Thanks to its durability and resistance to moisture and stains, ceramic tile is a favorite material for floor installations, and the same qualities also make it a natural choice for walls, especially in kitchens and baths. 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 floor tile, but with careful planning and patience, any DIYer can readily install ceramic wall tile with good results.
Costs for wall tile can vary dramatically, depending on the tile you choose. Ordinary ceramic tiles available in bulk at home centers can cost as little as $1 per square foot, but if you have your eye set on a fine designer tile, costs of $15 per square foot or more aren't uncommon.
Click Play to Learn How to Install Ceramic Wall Tile
Wall Tiles vs. Floor Tiles
You actually have more choices when it comes to ceramic tile for walls than you do for floors, since the thicker floor tiles can also be used on walls. The opposite is not true, however: You can't use thin wall tiles on your floors. Flooring tiles need to be particularly thick and sturdy to hold up under foot traffic.
When you buy your tile, measure the area in square feet and make sure to add an extra 10 percent for waste and breakage, plus some leftover tiles for future repairs. Tile styles and colors change frequently, and unless you have extras on hand, you may find your tiles hard to match when you need to make repairs.
Before Getting Started
Our demonstration project makes use of the materials and tools that are now standard practice for just about all ceramic, porcelain, or natural stone tile jobs, whether the application is on the floor or walls. Our wall project presumes you have first installed an underlayment of cement board, the best surface on which to install ceramic tile using thin-set adhesives. While it was once common to apply ceramic wall tiles to ordinary drywall or waterproof "blue-board" drywall, virtually all professional installers now use cement board as the underlayment for both floor and wall tiles.
Our demonstration project uses a popular type of ceramic wall tile called subway tile, laid in a running bond pattern, in which 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. The 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.
The layout is critical for a great-looking wall tile project. Professionals are skilled at laying out a tile job so that grout lines are 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. 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 perpendicular layout lines as a guide for installation.
Large jobs are made much easier if you rent or purchase the right tools for a tiling project, including 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. However, it is still possible to complete your tile job with a manual snap-cutter tool, which is quite suitable for small tile jobs. Snap cutters do not, however, work well on thick porcelain or natural stone tiles.
Equipment / Tools
- Tape measure
- Notched trowel
- Utility knife
- Carpenter's level
- Rubber mallet
- Tile snap cutter or wet saw
- Tile nippers
- Eye protection and hearing protection
- Sponge and bucket
- Small screwdriver
- Grout float
- Builder's paper
- Painter's tape
- Ceramic field tile
- Ceramic trim tile (as needed)
- Thin-set tile adhesive
- Plastic tile spacers (1/16 inch or 1/8 inch, depending on tile spacing)
- Tile grout
- Pointed stick
- Wood block
Gather Materials and Tools
Estimate your tile needs, based on the square footage of the wall area. It's best to pad the estimate by at least 10 percent to allow for waste and breakage. Home centers and tile specialty shops will stock some tile styles, but specialty styles often require special orders. When required, also buy required trim tiles, such as base tiles, edge trim, or bullnose top trim.
Most wall tiles are best installed with a mortar-based glue known as thin-set adhesive, made of cement, fine sand, and a water-retaining agent such as cellulose. Thin-set usually has some latex additive that gives it some flexibility to prevent the tile job from cracking.
Thin-set adhesive is applied with a notched trowel. 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 subway tile sample project, the recommendation is for a trowel with 3/16 x 5/32-inch notches. This size works well for most tiles that are 6 x 6 inches or smaller.
Tiling can be a little messy, so it's wise to protect floors, countertop surfaces, and fixtures against spills from tile adhesive and grout.
Buy a thick rosin builder's paper, which you can find at a big-box home improvement or painting supplies store. Cover the countertop and floor surfaces with the paper and secure it in place with painter's tape. Cut slits in the paper where sink faucets and other fixtures are located. Cover the exposed surfaces of the fixtures with strips of painter's tape.
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 getting the layout right; you will use the layout lines to install the tiles beginning at the center and working outward in quadrants.
Start by choosing the most visible wall in the room. (In a bathroom, this is often the center of the vanity wall above the sink). Use a tape measure to establish the horizontal and vertical center point on the wall.
