How To: Install Tile

Learn how to install tile, a process during which a little layout sooner can save a lot of frustration later.

By Bob Vila | Updated Jul 23, 2020 2:01 PM

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How to Install Tile

Photo: Flickr

Find the Center
When you install tile, you want the finished surface to appear symmetrical, even if it isn’t. To accomplish this, you need to find the center of the surface first, measuring in from the sides. This is especially important in small areas, where wide tiles at one edge and slender ones at the other will make the whole job look out of balance.

Squaring Up
Particularly in a house of a certain age, you may well discover that the floor area isn’t square. That makes the job a bit more complicated. Most often, the best strategy is to use as a baseline the wall that is most obvious. Then when your guests walk into the room, they’ll see tile lines that are parallel to that wall, and you’ll get credit for a nice even job.

If their first view is of lines that aren’t aligned, the whole job may look cockeyed, even if it isn’t.

Quartering the Job
Once you’ve identified the center and baseline from which you will work, snap a pair of perpendicular chalk lines. These will divide the room into roughly equal quadrants. You’ll want to work outward from the center point in each of the four sections.

When tiling a wall, your first concern is not a center point; you’ll want to establish a top line that is level. Few walls are truly plumb (or floors truly level) so use a level to mark the top line.

Establish its height so that you won’t have to cut very thin tiles (or cut very thin shards from nearly full tiles) to come flush to the floor. Snap a top line on your walls, and then snap a center line, too, just as you would for the floor. And be sure to lay out all the walls you plan to do before you begin tiling.

Stepping Off the Pattern
One last essential step: After you’ve found the center point, squared the room and are ready to go, position rows of tiles (do it dry, before you mix the adhesive or mortar) within each quadrant of the grid. Take the rows to each wall. This last step should warn you of any trouble to come.

Follow the same procedure for the walls, too, stepping off horizontal and vertical distances.

One problem you might encounter, for example, is if you made an arithmetical mistake and your center line isn’t your center line at all. This can easily be corrected at the layout stage but could create major headaches later on.

You might discover that the tiles you laid to butt to the wall (or floor) are so narrow as to be impossible to cut. For example, cutting a ceramic tile to a width of less than about three-quarters of an inch is difficult and should be avoided if at all possible. You could decide to go back and cheat the whole grid an inch or so one way or another, even at the cost of losing your perfect symmetry. Only you will know

You may also opt to make a variation on the story pole that is called a jury stick. If you mark on a straight piece of plain wood stock the width of a particular series of tiles (and don’t forget the grout joints, too), you can hold it to the surface to be tiled and identify potential difficulties easily without having to set whole areas of tile in place. When it comes to the actual tiling, work across to the outside edge of one quadrant, then to the top or bottom one row or course at a time. Fill in as you go.

Successful tile jobs are a direct result of good planning and a methodical approach. Double check every step; measure at least twice with a tape and a second time by stepping off.

Cutting Tile
A little patience, along with a little practice and a score and a snap, and you’re a tile cutter. Here’s how you do it:

Measure and mark the tile. Measure the size of the tile you need to cut, and transfer the dimension to the glazed surface of the tile using a felt-tip marker. Position the tile on the tile cutter, aligning the center line of the cutter with the axis on which the tile is to be cut. The top of the tile should be held flush to the fence at the top of the cutter to keep it square to the cutting wheel.

Score the surface. Using the lever to which the cutting wheel is attached, draw the cutter across the surface of the tile, exerting a firm, even pressure to cut through the glaze. Make only one pass with the cutter.

Snap the tile. Different snap cutters have different means of snapping tile. Some have a heel at the rear of the lever that has the cutting wheel at its toe; others, the reverse. Whatever the design of your cutter, use the surface to apply pressure to the score line. In combination with a bead built into the base of the cutter, the pressure will cause the tile to snap in half.

Tiling Tips
Preparation. Wallpaper, loose plaster, flaking paint, peeling tiles, or unsecured sheet flooring must be removed from the walls or floors that are to be tiled. Make sure your tiling surface is flat, rigid, and dry.

Layout. Proper planning is every bit as important as careful cutting. Establish a precise strategy for the process before you begin.

Adhesives. If you are using tile, chances are that it’s to be in a setting where moisture is a given, whether it’s a kitchen, bath, or entryway. Make sure you use a waterproof adhesive.  You can use a premixed adhesive or a mortar, but if you choose the latter, make sure it’s a thin-set variety. The thick-bed mortars require some practice and skill at smoothing to get the tiles to sit flat, and the additional mortar isn’t necessary for a water-tight finish.

Grouting. Grout is usually purchased as a powder, then mixed with water or a recommended additive. Read the instructions on the package, or ask advice at the tile store to be sure the mix is appropriate. One simple way to enhance your color scheme is to add a dye or pigment to the grout. Adding a color can be especially important if you’ve tiled a floor, because white grout, even after it has been sealed with a grout sealer (which is to be recommended, especially for floors), may prove difficult to keep looking clean and white.

Removing residue.  Make sure you sponge off the residue on the surface of the tiles before it dries. This step will require several passes over a period of an hour or more. It’s a critical element when you’re working with tiles that have a porous or variegated surface.  Dried grout can prove almost impossible to remove from the indentations.