Hurray! Finally the day has arrived where we get to make the one change to this room that was the reason we wanted to renovate it in the first place: the floor tiles. The old white floor tiles were too high-maintenance, so we are replacing them with a darker tile that we hope will be a little more forgiving of daily life. I have done a lot of tiling over the years, both in this house and in our previous house, so today I'm sharing my top DIY tips for laying floor tiles.
For wall tiles, please see: DIY Wall Tiles
We decided to tile right over the old ceramic tiles. This not something that is recommended in general (and particularly not for wall tiles) but it is doable on a floor when the existing tiles are in good condition and if raising the floor level will not cause problems such as blocking doors from opening etc. We had already removed the bathroom suite to make the job go a bit easier, so we didn't have to worry about trying to fit the sink pedestal underneath the basin after changing the floor level. And the door opens outwards rather than into the room, so no problem there either.
High points in a concrete floor can be taken off with a cold chisel, or sanded off wooden floors. If concrete floors are very uneven, it might be worthwhile using a self-levelling compound in advance. You may also decide to lay plywood sheets to even a floor or to raise the floor level if you need it to match higher floors in adjoining rooms.
Before you start, ensure that you purchase more tiles than you think you will need. When you have to cut the tiles around the edges of the room, it will result in wastage. Plus it is likely that you will break a couple or cut them incorrectly. If you have storage space available (such as a garage), it is a good idea to keep a couple of spare tiles in case one gets damaged at a later date. The percentage extra you should buy depends on the size of the tile (if you have to discard a big tile that is incorrectly cut, you lose more coverage than with a small tile), the plan for laying them (more complicated room layouts or design patterns e.g. herringbone may result in more wastage), but 10-15% extra is a reasonable average to use as a guideline. Do keep in mind when laying the tiles that just because you cut a tile incorrectly for one space doesn't mean it can't be used somewhere else. This is a great way to minimise wastage.
Also check batch numbers when purchasing tiles, as variations in the manufacturing process may cause slight changes to the colour, pattern, or texture of the tiles from batch to batch. Even within batches, variations may occur. To ensure that you don’t end up with a noticeably different patch in a particular part of the floor, when you are ready to start laying the tile you should open several boxes at a time and mix them up to randomise any variations. Check also for defects before you lay the tile, as there are often a couple of tiles in the batch with bubbles in the glaze or chips along the edges – yet another reason to ensure that you buy extra to begin with.
If you are using porous tiles, such as porcelain, marble, or stone, you will need to seal them before laying them. Otherwise, it is likely that they will become soiled and/or stained by the adhesive. Find a large space to lay the tiles out, paint them with the sealer and allow them to dry before handling. Sometimes the tiles are already sealed when you purchase them, so check the manufacturer's notes before proceeding.
There are two kinds of tile adhesive available: regular adhesive for tiling on concrete floors, and flexible adhesive for tiling on wood floors. Flexible adhesive is also recommended for non-porous surfaces (such as the ceramic tiles we were about to tile over).
Both types of adhesive can be purchased either ready-mixed in buckets or as bags of powder to be mixed with water at home. Pre-mixed adhesives are more expensive, but they are so handy! Firstly, it saves the time and mess of mixing adhesive yourself. Also, ready-mixed means that there is a ready supply on-hand, and it will keep for long periods just by replacing the lid on the bucket. When you mix it yourself, you first have to judge how much to mix at a time (it is recommended to mix smaller quantities to ensure a more even consistency). But it always seems that no matter how much time you spend calculating the right amount to mix, you are still guaranteed to run out at an inopportune moment, meaning that you have to drop everything you are doing and start mixing again. Plus the adhesive you mix yourself tends to be fast-setting, so you have a limited time to use it before it starts to go off, putting extra pressure on you to work quickly. Unfortunately, we couldn't find any pre-mixed flexible adhesive on time to get our job started, so hubby helped me out on this job by doing the mixing outside while I laid the tiles inside.
Grout is now available in every colour of the rainbow as well as the usual white, grey, and beige. Like adhesive, it is available in powder form or ready-mixed. Again, if you can buy it ready-mixed it is easier to deal with, but will probably limit your options colourwise.
