How to Install Ceramic Wall Tile

Kitchen background with kitchen utensils
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Overview
  • Total Time: 2 - 4 days
  • Skill Level: Intermediate

Ceramic tile is a favorite material for floor installations, thanks to its durability and resistance to moisture and stains. The same qualities that make it great for kitchen and bathroom floors also make it a natural choice for walls.

Installing ceramic wall tile is a project requiring pre-planning and patience. It's not particularly hard to do, but it's easy to do poorly. Because you are attaching a relatively heavy material to vertical surfaces, it is somewhat trickier than installing ceramic floor tile. With careful study and patience, any DIYer can readily install ceramic wall tile with good results. 

Wall Tiles vs. Floor Tiles

You actually have more choices when it comes to ceramic tile for walls than you do for floors, since virtually all floor tiles can also be used on walls. Though wall and floor tiles have their differences, most floor tiles are rated for wall use. However, not all wall tiles are suitable for floors; flooring tiles need to be particularly thick and sturdy to hold up under foot traffic,

Layout Is Critical

Professionals are skilled at laying out a tile job so that grout lines are thin and perfectly level and plumb, and so the trimmed portions of tiles are symmetrical from side to side. A good layout also avoids narrow rows of cut tiles on the top, bottom, and sides of the wall. Proper layout of the tile installation is essential for a great-looking job. Done poorly, the finished look will be unbalanced, with asymmetrical tile cuts. There are many ways to establish a layout, but the best way is to use the same method as with floors, which is to carefully draw layout lines, described in the steps below.

Special Considerations for Shower and Tub-Surround Walls

Although the installation of wall tiles is the same for shower or tub-surround walls as it is for standard walls, there are some special preparations required. This means that the base surface needs to have a waterproof underlayment. There are a number of ways this can be done, including installing a layer of sheet plastic, brushing on a waterproofing membrane over the cement board base, or using a special backer board with a build-in waterproof membrane, such as DenseSheild. Whatever method is used, waterproofing is critical since moisture seeping through ceramic tile can create serious structural damage. 

Pro Tile Tips

Large jobs are made much easier if you rent or purchase the right tools for a tiling project, such as a wet saw fitted with a diamond cutting blade. An entry-level saw can be purchased for around $100, and it is a good investment if you have a large job or if you do tile work regularly. Or, you can rent the tool from a big box home improvement store or tool rental outlet. 

When you buy your tile, measure the area in square feet. Use a tile calculator to make sure you buy the right amount, and buy an additional 10% for waste and breakage, plus some leftover in case repairs are needed in the future. 

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • V-notch trowel (size recommended by the tile manufacturer)
  • Utility knife
  • Tape measure
  • Level
  • Wood block
  • Rubber mallet
  • Tile cutter or diamond blade wet saw
  • Tile nippers
  • Eye protection (when cutting tiles)
  • Sponge and bucket
  • Small screwdriver or other small pointed stick
  • Tungsten carbide scoring wheel (optional)

Materials

  • Ceramic tile
  • Thin-set tile adhesive
  • Builder's paper
  • Painter's tape
  • Plastic tile spacers (1/16 inch or 1/8 inch, depending on tile spacing)
  • Shims (optional)

Instructions

Steps for Subway Tile Installation

Our example will lead you through the steps involved in installing ceramic wall tile on a wall that has been properly prepared with the installation of cement board underlayment, which is considered the best surface on which to install ceramic tile. Our sample project stops short of grouting the tile—those instructions are found here.

We will use a popular type of ceramic wall tile called subway tile, which uses a running bond pattern, where the vertical joints are offset from row to row. Subway tile gets its name for the style's use in New York subway stations and other metropolitan subways in the early 20th century, and it is a very popular style for bathrooms and kitchens. A similar running bond pattern can be used for square tiles and other rectangular shapes, or for a simpler layout, the tiles can use straight vertical joints, called a straight grid pattern

Selecting the Adhesive

Most wall tiles are best installed with a mortar-based adhesive known as thin-set, made of cement, fine sand, and a water-retaining agent such as cellulose. Thin-set usually has some latex additives that give it some flexibility to prevent the tile job from cracking. Older types of mastic adhesives don't work quite as well. 

