DIY Guide: How to Install Tile Flooring
In the pantheon of home improvement projects, installing tile flooring is, in theory, one of the most basic projects a do-it-yourselfer can undertake. The thought is basically: put down adhesive, place tile, grout tile, seal grout. That’s it, no fuss no muss!
But if this were truly the case, everyone would install their own tile and professional tile and flooring installers like your partners at The Good Guys would be superfluous.
Examined critically, installing tile flooring is the onion of home improvement projects. You peel one layer and find another, and each layer is fraught with potential DIY miscues. It’s important to understand the many steps of your tile project, including the potential pitfalls of each step.
Let’s be clear – many standard DIY tile jobs are just fine and will more or less achieve the desired outcome. However, the majority of folks who have tackled a homegrown tiling project would admit that while they were proud of the work they did, it would definitely look better (and be done faster, with fewer tears and tantrums) if completed by a professional. Additionally, most would also concede that it took more work than they initially thought and in the end, it didn’t really save them that much money.
Installing tile flooring does take a certain measure of DIY skill, and so for the DIY novice, we would always encourage you to work with a professional installer – like the pros at The Good Guys – for professional results. However, if you are determined to give this a DIY Try, we have laid out below the steps for how to install tile flooring. Before getting started, be sure to read up on Part 1 of this series on proper floor prep for tile floor installation.
Materials Needed for Laying Tile
Installing tile flooring uses a lot of tools. Specialty tools you may never use on another project, but they’re absolutely a necessity and it is not recommended you try without them. These can all be purchased, and some rented, from your local home improvement or tile stores.
So, here’s a general list of necessary materials. You should look to tailor materials to your specific job on an as-needed basis.
- Safety & Comfort
Goggles or Safety Glasses
- Cutting/Laying Tile
Tile (enough to cover the full square footage of room plus 10% for waste; 15% for patterns)
Thin-Set or Grout Mixing Drill, OR a 1/2” Heavy Duty Drill and Mixing Paddle
Level or 6’ Straight Edge
1/8”-3/16” Spacers, or Leveling Spacers
Tile Cutter or Tile Saw
Diamond Hole Saw (optional)
Rubber Mallet (optional)
Contour Gauge (optional)
Tile Nippers (optional)
- Grouting & Finish Up
Grout** (sanded or unsanded as needed)
Caulk (sanded, unsanded, acrylic, or silicone, as the job requires)
Grout sealer (optional)
Yup. That’s a lot of tools. Many of these are tools you will use on other jobs, but some of these are dedicated tile tools. Bear this in mind when planning your project. Some of these tools are specific to one phase of the project, whereas others – like safety glasses – are a good tool for the entire job. While you can get by with a tile cutter for ceramic tile or some softer natural stone, a wet saw or tile saw makes the job much easier for more dense materials such as porcelain tile.
*The size of your notched trowel will vary based on the size of the tile to be installed. For tile that is 13x13” or under, a 3/8” square notch works. Large-format tiles require a deeper layer of thin-set, using a larger 1/2” square notch trowel. Mosaic tiles would use a smaller trowel, such as 1/4” square notch.
**Generally speaking, you will want to use sanded grout for flooring applications and grout joints larger than 1/8”. However, if you’re installing a stone product that would scratch from the sand, you can look at an epoxy-based unsanded grout for the larger floor joints. Epoxy grouts can be less pliable and more difficult to work with (as well as more expensive) than sanded grout, so be forewarned.
Installing Tile Flooring in Five Steps
Step 1: Mixing Mortar & Laying the Main Floor
Mix your mortar per the manufacturer’s recommendations, doing your best to avoid over mixing and damaging the pigment. Apply a bed of mortar to the floor using your notched trowel at the proper 45-degree angle. Don’t overdo it with the mortar, seriously. This stuff dries quickly so only spread enough to install one or two tiles to start until you get the hang of doing it.
Carefully lay the tile down on to the bed of mortar and work it back and forth to ensure adhesion. Use your level to check each tile and any adjustments can be made with light taps from the rubber mallet. Make sure you level from multiple sides so you don’t have gaps between tiles or one side sitting higher than another. This will be critically important once more tiles are added.
Use tile spacers to properly align your tiles and to leave the appropriate space between them. While they can be difficult to work with, they will leave a perfect space every time and allow the proper size grout channel. Be careful not to mortar them into the joints. For larger format tiles we recommend using leveling spacers. These are special spacers that have either wedges or locking mechanisms to pull adjacent tiles to the same flush finish height eliminating the high lows or at least minimizing it greatly. You can use them on any size tiles, but they are definitely recommended for larger format tiles over 18”x18” in size.
Clean up any mortar that squeezes out IMMEDIATELY. It’s super difficult to do once dried. Make sure you get it off the edges of the tile so as not to impact your grout job later. Keeping a water bucket and sponge close by makes this process much easier.
Repeat this process, laying mortar, placing tile, level tile, place spacers, until you’ve covered the desired area. Or until you encounter the need for cutting!
Step 2: Cutting Tile & Laying Edges
Tile is not easy to cut, but it doesn’t have to be as intimidating as it’s often portrayed. Take your time, wear your safety glasses and you will be ok. Promise.
