How To: Install Ceramic Tile

Bob Vila

Installing ceramic tile can be tricky. Successful tiling jobs are a direct result of good planning and a methodical approach. Take the time to do the right amount of prep work before you begin.

STEP 1: Assess 
Begin by inspecting the surface upon which you plan to install the tile. The substrate, or what tile is installed on top of, is just as important as the tile itself. A flexing floor or a wall that is uneven can lead to broken tiles and failed grout.

Water-resistant backer board, not drywall, should be used under tile that is likely to get wet (shower walls and bathroom floors, for example). Whether it’s backer board, plywood, or concrete, the substrate needs to be sound, clean, and dimensionally stable. Surfaces need to be level or plumb and true to plane, as the pros say—that means no bumps. Wallpaper, loose plaster, flaking paint, peeling tiles or unsecured sheet flooring must be removed from the walls or floors that are to be tiled.

STEP 2: Measure 
Walls—When tiling a wall, you'll want to establish a top line that is level. Few walls are truly plumb, 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. Be sure to lay out all the walls you plan to do before you begin tiling.

Floors—To make your finished ceramic tile surface appear symmetrical (even if it isn’t), you need to find the center of the surface first. Then measure in from the sides. Pay special attention to this step if you're tiling a small area, where wide tiles at one edge and narrow ones at the other will make the whole job look out of balance. 

In an older home, you may find the floor isn’t square, which makes the job more complicated. Use the most obvious wall as a baseline, so those entering the room will see tile lines parallel to that wall; your job will look more even.

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.

STEP 3: Lay out the tiles
After you've found the center point and squared the room for floor installations (or determined the top line level for walls), lay the tiles out to see how they will appear. Do it dry, before you mix the adhesive or mortar, within each quadrant of the grid. 

The space between the tiles should be uniform. Use spacers if your tiles don’t come on mesh sheets. The larger the tile the larger the space should be between them. Some do-it-yourselfers will make the mistake of pushing tiles too close together to reduce grout lines. Without enough surface area, grout won’t bond well and can fail prematurely, leaving room for leaks and water damage. It’s also very important to let the adhesive cure fully.

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. Double-check by measuring at least twice with a tape and a second time by dry-laying the tile prior to adhering.

STEP 4: Cutting the tile
The first step in cutting tile is measuring the size of the tile you wish to cut and transferring the dimensions to the glazed surface of the tile via 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. To keep it square, the top of the tile should be held flush to the fence at the top of the cutter. Then, using the lever to which the cutting wheel is attached, draw the cutter across the surface of the tile, exerting a firm, even pressure. Make only one pass with the cutter. Finally, 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; with others, the reverse is true. 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. A little patience, some practice, a score and a snap, and you're a tile cutter.

How to Install Ceramic Tile

How to Install Ceramic Tile

STEP 5: Adhering Tiles
If you are using tile, chances are that it's in a setting where moisture is a given—kitchen, bath, entryway and so on. 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. (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 watertight finish.)

Be sure to check the product container to determine how quickly the adhesive will dry. Spread the adhesive smoothly with a square-notched trowel, then set each tile with a slight twist to spread the adhesive. Begin at the center of the surface and work out to the perimeter. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and stay off the installation for the required amount of time before beginning grout work.

STEP 6: Grouting tiles
Grout is usually purchased as a powder and mixed with water or a recommended additive. Read the instructions on the package or ask advice at the tile store. Wear gloves and spread grout evenly, being sure to force it into the joints with a blunt stick or another tool.

One simple way to enhance your color scheme is to add a dye or pigment to the grout. White grout, even after it has been sealed with a grout sealer (which is recommended, especially for floors), may prove difficult to keep clean.

STEP 7: Cleaning and sealing
Make sure you sponge off the residue on the surface of the tiles before it has the chance to dry. This step will require several passes over a period of an hour or more. It's a critical stage when you're working with tiles that have a porous or variegated surface. Dried grout can prove almost impossible to remove from indentations. 

Finally, apply a grout sealer according to the manufacturer's directions, and your tile job is complete!

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