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Tile 101: The Basics of DIY Tiling (Any Kind, Anywhere)

July 21, 2010 | 33 Comments | DIY How To, Featured
DIY diva

Once you learn the basic principles behind installing tile you can apply them to any number of projects– floors, walls, countertops, tabletops, and about anything else you can think of. I recently spent a day installing 1677 itty-bitty tiles on the wall of a urinal stall and there’s an item that wouldn’t have gotten crossed off my Bucket List if I wasn’t confident in my ability to slap some glue on a wall, stick some tiles up there, and smush a bit of mud between them. What can I say? It’s a technical process.

If you’re already going blah, blah, blah, just tell me how to get this tile on my floor without the universe imploding then you can skip right to any of these step-by-step tutorials.

If you want to gain a little better understanding of the tools, materials, and process involved in tiling before diving in to specific projects, read on.

Overview

All tiling is essentially the same, though there are different products and techniques used to achieve different looks.

1.) Surface – This is where it starts… horizontal, vertical, permanent, moveable, other than a ceiling (which I’ve never attempted) you can stick tile to almost anything.

2.) Glue – something must be used to adhere the tile to your surface. Occasionally called thinset mortar, mastic, or tile adhesive, these are all different products used in different applications that essentially do the same thing: stick stuff to other stuff.

3.) Tile – this is the fun part. You can use big tiles, tiny tiles, glass tiles, stone tiles, ceramic tiles, broken tiles, and even old china-ware if it suits your fancy. The tile you use will often dictate what other tools and materials you will need to finish the job.

4.) Grout – affectionately referred to here as “mud” because hey, it’s dirt and water, why fancy it up? Actually, sometimes there isn’t even any sand in it, so I should probably use the technical terminology.  Again, there are infinite colors and types of mortar, and some are better than others in a specific application.

5.) Sealers- The unsung heroes of tiling, if you’re using any type of natural stone you’ll want to seal your tile, and you will always want to seal sanded grout. Based on your materials the type of sealer will change.

Material Basics

So mud, tile, glue, and something to stick it all to… ready? Go tile!

What? You need more info? Internet, you are so demanding. I don’t know why I stay in this relationship.

Before I go on, here’s a caveat: I am not a professional tiler. Tiler? Tile installer? Tile installation professional? See? I don’t even know the proper terminology for a person who installs tile and gets paid for it. On the other hand, it’s somewhat likely I know what the hell I’m talking about because I’ve been tiling every horizontal and vertical surface in my life for the last five years. Nothing has spontaneously combusted yet.

Backerboard

Let’s work from the ground up. In nearly any application you’re going to want to put tile backer-board down first. (Exception: Concrete floor.) Here’s why… it keeps the expansion and contraction of your wood sub-surface from ruining your grout.

Backer board is generally fiber-cement, and comes in a variety of thicknesses. I’ve most often used 1/4″ for flooring, but have also been known to use 1/2″ on the lower half of walls to make it flush with drywall.

DSC_0741

It goes down first with a layer of “thinset” (read: adhesive… we’ll get there in a minute), then is screwed into place, and the joints should be taped and mudded, similar to drywall.  Good news, no sanding.

For more detailed instructions on installing backerboard, check out these instructions from Hardibacker.

Adhesive

Adhesive comes in two types (really 4,674 types, but let’s simplify, shall we?)

  • Thinset – Also called mortar, it’s a mix of cement, water, and fine sand. It comes pre-mixed or in a “just add water” bag.  This is best used in commercial applications, “wet wall” applications– like a shower floor, or with heavier tiling materials.
  • Mastic – Is an acrylic adhesive. It’s okay to use this for floor tile in residential applications, but be sure to read the label because different types of mastic are needed to accommodate different (particularly larger) tiles. Also, some mastic is okay for walls that are “intermittently” wet, but it doesn’t hold up as well to water as a thinset does. On the other hand, it’s more glue-like a better for wall applications, or adhering tile to gypsym wallboard (drywall). Mastic almost always comes pre-mixed.

Either type of adhesive will go on with a notched trowel. (More on notched trowels in the tools section.)

