DIY Your Next Tile Project: Tips & Resources
Have you considered doing your next tile project yourself but aren't sure where to start? While I do not claim to be the greatest tile installer in the world and am likely not the most efficient, I feel that I have figured out what tools, products, and techniques work for me to do the best job I possibly can. You will hear me say throughout this post that a tool or product makes me more efficient. While my efficiency may still be slow compared to someone who installs tile daily, I feel that each tile installation I complete teaches me new techniques for efficiency or I find a tool that makes me feel more efficient during the installation. I hope some of these tools, products, and resources below can help you DIY your next tile project and give a final product you are proud to say you did yourself.
Previous Tile Projects
How to Get Started
Do Your Research: I am a visual and active learner, so I spend a lot of time researching products and techniques before I actually do a project. I want to share some resources I have used and continue to use when I am unsure about certain situations I may run into on a tile project. A resource with a lot of valuable information is DIYTileGuy. I enjoy watching YouTube, and I use it to learn on a regular basis, but it is definitely important to know your are getting information that is correct. Some of the Youtube channels I rely on for correct, transparent, and unbiased information are:
Have a Plan: PLANNING IS KEY! Meredith and I always spend at least an hour getting our tile layout right and exactly how we want it before we ever mix the first bucket of mortar. This allows us to precut as many pieces of tile as we can so that once the mortar is mixed, we can focus on getting the tile on the wall or floor as efficiently as possible. It also allows us to make sure we mix up patterned tile well. If tile is being installed on the floor, we physically lay it out with spacers in the room we are tiling so that we can measure and cut all of the pieces that are smaller than a full piece before we ever start mixing mortar. If we are tiling a wall, we measure the wall and lay tile out in the floor with spacers to see what layout fits best in the space we have. We use a grid system to label the back of the tiles with their placement position (example: A5, B2, C3). Meredith will draw the grid on paper and record measurements for the tiles here and label the back of the tiles with a sharpie. It's a clear way to keep up with measurements before we precut. We are both planners so doing tile this way just makes sense and seems to always give a great outcome with no surprises at the end. It also ensures that the tile is not wasted because we are able to plan out which pieces can be cut into multiple pieces (don't waste what you paid for!). In fact, our last tile project in the laundry room came very close to running out of tile. We literally used every last piece we had. If we had not planned it all out from the beginning we may have come up short on tile. All of these tools and products below cannot replace the importance of having a solid layout and plan, but they can make that layout come to life in your space.
Products You'll Need
NoCry Industrial Grade Work Knee Pads: Knee pads are a must for installing floor tile. I find that even with knee pads, my knees are still worn out at the end of a project. I never use knee pads when grouting the tile to be sure the knee pads don't get any dirt or debris in the grout. I like these knee pads because they strap around my calf and thigh to keep them from sliding around and provide more stability.
Spacers & Leveling Systems:
A tile leveling system is extremely important in my opinion for ensuring both consistent tile spacing and a flat finished product. This is especially true for large format tiles on both floors and walls. It makes the final product visually appealing with very consistent grout lines and tile surface. The grouting process is also much easier on a flat surface. This kit below is the kit I use and I find it very efficient and affordable because the red spinning caps and clear bases are reusable. The black spacers are the only thing that needs to be purchased for each project because they are broken off using a non-marking rubber mallet once the tile sets. There are several different spacer sizes based on what is needed for the project. The clear base plates keep the screw caps from making marks on the tile. Several different brands of this system are available, but this is the one I have stuck with over several projects now. Other leveling systems are available with a slightly different system that uses a type of plier to push a leveling wedge, but I feel like keeping up with those pliers, the wedges, and the spacers is worse than keeping up with the components of the kit I use.
Just like the leveling system can make or break a project, the type of spacers can also make or break a project. It all basically comes down to preference, but I find that these styles linked below are the ones easiest to use depending on the tile layout. The horseshoe spacers are the most adaptable option and I have only recently started using them. I regret not using them sooner!
Tile Cutters & Saws:
QEP Tile Cutter, 1/2 in Cap, 14 in, Yellow: I like this small tile cutter when working with small tiles. Anywhere from 3”x6”, up to any 12 inch tile. It is easy to carry around and snap tiles in the same workspace without having to go outside to use a wet saw, which makes the whole process more efficient. The important thing to remember is some tile does not work as well with this type of cutter, but trying one or two pieces, if you have extra, will tell you if you can use it on your tile.
QEP 22700Q 700XT 3/4 HP Wet Tile Saw with 7 in. Blade and Table Extension: I like this small wet tile saw for the smaller tile sizes mentioned above that don't cut well with the cutter and any irregular cuts on these sizes. I also like to use this wet saw for small backsplash projects that use mosaic tiles as long as the tiles stick to the backer well without coming iff when being cut. Sometimes it is also just easier to get this smaller saw near the project than the larger saw below.
RIDGID 9 Amp 7 in. Blade Corded Wet Tile Saw with Stand: I may not recommend purchasing a larger wet saw like this one if you are only doing a single project, but if multiple projects are in your future, this saw is relatively affordable and could save you a lot of time and make your project turn out much better. This saw makes it much easier to cut large format (12x24) tile cleanly. I have tried using a larger tile cutter like I showed above, but to me it didn’t give as consistent of a cut and sometimes broke the tile. Using this saw with the sliding table allows me to mark what I need to cut and slide it under the saw blade for a cleaner, more consistent cut. It is also good for making angled cuts and irregular cuts such as rounded areas to fit around toilet flanges or curves around bathtubs. I also find that this saw works well for cutting the mosaic backsplash tiles that need more support to prevent the small tile pieces from breaking off of the backer. I think saws like this can also be rented by the day or the week from Home Depot and other home stores.
