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How to Lay a Vinyl Tile Floor (VCT flooring)

You can lay a good-looking vinyl tile floor in a weekend.

vct-flooring vct flooringFamily Handyman
If you're good at measuring and are comfortable using a utility knife, you'll have no problem installing a basic vinyl composition tile (VCT) floor.

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Time
Multi-day
Complexity
Moderate
Cost
$100 – $500

Plan ahead for VCT flooring

Photo 1: Draw a scale plan

Draw a scale plan (1 ft. equals 1/2 in.) of your kitchen on graph paper and add the border. Draw a grid of1/2-in. squares on tracing paper. Shift the tracing paper around on top of the plan to see how varying the layout affects the width of the partial tiles along the border.

What is VCT Tile?

At first glance, this floor might not look like it’s made of the same type of vinyl tile that you may remember from your parents’ rec room. But like bell-bottoms and miniskirts, vinyl tile is back. It’s inexpensive, virtually indestructible and easier to install than most other flooring materials. The best part is the infinite number of designs you can create once you learn a few special techniques. In this article, we’ll go beyond basic floor laying to show you how to plan and install a decorative border and how to insert custom shapes into the floor tile. If you’re good at measuring and are comfortable using a utility knife, you’ll have no problem installing a basic vinyl composition tile (VCT) floor. Our design incorporates circles, but cutting and installing the circles isn’t for everybody. It requires patience, attention to detail and a strong, steady hand. Expect to spend about a day preparing the floor, then a few more days laying the tile, especially if you’re installing a floor like ours with borders and custom-cut decorative tiles. You can install a simpler floor without a border or custom tile using the techniques we’ll show you and be done in about a day.

Don’t settle for what’s on the shelf—special-order the colors you want The vinyl composition tile (or VCT flooring) we’re using costs about 60¢ to 90¢ per square foot. The most common size is 12 in. square and 1/8 in. thick. Although it’s relatively easy to cut with nothing more than a straightedge and sharp utility knife, we’ll be using a special VCT flooring cutter for speed and precision. You’ll find a few basic colors of VCT flooring in stock and can special-order others. Unlike other modern flooring material, VCT flooring does have to be polished to maintain a shine.

A scale plan makes custom floor design easy Before you start shopping for tile, measure the room and draw a scale plan on 1/4-in. graph paper (Photo 1). Your goal is to make the cut tiles along the border (or wall if you won’t be installing a border) as large as possible. If you get stuck with skinny tiles, place them along an inconspicuous wall. When you find an arrangement you like, transfer the floor plan from the graph paper to a tracing paper grid and make a few photocopies. Now use colored pencils to experiment with different color combinations. After you complete the floor plan, count the number of tiles. Order your tile, adding 15 percent for waste. You’ll probably have to order full cartons (about 45 sq. ft. per carton) of each color. Expect to wait a week or two for the tile to arrive. In addition to tile, you’ll need latex adhesive specifically for VCT flooring; check the label to be sure. This light-colored adhesive spreads easily, has no dangerous solvent fumes and cleans up with water while it’s wet. One gallon covers about 200 sq. ft. and costs $15 to $20.You’ll also need transition strips at doorways and openings into other rooms and wood base shoe molding to cover the edge of the tile along walls and cabinets.

Careful floor prep is the key to a smooth floor

Photo 2: Prepare door casings and jambs

Saw off the bottom of door casings and jambs to allow room for the underlayment and tile to slide under. Finish tight cuts with a utility knife and sharp chisel.

Photo 3: Install underlayment

Fasten a layer of 1/4-in. plywood underlayment to the old floor with 7/8-in. narrow crown staples using a rented pneumatic stapler. Place staples 4 in. apart in the center of the sheet and 2 in. apart along seams and edges. Stagger the seams, laying full sheets if possible.