Tile

Okay, backer, glue, blah, blah, blah– let’s get to the fun part: Tile.  Here are the most common types:

  • Ceramic - Ceramic tiles are easily the most common. They come in a number of sizes and finishes. For floors 12×12 or 16×16 are the most common tile sizes, though you shouldn’t let that limit you. I tiled my bathroom floor in 2×4″ tiles laid in a brickwork pattern. For walls you can find anything from a 6×6 tile to a .5x.5 mosaic. Ceramic is great for cutting and clean-up and you can usually find an inexpensive ceramic option.
  • Stone- Slate, Marble, Granite, and even river-rock pebbles are used to create stone tile. It has advantages ( looks awesome) and disadvantages (costs more). Natural stone tile may be heavier than ceramic, and options like slate are soft and can be difficult to work with.
  • Glass- Glass is most often found in smaller tiles, such as mosaics. It’s an expensive option with a 12×12 mosaic sheet selling for anywhere from $7-$20/sq. ft. (Whereas ceramic can often be found for $1-$5/sq. ft.) Another interesting property of glass tile is that often you can see through it, so it requires a little more preparation of the surface you’re working on as well.
  • Metal- Hey, they’ll make tile out of almost anything these days. Again this is most often seen in smaller tiles and mosaics.

The tile is adhered to the ground using adhesive. That’s a bit of a “duh” statement, but I thought I ought to throw it in there for good measure.

Grout

Grout fills the spaces between the tile and keeps any moisture away from the adhesive holding your tile to whatever it’s stuck too. Hopefully not your boyfriends forehead.

Like everything else these days, there are plenty of options, but let’s just talk about the two basics:

  • Sanded grouts – Better for larger grout lines
  • Unsanded grouts – Better for grout spaces smaller than 1/8″

There are also fancy epoxy and resin grouts, but they’re not used often in residential applications. And really, why make things more difficult than they are already?

Sidenote: For a good chunk of my formative years my family owned a concrete company. Whenever I’d call in to talk to my Dad, I’d be stuck on hold listening to their pretaped message that went something like this “The terms mortar and grout are often used interchangeably, but they are not. Grout is pourable, mortar is not.” And finally that bit of useless trivia that has been floating around in my brain for the last 20 years has a purpose. There are some basic compositional differences between grout and mortar (the addition of lime, for example) but really it’s just a matter of more water.

Anyway, the other thing you should now about grout is that it comes in any color under the rainbow. And if you put it down and don’t like the color (hi mom!) they also sell stains you can use on the grout afterwards. Now, moving on…

Sealer

Sealing grout (and tile) is an important step. One I often leave out because I’m on to the next project thankyouverymuch. Also, the tile aisle at the big-box stores is crammed full of sealers and it’s a little intimidating.

Here’s the deal: Sealing grout helps it from getting stained, and keeps the moisture out. Sealing natural stone that is more porous than ceramic tile serves the same purpose, and it also gives everything a more “polished” look.

An all-purpose grout and tile sealer should be good for general applications, but again, make sure it’s compatible with your material types.

Stone like slate or marble will likely require something more specialized. Particularly if you want a little sheen.

Tools

The fun ain’t over yet. Choosing the right materials for your project is only half the battle. The other half (and the slightly more fun half, if you ask me) is having the tools to do the job right.

Basic Tools – No matter what you’ll need these

  • Score-and-snap tile cutter (for larger tiles) – This is a cheaper alternative to a wet-saw, used to cut your tile down to size.
  • Tile nippers (for smaller tiles)- I like calling these “snips” because I feel like a bit of an idiot running around the shop going “Where are my nippers? Have you seen the nippers anywhere?!”
  • Drill – For installing backer-board.
  • Notched trowel- For spreading adhesive. The size of the notches corresponds to the size of your tile and how much adhesive you need. I most often use 1/4″ for regular floor applications, and 1/8″ for small tiles — like glass mosaic tiles.
  • Spacers – For spacing tile to get consistent grout lines.
  • Grout float – For smushing grout in-between the tiles.
  • Sponge – For wiping away excess grouts.
  • Buckets – To use as a helmet.
  • Okay, just kidding on that one.  You’ll need at least one to hold water while rinsing off the grout. Maybe two, if you’re mixing your own grout or thinset as well.
  • Gloves – Your fingers will thank you later.

Other Tools – Not a necessary, but fun to have. And really, isn’t that the case with most tools?

  • Wet Saw – For precise cutting of any size tile. Except for those itty bitty ones – it is still a saw, and I’ve heard you can lose a finger.
  • Grout mixing drill attachment – Come on, it’s just fun to use.

