For many years, ceramic tiling was regarded as arcane. It was a specialized vocation best left to the gifted few who, with their years of apprenticeship, were masters of the trade.
That perception has certainly changed. There are chains of retail stores today that sell only tile and tiling supplies, and most of their customers are homeowners. Tile is now widely used not only in bathrooms, but in kitchens, entry ways, and other locations in the home and office where durable, water-resistant surfaces are required. Increasingly, the installation is done by novices, those of us who want the look of tile but don’t want to pay virtuoso fees for the privilege.
Enter the simple tools of the tiler. This doesn’t have to be long, because the tools are relatively few and fairly easy to use. There’s the tile cutter (it’s essentially a sophisticated version of the glass cutter) that scores and snaps tiles along straight lines. The nipper, a cutting tool with jaws, handles, and a pivot, resembles a pair of pliers but allows the picking and nipping of little bits from a curve or compound cut. The notched trowel is used to apply the adhesive or cement for affixing the tile, and the grout float spreads the coarse mortar that fills the joints between the tiles.
You’ll need a few other familiar tools, like a tape measure, chalk box, framing square, and a level. These days, tiling is no longer solely the domain of the tilers’ guild.
Also known as a snap cutter, this tool consists of a platform topped by a frame along which a cutter wheel slides. The tile is positioned on the padded platform, with one side flush to a fence at the head to hold the workpiece square.
The cutting wheel, quite like the wheel on a glass cutter, is mounted on a lever mechanism that allows considerable leverage to be applied. The wheel is pressed against the tile to score its glazed surface. The tile is then pressured with the cutter lever to snap the tile apart.
Tile cutters vary greatly in price. Some have hardened steel cutler wheels, others have carbide cutters (these cost several times as much, but last much longer). Some have larger tables, others can be set up to make accurate miter cuts.
A much more expensive option is a wet saw, which is essentially a portable circular saw mounted onto a special frame and water-filled trough. A movable cutting table with an adjustable fence allows the tile to be presented to the cutting blade, which is in turn kept cool by jets of water.
The wet saw is invaluable for working with thick and shaped tile, and for shaping curves from tile. It makes smooth, regular cuts, when used with both skill and care. If you have used a circular saw, similar safety rules apply. Wet saws can usually be rented for reasonable fees on a daily or hourly basis.
For most simple tiling jobs, however, a snap cutter will do quite nicely, at a reasonable cost, and with no exposure to the risks of the power saw. When you buy tile, it may be worth asking suppliers whether they have cutters they are prepared to rent or loan to their customers.
This is the second of the two essential tile-cutting tools (along with the tile cutter). Like the pliers they greatly resemble, nippers can be purchased in many sizes and configurations. A basic model will suffice for most jobs.
Nippers are used to cut curved or irregular tiles, or to nip away very thin strips from the edges of a tile. They work best when the area to be trimmed has been scored with a tile or glass cutter; the nippers are then used to clip off small sections at a time. Some nippers have one flat jaw that is held flush to the glazed surface of the tile; the other has a curved cutting edge that is designed to bite into the unglazed vitreous base (called the bisque). Others have two cutting edges. Both designs work well.
This tool is used to spread adhesive over walls or floors in order to apply surfaces such as ceramic tile. Also called a serrated-edge, adhesive, or mastic trowel, the notched trowel has a flat rectangular blade and a wooden handle mounted along the center of its back. The edges of the blade are notched, sometimes in two different profiles.
When you have finished laying out the job, you apply the adhesive to a small area of the wall or floor (say, a three-foot square) using the notched trowel. Smooth the adhesive or mortar evenly onto the surfaces, then draw the notched edge through it on a final pass, holding the trowel at a low angle. This will create a uniform series of ridged lines in which to bed the tiles.
The tiles can then be set in place, one at a time. They are pushed firmly into the adhesive, perhaps with a slight twisting motion to bed them thoroughly. As you finish each section, check the areas for plumb and level.
After the tile is in place and the adhesive or cement has set for twenty-four hours or longer (follow the instructions on the adhesive or mortar package), a thin, coarse mortar called grout is applied to fill the joints between the tiles. A sponge can be used for this purpose, but the job is made a good deal easier if you have a grout float. (You’ll still need a sponge, though, to clean the surface of the tiles after the grout is applied.)
The grout float looks rather like a trowel, with a hardwood handle at the center of its back. However, the body of the tool is also wooden, and its working surface is made of rubber (hence another name by which it is known, the rubber float).
It is used like a trowel, in that it is held with a long edge at a low angle to the tile, and swept across the area, with the pressure from the flat surface working the grout between the tiles. Follow with a sponge to remove the grout residue from the tile surfaces.