I have found that MAPEI has mortar for every application I need and since Lowes is our local big box store, it is what is available to me any time I need it. I also use their waterproofing membrane when needed.
Mortar trowels are relative to the size of tile being used, but I have found that 1/2” and 1/4” square notch trowels cover nearly every size of tile I have installed so far. 1/2” is used for larger tile, like 12”x24” floor and wall tile, while 1/4" is used for smaller tile like 3”x6”, 3”x12”, etc. A helpful website for trowel size relative to tile size and other applications like applying cement board and uncoupling membrane is: https://www.diytileguy.com/trowel-size-matters/.
QEP 6 in. x 2 in. Comfort Grip Flat Margin Flooring Trowel with Bucket Hook: This trowel is helpful when the mortar bucket starts getting empty and a smaller trowel is needed to get the remaining mortar out of the bottom and off of the sides. The bucket hook keeps it right on the side of the bucket, out of the way until you need it. This is not a necessity, and isn’t used every time I install tile, but it is a relatively cheap option to make the tile job a little easier when needed.
QEP 24 in. Professional Chrome-Plated Steel Thinset and Grout Mixing Paddle: I prefer this style of mixing paddle because I feel like it mixes up the mortar better, provides less stress on the drill motor, and is much easier to clean than other styles.
I am a big believer in premixed, single component grout for the projects I do. There is definitely a learning curve when using this grout since it dries quickly, but the advantage of it is that the color is consistent throughout the bucket and it does not have to be sealed once it dries. This could come from my lack of experience, but I have always been nervous about mixing grout myself and either having inconsistent color or weak, crumbly grout. When using this grout, it is best not to spread more than about 6-10 square feet at a time based on your comfort level. This is because the grout must be cleaned off of the tile surface before it hardens. I have used both Custom Building Products Fusion Pro (available at Home Depot) and Mapei Flexcolor CQ (available at Lowes). I do not really prefer one brand over the other. Instead, I decide on the brand based on the grout color needed or preferred. I do find that the Flexcolor CQ may have a slightly longer working time, but not extremely different. Both brands also have matching sanded silicone caulk for filling corners and changes in plane.
QEP 4 in. x 10.5 in. XL Non-Stick Gum Rubber Grout Float with Wood Handle: I find that a 10.5 inch grout float is the perfect size for getting grout out of the bucket and spreading it efficiently. It also seems to be less tiring on my wrists than a larger 12 inch grout float. I have both sizes, but always seem to go back to the 10.5 inch float.
RTC High Roller Grout Wash Bucket: While a regular bucket can be used, I find that this grout bucket makes the grouting process easier because it can be rolled around and the sponge can be left on the rack, out of the water, until it is needed again. Efficiency is key in grouting, especially when using the premixed, single component grout I like to use. Disclaimer: I do not like the sponge that comes with this kit! Instead I use a regular grout sponge because I feel that I have more control over the cleaning and shaping of the grout lines.
Shower Bases & Waterproofing Systems:
When it came time to repair and remodel our primary bathroom, I researched several companies to decide the waterproofing system I would use for our shower. During my research, I came across KBRS Hard Core and was intrigued by their shower base products, niche and bench accessory options, waterproofing kits, how-to resources, and the fact that they were somewhat local being located in SC. Their shower bases are constructed using the same technology as surfboards. You can read more about that here so I don’t mess up the details. I also liked the fact that their “ready to tile shower bases” are delivered fully waterproofed which I believed minimized the errors that could be made during installation. They have standard sizes available for shipment, cut to fit bases that can be waterproofed once installed, or you can work with them to create nearly any shape and size possible. They also sell GoBoard waterproof backer board, which is an option to replace heavy cement board on your shower walls. It is also available in stores, but it is nice that they have the option to purchase if it isn’t available locally. They are basically a one stop shop for everything you need to make your shower exactly what you want it to be.
Tile Underlayment (Floor Tile):
I use uncoupling membrane anytime I am applying tile over concrete. It can also be used over wood subfloors, but I prefer to use 1/4” cement board in those situations. The uncoupling membrane is designed to provide waterproofing, vapor resistance, and load distribution over the subfloor to prevent cracked tile and grout. I should probably use it more on wooden subfloors since they are more likely to move than concrete subfloors. Maybe I will use it more in that situation in the future. Schluter systems also manufactures shower waterproofing components similar to those I mentioned above. While I have never used any of their products other than the uncoupling membrane, I believe they make good products.
I hope these resources and product recommendations can help you feel confident to tackle your own DIY tile projects. Of course using skilled professionals is always a route and not every tile project is best suited for your first try. I suggest starting with something simple like floor tile with large format tiles. Wall tile and smaller mosaic tiles can often be the trickiest. For example, the herringbone marble mosaic backsplash at the Bee House was our most difficult tile project - small and delicate tile, mosaic, on the wall, etc. We've found that doing the tile ourselves once we felt confident has enabled us to save money on our projects or put that saved labor cost towards other parts of the project. Best of luck!