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

July 21, 2010 | 65 Comments | DIY How To
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.

A Culmination of Sorts
Sharpening our no.2's
DIY diva

    Comments

  • Jan


    This is the best description of procedure I have read!!!!!

    Thank you,
    Jan

  • Angie


    ZOMG thank yah girlie! I have the dubious distinction of being the most handy person in our house and I am the one to whom the responsibility of repairing the crumbling tile wall in the bathroom (which has glorious plaster and lath as well as a 1949 cement based wall repair – how do I know it was last repaired in 1949? the sunday comics said so when I pulled them out of the wall!)

    With all that said, I just wanted to say thank you for the intel. You cleared up a few mysteries that 4 hours of searching on the net failed to clear up. soo THANK YOU!

    –Angie
    -= who is learning to love being a DIY’er-=

  • Vickie


    I have glass tiles that I want to remove the back off of. Not just the mesh stuff but there is some kind of white backing on it as well. I want to be able to see through the glass. Any ideas on how to remove it?

    thanks!

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