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How to Lay a Tile Floor

Laying a tile floor is not as hard as you might think and can save the expense of having it professionally installed. To get started you’ll need:

Tools:

Box of tile

  • Pencil
  • Tape measure
  • Level
  • Speed square
  • Notched trowel
  • Rubber float
  • Grout sponge
  • Tile spacers
  • Power drill
  • Mixing paddle
  • 5-gallon buckets
  • Kneepads
  • Safety glasses and earplugs
  • Scoring cutter or wet saw
  • Handsaw or jamb saw

Materials:

  • Tile
  • Thin-set mortar
  • Cement backer board
  • Cement board screws
  • Grout
  • Sealer

Measuring Floor

Measure your floor carefully and calculate the number of square feet needed.

    • For square or rectangular rooms, multiply the length of the room by the width, rounding all measurements up to the nearest foot.
  • Divide odd shaped rooms into square or rectangular sections. Calculate the square footage for each section and add them together.

Purchasing Tile

A wide variety of mosaic ceramic tile patterns are available.

Tile comes in a wide variety of sizes, styles, and colors. Keep these points in mind when deciding on your tile:

    • If this is your first tile project, keep the layout and pattern simple.
    • Large tiles work well in a big area but can dominate smaller rooms.
    • Consider tiles with a rough or textured finish, since glossy surfaces can be slippery when wet.
  • Buy 10% – 15% more tile than needed to account for breakage, mistakes, and future replacement.
Scraping old adhesive off floor

Scraping old adhesive off floor

Surface Preparation

Start by removing the existing flooring. Scrape off any residual adhesives or mortar, and clean the floor thoroughly.

Check to see that the subfloor is flat and level. Fill any low spots and cracks in a concrete subfloor with concrete patching compound.

For wood framing, make sure the subfloor is dry, rigid, and securely attached to the joists.

Never apply tile directly to plywood or a wood subfloor. Instead, cover the subfloor with cement backer board, using corrosion resistant screws that are countersunk flush with the surface of the backer board.

Screwing down cement backer board to a plywood subfloor

Screwing down cement backer board to a plywood subfloor

Trim the bottom of the door jambs so the tile will fit under them using either a handsaw or jamb saw (available to rent at tool rental centers).

Using a jamb saw to trim the bottom of door casings so tile can fit under it

Using a jamb saw to trim the bottom of door casings so tile can fit under it

Layout

Consider how the tile can best be laid out to maximize aesthetic appeal and minimize cutting. The tile can either be centered on the floor, or full tiles can be used along the most visible walls. When laying out the floor:

Mixing up thin-set adhesive

Mixing up thin-set adhesive

    • Check square: Measure the length of each wall, and the diagonals from corner to corner. The room is square if opposite walls are the same length and the diagonals match.
  • Establish Guidelines: Pop chalk lines on the floor parallel to the walls to act as guides for laying the tile.

Laying Tile

Mix up thin-set mortar in a 5-gallon bucket using a mixing paddle chucked into a low speed drill. Follow the instructions, being sure to use the correct ratio of water to mortar mix.

Make up only as much mortar mix as can be worked in 15-20 minutes. Keep a bucket of clean water and a sponge handy to wipe off any excess before it sets and to clean tools.

Use a notched trowel to spread the mortar evenly on a small area where you will start laying the tile. Position the tile in the mortar along the guidelines and press into place.

Spread thin-set adhesive. Set tile in adhesive.

Spread thin-set adhesive, then set tile in adhesive.

Following the guidelines, position the next tile, using plastic spacers to keep the joints uniform.

Use plastic spacers to align the joints in tile.

Use plastic spacers to align the joints in tile.

Check the alignment of the tiles as you go along to be sure they are both level and straight.

Level tile. Align edges of tile.

Level tile, then align edges of tile.

When laying tile, work from the subfloor to avoid putting weight on the new tile, and allow it to set for 24 hours before walking on it. Work backward toward a doorway to keep from working yourself into a corner.

Measuring for border tile

Measuring for border tile

Cutting Tile

Once the full tiles are laid and safe to walk on, the next step is to cut and fit the partial border tile along the walls.

To do this, measure the distance to the wall, minus the width of the grout line, and mark each tile.

A scoring cutter can be used to make straight cuts that extend all the way across a tile.

Another option for cutting tile is a wet saw equipped with a diamond tipped blade, which can make both through and partial straight cuts.

Both types of tile cutting tools can be rented at tool rental outlets. Be sure to wear eye and ear protection when working with power tools.

Scoring cutter                                               Wet saw

Scoring cutter | Wet saw

Tile nippers can be used to make curved cuts by breaking small amounts off at a time. You can also make several parallel cuts with a wet saw, then break off the excess and fine-tune the cut with nippers.

Tile nippers are used to break off small amounts of tile.

Tile nippers are used to break off small amounts of tile.

A handheld grinder with a diamond blade can also make curved cuts. Using a dry grinder on tile produces a lot of dust, so work outside or in a well ventilated area and wear a mask or respirator. A small, handheld wet saw also works well and doesn’t generate dust.

Shaping curves with a grinder           Portable wet saw makes curved cuts

Shaping curves with a grinder | Portable wet saw makes curved cuts

Once the border tiles have been cut to size, apply thin-set to the subfloor. A small, notched margin trowel comes in handy when working in tight places.

Finishing Wall Edges

When fitting border tile next to a wall, leave a small gap that is covered with baseboard or quarter round molding. Another option is to install tile 4” up the wall using thin-set or construction adhesive. Be sure to line up the joints in the baseboard tile with the floor for a continuous look.

Applying tile to a wall to serve as a baseboard

Applying tile to a wall to serve as a baseboard

Applying Grout

After the tiles are laid and the mortar has set, the joints are filled with grout. Unsanded grout may be used on joints less than 1/8” while larger joints require sanded grout. Clean the joints to remove any dust and debris before filling.

Mix the grout with the recommended amount of water in a 5-gallon bucket using a mixing paddle and power drill. Allow it to sit for 5-10 minutes then stir again. Apply the grout with a rubber float, dragging it across joints at a 45 angle.

Applying grout to joints in tile

Applying grout to joints in tile