Even these 1/8-in. thick vinyl tiles won’t cover up bumpy floors. Concrete must be structurally sound and dry with no large cracks or uneven sections. Scrape or chip off bumps and fill low spots with floor-leveling compound. A layer of underlayment (lauan or other special plywood, $12 to $20 per 4 x 8-ft. sheet) should be installed over wood floors to create a smooth, clean surface for the tile. Underlayment is available at home centers and lumberyards.

Remove base shoe moldings, door thresholds and metal carpet strips, then undercut the door casings (Photo 2). Allow the underlayment to acclimate to the humidity in your house for a day or two. Then cut it and staple it down (Photo 3). You’ll need about 16 staples per square foot, so rent a compressor and a pneumatic stapler that drives narrow crown (1/4- or 3/16-in.) x7/8-in. long staples for large floors (Photo 3). Again, a smooth, clean surface is essential. Level uneven seams in the underlayment by filling the low side with floor filler (available at home centers and flooring retailers).

CAUTION!

Many old vinyl floors and the adhesive used to install them contain asbestos. Because asbestos can be hazardous when it’s disturbed, it’s better to cover old vinyl floors with a layer of underlayment than to tear them out.

Gluing down the VCT floor tile

Photo 4: Loose-lay the tile

Loose-lay tile to check the size of cut pieces. Snap a chalk line across the center of the room, parallel to the most prominent wall and aligned with the edge of a tile. Use the 3-4-5 triangle method shown to snap a line perpendicular to the first, also aligned with the edge of a tile. Darken the lines with a straightedge and pencil.

Photo 5: Measure for the border

Measure from the perpendicular layout lines to mark the exact location of the border. Snap chalk lines for the border and darken them with a pencil.

Photo 6: Apply the adhesive

Spread a thin, even layer of VCT flooring adhesive with a 1/16-in. x 1/16-in. notched trowel. Spread glue over half the floor, starting at the wall and working up to the center layout line. Allow the glue to dry until it’s clear and tacky.

Photo 7: Install full tiles

Press the full tiles into place along the perpendicular layout lines, starting with the first tile at the intersection. Proceed in a stair-step fashion to keep the tiles aligned. See Photos 12 – 14 for instructions on how to make special decorative tiles.

Photo 8: Cut tile to fit

Notch tile to fit around border corners. Mark the width of each cut needed to form the notch. Warm the tile about one minute with a heat gun until it’s pliable. Then cut the tile using a utility knife and steel straightedge.

Photo 9: Cut partial tiles

Cut partial tile to butt up against the penciled border line. Attach a stop to your VCT flooring cutter and cut enough tiles to complete the entire row. Press the cut tiles into place.

Photo 10: Lay the border

Lay the border starting with full tile. Mark and cut partial tile to complete each section. Continue to measure and cut tiles to fill the space between the black border and the walls and cabinets.

Photo 11: Install carpet strip

Nail a wrap-down metal carpet strip over the tile at doorways to carpeted rooms. Push the carpet to the back of the strip with a putty knife and trim it flush with a sharp utility knife. Use a hammer and block of wood to bend the metal down and pinch the carpet.

The glue we use allows hours of working time With the layout lines marked in pencil, you’re ready to roll. Sweep the floor carefully; even a tiny chunk of dirt will eventually show through the tile. Then pour a mound of adhesive on the floor and spread it (Photo 6), starting at the farthest corner and working up to the lines. Keep a wet rag handy for wiping your hands and cleaning up excess glue. Dried glue can only be removed with mineral spirits or special adhesive remover.

Once the adhesive dries and turns clear, you’ll have at least six hours to lay tile—plenty of time to finish tiling the first half of your floor, including the cutting.