Also, make sure you have the proper PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) when cutting tile with anything. i.e. Wear safety glasses or they’ll be digging tile shards out of your eyeball and that will ruin the party.

Laws of the Universe Regarding Physics and Tile

Now that you know the basic materials involved – for more detailed step-by-step instructions on different tiling applications, check out these How-to’s:

Still here?

Okay, here’s the really high-level overview, but I’m telling you the step-by-step tutorials have pictures and everything, so go there next.

  1. Measure your space and get an idea of what you want before you buy materials
  2. Buy the materials for your project making sure you’ve got the right adhesive for your tile, and grout for your spacing, and all that goodness
  3. Prep your surface. Install backerboard if necessary (and it probably is.)
  4. Layout your tile before you start getting all glue-happy. Tile should always be centered in the middle of a room (don’t just start at one end and work towards the other, it will look lopsided).
  5. You can pre-cut pieces, or lay your whole tiles first and do the cut tiles later. Up to you. I do it both ways, and the world has yet to implode, so it must be ok.
  6. Start laying your tiles by spreading adhesive with the notched trowel. Push tile into adhesive and jiggle it a bit for a good set. Use spacers to properly align them.
  7. Once your tile is down, let it dry for 24-ish hours before grouting. Use a grout float to get the grout in all the cracks.
  8. Remove excess grout with sponge. Let set for 30 minutes and wipe it down again. Then let it dry overnight and wipe everything down with a soft dry cloth the next day to remove grout haze.
    Tip: For large grout lines (more than 1/2″) misting the grout with water every hour or two will help reduce shrinkage cracks.
  9. Seal. Seal. Seal. Seal. Seal. Do not start your next project. Do not belly-slide across your new tile surface. Pick up that sealer and get back to work.
  10. Now you can belly-slide across your new tile surface.

Now get to it. Make sure to leave a comment if you have a good tiling tip, or a question I can help answer.

Question: Does grout come out of your hair?

Answer: Eventually. Probably. Um… come back in a month and let’s talk.

DIY diva

    Comments

  • cheree


    we have done quite a bit of tiling in our home and opted to buy a wet saw and don’t regret it one bit (though I def would not recommend for small jobs). Your comment about the possibility of losing a finger, I am sure it is possible, but prior to buying our saw, we took a tiling class at a local tile shop and they demonstrated that these blades do not cut skin. you can stick your hand/finger in and touch the moving blade and come out unscathed. i wouldn’t recommend doing this on purpose, but def not the same as a miter, skill or table saw… just my two cents.

  • kitliz


    Cheree – THAT is awesome news! Actually, it makes perfect sense if you think about it, because we operate under the assumption that no one wants to lose a finger. Obviously if you *wanted* to amputate a digit, pushing it through a wet saw would be as effective as anything (if it can cut through marble it can cut through bone, I would assume.) But I think the good thing is that the tile saws don’t have teeth – the blade on a miter or table saw would essentially grab your finger and pull it in (and off) if you touch it. While with the tile saw if you accidentally touch it you may get an abrasion, but you’d instinctively pull your finger back as soon as it touched.

    Like you said though, NOT something to try out at home. I’d still say, treat it like any other blade keep body parts you like to have attached a safe distance away!

    • Velma


      Hi there. I was wondering how would one lay the actual stones themselves on a floor? Do you approach it much the same way as the little tiny mosaic glass tiles? Do you use the same type of spacers and yes one more question to bombard you with: What mortar will pass the test of time as far as assuring the river stones don’t come apart from the mortar or thinset?

  • patti


    had husband look at the weed-eater and he’s in. although he was sad to learn he could have won it. snooze you lose, right julie?!

  • The Tiny Homestead


    but, but, but…I don’t have anything to tile! I am leaning towards trying a tiled counter when I finally start renovating Ugly Kitchen.

  • kitliz


    Tiny – There are ALWAYS things to tile! lol. Ok, maybe not. I would be 100% supportive of a tile counter in the Ugly Kitchen when that reno starts though!

  • cheree


    true about other saw blades having teeth and being more likely to take off a digit by pulling it in. my husband has nicked his thumb on the table saw and also had a run in with a chain saw (both incidents required stitches) so we have first hand experience with what blades can do. tile saw blades are definitely a different story – we have never even come close to hurting ourselves with it.

    btw – I totally love your blog. we spent the last 4+years renovating our entire house and your stories are spot on :) we are selling said renovated house and moving into a camper (for now) and dreaming up our next big project…

  • Affiliate


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  • Bolts


    Returning to the adhesives and grout part, ready mixed can be awkward to work with as it sets very quickly which is not ideal when you are trying to cover a large area. While the caution should be taken when using epoxy tile grouts as they are prone to triggering allergic reactions.

