Ceramic Tile Installation

Ceramic tile installation is fairly easy with the right tools and a bit of preparation. Whether you want to lay a new ceramic tile floor or dress up a counter top, the result can be durable and look professional. First-time do-it-yourselfers are cautioned to stick to horizontal surfaces. Save those bathroom wall projects until you're more comfortable with tile, adhesive and grout.

Preparing the Surface
Ceramic tile can be installed over almost any solid, non-flexible, non-absorbent surface. Masonry, plywood and hardwoods work best. Cushioned linoleum, unfinished wood and warped or broken flooring are not suitable foundations for tile. If the existing flooring is in poor repair, or too flexible, it can shift beneath the tile, causing cracks and failing grout. Check the floor carefully for signs of damage. If there are soft spots in your floor where the floor joists bounce up and down, you'll need to secure those before installing your tile.

You may have to install backerboard (also called cement board or wonderboard) over your existing floor to provide a good surface for tile adhesion. If this is a new home or addition, ceramic tile can be installed directly onto cement floors. If the subfloor is particle board, you must lay backerboard before you install tile.

Tools Required
Straight edge
Utility knife
Caulking gun
Tile nippers
Tape measure
Chalk line
Wet tile saw
Mortar trowel
Grout float
Large sponge

Materials Required
Construction adhesive
Fiberglass tape
Tile (add 10% to the total square footage to allow for breakage)
Tile spacers
Thinset mortar
Roofing nails

Set the Foundation
Remove any baseboard and lay your backerboard if necessary. When cutting the backerboard to size, make sure you are laying it so the joints are staggered and not running in a straight line across the entire floor. Make note of the thickness of the backerboard and the tile; you may need to cut down the bottom of doors so that they can open and close over the raised floor surface.

Backerboard can be scored with a utility knife and snapped along the cut, in the same way that drywall is cut. Have plenty of blades handy, as they will dull after a few cuts. Lay the cut pieces in place, set them with generous amounts of construction adhesive and nail them along the joists. To fill the seams, press a generous amount of thinset mortar into them. Lay fiberglass tape over the mortar and smooth another thin layer on top so the tape is embedded and the surface is smooth. Make sure to fill in the dimples left by the nails too. Let this dry overnight.

The procedure is the same if you are installing ceramic tile on a countertop. Remove the sink and cut the backerboard so that it's flush with the existing edges of the countertop. You can use a rasp to gently smooth the edges once the backerboard and mortar have dried.

Lay Out the Tiles
You have to plan how you are going to set your tiles. Few rooms are perfectly square, so you'll wind up with cut tiles. The cut tile edges should be installed along the least visible wall, usually either the door wall or under cabinets.

Find the exact center of each wall with your tape measure and mark it. Then snap a chalk line across the floor from the center point of one wall to the wall directly opposite. Repeat with the remaining two walls, so that you have two lines dividing the room into four quadrants. The point where the lines intersect is the midpoint of the room.

Now it's time to test the layout. Put down one row of tiles along each line, following the cross pattern, from wall to wall, making sure to leave enough space for the grout. The goal is to use as many whole tiles as possible, and you need to have at least a half tile at the base of each wall. If you have too much or too little space against one of your walls, you can make adjustments in the center of the room to get the best layout possible.

There are two basic patterns for laying out tile, the jack-on-jack and the running bond. A jack-on-jack pattern looks like a checkerboard, with grout lines that run the length of the room. A running bond is similar to the patterns used for bricks or shingles; every other row is offset by half a tile. For rooms that are badly out of square or that have an unusual shape, the jack-on-jack pattern typically yields the most durable results.

To get professional results with countertops, follow the same process, locating the center of the counter by finding the exact center of the counter's sides and drawing lines between them. Include the space for the sink so you get a consistent pattern across the counter. If the sink is in the center of the counter, you can use a piece of thick cardboard to locate the center or find the center on either side of the sink. Partial tiles should be used on the least-visible side, and it's best to avoid running bond patterns on countertops, as they're tougher to clean.

Setting the Tiles
Once the layout is set, you're ready to stick the tiles down. Start in the center of the room, laying a tile where your lines cross, then work outward to the edges of each quadrant. Do one quadrant at a time, laying the whole tiles and leaving the partial tiles for last.

To spread the thinset, use the serrated edge of your mortar trowel, laying only enough thinset to install a few tiles at a time. Give each tile a little wiggle as you install it to make sure it's adhered. Use tile spacers to create even gaps between the tiles.

It may be easiest to install all of the whole pieces, let them dry overnight and then come back and do the cut pieces the next day. This way you don't have to worry about dislodging tile. The wet tile saw makes it very easy to make clean cuts.

To get a perfect fit against the wall, take a whole tile and lay it on top of the last whole tile in the row. Take another whole tile, position it against the wall and let it rest on top of the tile you need to cut. Now you can draw an accurate line by tracing along the edge of the tile that's touching the wall.

Use tile nippers if you need to cut little corners to fit around doorjambs or small spaces. As the name implies, you want to use these to nip away at the edge of the tile, rather than trying to make dramatic cuts.

Grout and Seal
Remove all the plastic spacers. You may need a screwdriver to get some of them out. Using your rubber grout float, generously spread the grout over the tile, forcing it deep into the spaces. If the room is small, like a bathroom, you can do the whole room. Otherwise, work in sections. The grout must set for about 30 minutes. Clean off the excess with a damp sponge, wiping until it all comes clean.

The last step is sealing the job. Wait three days for the grout to cure. If you have installed a glossy ceramic tile, only the grout needs to be sealed. This can be done with a small brush or sponge applicator, applying it to the grout lines and wiping off excess with a damp sponge. If you have used porous tile or stone, the whole surface needs to be sealed. The process is much like waxing a car-using a large brush or even a rag, apply the sealer over everything and buff it dry.

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