How to Install Wall Tile
Wall tile is largely thought of as a shower or tub surround element. But wall tile is a highly versatile material that can be used all throughout the house. In the kitchen, wall tile is used as a backsplash to protect the walls from spills and splatters. In bathrooms, wall tile covers bathroom walls and around the shower or tub. Wall tile can create a decorative surround for a fireplace or it can even form an entire accent wall in a living area. Outside, wall tile is used in patios or pool areas to add a decorative element and protect the walls from harsh elements. Since wall tile has such versatility and utility, it's good to know how to install wall tile for any situation, anywhere.
Before You Begin
If you're tiling over an existing wall, it's best to install cement backer board. Cement backer board is a thin, dense panel that is used mainly as a base for tile installations. It provides a stable, flat surface for the tiles and minimizes cracking.
Cement backer board is moisture-resistant, so it's often used in wet areas such as bathrooms and showers. But backer board can, and often is, used in dry locations. Cement backer board is typically available in a few standard sizes, the most common size being 3 feet by 5 feet. But for larger installations, you can also find cement boards that are 4 feet by 8 feet and 4 feet by 10 feet.
You can cut wall tiles either with a wet tile saw or a snap (rail-style) tile cutter. Wet tile saws produce cleaner cut edges than snap tile cutters do. Snap tile cutters work fine for floor tile, since you can hide imperfect edges with baseboards or shoe molding. But wall tile doesn't afford you the same luxury: all edges are visible, and very much so. For that reason, it's helpful to buy or rent a wet tile saw for perfect tile cut lines.
What You'll Need
Equipment / Tools
- 1 bubble level
- 1 wet tile saw
- 1 snap tile cutter (optional)
- 1 electric drill
- 1 notched tile trowel
- 1 rubber tile float
- 1 utility knife
- 1 metal straightedge
- 48 tiles, each 1-foot square
- 4 cement boards, 3-foot by 5-foot
- 1 package tile spacers
- 1 bag modified sanded thinset
- 1 bag grout
- 1 box screws
- 1 one-by-four or one-by-two scrap board
Check the Floor and Walls
Tiles need to be installed in a square space. Holding a bubble level to a straight, 6- or 8-foot board, make sure that both walls and the floor are plumb (vertical) and level. In many cases, they will not be plumb and level.
If it is off by more than a half-inch, you need to correct the wall or floor. Additional trim and baseboards can cover up severe problems.
If your plumb or level is off by no more than 1/2-inch over the course of 8 feet, it will show in your tile installation.
Plan the Wall Tile Layout
Walls, windows, doors, and other reference points can create aesthetic harmony or havoc with wall tile. Laying tile on a featureless wall with no obstructions is fairly simple because you only have to design with tile in mind.
When other geometric shapes come into play, incorporate them into the overall look, too. Take your time in evaluating the space and the tiles to determine the best approach for visual appeal.
Make sure that tiles are symmetrical. In each row, any partial tiles should be at the very left and right sides. Each partial tile in a row should be the same width.
Prepare the Wall
Before you begin, make sure the wall surface is clean, dry, and free of any imperfections. If the wall is not flat, you may need to use drywall compound to create a smooth surface for the tiles.
Install the Cement Backer Board
Cut the backer board with the utility knife. Run the knife along the metal straightedge. Secure it to the wall studs with screws.
Dry-Lay the Tiles on the Floor
Begin by laying out the tiles in the desired pattern to get an idea of how they will fit on the wall. Keep in mind that the tiles will have grout lines between them.
Add a Batten Board
A batten board holds the bottom-most course of tiles in place so that it doesn't slide down. A batten board is usually a one-by-four or one-by-two scrap board screwed directly into the wall. The batten board should be horizontal and level.
Spread Thinset Mortar
Working in small areas of about 2 feet by 2 feet, spread the thinset mortar on the wall with the notched trowel.
Lay the Wall Tiles
Press the tiles into the thinset mortar. With the bottom row of tiles started, arrange the rest of the wall tiles in a draping pyramid shape. For example, install the first four tiles in a pyramid with three on the bottom and one on top. Every subsequent row is a process of draping over the pyramid, back and forth. Begin the first drape on either the right or left side, and bring it up, over, and down the other side. Repeat the second drape in the opposite direction. Continue back and forth, alternating sides.
Add Tile Spacers
Vertical tiles slide before they are firmly set into place, thus obliterating seams. Plastic tile spacers help keep tiles separate. After the bonding thinset has cured, the spacers can easily be removed.
Cut the Tiles
Cut the tiles on the wet tile saw or with the snap tile cutter as you go. Cut the tiles before laying down thinset mortar to avoid the mortar drying up on you.
Let the Thinset Cure
Some thinset mortar may be ready for grouting and use within 24 hours, while others may take longer to fully cure. In general, it's a good idea to allow the thinset to cure for at least 48 hours before grouting.
Apply Grout to the Wall Tile
With the tile float, press the grout firmly into the joints to ensure that it is evenly distributed. Run the float diagonally across the tiles. With a damp sponge, wipe off excess grout from the surface of the tiles. Rinse the sponge frequently to avoid spreading excess grout over the tiles. Allow the grout to fully cure. Apply a sealer to protect it and make it easier to clean.
When to Call a Professional
Installing wall tiles requires a high level of precision and attention to detail to ensure that tiles are properly aligned, that grout lines are straight, and that none of the tiles sag. A professional tiler has the training, tools, and experience to complete the job efficiently and with a high level of quality.