How to Cut Ceramic Tile With a Snap Cutter

Hand holding cut tile in tile cutter
Hand holding cut tile in tile cutter. Steve Gorton / Getty Images

Homeowners wishing to do their own tile work are presented with two major tools to cut the tiles: the wet tile saw and the snap tile cutter.  If you want to do the job cheaply and without burdening yourself with yet another one-off tool cluttering your workshop, the snap tile cutter will be your best option.

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How Does It Work?

First, consider the difference between a wet tile saw and a snap cutter.

Wet Tile Saw:  Like a Table Saw

A wet tile saw produces accurate cuts suitable for visible work. Every tile professional owns one, and good models are expensive.  

Just like a table saw for wood, a spinning round blade cuts through the tile, with one exception--the blade is continually bathed in water to cool the tile and control debris.

Snap Tile Cutter:  Like a Glass Cutter

The snap tile cutter is completely different.  Also known as a rail tile cutter, it works like a glass cutter.

A glass cutter has a carbide wheel, which is forcefully and slowly drawn across the glass to create a score.   Once the score is made, the glass is snapped off by hand or with a tool.  

A snap cutter works in much the same way, except the tile is inserted in the machine, and the wheel is drawn across it.

After the score is made, a built-in "snapper" is moved into place over the score.  You pull back on a lever and the snapper presses on the score until the tile snaps in half.

Where It Works Best

  • Small projects such as a bathroom.
  • Tile edge-work that will be covered with baseboards, molding, cabinets, etc.
  • Tile between 4" x 4" and 12" x 12".
  • Ceramic or porcelain.

Where It Doesn't

  • Large projects like basement floors (if it is used as your only tile cutting method).
  • Cuts are never as clean as cuts you make with a wet tile saw.  While the line will be straight, within that line will be smaller surface irregularities (such as pitting) that make this a less-than-perfect cut.
  • Lines that are not straight.  Snap cutters only can produce straight lines.
  • Large format tile.  While cutters capable of cutting up to 35" tile are available, DIYers will find it difficult to product decent cuts with tiles larger than 12" to 16".
  • Glass and natural stone.

The Best Way To Use One

  • Learn How to Make the Score: Cutting tile with a snap cutter is a three-part process. First, draw the cutting wheel firmly across the surface of the tile, deeply scoring the surface of the tile. Second, re-position the tile so then the "snapping nubs" of the tile cutter rest on top of the tile. Third, press down on the cutter so that it snaps the tile.
  • Practice on Cheap Tile: Practice on a few sheets of the cheapest possible tile that is relatively the same shape and thickness as the tile you intend to use for your project. These are practice tiles so you can hone your mastery of the snap cutter.
  • The First Score Matters: Score the top surface of the tile with a very forceful motion. But if you press too hard, you will break the tile. At most, you can score the tile a second time. But three or more scores usually result in a very ragged score that will not produce a clean break.
  • Edge Pieces: Accept the fact that snaps will not result in perfectly straight lines. In most cases, this does not matter because the uneven side will be placed against the wall side and covered with a baseboard.

Summary

  • Low Priced:   Snap cutters can go for as little as $15 to $25.  Even "expensive" snap cutters of the type used by professional tile setters cost less than $100. 
  • Straight Cuts: The snap cutter will only cut straight lines across tile. It will not cut a curves or bevels.
  • Not as Clean as Wet Tile Saw Cuts:  Snap cutters sometimes can give you irregular cuts. With lots of practice, you can produce relatively straight cuts. But even that is more an article of faith than anything. Truly straight lines are produced by wet tile saws.