Next consider the layout. Do not assume that you can just start by tiling along the edge of a wall - when you are measuring your room, you will undoubtedly realise that there are no right angles, straight lines, or level surfaces in buildings. It is exasperating! Decide in advance how you are going to compensate for this. Usually you will work off the centre of the room, or you may shift the orientation a little to complement a prominent feature in the room, such as a window or doorway or even a special piece of furniture such as a kitchen dresser or a fancy sink unit/vanity. Before you finalise your plan, measure to ensure that starting at your chosen point isn’t going to leave you with awkward piece to cut around the edges. For example, very narrow slivers of tile are difficult to cut without breaking them so, if necessary, adjust your starting point to avoid having to do so. Ideally, the tiles around all the edges should be approximately the same size to avoid making the room appear asymmetrical.
It is worthwhile giving due consideration to this now because, once you lay tiles, the regular grid will accentuate any flaws. If you ignore this step, no matter how much hard work you put in afterwards, it’s your tiling that’s going to look crooked because we generally tend to assume that the outline shape – the building – is correct. Even when it’s not!
Here you can see two different tile orientations, showing just how off-square your room can be. The old white tiles underneath were aligned with the wall to the left, and the tiles at the back are all different sizes because the adjoining wall is not at right angles to that. The regularity of the grout lines really emphasised the lopsided shape of the room. Even worse was the fact that the tiles in the adjacent utility room ran along a different alignment, making our entire house look really wonky. (Well, actually, it is rather wonky!) Anyway, since the tiles in the utility room were the more correct of the two, we decided to align the new tiles in the loo as a continuation of those so as to help disguise the crooked walls by creating some visual cohesion between the two rooms.
When your plan is finalised, you can start to gather the required tools and materials:
- Tiles (not all tiles are suitable for use on floors, so check before buying)
- Notched trowel
- Tile spacers (usually 3mm or 5mm for floor tiles, depending on the size of your tiles)
- Grout float
- Grout finishing tool (optional, but recommended)
- If you need to mix the adhesive yourself (avoid this if possible), then you will need something to weigh the adhesive powder, something to measure the water, a bucket to mix it in and, ideally, also mixing paddle for your electric drill (mixing by hand can be difficult and tiring as the adhesive is quite heavy)
- Tile cutters – there are various types available. The simplest are the types that score and crack the tile, and these are perfectly adequate for the thinner ceramic tiles. Tiling hacksaws and tile nippers are also good for cutting awkward shapes in thin ceramic tiles. Thicker ceramic tiles, porcelain, and stone will require a diamond cutting saw. You can purchase a basic model for a reasonable price at a hardware store. Otherwise, and especially if you have very thick tiles, you can opt to rent a heavy-duty one. Either way, because the blade needs to be water-cooled, it can spatter and be messy, so you would ideally have an outside area to work in when using such a saw. Diamond-tipped bits and hole-saws are available as attachments for your drill, and these are ideal for cutting holes for plumbing pipes and electrical wiring.
- Wooden batons, drill, screws, plugs
- A sponge and plenty of wet rags
- Spirit Level to check your work as you go
- If you have awkward shapes to cut around, a Profile Contour Gauge is a good tool to have so that you can determine the precise shape needed
- Grout-removing saw for cleaning between tiles
- If you are working with large or heavy tiles, a pair of suction cup tile lifters will help you to easily and accurately move them into position. However, do note that they will only work on tiles that have a perfectly smooth surface; otherwise air leaks under the cups and they won't stick properly to the surface of the tile.
To compensate for the wonky walls, the first step is to create a straight line and a right angle by fixing a wooden baton to the floor. As I mentioned above, usually you will work off the centre of the room as a starting point to figure out the placement of the rows of tiles. But actually placing your baton in the centre will limit how much progress you can make, so you should calculate where the last row of tiles will end up before you start needing to cut tiles for along the walls - and don't forget to allow for the tile spacers in between and count those in your calculations! This is where you will position the batons. Drill holes in both the baton and the floor, and use plugs to ensure a good grip for the screws as you will be putting a lot of pressure on this baton once you start tiling. Use two batons at right angles to give yourself a corner to position your first tile. Place the batons in a corner furthest from the door so that you can reverse out of the room as you work, thereby avoiding walking on the tiles until the adhesive is fully set.
