Ceramic tile is a favored floor covering for bathrooms, kitchens, and hallways due to its superior water resistance, durability, and simplicity. While many homeowners hire professional tile-setters, ceramic floor tile installation also qualifies as a do-it-yourself project that homeowners can accomplish inexpensively and with relative ease.
Successful floor tile installation is all about preparation.
With a solid substrate, a workable layout, and all of your tools and materials at hand, the actual process of laying the floor tile with mortar and grout is relatively simple.
- Tile cutting tool: either a wet tile saw or a rail tile cutter, also known as a snap tile cutter
- Tile nipper
- Rubber tile float for grouting
- Notched tile trowel for dispensing thinset mortar
- Flat margin trowel
- Rubber mallet
- Tile spacers
- Large sponges
- Tape measure
- Chalk line for snapping a line on the floor
- Bubble level
- Two-by-four lumber
- Safety glasses
- Framing square
- Rubber gloves
- Thinset mortar
- Grout haze remover
- Grout sealer
- Cement backer board and fiberglass seam tape (optional)
Plan the Tile Layout
The tile pattern will affect the number of tiles to purchase. A grid pattern is simple to plan and is easy to install because fewer tiles need to be cut. Diagonal tiles are visually interesting and they help visually open up smaller spaces, but cutting tiles on a diagonal can get complicated.
Prepare the Substrate
Ceramic tile is fragile on its own but gains strength when laid on top of a firm, inflexible surface free of gaps and ridges.
Ceramic tile can be laid directly on top of plywood or even on vinyl flooring.
Cement board, also known as a cementitious backer unit (CBU) and going under brand names such as Durock and HardieBacker, provides a rock-solid substrate that is perfect for ceramic tile installation. Install the cement board panels by screwing them to the subfloor, with screws driven every 8 inches along the perimeters of the boards. Tape the seams with fiberglass seam tape, fill the seams with thinset mortar, and let fully cure.
Dry Lay out of Tiles
Measure all walls to determine the center point for each wall. Snap a chalk line between each of the two opposing walls to create a cross-like pattern. Without mortar or grout, lay out tiles and tile spacers in a line on each arm of the cross. The idea is to avoid having small, cut tiles against a wall, as this can be visually jarring. Shift this cross-like assembly in any direction, so that any tile that borders a wall is as close as possible to being a half tile or larger.
Spread the Mortar
Pick up a small batch of thinset mortar with your margin trowel or with the flat side of your notched trowel and deposit the thinset on the cement board. Holding the flat side of your notched tile trowel at a 45-degree angle, spread the mortar across the surface until it covers an area extending beyond the perimeter of a tile.
Switch to the notched side of the same trowel and, again holding it at a 45-degree angle and pressing firmly to the cement board, comb the thinset by pulling the trowel in straight lines. The notches in the trowel automatically regulate the amount of thinset deposited on the surface.
Lay the Tile
Gently press the tile into the wet thinset, twisting the tile back and forth to press it deeper into the thinset. Your aim is to collapse any ridges in the mortar and fill in gaps. Occasionally lift a tile and check the back to ensure full coverage. As you progress from one tile to the next, place tile spacers at the corners to maintain consistent spacing.
Leave a 1/4-inch expansion gap along walls, cabinets, and other large room elements. Do not add mortar to these gaps.
Lay the bubble level across multiple tiles to check for both level and to eliminate lippage from one tile to the next.
Lightly tap the tiles with the rubber mallet to level them.
Cut the Tile
For cutting only a few tiles, a rail tile cutter can inexpensively and effectively snap apart tiles. Place the uneven, snapped sides against the wall, where baseboards will cover them. Buy or rent a wet tile saw for perfectly straight cuts. Use the tile nipper only for cutting around pipes, toilet bases, and for other non-linear cuts. Always wear safety glasses with any mode of tile cutting to protect your eyes against flying shards.
Grout the Tile
After removing the tile spacers, use the rubber float to press the grout into the tile seams. Work in small sections. Then, holding the float at a 45-degree angle, firmly draw the long edge of the float across the tile seam. Move diagonally to avoid pulling grout out of the seam. Deposit excess grout back in the grout bucket.
After a section has cured for about an hour, follow up by soaking a sponge in clean water in a bucket and lightly wiping the grout lines in a circular motion to remove excess grout.
Remove the Grout Haze
A milky-white grout haze will remain on the tile surface. Remove the grout haze after the tile has fully cured by first wiping down with a sponge and clean water. Next, add 3 ounces of haze cleaner per gallon of water, or as directed by the product instructions, and soak the sponge in this solution. Wipe down the tile surface with this solution until the haze has disappeared.
Seal the Tile Grout
Cured tile grout will soak up water if it is not properly sealed. Seal the tile grout either by applying sealer to individual grout lines with a brush applicator or by spraying down the entire tile surface and wiping off the excess from the tile faces.