Mix it smooth
After all the prep and layout work, you’re finally
ready to set tile and see some results. The last thing
you want to do is stop and wait. But giving the thinset
time to absorb water, or “slake,” is the key to a
smooth, chunk-free mix. A chunky mix will drive you
crazy when you try to comb the thin-set onto the
wall or floor. After slaking, remix and add a smidgen
of water if needed. Play the same waiting game
when you mix up the grout later.
Start with a flat floor
Tiling a wavy floor is a nightmare. You push and pry
to get each tile flush with its neighbors and you still
end up with “lippage” (edges that protrude above
adjoining tiles, usually at corners). So before you
tile, check the floor with a 4-ft. straightedge. If you
find low spots more than 1/4 in. deep, screed thinset
over them to create a flat surface.
For really bad floors, self-leveling compound
(also called “self-leveling underlayment”) is a lifesaver.
You just mix the powder with water and pour
to create a flat, smooth surface. A perfect tile base
doesn’t come cheap, though—expect to pay about
$2 per sq. ft. Some products require metal or plastic
lath; some don’t.
Self-leveling compound is almost goof-proof, but
there are two big pitfalls. First, it will slowly seep into
the tiniest crack or hole, leaving a crater in the surface.
So before you put down the lath, grab a caulk
gun and fill every little gap—even small nail holes. Second, you have to work fast. Most compounds begin to harden in
about 30 minutes. To get the whole floor poured in that time frame,
you need at least one helper to mix the compound while you pour.
And even with help, you’ll have to move quickly.
Remove the baseboard
You can leave base trim in place, lay tile along it and caulk
the gap. But that “shortcut” will look second rate and cost
you hours of fussy measuring and cutting. With baseboards
gone, your cuts don’t have to be precise or perfect; the baseboard
will hide chipped edges and small mistakes. If you’re
just dead-set against pulling off baseboards, consider adding
base shoe molding along the bottom of the baseboard after
you set the tile.
Set against guide boards
The usual way to position the first rows of tile is to snap
chalk lines. But there are two problems with that method:
First, chalk lines are hard to see if you’ve slopped thin-set
over them. Second, the first row of tile can move as you set
the next row. Guide boards solve both problems. Position the
boards the same way you would position layout lines and
screw them to the floor. Be sure to choose perfectly straight
boards or cut strips of plywood. Also, wrap the edge of the
guide with duct tape so the thin-set won’t stick to it.
Get a straight start on walls
The obvious way to tile a wall is to start at the bottom and
work your way up. And that works fine if the base of the wall
(usually the floor or bathtub) is perfectly flat and level. If not,
the tile will simply amplify the imperfections; you’ll end up
with misaligned tiles and grout lines that vary in width.
To get a straight, level start, position a ledger on the wall,
leaving a gap below—about 1/2 in. less than a full tile. The
ledger shown here is a length of steel angle held in place by
wood blocks screwed to the wall. A strip of plywood or a
perfectly straight board will do the job too.
Clean up right away!
When you’re done setting the tile, stand back for a minute
to admire it. Then get back to work. First, drop your mucky
tools in a bucket of cold water. That will slow—but not stop—
the hardening of the thin-set. Next, inspect all the joints for
thin-set that has squeezed out between tiles and clean it
out before it hardens. Also look for thin-set smudges on the
face of the tile. If a smudge has hardened and won’t wipe off
easily, wet it and scrub with a synthetic abrasive pad (the
kind you use to scour cookware). Use minimal elbow grease;
if you rub really hard, it’s possible to dull polished stone or
even glazed tile. Now go clean up those tools.
Tackle tough cuts with a grinder
A grinder isn’t the best tool for cutting tile. It whips up a nasty
dust storm and often leaves jagged or chipped edges. Plus,
it’s just plain slower than a tile cutter or wet saw. But
equipped with a diamond blade, a grinder will cut curves and
make enclosed cuts that those other tools can’t. Choose
a “dry-cut” blade and do the
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Slow down the drying
Pros like to finish the job fast and will sometimes use fast-setting
thin-set. For the rest of us mortals, slower is better, and
even the standard products sometimes harden or dry out too
fast. Here are two ways to give yourself extra working time:
First dampen the backer board or concrete with a sponge
before you spread the thin-set. A damp surface won’t immediately
suck moisture out of the thin-set. Second, mix the thinset
with latex additive rather than water.
Latex additive dries slower
than water and boosts adhesion
in both thin-set and grout.
It also makes grout more stain-resistant.
(A few latex additives are
designed to speed the hardening
process; check the label.) If thinset
or grout begins to harden before
you can use it, just toss it. Don’t add
water and remix. That’s a recipe for weak bonding and trouble later.