Tile spacers are small pieces of plastic (most often) used to space tiles an equal distance from each other. Along with your patio layout, they will help you get all of your tiles lined up properly. For a uniform pattern (or a so-called "checkerboard" pattern), you buy cross-shaped spacers. For irregular (or "offset") patterns, T-shaped spacers will be required.
Different products are also sold to help you keep all of the joints lined up when you work with non-interlocking pavers for mortared patios. Of course, as with so many other landscaping projects, it is possible to improvise and make do with what you have, rather than going out and buying a product at the home improvement center. For example, builders also use spacers when building decks to keep the flooring boards lined up, but they often improvise and use scrap wood for this purpose (wood shingles work well to achieve even spacing on a deck).
When it comes to laying tile, though, most masons would concur that buying some tile spacers at the hardware store is a good investment. For such fine, detailed work, you do not want to cut corners unless you truly have to. Tile spacers make the job go much easier, so bite the bullet and shell out a little money; save your energy for the rather arduous and fussy work involved in laying a tile patio.
How to Use Them: Two Opposing Methods
The typical tile spacer has a cross shape. Depending on how you look at a cross, you can emphasize either of the following characteristics:
- It has four corners.
- It has a projection that sticks out in each of the four different directions (up, down, left, right).
For this reason, there are two schools of thought on how to use tile spacers. One takes its cue from what we might call the "four corners" perspective. Using this perspective, you would:
- Lay down four tiles to form a square.
- Insert a tile spacer at the intersection where these four tiles meet. The spacer will lie down flat on the ground using this method.
- Fit a corner of each piece of tile snugly into the corresponding corner of the tile spacer.
Here is the problem with this method. After you grout the tiles, it will be very hard to remove the spacers. Removing them is preferable to letting them remain behind because the spacers are taking up space that you would rather have occupied by grout.
Thus the attraction of the method favored by the second school of thought, which we can call the "projection" method. People who use this method simply jam one of the four projections on a tile spacer in between two pieces of tile. Typically, they will use two tile spacers per side. Since a piece of tile has four sides, you would use eight tile spacers around it.
This second method is somewhat counter-intuitive because you are not using the whole tile spacer (since you are setting it on end, a portion of it will be sticking up, unused). But, again, you will be able to remove the tile spacers (as long as you pull them out before the grout is completely dry) this way, which is considered a sounder approach.
Where to Buy Tile Spaces, and the Choices Available
While tile spacers are usually made of plastic, they can also be composed of wood or ceramic. Their size also varies. Home Depot sells the following sizes of "Job-Tough Tombstone-Style tile spacers":
- 1/8 inch
- 1/16 inch
- 3/16 inch
- 1/4 inch
- 3/8 inch
The smaller the size of the tile spacer, the narrower will be the joints between your tiles. Many factors can determine whether you go with a narrower or a wider joint, which, in turn, determines what kind of grout to use. But, all else being the same, a narrower joint is preferred. A wider joint provides more of a surface for staining to occur. Many people also prefer the look of a patio, bathroom floor, etc. with narrower joints, since the surface looks flatter and more unified.
Pack size varies, as well. For example, some packs at Home Depot may contain 250 tile spacers (selling for $2.97), while others contain 1000 (selling for $6.97).
Besides Home Depot, you can usually buy tile spacers at Lowes, True Value, mom and pop hardware stores, and, of course, specialty tile stores.