Tips and Troubleshooting When Tiling a House Yourself

Tiles being layed down on thinset mortar and tools to level out flooring

The Spruce / Margot Cavin

Ceramic and porcelain tile installations are started and finished on remodeling videos in just a matter of minutes and with little work. Tile is cut effortlessly on wet tile saws, each tile piece fits perfectly, and grouting the tile always goes smoothly.

Real-life tiling doesn't happen that way, especially for unseasoned do-it-yourselfers. Laying tile is easy but laying tile and doing it well is difficult. It doesn't have to be that way. With just a few tips and tricks, you may improve your tiling skills over the course of just one installation.

Start With Good Substrate

Your tile work is only as good as your substrate or subfloor. If you do not have a good subfloor or underlayment, your tile will not lie flat. Lippage—when adjoining tile edges that are not the same height—may occur. Even worse, a base floor that is not solid enough will eventually cause the tile to crack. Begin with a solid OSB subfloor.

Reduce Injury

Unlike electrical work or roofing, tiling isn't usually thought of as a home trade that can injure you. Yet constantly being on your knees on a hard surface can injure your knees and lower back, plus it can affect the quality of your work. For this reason alone it is worth purchasing a pair of tiler's knee pads. Or simply fold over an old towel and use that as padding.

When mixing thinset with a drill, be sure to add the handle to the drill to avoid injuring your wrists.

Use Pre-Mixed Thinset

Dry thinset mortar is cheap, but it is also difficult to mix. The solution is to buy a pre-mixed thinset. While significantly more expensive, pre-mixed thinset saves you from the aggravation of getting water-to-thinset measurements correct. Plus, mixing up dry thinset is physically difficult.

When tiling a house or large rooms, you may want to go the dry thinset route to save money. Besides investing in a few clean 5-gallon buckets, the best tools for mixing up dry thinset are a long mixing paddle and a corded drill.

Mixing paddles cost $15 to $25 and are indispensable for mixing up thinset. You can even use them for mixing up drywall compound if that's another project in the future. Unless you have an especially powerful cordless drill, use a corded drill for mixing up heavy compounds like thinset.

Get Help With Diagonal Tiling

Diagonal tile layouts are a great way to liven up staid tile grids. But laying tiles on a diagonal can be a frustrating experience for any kind of tiler, whether inexperienced or a veteran tiler. Diagonal spacing tools help you create those diagonals without a lot of complicated calculations.

Use the Right Tools

For spreading mortar, you need to have a notched trowel. Notched trowels regulate the flow of thinset on the substrate. They typically have one side with large notches and another side with smaller notches.

For spreading grout over tiles, you'll need a completely different tool: a rubber grout float. The soft face of the float lets you spread grout across the tiles without scratching them.

White kitchen tiles used as backsplash next to bread box, butter container and knives

The Spruce / Margot Cavin

Use Spacers For Tile Spacing

Spacing tiles correctly is hard, and it doesn't help that thinset mortar is slippery.

Experienced tileworkers have a good eye for spaces. But if you're not experienced, it helps to use a tool: tile spacers. Be sure to use plastic tile spacers to impose the correct distance. While spacers are tedious to remove, they ensure perfect spacing of tile seams.

Use the Right Backing Material

High-moisture areas where leakage may occur are more difficult to tile. These require special backing material and grout-sealing techniques. Showers, especially, can be difficult for the DIY tiler to make completely waterproof. Schluter Kerdi is one well-known brand of waterproofing membranes for shower pans, walls, and floors.

Cutting Tiles

Cutting tiles isn't all that hard if you have the right cutting tools. Perimeter tiles will need to be cut. You can use either a wet tile saw and a rail or snap tile cutter for this. More likely, you will want to use both types of tile-cutting tools. 

If you happen to have any less-than-perfect cuts, there is no need to throw out that expensive tile. Instead, you can position the tile so that the ragged cut falls under a baseboard or under a cabinet toe kick overhang. 

A wet tile saw makes precise straight cuts in ceramic, porcelain, and natural stone tiles. By directing a constant flow of water on the tile and blade, the tool keeps down dust, cools the tile, and minimizes (though doesn't stop) shards from flying.

A rail-style tile cutter is like a glass cutter for tile. After a scoring wheel makes a groove in the tile, the user presses down to snap the tile apart.