First things first: do not lay mortar for a tile that hasn’t been cut yet. Even if you work quickly, chances are that mortar will dry before you’re ready to set the tile. Better to measure out your tile, cut it, dry fit it into the space then mortar it in place.
If you have cuts to make, you’ll use the tile cutter or tile saw.
Straight cuts are easiest. Measure and mark the tile where you want it cut. Then place it into the tile cutter, score and snap. Be careful handling the cut tile, as it most likely will be sharp. The process is the same with a tile saw (often called a wet saw), just make sure to thoroughly dry the cut tile before installing that piece. Dry fit cut tiles into place to check sizing and mortar down. If your trowel won’t fit in the space for the cut tile, you can apply the mortar to the back of the tile using your trowel. This is often called “back buttering”. If you use this method, make sure not to dab spots on the back and stick it. You must actually apply it with proper trowel marks for a proper bond. If you just dab spots of mortar onto the back of the tile you will leave hollow points under the tile.
Curve cuts require a bit more handling but are generally treated the same way. Once you’ve determined the curve you need on tile by aligning and measuring where it will be installed, or using a tool called a contour gauge, mark the cut line on the tile. Curve cuts are often done with an angle grinder using a diamond blade by pros in the field; a diamond hole saw for smaller holes. Snap tile cutters cannot make curve cuts. You can also make the cut with your wet saw, freehand. Just slowly turn the tile to keep the curve line in the spot on the blade as needed. For rougher, or less-cosmetic curves, you can make a series of cuts perpendicular ending at the curve line and use your tile nippers to nip off the excess. You may need to smooth down the edge once you’re done and be careful of the sharp edge. Install as you would a straight cut.
Step 3: Remove the Spacers
Once all the tile is installed and the adhesive mortar has dried for the recommended amount of time, it’s in this step where you remove all the tile spacers. Make sure not to leave any pieces of them behind (they can tear if they get caught on mortar) in the joints and clean up any dried mortar to prepare for grouting.
Step 4: Grout
Ok, if you’ve made it this far, you’re nearly to the end. Grout. This is going to make the tile project look like a finished job. Grout fills in the spaces between tiles (where your spacers were. See? It’s not just a clever name!) and works with the adhesive to hold the tiles in place.
Selecting the color of grout is a fun way to add a bit of character to your final flooring. For wood-look or stone-look tile, we recommend that you choose a grout that closely matches the main color of the tile. For solid color tile, choosing a grout that is similar in color to your tile unifies the installation. Using a complementary or even contrasting color of grout adds a modern and geometric flair to your floor tile. A low contrast grout subtly emphasizes tile shapes without looking harsh. With a colorful tile, contrasting with white grout lines is a classic and clean approach.
Mix your grout according to the manufacturer’s recommendation. Apply the grout using a grout float, pressing it into the seams between tiles. Make sure to thoroughly fill all the spaces, then come back across them at a diagonal angle to remove as much excess grout as possible with the float. This is important. Remove as much as you can with the float, without removing it from the seams or you will have to re-grout those spots.
Once you’ve grouted an area, use a grout sponge and a bucket of water to remove grout from the tile face and smooth the seams. Run your sponge at an angle across the grout joints as well to avoid removing too much grout from the joints. Do not apply too much pressure but allow the sponge to do the work. You don’t want any grout left on the tiles or it will be visible and leave what is called “grout haze”. Keep dunking and wringing your sponge (you want a damp, not dripping sponge; excess water is not your friend), wiping the tile and repeating until all the excess is removed and the potential for haze is gone. Clean the sponge and water bucket frequently. Clean water is the key to a clean floor.
Trick of the Trade: You can go ahead and grout the edges of your tile flooring near the wall, then apply caulk afterward. Caulk shrinks as it dries so if you have a deep space to fill here, it will require multiple applications of caulk to get it to look good. If you force the grout into this gap and wash it off flush and allow it to dry then you can come back and it is much easier to apply the caulk over the grout. Just do not overfill the joint; you want to leave some room to apply the caulk.
Repeat this as necessary until all areas are grouted, sponged wet and clean. Allow grout to dry.
Step 5: Clean-up and Seal
Ok, clean-up. Clean up your tools, wash the grout off your float, etc. Make sure it’s all put away properly. Good job!
Seriously though, you probably need to keep traffic off the grouted tile per the grout manufacturer’s recommendation. Typically, about 24-72 hours. Once this time has passed, you can enter the project area and caulk the outside edges of the tile.
Many grout manufacturers offer a caulk to match grout colors in both sanded and unsanded options, for use in these areas. Color match silicone caulk is also great for wet areas like bathrooms.
Now, let the grout “cure”, which is to say, dry fully and set up completely. Once the manufacturer’s recommended curing time has finished (on average a few weeks to 30 days), you can seal the grout using the recommended grout sealer. Some are even offered in a sponge roller bottle you can run through the grout lines. Go with their choice or ask your friends at The Good Guys for assistance.
Once you’ve sealed the grout, you are officially DONE! Congratulations!
Now, if any of this makes you uncomfortable or scared, it’s highly recommended to turn this job over to a professional. Your flooring and remodeling pros at The Good Guys are always here and happy to help!
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