Planning Your Tiling Project

Good architectural design often goes unnoticed. A well-proportioned house or intelligently laid-out kitchen simply has a natural rightness about it. In the same way, instead of shouting for attention, a well-designed tile installation should just fit in. When a surfacing material jumps out at you, the design probably has failed. The age of your house, the decorating style you seek to capture, and your budget all affect the design you choose. Books, magazines, and tile brochures are probably the best sources of ideas. However be sure the types and patterns of tile that you find attractive suit your space.

Obtain Design Advice

■ Tile is a permanent surfacing material you’ll be living with for a long time. It’s well worth purchasing the advice of an architect or interior decorator if your tiling installation is part of a large remodeling. But don’t underestimate the expertise of flooring retailers and the tiling specialists to be found at some home centers.

■ Come equipped with dimensions of the space you are tiling and magazine clippings of the styles and materials that you like. Retail specialists may be able to give you all the design guidance you need before launching your project.

Proportion tile to room size. As a general rule, tile size should be proportional to the size of the room. That is, small tiles generally work best in small rooms and large tiles look better in large rooms. Larger tiles seem less large when used on horizontal surfaces. Use larger tiles on lower surfaces; wall tiles or countertop tiles that are bigger than the floor tiles tend to make a room top-heavy.

Plan for comfort as well as style. Radiant heating systems in which heated water passes through tubing embedded in or under the floor surface are becoming increasingly popular. Tile is a great choice for the finish surface on a radiant floor. Because the tubing usually is embedded in concrete, the concrete pad can be used as an ideal setting bed for tile. Also tile is a highly conductive material that transmits heat quickly and efficiently. If you are tiling a new addition or need to improve heating in a room, consider incorporating a radiant heating system into the design.

Designing with Color - With so many stunning tile colors readily available, it’s tempting to wield a broad brush and let the color fly. But because today’s fashionable color is often tomorrow’s eyesore, white and almond tend to be the tones of choice for most homeowners. These light neutral tones help brighten up rooms and can coexist with almost any other colors as your decorating schemes change. But many people think too much white or off-white is monotonous. Accent and border colors often cancel out this impression. In rooms with plenty of windows, consider using darker tiles to offset the ambient lighting.

Stagger or stack the tile. Area tiles usually are installed in a grid pattern or a staggered pattern. A stacked pattern is the easiest to install, and the clean straight lines appeal to many people. Although they require careful alignment, staggered joints have a pleasingly retro look.

Make the most of one color. Using only one color of tile does not have to result in a plain-looking installation. Use tiles of different sizes to add a level of contrast. Consider different grout colors and grout joint sizes. Or, use tiles with only small variations in color.

Consider herringbone. Plain rectangular tiles gain a new dimension when installed in a herringbone pattern. As a variation, wrap a small square tile with rectangular tiles.

Mix shapes with colors. Manufacturers offer tiles purposely sized to allow for mixing different shapes into a coherent whole. You can add further interest with this approach by using two or more colors as well.

Define your space. Borders help define the perimeters of a tile installation and can add a whole new level of interest to the surface. Here, variously colored and sized tiles create a border surrounding a field of tiles installed diagonally.

Selecting the Right Tile for the Job

Although simplicity is part of the universal appeal of ceramic tile (it is essentially a thin a slab of baked clay), don’t assume that just any tile will suit your project. You’ll have to consider several factors as you select the right tile for the job: The material from which the tile is made (ceramic tile is made from clay; some tiles do not use clay at all but are actually slabs of stone milled into regular shapes), the degree of firing, the type of glaze, and the shape of the tile.

If you are planning several tiling projects for your home, you may want to contact one of the associations created by tile manufacturers, designers, retailers, and installation contractors. These groups have developed standards and acceptable practices relating to tile and tile installations. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has prepared a list of minimal standards that are followed by all professionals in the industry. The Tile Council of America (TCA) publishes the inexpensive annual Handbook for Ceramic Tile Installation, which sets forth the ANSI standards www.tileusa.com

Plan out a typical installation. Installing tile is a bit like making a sandwich: You proceed one layer at a time. The substrate, often plywood, is the layer in direct contact with the framing (studs for a wall installation or joists for a floor installation). Backerboard serves as the setting bed for the tiles themselves. Tiles form the outer layer. Adhesive is used to bond each layer.

Water Absorption - Clay absorbs water, and water can cause cracks in tiles and create damage beneath the surface. Ceramic tiles that have been kiln-dried longer and at higher temperatures absorb less water, but they also cost more. So it makes sense to choose tiles precisely rated for the protection you need.