Determining Trowel Notch Size

The proper size of the V-shaped notches in the trowel depends on the size and thickness of the tile and on the recommendations from the tile manufacturer. In our sample project using 2-by-4-inch subway tiles, the recommendation is for a trowel with 3/16 x 5/32-inch notches. This size works well for most tiles less than 6-by-6 inches in size.

A v-notched trowel
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  1. Protect Surfaces

    Tiling can be a little messy, so it's wise to protect floors, countertop surfaces, and fixtures against spills from tile adhesive and grout.

    1. Buy a thick rosin builder's paper, which you can find at a big-box home improvement or painting supplies store.
    2. Cover the countertop and floor surfaces with the paper and secure it in place with painter's tape.
    3. Cut slits in the paper where sink faucets and other fixtures are located.
    4. Cover the exposed surfaces of the fixtures with strips of painter's tape. 
    Rosin paper used to protect countertop when tiling
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  2. Plan the Layout

    The goal in planning the layout is to make sure that there won't be thin slices of cut tiles at the sides or at the top and bottom. Spend time on the layout because you will use the template to install the tiles beginning at the center and working outward in quadrants.

    1. Start by choosing the most visible wall in the room.
    2. Locate the approximate center of the wall. (In a bathroom, this is often the center of the vanity wall above the sink.)
    3. Measure and use a level to establish the horizontal and vertical center points on the walls.
    4. From the center point, use a piece of the tile to mark vertical and horizontal lines from side to side and from ceiling to floor. Make sure to include the approximate thickness of the grout lines as you mark tile locations on the lines.
    5. If you begin to see that there are too many areas requiring thin slices of tile, adjust the starting point to one side or the other, or up or down slightly, to make the layout most effective.

    Filling in Gaps

    Another option is to use trim tiles to fill in gaps. In our example, we had about 1 1/2 inches leftover between full tiles and the bottom of the upper cabinets. Because of this, we used a 3/4-inch by 6-inch trim tile at the top of the tile field to fill in most of the gap. We used the same trim tile to cap off the wall just below the top of the wall cabinets.

    Marking the centerline of a tile field by hand
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  3. Apply Thin-Set Adhesive

    Once you are satisfied with the layout of the vertical and horizontal lines, begin installing adhesive, starting at the center point and working on one quadrant of the overall wall.

    1. Spread adhesive onto the wall using the flat side of the trowel.
    2. Cover only as much of the wall as you can comfortably work in over 20 to 30 minutes.
    3. Immediately trowel back over the skim coat using the notched side of the trowel to create a pattern of ridges and valleys in the wet adhesive.
    4. Hold the trowel at a 45-degree angle and "comb" the adhesive in one direction.
    5. Make sure the area you will cover with tile is completely covered with thin-set adhesive. 
    Tile adhesive being applied
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  4. Begin Installing Tile

    As you prepare to press tiles into place, make sure you have plastic spacers ready to grab. 

    1. Position the first tile (or sheet of mosaic tiles) into place on the wall at the center point of the layout.
    2. Align it carefully with the horizontal and vertical layout lines.
    3. Press it firmly into the adhesive; as you press, the adhesive will be flattened out.
    4. Once the first tile or sheet is set in place, complete the first row along the horizontal layout line.
    5. Use the plastic spacers to ensure the spacing of each tile's joint is uniform.
    6. When the first row is complete, check it for level using a level.
    Pressing tile into adhesive
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  5. Continue Installation

