How to lay tile

Sep 23, 2010 at 5:49 p.m. ET

Adding tile to your home doesn't have to be a difficult installation project. Most of the work is in the planning and, if you plan properly, the actual labor is pretty straightforward. As a design material, tile can be very economical, sometimes less than a dollar a square foot. Because installing it yourself eliminates the expense of hiring costly labor for what can be a time consuming process, putting in tile yourself can be a sweet bargain that looks like you spent a fortune—if you do it right. These tips will help.


1Inspect the floor or wall

One of the biggest problems with tile is that it will crack if it's subjected to uneven stress. That's why it's so important to make sure that the floor's substrate, the underlayment, is level. Use a level tool to check the floor slope. Even a slight slope can cause problems, so it's common to add a plywood underlayment to tile installations that ensures level construction. When working with walls, patches and seams that create an uneven surface will have to be sanded smooth.

Once you've determined that the surface is even, make sure that it's clean and dry.

2Plan a layout

Tile has a pattern, and the configured squares have to complement the room as a whole. When you're installing a tile floor, ideally you want to find the exact center of the room (or project). In a perfect world, you'd place the first tile at the center point and construct rows using that as your anchor.

Unfortunately, it isn't always that simple. Finding the center of your room is important, but the edges of the room are important, too. You want to be able to tile right to the wall with at least a half tile width as the last row on all four sides. To get a measurement to work with, measure the room relative to the size of the tiles you have in mind. If your center starting point won't create a wide enough last row on all sides, shift your center tile until the pattern fits the room. Pay particular attention to views from doorways. You want your layout to look great all over, but if you have to fudge somewhere, make it in an out of the way spot that won't be immediately noticeable to someone entering the room.

3Create a pattern

Once you have a layout, make chalk lines or use battens (guides) to mark your rows, and make paper templates for built-in features. Depending on your installation, you may also have to evaluate fixtures, like plumbing pipes or handrails, and pre-drill holes in tiles to fit those areas.

4Set the tiles

Laying down the actual tile is easy if you've done the prep work. The only real challenge is speed. Tile is applied with an adhesive and you need to strategize your approach to put down only enough to accommodate the number of tiles you can apply before the adhesive starts to dry. Work one small section at a time by laying down adhesive with a notched trowel. Seat the tiles in an up down motion and then add spacers to separate tiles from one another. You'll get the hang of it as you go.

After putting a tile in place, make sure it's level and lines up with your chalk line. It's important to be accurate. A small variance repeated over 20 rows of tile can result in a disaster, so take pains to measure accurately and apply the tiles as precisely as you can.

5Apply the grout

The grout loaded into the gaps between tiles gives tile work its distinctive look. The process will also completely seal your project. If you have to make any minor adjustments to your layout, do it before the grout installation or you won't be able to do it without a major rework.

Grout is available in premixed and dry formulas. Although wet grout is more convenient to use because you don't have to mix it, it starts to dry out after it's been opened. Always buy grout specifically designed for your project.

Use a rubber float (a squeegee tool) to apply grout evenly to one small area at a time. Take your time, and create a smooth finish by working at tile intersections in diagonal strokes. Come at the gaps from opposite directions to fill them completely. Wipe off the excess with a damp sponge. After a little practice, you'll be able to apply just enough grout to work it in evenly with a couple of passes.

Once your tile project has been grouted, let it cure in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions. This could take a week or more. After that, a good wipe down to remove any residue should complete the project.

Expert TipsTips and tricks

  • Tile can be heavy and a hassle to move around. To make installation easier, position your tile and supplies close to your project.
  • A miscalculation can lead to problems later, so always buy between 15 and 20 percent more tile than you think you'll need. There'll be shrinkage during installation from improper cutting, dropping tiles, and from discarding tiles that have small imperfections.
  • When you're using multiple cases or pallets of tile, even from the same source, mix them up. There are bound to be slight color variations and mixing them together ensures a more integrated look across the surface of your project.
  • Take the time to learn your tools. If you're renting a saw to cut tile, read the directions carefully, and make a few test cuts before you start your project. If you're using expensive tile, cut less expensive test pieces that have the same hardness rating.
  • Make paper templates carefully and check them—twice.
  • When cutting tile, always wear tight fitting, protective goggles.
  • Tiling is an art, but it's also a craft. If you want to tile a room without the benefit of past experience, plan carefully and start in the least noticeable corner, like behind a door. This will give you a running start on technique before you reach the most highly visible areas of your room.

Home how-to

How to paint ceramic tile

Painting ceramic tile is an easy and inexpensive way to cover up ugly tile. host Meghan Carter walks you through the steps for painting ceramic tile. Her tips will make painting ceramic tile a painless process, and ensure that you get professional results.

More home improvement tips