Installing ceramic tile: An intro
Learn what's green about ceramic tile and how to install it yourself.
Wed, Jul 21 2010 at 1:47 PM
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK: You don’t have to hire a professional tile setter to install your ceramic tile floor, but you should educate yourself on the process. (Photo: mtneer_man/Flickr)
When it comes to ceramic tile floors, you’d be hard-pressed to find something not to like.
Installing ceramic tile is something you can do yourself. And, with an incredible diversity of tile sizes, colors, and styles, it’s easy to create something one of a kind.
Ceramic tile floors are adaptable — they look great in modern or classic settings — and give any room a clean, finished look. And they’re durable, strong and easy to maintain.
Whether it’s in a kitchen, a bathroom, or a playroom, a properly installed ceramic tile floor isn’t going anywhere.
Remember those ancient Roman buildings you studied in school? Their striking tile floors (and walls, and stairways, and ceilings) are still with us after centuries — even as the structures around them crumble.
For do-it-yourselfers with an eco-friendly bent, ceramic tile floors afford two more attractive benefits: they’re easy to install, and they’re a naturally green flooring option.
And while the up-front cost of installing a ceramic tile floor can be slightly higher than that of other flooring, ceramic tile may be the most cost-effective of all flooring materials, thanks to its durability and strength.
What’s green about ceramic tile?
Perhaps a better question is what’s not green about ceramic tile?
Here are just a few ways that ceramic tile is friendly to the planet:
- It’s sustainable. Its longevity, modularity, and versatility mean it’s less likely than other building materials to find its way into a landfill.
- It’s nontoxic. It doesn’t have volatile organic compounds (VOCs), doesn’t emit gases, and doesn’t absorb what other materials emit — in other words, you breathe easier, better, and cleaner when tile’s around.
- It’s natural. Its basic ingredients — clay and sand — come from the earth, and some tiles aren’t even touched by dyes or other enhancing chemicals.
- It’s recyclable and reusable. Excess tile can be ground up and repurposed, or reclaimed for other projects. And many ceramic tiles are composed of recycled materials.
- It can reduce energy costs. Ceramic tile floors can act as a passive heat sink, storing heat from the sun to help maintain air temperatures (and the same goes for cool air).
Steps to installing a ceramic tile floor
You don’t have to hire a professional tile setter to install your ceramic tile floor, but you should educate yourself on the process before embarking on the job. Read through these steps first; then talk with an expert at your local home-improvement store if you have specific questions.
1. Choose your tile. If you’re buying off the shelf rather than using reclaimed tile, you’ll be faced with a world of options: natural, glazed, patterned, mosaic; as small as 1 inch by 1 inch or as big as 24 inches by 24 inches; and assorted colors, textures, and wear classes.
When choosing tile, consider the space you’ll be tiling and its traffic level, as well as your budget. Keep in mind that smaller tiles are usually more forgiving and easier to work with.
And remember that tile is long-lasting, for better or worse: you’ll be stuck with this look for a long time, so avoid anything too trendy. If you’re green conscious, go with a tile that is made locally and with recycled content.
2. Choose a material for your tile foundation. A strong, level, properly installed tile foundation, also called a substrate, is critical. You have a number of options, but most common today is cement backer board, such as HardieBacker, which typically comes in 3 feet by 5 feet sheets that are one-quarter inch or half an inch. If floor height is a concern for door clearance, thinner backers, such as composite substrates, are available.
3. Gather your supplies. Besides your tiles and substrate material, you’ll need a level, a chalk snapline, tile spacers, thinset mortar or other adhesive, a notched trowel, a rubber mallet, sponges and buckets, a tile cutter or tile saw, grout (sanded for joints of one-eighth of an inch or larger, unsanded for less), a grout float, safety goggles, and a tape measure. If you are working with unglazed tile, you may opt to add a low-VOC sealer to your finished floor. You’ll also want to have on hand various screws, for whatever type of backer you choose, and extra tiles and grout for repairs.
4. Prepare for installation. Make sure the floor is level, sturdy and clean. Then do a dry-run layout of the tile: snap a chalk line from the doorway of the room to the opposite wall; then snap another line perpendicular to it, creating a T. Lay a line of tiles along both chalk lines, using spacers to keep them even. Take note of any obstacles in the room and eyeball the finished lines to make sure they look straight.
5. Lay the tiles. Move furniture in the room and have your utility company disconnect appliances and gas lines, if necessary. Mix your adhesive per the package instructions.
Using your chalk line as a guide, start in the doorway by applying the adhesive with a notched trowel in a small area, a couple feet square. Make sure the adhesive is even and that the lines from the trowel are straight. Then nestle the tiles into the adhesive so that they are in line with each other, evenly spaced, and level on top (use a rubber mallet to gently tap down tiles that aren’t). Lay all your full tiles, cleaning away any adhesive that comes up through the joints.
When you reach the borders, measure tiles to determine where cuts need to be made, using a pencil to make your marks. With a tile or glass cutter, score the tiles along the lines you have made and then snap them in two. (You may opt to use a rented wet diamond saw for a large number of cuts.) Install the cut tiles as you did the full tiles. Let the floor sit overnight; then remove the spacers. Wait another two to four days before grouting.
6. Apply grout. Follow package directions exactly to mix grout. (If you’re using an absorbent or unglazed tile, you may need to add an agent to protect its surface or aid in cleanup.) Ensure joints between tiles are clean and that the room has an even temperature and good air flow. Then use a rubber float to press grout into the joints, carefully washing off the excess with a sponge dampened with clean water.
Once the grout is applied and any film is cleaned away, wait 24 hours. To strengthen grout, you can “damp cure” it, using a sponge to wipe the joints daily for a few days. Wait until the grout has dried completely before adding a tile sealer.
What it costs to do it yourself
In the mid- to late 1800s, only the wealthy in America could afford ceramic tiled floors — my, how things have changed. Since we don’t have to rely on imports from England and can instead buy locally, the cost of ceramic tile is not much more than that of other flooring.
As with any construction material, there are ways to be economical. If you really want to save some cash, hunt down reclaimed tile at a local reuse store, or check out Craigslist for tile taken from homes that are being renovated or torn down. Ceramic tile is also readily available at home-improvement stores, usually by the box. Prices can range from less than a dollar per tile to more than $5.
For a 10 foot by 15 foot bathroom, you might expect to pay roughly $450 for a couple of boxes of 6 inch by 6 inch ceramic tiles, a bag of sanded grout, a few bags of thinset, and 10 or so pieces of 3 foot by 5 foot cement backer board, plus miscellaneous supplies (screws, tile spacers, tools, etc.).
• Ceramic Tile—Missing In Action on the Green Building Front (Ceramic Tile Institute of America; PDF)
Got other ideas about installing ceramic tile? Leave them in the comments below.