The special VCT flooring cutter simplifies the piecework You’ll be able to see the layout lines through the dried adhesive. Place tiles carefully, because after they’re pressed into the adhesive, they’re very difficult to remove or reposition. Using the stair-step technique (Photo 7) will help you keep the tile edges precisely aligned and tightly butted together. Refer to your plan for placement of special decorative tiles—in our case, circles. You’ll notice a “grain” pattern in the tile. Some installers turn every other tile 90 degrees for a checkerboard effect. We chose to keep the grain running in the same direction. To see which look you prefer, experiment by loose-laying some tile on a dry floor. Lay all of the full tile. Then measure and cut the partial tiles needed to fill out to the border line. You may have to notch a tile for an inside or outside corner or to cut around a cabinet. Photo 8 shows how. Rent a VCT flooring cutter ($13 per day) to ensure precise, clean cuts (Photo 9). If your rental store doesn’t have a VCT flooring cutter, you can cut tile on a table saw fitted with a sharp carbide finish blade (wear a dust mask, safety glasses and hearing protection). Another option is to score along a straightedge with a sharp utility knife and break the tile along the scored line. Clean up rough edges with a file or 60-grit sandpaper.

Complete the field tile, then lay the border. Don’t worry if the joints between the border tiles don’t line up with the joints in the field tile. Start by laying full tiles at the corners. Then cut the last tile in each section to fit (Photo 10). If by bad luck the last tile is going to be less than 1 in. wide, cut an inch off the previous tile to make the last one larger. Complete the floor by filling in the tiles between the black border and the wall (Photo 10). Cut these tiles so the joints align with those of the border tile. You’ll end up with a nice-looking square tile at inside corners, but you might have to notch a tile to go around an outside corner.

CAUTION!

Keep your hand and fingers out of the path of the utility knife, and wear heavy leather gloves for protection.

Create your own custom tiles

Photo 12: Prepare tile for cutting circles

Draw a circle on the face of a tile with a compass. (Use a few layers of masking tape to protect the tile at the pivot point; see Photo 13). Heat the tile from the backside with a heat gun set on “high.’ Keep the tile moving over the heat source until it’s flexible (about 60 seconds). Wear leather gloves to protect your hands from burns.

Photo 13: Cut a circle from the hot tile

Cut a circle from the hot tile by deeply scoring the line with a utility knife. BEND the tile (reheat if necessary) and peel the cutout shape from the surrounding tile. Smooth the rough edge of the circle with 60-grit sandpaper, beveling it slightly to the back side.

Photo 14: Use the circle as a pattern

Use the cutout circle as a pattern to cut a hole in the second tile. Hold the circle tight to the second tile and accurately score a line around the perimeter with a utility knife. Heat the tile and deepen the scored line with the utility knife. Reheat the tile if necessary and flex it to remove the cutout section. Smooth any ragged edges with a utility knife and press the first circle into the hole.

Photos 12 – 14 show how to create custom tiles. But don’t expect perfect results without a little practice. You don’t have to make circles. Use the same procedure to make any shape you can imagine.

Buy special accessories to simplify transitions

There are many ways to make transitions to other types of flooring. But the best way is to use special reducers designed for each situation. Photo 11 shows a professional method for finishing a raw carpet edge. Ask your flooring retailer to recommend transition pieces for your floor.

Routine cleaning and care will help your floor last decades

Clean excess glue from the face of tiles with a damp rag or mineral spirits. Then rent a 100-lb. floor roller ($13 a day) and roll the floor to ensure a tight bond between the tile and adhesive. Reinstall your old base shoe moldings or cut and install new ones.

Allow four or five days for the adhesive to fully cure before washing and sealing the floor. To prepare it for sealing, sweep the floor and clean it with a mild neutral detergent like Armstrong S-485 Floor Cleaner. Use a non-abrasive scrub pad to remove stubborn marks. Allow the floor to dry before applying several coats of high-quality acrylic floor polish or sealer.

Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • Chalk line
  • Circular saw
  • Combination square
  • Framing square
  • Glue
  • Hacksaw
  • Hammer
  • Knee pads
  • Notched trowel
  • Putty knife
  • Rags
  • Safety glasses
  • Straightedge
  • Tape measure
  • Utility knife
Heat gun, VCT flooring cutter (rent for $13 a day), compressor and narrow crown pneumatic stapler, 100-lb. floor roller (rent for $13 a day), Fine-tooth saw

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here’s a list.

  • Adhesive
  • Underlayment plywood