  • Michelle


    Fun fact: you can actually apply tile to ceilings. Although it’s probably not a lot of fun for your neck :)

    Also, I have to say that I just found your blog today at random and I am completely addicted. Hence why I’m commenting on a post from 6 months ago…

    • Michelle


      *And by 6 I of course meant 9 months.

  • ejot


    For those who have tiled in the past without spacers – the beauty of these little plastic crosses are incredible and definitely worth every penny! Such a simple solution to the perfect job.

  • Josh


    This is a great resource, thanks a lot for posting this. Tiling is often a difficult project, and this blog really helps to get you on the right path. A while ago I was working on my bathroom tile and I have to say nippers are one of the best things you can buy when working with tile

  • cynthia


    how do you cut the sheet of tiles on mesh? they are small little squares. like the size of the key board. It doesn’t have a hard sturdy backing. Please try and help me. I tile the floor. It looks pretty good.This is scaring me.

  • David


    Hello, Your WEB Site is very informative. I am doing a bar area in my basement. I am not sure what adhesive to use. I understand that the weight of the tile may determine the type adhesive, thinset verses mastic.The tile that I intend to install is Marrazzi on 12X12 mesh and is for wall application. What would you reccomend?

  • Diane Hall


    Can you put ceramic tiles directly on a glass top surface?

  • Mamie


    U ROCK! Hope this site still current/active, don’t abandon us, dear Diva, we fledglings need you.
    What is best surface for glass tile when doing table top? Thinking of laying thin wood board on top of 21×21 end table,is there a better surface to use?

    • Kit


      The best thing for tile is either a fiber-cement tile backer board, or Durock’s tile membrane is also an option if you don’t want the added thickness. However, I’ve tiled on all kinds of wood without an issue… especially on smaller items. You’re risking a little cracking between the tiles when it comes to expansion and contraction, but for the most part as long as it’s not super slick and the glue will adhere, you’ll probably be okay.

      One thing to note with glass tiles though is that some of them are see-through, so you want to take that into account with the type of mastic you use and the color of the backing (I’d paint it white first to match the glue, just in case there are gaps.)

  • Bruce


    Hi. I am replacing our backsplash with thin glass / marble mosaic tile. I have removed the old ceramic tile (they popped of relatively easily) and I am now left with a swirly mess of old (30yr) brownish mastic. It is very difficult to scrape off yet in places it is a bit flakey. I think that I have a few options.
    1. Scrape it all off and hope that I don’t damage the drywall (not a good option)
    2. Put a thin coat of thinset over the mess and allow it to dry.. then do the tiling (I am not sure that this will work)
    3. Install a mesh over the existing area and do a base coat of thinset
    4. Remove the old drywall (very difficult as there are a couple of windows etc involved)
    5. Put new drywall over the old drywall to form a nice base (a bit messy but doable)
    6. I don’t want to bother with cement board but is there maybe something else that would go on easily like some sort of membrane?

    What do you suggest.
    Thank-you
    Bruce

    • Tammy


      Bruce – I had the same issue in the bathroom. I took a palm sander and sanded most all the mastic off. Then did a skim coat of drywall mud to fill in any deeper areas. I worked perfect for my project.

      Keep in mind that glass tiles require a different mortar. The tile shop we purchased from suggested the glass mortar even with mixed stone/tile mosaics.

      • Bruce


        Tammy, Thank-you for your response. It is interesting how many different opinions there are. Since the tile project is going to be relatively large (40sq ft of backsplash), I wanted to make sure that I spent the time to prepare a solid base. Most of the folks I spoke with said to rip off the old drywall and replace it. Since I was going around a couple of windows, I didn’t want to go to that effort. I liked the idea of scraping off the old mastic, but I read that if you damage the paper on the drywall, the core can get wet from the new mastic and eat it away. SO, I decided to put a new backerboard over the existing drywall. I chose 1/4″ wonderboard. It was easy to work with and adds very little to the “depth” of the installation. It is screwed directly to the studs. I just need to tape the seams (with special wonderboard tape) and mud them up and then I can start. I agree with your comment about the thinset for the glass/marble mosaic tile. The shop that sold me the tile actually sold me the wrong stuff (in fact it says not recommended for glass). The new thinset from MAPEI
        is actually specifically for glass/tile mosaic. Well, back to the kitchen….