Tile Rating

Best Uses


This tile typically is used for decorative purposes only. It is intended for use indoors, in dry locations, such as a fireplace surround or a decorative frieze in a dining room


This type of tile is used indoors in dry to occasionally wet locations, such as a kitchen wall or behind a serving area in a dining room.


This multipurpose tile is used indoors or outdoors or in wet or dry locations for anything from bathroom floors or walls to a patio surface.


Such tile generally is used only in hospitals, restaurants, and other commercial locations where the ability to thoroughly clean is important.

Choosing Decorative Tiles - The term decorative tile is more descriptive than technical. It broadly defines tiles that have been decorated by moulding the clay, hand painting, or affixing a decal to each tile before it is fired. Major tile manufacturers offer a multitude of tiles decorated with flowers, fruits, animals, and other images. Smaller, specialty tile retailers may carry a wider selection of decorative tiles. Individual tilemakers can be a particularly good source of original tiles. (Some will even make tiles to order.) Most decorative tiles are used as accents on walls, backsplashes, and fireplace surrounds.

Choose a glaze. A glaze is a protective and decorative coating, often colored, that is fired onto the surface of tiles. Glazes can be glossy, matte, or textured. Glazing is not related directly to the water-absorption categories listed above. Although glazing does keep moisture from penetrating the top surface, the unglazed sides and bottoms of the tile don’t have the same protection.

Caution! The Perils of Mixing Tile - Have you ever run back and forth to the paint store trying to match the color of paint in a new can with the color already on your wall? If so, you'll understand the difficulties of trying to match the colors, and sometimes even the exact sizes, of ceramic tiles. Avoid that aggravation by buying at one time all the tile you think you will need. Better yet, buy more than you will need; save some of the leftovers for future repairs, and return unopened boxes for a refund.

Select the type of ceramic tile. Modern ceramic tile is made from refined clay, usually mixed with additives and water. It then is hardened in a kiln. Several different types of tile are created through that process. Quarry tiles are unglazed and vitreous tiles, usually 1/2 inch thick and used for flooring. Pavers are 3/8-inch-thick vitreous floor tiles and are available glazed or unglazed.

Choose different sizes and shapes. Square tiles are the most common and the easiest to install. But rectangles, hexagons, and other shapes are readily available. An easy and inexpensive way to add interest to a tile installation is to mix shapes, sizes, and colors; tile retailers and home centers offer a wide range of options.

Consider stone tile. Use natural stone tile on floors, walls, and countertops. Marble, granite, flagstone, and slate are widely available; other types of stone may be available in your area. Dimensioned (or gauged) stone is cut to a uniform size and thickness and can be installed much like ceramic tile. Hand-split (or cleft) stone tiles vary in size and thickness.

Other Tiling Choices - Cement-bodied tiles are made with a concrete mix that is extruded or cast, then cured to form a strong, dense tile. They usually are stained to look like pavers, quarry tile, stone, or brick. Often you can buy them with a factory-applied sealer. Brick-veneer tile is made like ceramic tile, but with a coarser body that simulates brick. Terrazzo is manufactured with small pieces of granite or marble set in mortar, then polished. Precast terrazzo tiles are available for floors and walls.

Use mosaic file. Mosaic tiles are 1- or 2-inch squares or similarly sized hexagons or pentagons mounted together as a larger unit. Most commercially available mosaics are vitreous and freeze-thaw stable and can be used on most tiling projects. Mosaic tiles are sold almost exclusively mounted on sheets or joined with adhesive strips. Back-mounted mosaic tiles are much easier to install than individual tiles. They can be mounted with standard thin-set adhesive and grout.

Nominal vs. Actual Size - Most do-it-yourselfers learn quickly that when buying lumber, a 2x4 doesn’t measure 2 inches by 4 inches. The tile trade has a similar discrepancy. Individual ceramic tiles are often sold with dimensional names that describe their installed size, that is, the size of the tile plus a standard grout joint. Thus, 6x6-inch tiles measure 1/8 inch shorter in each direction. The actual size will be 5 7/8 X 5 7/8 inches. Only when installed with a 1/8-inch grout joint will the installed size of the tile be about 6x6. Always check the actual size of the tiles before you buy them.

Determine the right trim tiles. In general, tiles are divided into field tiles, which are flat, and trim tiles, which are shaped irregularly to turn corners or define the edges of an installation. There are dozens of trim-tile profiles, and the names of each can be confusing. When choosing tiles, be sure to check the availability of these specialty tiles and select a style with trim tiles suitable for your project.

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