How to Lay Tile (as far as I know.)

Kitchen Remodel: Day 250

Oh, what a beautiful sight!

Laying tile in the kitchen

Three days of tiling and we’re almost done.  We finished laying all of the whole tiles, which means we left the slowest part — cutting — for last.  And baby, there are A LOT of cuts.  Because I couldn’t be satisfied with simply laying square tiles on a diagonal, which pretty much doubles the number of cuts you have to do and makes things rather difficult.  Oh no.  For my very first tiling project, I chose to lay the tiles on a diagonal AND use a “running bond” or brick pattern.

Which more or less quadruples your cuts, as far as I can tell.

So, um…we have a few more days of tiling to go.  And then, before we can call the floor “done,” we’ll still have to grout.  But I’m working my butt off here, because next week I’d really like to be telling you how to hang cabinets.

But today, I’ll just tell you how to lay tile.  Or at least, how we did it.  I did a lot of research, but most of my information comes from two places: a blog called One Project Closer, which has a 9-step, all-you-ever-wanted-to-know series about how the pros install tile, and The Tile Shop, which offers FREE classes every Saturday morning at 9:30am and has several DIY videos on their website.  I’ve been to The Tile Shop twice in the last week, and each time the employees were helpful and informative.  So if my tutorial here doesn’t quite do it for you, click on the links above to go directly to the source.

Oh, and if you’re wondering where that tile came from, it’s Marazzi Montagna Cortina from Home Depot. I know it looks like a million bucks, but you’d never guess it was only $1.75/square foot!

Okay, ready to learn how to lay tile?  Here we go!

Step 1: Decide on a pattern for your tile and do a “dry run.”  Start laying out your tile, including the spacing.  The point of this is to determine the best starting place for your pattern, so that you don’t end up with little tiny cuts along the edges, especially in visible areas.  If you’re doing a simple pattern, such as square tiles on a standard grid, you can do this step with chalk lines instead of your actual tiles.  I’m more of a visual person, and I don’t trust my kitchen to be square, so I used the real deal.  I started in the most visible place—the corner where the kitchen connects to both the stairs and the dining room.

I used 3/16″ spacers, and ran the pattern all the way to the far wall in the entry way (the second most visible spot), and then into the half bath (the third most visible spot).  I also ran it over to the right of the photo above, towards the basement door (the fourth most visible spot).  Along the way, I started to suspect that choosing a complicated pattern has one advantage: even in places where I ended up with less than half a tile, it didn’t look unusual or poorly planned.  The busier pattern helped hide it.

Once I determined that the pattern was going to work and I would have whole tiles in prominent places, I picked up all the tiles except the first few.  These I traced onto the floor before picking them up, so that I’d know exactly where to start.

Step 2: Mix up the mortar.  This is the stuff I used, from The Tile Shop:

I more or less followed the instructions on the bag, with one minor modification: it says to put your water into the bucket first, then add the mortar.  But I found it easier to control the consistency and the amount of mortar if I started with the mortar and added water second.  No big deal.  You can mix it by hand if you’re enthusiastic; I used this handy mixing-paddle drill bit instead:

All resources say to only mix as much mortar as you can use in 20-30 minutes.  My big question was, how much is that?  By trial and error, I determined that the answer is: not very much.

I know it’s hard to tell, but there’s only about 2-3 inches of mortar in the bottom of this 4.5 gallon pail.  Working by myself, I could only do 5-6 tiles in 30 minutes, at most (once Chris and I worked out a system with me spreading mortar and him setting tiles, it went faster).  So when I mixed the mortar, I would pour about 2 inches of mortar into the bucket, then add just enough water to get it to the recommended “toothpaste” consistency (“peanut butter” is also acceptable).

Once it’s thoroughly mixed, let it sit for 5 minutes.

This is called “slaking.”  This allows the flavors to develop, like marinating, but you don’t get to eat it when it’s done.

After 5 minutes, mix the mortar one last time, and then you’re ready for the next step.

Step 3: Spread it on.  I found the easiest way to do this was with an offset spatula margin trowel.

Remember how my cake-frosting skills came in handy for drywalling?  Turns our they’re good for laying tiles, too.  I used the margin trowel to spread the buttercream mortar pretty evenly around the area I was working in.

Then all I had to do was give it a couple of swipes with the notched trowel, holding it at a 45-degree angle, to take off the excess and create those little ridges that help suction the tile to the floor.

Once you’ve got your nice even ridges, it’s time for…

Step 4: Set your tile.  I just had Chris do this part.

Just kidding.  I did my fair share (and now that he’s on a 4-day trip and we didn’t finish tiling this weekend, I’ve got more coming my way).  We like the “gently-drop-the-tile-into-place” method.  We also found it easiest if we set the tile as close to its neighbor as possible, then carefully slide it away, using spacers to make sure the grout lines were even all the way around.

Despite all our efforts at making the floor as perfect as possible before setting tile, we had a couple of tiles that just didn’t want to lay flat.  In this case, you can pick up the tile and put a bit of mortar directly on the back of the tile where it doesn’t touch the subfloor, or to raise up a low tile to meet the higher tiles around it.  We used a coin to make sure all the edges were even; just slide a quarter over the joint between two tiles.  If it goes over smoothly, without catching the edge of a tile, your joint is even.  Then you can move on to…

Step 5: Clean up any extra mortar.  Use a damp sponge to wipe off your joints and your tile.  It’s way easier to do it now; otherwise you’ll have to buff or scrape it off once it hardens.  A small foam brush works well for cleaning excess mortar out of the joints and making sure there’s enough room for grout (Randy at The Tile Shop taught me that trick).  We tried to leave our joints about 2/3 clear, so the grout will have plenty of room to stick.

Step 6: Grout.  Oh wait, we haven’t done that yet.  I’ll be back with another post when it’s time for that tutorial.

And that’s that!  Guys, when it was time for me to start laying tile, I must have stared at that bag of mortar for about 15 minutes, scared that I was going to do it wrong and ruin my floor.  The thought of having to tile the floor TWICE (after painting twice, and doing the plumbing twice) was almost enough to have me in tears.  But I gotta say…it hasn’t been as hard as I expected.  All of these tutorials I read had me thinking, “It can’t be that easy.”  But here I am, giving you a tutorial that only has 5 steps!  Maybe it really is that easy.

Or maybe, a year from now, when all my tiles are cracked and/or popping loose, I’ll be scratching my head and wondering what I did wrong.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed that THAT doesn’t happen, mm-kay?

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