  • Lopo


    I’m so excited to see that this thread is still active! I’m rehabbing a vintage travel trailer and found some aqua glass tiles that match my appliances. Woo hoo! I was thinking backsplash, but that will leave a lot left over so of course I must use them. The dinette table is ugly as sin with old laminate. Can I scuff up the laminate and lay my glass tiles on it without backer board? It’s not porous, but can I rough it up enough for the adhesive, and thus the tile, to stick? Any ideas on how to finish out the table edge?

  • brandi


    So I figured tiling a little bitty wall wouldnt be that hard. I mean all I needed was tile, something to adhere the tile to said little bitty wall and stuff called grout… I slathered the adhesive over said wall and commenced to putting up my tile. I did. I was kinda impressed with skills…until I got down off the ladder and took a step back. Then I realized, something was a bit off…. God love google as it brought me to your site. (btw, is now my number 1 fav.)
    What did I do wrong? Yes, I, DIY idiot number one, put the tile on backwards. I had no friggen clue that there was even a thing called front facing paper on tile!! After kicking crap around, I ran back to the wall and removed the crap…Loaded up the boy and the girl and hauled ass to home depot. Purchased tile that had no freaking paper on it anywhere, and quite possibly purchased the correct colored grout…Just to get home and realize that I now need nippers…Got the nippers. Hate nippers… Nippers do not nip or I need to attend a class…Both ends of the tile come apart fine…. the middle, well its a bitch. That is where I am at now. I just wanted to say that thank you for having this site and the front paper covered tile how to….LIFE SAVER..

  • Brin


    First off, thank you for posting all this! It’s nice to have everything in one area without searching!

    I want to do a little project to cover the corner of my closet where my old cats’ litterbox was. They used to pee next to it sometimes so it smells awful! I plan to rip the corner carpet out, bleach the concrete floor, and seal it with poly. I thought about tiling that, but then I got a better idea!

    I want to build a small base out of wood and then tile it mosaic-style. That way I can put the litter box back up there (different cat, hopefully not the same issue as the other), and it will cover the area while still looking great and being able to move if I need to.

    Do you have recommendations on how to do something like that? Do I need to put cement board on the little wood platform or can I tile straight to it? Must it be plywood or can it be something thicker like pine?

  • Kieth


    Wow, i must say you are more helpful then home depot customer service. You provide more details, projects and pictures. Good post!

  • Barb Milburn-Clarke


    Can you tile with glass tile over a wood surface (cedar)??
    thanks Barb

    • Kit


      I mean, you CAN do a lot of things. If it’s a small area that won’t be exposed to moisture or a lot of temperature variations, then it’s probably okay. You may want to prime the wood white first if it’s a translucent tile. If it’s a large area and you don’t want to put backer-board on for some reason, then I’d suggest using a tile membrane over the wood.

  • becky


    Remember to check lot numbers on tile boxes BEFORE you start. A must add to the list here! Lesson learned.

  • desiree


    I get tiling (in theory) but terrified to retile an old shower stall window. It’s not even that large, but the failure of the previous tile installation resulted in $3000 repair due to wood rot between the interior and exterior house walls.

    The window depth is about 10″. The actual window glass consists of a 3×4 glass block grid. So what remains is 4″ – 5″ recess space (base, sides, top) that I’d love to tile.

    So any tips or reference for waterproofing and tiling around a shower window? I wouldn’t mind buying more tools but I think I already have everything! :)

  • Carlota


    Thank you a lot for sharing this with all people you actually recognise what you’re talking approximately!
    Bookmarked. Please also consult with my website
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  • Velma


    Sorry to bother you again. lol It just seems that if one sorta filed the side of the small stone to roughen it up that this would help the stones adhere to the thin set? Have you done or seen it done?
    Idk this project is to be done in a very small bathroom and will help immensely the appearance of it However I am not keen on having to do a job twice simply because I failed to learn the details that if done correctly make it a project worthwhile

  • wood flooring installation


    I do consider all the ideas you have presented in your post.
    They’re really convincing and will definitely work.
    Nonetheless, the posts are too brief for starters.
    May you please prolong them a little from next time?
    Thanks for the post.

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