The Difficulties of Laying Tile

Worker Places New Marble Tile on a Bathroom Floor

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Ceramic and porcelain tile installations are typically displayed as a lark—a simple stroll through the woods—on reality TV remodel shows and in remodeling guidebooks.

You are always being encouraged to just "cut that tile" in the wet saw, "butter up the back" and "set it in place," and "squeeze in the grout." Then, voila, magic happens.

Possible, yes. Magic? Not so much. 

Do it yourself tile installation is possible. Homeowners lay millions of square feet every year. But this is one that definitely falls into the category of home remodeling projects that look easier than they are. 

Bottom Line

Laying tile is easy but laying tile and doing it well is difficult. From that angle, it may make more sense to hire a professional tiler than to do it yourself. 

If you're trying to save money, one way to approach it is to hire the pro for the most visible areas, such as kitchens and master bathrooms. Then you can do your own tilework in rooms that are less frequented, such as guest bathrooms and basements.

One problem for do-it-yourselfers is that it is difficult to reverse tilework, should you make an error. Thinset mortar allows for some repositioning. Unfortunately, thinset will also reposition your tile for you, especially in the case of vertical wall tile.

Some tilework is easier to pull off on an amateur basis, too. This guide aims to show you the parts that are difficult; tilework that is more simple to perform; and some tricks for making the project go smoother.

Easier Tilework

Projects that tend to be easier and the themes that revolve around them:

  • Dry areas: Areas where leakage may occur are more difficult, entailing special backing material and grout-sealing. Showers, especially, can be maddening for the amateur tiler to make completely waterproof. Even expert amateurs have been known to hire out their shower work to the pros.
  • Floors vs. walls: Slippage is one thing you are always combating with tilework on walls.
  • Backsplashes that are more decorative than functional.
  • Tile in the 4" to 12" range: Smaller tiles, especially mosaics, shift around a lot—even if that mosaic is attached to mesh.
  • Using adhesive tile mats (though this has very limited uses).
  • Ceramic and porcelain tile vs. stone tile: Stone tile is heavy to deal with and difficult to cut.

One tip is to begin your amateur tiling career with the most out of the way place possible in order to sharpen up your skills. 

Tiling Challenges

  • Dry thinset mortar is cheap, but it is also difficult to mix. The solution is to buy pre-mixed mortar. 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.
  • Your tile work is only as good as your substrate or subfloor. If you do not have a good subfloor, your tile will not lie flat. Lippage will occur—adjoining tile edges that are not the same height. Even worse, a base floor that is not solid enough will eventually cause the tile to crack.
  • Perimeter tiles will need to be cut. You can use either a wet tile saw or what is often colloquially called a snap tile cutter for this. More likely, you will want to use both types of tile-cutting tools. If you happen to have any bad cuts, you can position them so that the ragged cut falls under a baseboard or under a cabinet toe kick overhang. 
  • Even tiles within the perimeter can be difficult. They do not automatically fall into straight lines: you need to impose this.
  • Laying tiles on a diagonal. Diagonal tile cutting can be a frustrating experience for the novice tiler.
  • Spacing tiles correctly is hard. Be sure to use plastic tile spacers to impose the correct distance. While spacers are a pain to remove, they ensure perfect spacing of tile seams.
  • Constantly being on your knees on a hard surface can affect the quality of your work. For this reason alone it is worth purchasing an inexpensive pair of tiler's knee pads.