Tile Flooring Basics

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New floor tileI love flooring tile. It’s easy to install, most of its affordable and it looks good in just about any room. So why don’t I marry it already? Because my lawyers can’t quite figure out the prenuptial yet. Although I’m no tile contractor, I’ve installed my share of this fantastic flooring material and I love to show everyone how easy it is to install themselves. Whether you’re thinking about installing a bit of tile in your entryway, or you’re filling your whole house with the stuff, use this overview on tile installation to pick up a few basics to get you started, and see for yourself how easy it is to start becoming a tile master.

Prep Work

Just like any flooring material, the floor substrate needs to be prepped for the new tile. This usually involves removing the old flooring materials; but it isn’t always necessary. Obviously carpet needs to be removed but linoleum, vinyl and even wood can sometimes be covered with your new tile provided you install a cement backer board over the old flooring materials. The key is having a solid, flat surface that isn’t prone to movement.

You’ll also need to remove the baseboard, toilets, doors or appliances so the tile can continue underneath these materials. However, tile can butt up against cabinets, and door jambs can be undercut to accommodate the tile.

Cement backer boards are ½” thick or greater and can sometimes raise an existing floor too high to match other nearby flooring. You don’t want a big step up into the room, so if it’s too thick to match existing flooring, you’ll definitely need to remove the old flooring. If the old floor is cement, you can scuff it up using some sandpaper, clean it, and, if the floor is level, set the tile directly on top sans the backer board. If you are going over a concrete floor, many people swear by using a membrane like the Schluter Ditra to help avoid any cracking issues.

If you’re going to install a cement backer board anyway, cut the boards so that they don’t fit tight against the wall. You’ll need a ¼” gap where the board meets the walls to allow for movement or else you could have some cracked tiles in your future. Apply some thinset adhesive to the old floor using a notched trowel and set the cement backer board on top. Attach it to the old floor using corrosion resistant screws (provided the subfloor is wood) and seal the seams using mesh fiberglass tape. Add thinset over the seams until everything’s nice and flat.

Tile and Thinset

Tile Layout

This is the hardest part of the project and might require a little math. Most of the time, you want to find the center of the floor both front to back and side to side and start from there. But when your tile floor borders end up with small tile cuts, you might want to adjust the tiles so that only one side has a larger cut piece. In some cases where doors are offset, you may also want to adjust the layout so the grout lines end up centered in the doorway.

Your best bet is to snap a few lines on the floor first. Find the center of the floor and snap a chalk line down the longest part of the room so the line is as evenly distributed in the center of the room. Use a square (or a 3-4-5 measurement) to make sure the opposing perpendicular line is completely square. Set some of the tiles on your layout and make any adjustments as you deem necessary to the chalk lines before you commit to the next step.

Setting Tiles

ThinsetYou’ll need to mix a healthy amount of thinset for most tile jobs. A clean five gallon bucket and a mixing paddle bit are needed to ensure the thinset mix is even and consistent. Add water and thinset until you achieve a thick ‘pancake batter’-like consistency and let it sit in the bucket for a few minutes before you start setting tile.

Start by spreading the thinset onto the edge of your reference lines using a notched trowel. Don’t spread out a ton of the stuff; just enough so you can set a few rows of tile at one time. Spread the thinset with the flat side of the trowel first, then come back and comb it with the notched side with the trowel at about a 45 degree angle. Set each tile in place against your reference line and use two tile spacers to keep the grout lines even. Make any tile cuts using a wet tile saw and set them as you work your way along the floor. Wipe any excess thinset off of the tiles with a wet sponge and allow the new tile floor to dry overnight before installing the grout.

Applying the Grout

This is the easy part. Simply mix the grout just like before, but once it’s mixed, you’ll need to let it sit in the bucket for about 10-15 minutes to allow it to stiffen up. Using a float sponge, spread the grout onto the tiles. Don’t worry about getting it everywhere; it will clean off most tiles just fine. Work the grout into the grout lines with a float sponge and then let it sit for another 10-15 minutes before cleaning off the excess grout with a wet sponge. Keep your sponge clean by replacing the water in the bucket often to make this tedious part of the tile installation process go faster. Often, a second pass after a couple hours of dry time can help. After some overnight dry time, you may still find a little haze on the tile which is usually easily wiped clean with a dry cloth.

Happy tiling!

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About Eric

Since Eric built his first skateboard ramp in his parents driveway; he’s breathed, slept and eaten DIY construction. As a second generation master carpenter who runs two Florida-based construction firms, Eric’s had the chance to work on everything from Mcmansions to your local mall to the cat lady’s bathroom. So when it comes to dealing with construction s@#t; he’s the man—literally. There isn’t a tool or construction material that Eric hasn’t used and abused, and if there is; it’s rocking in a dark corner nervously waiting for him to show up for work.

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5 thoughts on “Tile Flooring Basics”

  1. hi Eric, great article! Should encourage a lot of newbies to dive in and JFDI – Just Do It!!!
    One tiny thing you might mention to make ‘Grout Life’ (TM applied for) easier – somewhere in this timeline ” Wipe any excess thinset off of the tiles with a wet sponge and allow the new tile floor to dry overnight before installing the grout.” consider “remove excess thinset from the joints while it is not yet completely set to allow room for the grout…”). As usual, my comments come from experience of NOT performing said act and taking an exponential time factor for correction. Unless your grout is the same color as thinset, you really don’t want any thinset at the surface level of your tile… where the grout and ONLY the grout should be.
    I really like that you mentioned the layout doesn’t always HAVE to be from the center of the room. The tile books make it sound like that is the only way. I like to make a visual decision on where i want the border cuts and how big they will be; i typically try to ‘hide’ them on a wall you just don’t look at when you walk into the room. Or behind the washer/dryer is a great place too!!

    • Hey Bill,
      Agreed, and thanks for the detailed additional thoughts. We appreciate you contributing to the tips! We’ll keep an eye out for your new hit show on the DIY network soon, “Grout Life.”


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