you are swinging it blindly, but once you get the hang of it, you will mostly be able to keep the tile straight. Additionally, once a tile is bedded, you can use the mallet at various angles to get back to square.

Finally, use spacers between each tile as you move forward. The thin set will not bond with the spacers and you will be able to remove them fairly easily before grouting. Spacers are life savers in terms of maintaining exactitude of tile placement. Don’t try to eyeball your grout lines. It is nearly impossible to do so without making a few errors that, depending on your tile chose and grout color, could stick out like sore thumbs once your floor is finished.

Step 7: Grouting

Last, but certainly not least, is grouting. Before you do, make sure the tile and thin set have had at least a day to bond and being curing. After a day you can remove your spacers and grout all the joints. It is important to know a bit about grouts in order to make an informed decision on what you would like to work with and how this effects the project in this next step. Some grouts can stain and adhere extremely quickly. That said, many tile experts will recommend sealing your tile faces prior to applying grout.

The best option is purchasing a premixed grout in the color of your choice that is slightly less porous so that you do not have to take this extra measure. It is also important to work cleanly. Set yourself up with a masonry sponge and two small water buckets, one to clean with, and one to rinse. You can use a trowel or putty knife to work the grout into the joint, but many professionals will use the sponge itself, which can be manipulated to fit the grout into the joints at various angles for a more complete fill. With the sponge, you are likely to bring some grout material up onto the tile face as you work. This is what the rinse and clean water is for.

Video Resources

Conclusion

Now that you have done your homework, you can see that tile work is just another do it yourself job and you are fully capable. All it takes is a little more attention to detail than your run of the mill week end project, and a fair amount of preparation. To summarize, here are some pro-tips:

  • Break the room into quadrants
  • Do a dry run
  • Work from the inside out to the walls
  • Work with a friend
  • Work clean

Consider these rules at every step along the way, and you are sure to update your floors with a beautiful tile job that might as well have been professional for a fraction of the price.

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