    1. With the first row of tiles (or tile sheets) in place, continue installing the subsequent rows, again using plastic spacers to maintain uniform joints between tiles. With the running-bond pattern we are using, it is critical that you get the offset correct so that the joints have the proper spacing from row to row. 
    2. After each small section of wall is completed, use a short block of wood and rubber mallet to very lightly rap over the surface of the tiles, which will "set" the tiles in the adhesive and flatten the surface. 
    3. Complete installation of all full tiles (or tile sheets).
    4. Leave the tiles that need to be trimmed or cut until the end of the project.
    5. As you reach the last full tiles, scrape off any excess adhesive from the areas of the wall left exposed. This will prevent the adhesive from hardening as you trim the last tiles and prepare to finish the installation. 
    6. As the adhesive hardens, inspect the grout lines and make sure they are free of excess adhesive.
    7. If necessary, scrape away the excess using a pointed stick or small screwdriver or pointed stick. The grout lines need to be clear and open for grout to adhere when you reach the finishing stage. 
    8. Use a damp sponge or cloth to wipe any adhesive from the face of the tile. The adhesive is very difficult to remove once dry and very simple to clean when wet. 
    Ceramic wall tile installation
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  6. Trim and Fill In Around Outlets

    Where tiles need to be trimmed to fit around outlets, light switches, pipes, and other obstacles, use a tile cutter or tile nipper to trim them to fit the space. If filling in around outlets, make sure the tile doesn't cover over the opening of the electrical box.

    1. Put on eye protection before trimming or cutting tile.
    2. When using a snap tile cutter, the tile is placed into position in the tile cutter.
    3. Its surface is scored by firmly moving a tungsten carbide scoring wheel from bottom to top across the face of the tile surface.
    4. By then placing the pressure bar pad across the tile and applying firm and gently increasing pressure, the tile will snap across its scoreline.
    5. Use tile nippers for small tile cuts or adjustments.
    6. Butter the backs of the tiles with adhesive before installing the final trimmed pieces.
    7. Press the trimmed tile into place.
    8. Use spacers to maintain uniform grout lines. 

    Trimming Thick Tile

    If you are doing a project with thick ceramic tile (over 3/8 inch thick) or porcelain tile, you will need to use a diamond blade wet saw rather than a snap tile cutter. 

    Cutting a wall tile around outlets and switches
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  7. Install Trim Pieces

    1. If your layout includes border tiles or other trim pieces, install them next. Our example uses 1-by-6-inch cap tiles.
    2. Butter the backs of the tiles.
    3. Press them into place on the wall.
    Grout spacers applied to ceramic tile
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  8. Measure, Mark, and Cut the Final Wall Tiles

    Whether using individual tiles or mosaic sheets, the final tiles or sheets will need to be marked and trimmed in order to fit the remaining spaces at the ends, top, and bottom of the wall.

    1. Carefully measure and pencil in marks on the last tiles.
    2. If preferred, position the final tiles upside in the proper location and mark cutting lines on the backs of the tiles. 
    3. After marking tiles, use a snap cutter or wet saw to cut the tiles to fit the spaces. 
    Marking a tile for cutting
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  9. Fill the Final Side Gaps

    As you install the cut tiles into the remaining gaps, it's crucial that the joints in the corners match the thickness of the other grout lines. When placing the tile, they will sometimes want to droop or push into the gap.

    1. To alleviate drooping and pushing, use a shim or tile spacer to maintain a consistent gap at the end wall.
    2. Butter the backs of the trimmed tiles with adhesive before pressing them into place because it can be hard to apply adhesive to the wall in these narrow spaces. 
    Spacer maintaining gap at the end of a tile
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  10. Complete the Top and Bottom of the Wall

    1. Measure, mark, and trim any tiles to fill partial gaps at the top and bottom of the wall.
    2. Butter the tiles and press them into place.
    3. If there are any remaining trim or border pieces to install, complete the job by installing them now. 
    Wall tile installation by hand
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  11. Inspect the Grout Joints

    1. Make a final inspection of all grout lines.
    2. Clean out any excess adhesive between grout lines.
    3. Make sure there is no adhesive clinging to the face of the tiles. 
    4. Let the tile adhesive dry for 24 to 72 hours before grouting the tile.
    Tile set on wall and ready for grouting
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