Laying Ceramic Tile

Laying ceramic tile can be quite a bit of work, but can also be very rewarding and isn't difficult to learn. 

I had never installed a single square of ceramic tile. Nor had I ever mixed grout or Thinset. I had no idea how difficult or how easy this job would be, but I knew it would take me a while to complete, so I prepared myself for a somewhat long-term project.  I had one goal - do a good job!!

Tile Warehouse

To determine how difficult of a job laying ceramic tile is, I attended a tile laying demonstration at the local hardware store. These sessions usually take about an hour and they are well worth the time. I attended two of them so that I could get the tile laying experiences of more than one instructor.

During the class, the instructor mixed a small amount of Thinset mortar (a mortar made of cement, fine sand, and a water retention agent - the mixture is used to adhere the tile to the floor).  He mixed  enough Thinset to lay about 3 or 4 tiles. He spread the Thinset on a piece of plywood, using a trowel with 1/4 inch teeth and  demonstrated how to apply the tile to the thinset. He managed spacing between the tiles by using small plastic spacers. This amount of instruction is most of what I needed to get me started.

I highly recommend these courses. If you ask, they will probably let you mix a little Thinset, apply it to the test surface, and lay a couple of tiles. By doing this, you get the feel of thickness of the Thinset and how to trowel the Thinset to the floor. 

Ceramic Tile Tools

Tile Saw - You can buy an inexpensive tile saw (like the one shown below) for around $100 that will be more than adequate for small tile projects.  I used this one for laying ceramic tile in almost half of my house, and it still has plenty of life left in it.

Tile Saw

Razor Blade Scraper - If you are replacing an old floor with tile, you should prepare the surface so that it is smooth and level.  A 4-inch razor blade scraper is perfect for scraping up old glue and paint, etc.. 

Thinset Trowel - I used a 1/4-inch square-notch trowel (shown with a blue handle below) for applying thinset to the floor.

Grout Trowel - The grout trowel has no teeth and is designed to fill the space between the tiles with grout.  You will want to use gloves while grouting because you are constantly using a wet sponge to remove excess grout and residue from the tile.  The cement in the grout dries your skin considerably.

Tile Hand Tools

Drills and Mixers - I quickly learned that mixing grout with a heavy duty industrial drill, like the Milwaukee 1/2 Inch Magnum with a keyless chuck, along with a couple of different mixing paddles, was the only way to go when laying ceramic tile.  The low speed and high torque of the Milwaukee Magnum made it the perfect drill for the job.  My 3/8 inch high speed Craftsman drill, that I use for most of my projects, would not have had the power to turn the mixing paddle in the thick thinset.

Grout Mixing Tools and Drill

Knee Pads - One of the most important tools for laying ceramic tile are knee pads.  You spend a great deal of time on your knees when doing any type of flooring.  A good pair of knee pads will save those precious knees!

Knee Pads

Floor Prep

Preparing the floor for my new ceramic tile was the most difficult part of the job for me.  I was replacing a ten-year-old vinyl floor that still had plenty of life left in it.  The vinyl was very stubborn and would not come up easily.

I used a couple of different razor blade scrapers and lots of muscle to remove the flooring.  In the middle of the vinyl removal phase, I thought that there must be some easier way to do this.  I found a product at Home Depot that came in a gallon jug that was made for this exact purpose.

You apply the substance to the vinyl and let it soak in.  After about 30 minutes, the vinyl was considerably easier to remove.  I applied the remover on about 1/3 of the remaining vinyl, let it soak in, and removed the vinyl.  The product warning label recommended lots of ventilation, although the product didn't have much of a smell.  I opened all of the windows in the room and turned on the ceiling fan.

After removing the vinyl from the area where I had applied the remover, I mopped the floor several times with clean water to remove the vinyl remover substance.  Several hours later, after dinner and a movie, a high pitched sound suddenly seemed to come from everywhere in my house.  My wife and I were frantically trying to determine the source of the sound.

After about 10 minutes, we noticed that our carbon monoxide detector was the source!  We had never heard it before, so didn't know what it sounded like.  There must have been some fumes in the air from that vinyl remover that set it off.  Anyway, we were afraid to use it again.  So, we went back to the old labor intensive method of removing the vinyl - with scrapers and muscle.

Once the old flooring has been removed, I made sure that the floor was clean and free of old flooring adhesive and floor cleaner.  I mopped my floor several times with plain hot water.

If your floor has uneven areas, this is the perfect time to apply floor leveler.  You can find this in the flooring section of your favorite hardware store.

Planning Tile Layout

This is the most important phase of laying ceramic tile.  The location of your first tile determines where all of the remaining tiles will be placed, so careful planning is extremely important. 

Laying ceramic tile is one of those construction projects where you start in the middle of the room and work towards the outer walls.  If you were to start along one wall, you might wind up with a small sliver of tile near a doorway or other wall.  Carefully planning the location of the first tile will help prevent this.  

I picked the longest section of wall on my tile project (below) and measured out far enough from it (A) so that I could pop a line from the end of the hallway through the kitchen.  I used this line as my "control" line to determine how the tiles will land on all of the other walls and doorways.

I also measured the distance between the chalk line and kitchen wall (B) to make sure that the measurements were the same.  By measuring various points along the chalk line, I could determine where my tiles would land. 

I also did this the other direction by popping a perpendicular chalk line and measuring our from it to determine the other dimension of the placement of the first tile.

Once I had determined where the first tile should go, I popped new chalk lines to use as a guide for laying my tile.  

Tile Floor Layout

The floor plan below shows the 12-inch tiles installed in their approximate locations.  Careful planning ensured that I did not have any strips of tile less than 3 inches in width next to any wall or doorway.  The orange square indicates the location of my first tile.

Laying out a Tiled Floor

I laid my first tiles between and along my chalk line and one of the hallway walls.  This way, I could lay three rows of tiles while using the remaining 2.5 feet of hallway space as my work area.  Later, after the first tiles have set up, I could use them as my work area while laying ceramic tile in the remainder of the hall.

My Advice

When you purchase your tile, make sure that all of your tiles are made from the same lot.  The variance between lots can be so great that the tiles look like they are completely different.  This happened to me.  I got home with a full pallet of tile to discover that the pallet was stocked with two different lots.  I took it back.

When laying ceramic tile, buy enough tile to do your whole project with several tiles left over to use as spares.  I had to call around to several stores to find one that had enough tile from the same lot to do my whole project.  This is very important!

Use a dark colored grout when laying ceramic tile.  Keeping light colored grout clean and free from stains is difficult.

Clean all of your tools thoroughly after each day's work.  Concrete will build up on the tools over time and eventually make them unusable.


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