From this center point. use a level to extend vertical and horizontal layout lines from side to side and from ceiling to floor. Then, use a sample tile to mark the layout lines to show the approximate location of each tile along the lines, including the thickness of the grout lines.
If you begin to see that there are too many areas requiring thin slices of tile, you can adjust the starting point left or right, up or down, to create the most effective layout.
Apply Thin-Set Adhesive
Once you are satisfied with the layout of the vertical and horizontal lines, begin applying adhesive, starting at the center point and working on one quadrant at a time.
Spread adhesive onto the wall quadrant using the flat side of the trowel, covering only as much of the wall as you can comfortably work in 20 to 30 minutes.
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. Hold the trowel at a 45-degree angle and "comb" the adhesive in one direction.
The wall section should be covered with thin-set adhesive, but you should be able to see the wall surface between the ridges of adhesive left by the notched trowel.
Lay the First Row of Tile
Position the first tile (or tile sheet, if you are using mosaic tiles) into place on the wall at the center point of the layout. Align it carefully with the horizontal and vertical layout lines. Press the tile firmly into the adhesive; as you press, the adhesive flattens out, filling the spaces between the ridges created by the trowel.
After the first tile or sheet is set in place, complete the first row along the horizontal layout line, using plastic spacers to ensure uniform spacing between tiles. Install only the full-width tiles—leave the trimming of partial tiles until the end.
When the first row is complete, check it for level using a carpenter's level, then begin the second row of tiles, taking care to offset the vertical grout joints by exactly one-half the tile width. 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.
Complete the Field Tile Installation
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. This action will "set" the tiles in the adhesive and flatten the surface.
Working systematically in sections, repeat this process until the entire wall is covered. Leave the tiles that need to be trimmed or cut until the end of the project. 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.
As the adhesive hardens, inspect the grout lines and make sure they are free of excess adhesive. If necessary, scrape away the excess using a pointed stick or small screwdriver. The grout lines need to be clear and open for grout to adhere when you reach the finishing stage.
Use a damp sponge or cloth to wipe any adhesive from the face of the tile. The adhesive is very simple to clean when wet, but will be very difficult once it dries.
Fill the Side Gaps
After the full-sized field tiles are all installed, cut and install the partial tiles along the sides of the wall. Cutting partial tiles can be done with a manual snap cutter or a wet saw.
When using a snap tile cutter, place the tile into position in the tile cutter, then score the surface by firmly moving a tungsten carbide scoring wheel from bottom to top across the face of the tile surface. Then, place the pressure bar pad across the tile and apply firm pressure on the lever to snap the tile across its scoreline.
If you have many tiles to cut, a tile wet saw is the better option for cutting partial tiles. It's also essential for thicker floor tiles, or for porcelain or natural stone tiles, which are very difficult to cut with a snap cutter.
Fill Remaining Gaps
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. Make sure to wear eye protection before trimming or cutting tile.
When installing small tile pieces, it's easier to butter the back of the tiles with adhesive. Then, score the adhesive with the notched side of the tile, and press the cut tile into place on the wall, using plastic spacers to maintain uniform grout lines.
Install Trim Pieces
If your layout includes border tiles or other trim pieces, install them last. Here, we are using 1 x 6-inch cap tiles. Installation is similar to how the field tiles were installed: Butter the backs of the tiles, then press them into place on the wall.
Inspect Grout Joints
Make a final inspection of all grout lines. Clean out any excess adhesive between grout lines. Let the tile adhesive dry for 24 to 72 hours before grouting the tile.
Grout the Tile
Using the tile manufacturer's instructions, apply grout to the joints. Joints that are wider than 1/8-inch typically call for a sanded grout, while narrower joints use non-sanded grout. Make sure to clean the excess grout off the tiles and to wipe away the dried haze after the grout dries.
After the grout fully hardens and cures (this can take from a few hours to a couple of days, depending on the grout), apply a sealer if the grout manufacturer recommends it.
Rangineni, Jyothi and Tzeng, Jeremy. Comparison Study of Mold Growth Resistance of Plastic Based Material Flooring (PBM Flooring) and Ceramic Tile Flooring. 2019. Publications. 1113. doi: 10.34068/report2