We used a laser level to get an alignment that matched the tiles in the adjoining room. We placed the line of the laser along the grout lines in the utility room and then marked that line onto the floor of the loo where we wanted the new tiles to go.
The edge of the baton will go along the line we drew on the floor.
Using one of the tiles as a set-square, we marked the floor where the second baton needed to go and then fixed it into place. Now we had a proper right-angled corner against which to lay the first tile.
Laying the tiles
Mix the adhesive (if not using a pre-mixed adhesive). Then spread a little at a time using the notched trowel. Take care to spread the adhesive evenly to help keep the tiles level. Press the first tile into the corner you created with the batons and use a spirit level to check that it is level.
Use tile spacers between the tiles to ensure even grout lines and to keep your rows regular and even. Be careful that the spacers don't slip underneath the tile - those things have a habit of getting where they shouldn't!
Continue in this manner, working outwards from the first tile. You should lay all the whole tiles you can first and allow the adhesive to set fully before you walk on them. Then you can remove the batons and start working on the edge tiles.
Now it's time to start filling in the spaces around the edges.MY TOP TIP: To accurately mark an edge tile for cutting, place the tile you want to cut on top of the next adjacent whole tile that has already been laid (not in the space you want to fit it, which is a bit counterintuitive). Then get a spare tile to use as a guide and place it against the wall in the space you want to fill. To allow for the grout line, put a spacer between the wall and the guide tile (otherwise the cut tile will end up just that much too large for the space it needs to fill). Draw along the edge of the guide tile to mark the tile you want to cut.
This seems a bit like sorcery until you think about it! But trust me, it really does work.
Hubby and I again tag-teamed when it came to the cutting - I marked the tiles, he took them outside to cut them and then brought them back inside for me to lay them. This made the whole job go a lot quicker.
See how the ceramic dust makes a paste with the water used to cool the saw blade? That spatters as the blade spins, which is why you want to use it outdoors to avoid messing up your interior.
Like magic! The cut tile fits perfectly into the space.
To cut holes for pipes, transfer the markings onto the tile using a ruler and pencil. It also helps to place some masking tape onto the surface of the tile to prevent the bit from slipping when you start to drill the hole.
Using a specialised diamond-tipped hole-saw, drill a hole in the marked position. Use water to keep the drill bit cool. The water may cause the masking tape to come off, but that’s OK as it won’t be needed once the drill bit has started to bite into the tile surface. (We are using a drill press here to help keep the drill in place, but it is not required.)
If you can slip the tile down over the pipe, then your work is done! But often there are valves or joints in the plumbing that prevent this. If so, then you will need to cut into the hole using a tile saw. This will create an opening to allow you to slide the tile into place around the base of the pipe. Keep the piece that you cut out and use it to cover the floor behind the pipe - just dab a bit of adhesive on the back of it and pop it into place.
Continue working in this manner until all the edge tiles have been laid.
When all the tiles are laid and the adhesive is set, remove all the spacers because the next step is to grout the floor.
First check for adhesive that may have oozed up into the gaps between the tiles. This will mess up your grout lines, so it needs to be removed using a grout removing saw.
Using a groat float, spread the grout along each grout line and make sure to work it in well so that each gap is fully filled. Otherwise, any cavities will cause the grout to crumble and collapse as it dries. Grouting is hard work and a very messy job. And it always makes me a little bit sad to cover my lovely new tiles in mucky stuff. Luckily for me, this time hubby offered to do the grouting.
Next, use a grout finisher to create a neat profile in the grout.
Grout is more difficult to remove from the surface of the tiles once it dries, so use a wet sponge to clean it off as soon as possible. Wipe across the grout lines rather than along them to avoid pulling the grout out of the spaces between the tiles.
Keep rinsing the sponge and wiping the tiles until all the residue is removed. You may need to do this several times to completely remove it. Even then, it will need to be buffed clean again when it is dry. I did warn you that this is a messy job!
An optional extra is to seal the grout. This is a good idea with pale-coloured grout and/or in high-traffic areas, as it will make it both stain-resistant and waterproof. Simply use a narrow artist’s brush to paint it on. Give it 2-3 coats now to avoid needing to re-apply it over time. You can also use stone sealant for this job.
And that’s it! There really is no mystery to laying tiles. If you can cut pieces of paper and glue them onto a page, you can certainly cut tiles and glue them onto a floor!