Preparing the Site

When tiling floors or installing V r wall tiles down to the floor line, remove baseboard trim. If the baseboard is trimmed with shoe molding (a thin rounded strip attached to the floor), you probably need only remove the shoe, leaving the baseboard in place, in order to tile the floor. If you plan to reuse the trim, take care not to damage it as you remove it. Insert a thin pry bar or stiff putty knife to lift the shoe or pull the baseboard from the wall. Gradually work your way along the molding until it comes off. Write numbers on the backs of the pieces to help you remember where they go. Remove as many obstacles as possible so you will not have to make many precise tile cuts. When preparing to tile a floor, set a tile on the floor and use it as a guide for cutting the bottoms of casing molding.

If you are tiling a bathroom, remember that removing and replacing a toilet is easier than tiling around it, and will lead to a much cleaner-looking job. (Be sure to stuff a rag in the soil pipe to prevent sewer gas from backing up into the bathroom.) You may want to remove the vanity as well as doors. (You may also need to trim the doors after the tile is installed.) When preparing to tile walls, remove electrical outlet covers (the outlet box may have to be adjusted before replacing the covers), and fixtures. Sinks and appliances may have to be removed, depending on your installation. Because the tiles add thickness to the wall, it is usually best to leave window and door casings in place. Keep dust and odors from spreading throughout the house by taping plastic sheeting over doorways. Cover vents with plastic as well.

Laying Out the Job

Tile looks best when it is set in a straight line and at least appears to be square and level with adjacent surfaces. Laying out the installation is the most important step for ensuring such an outcome. Tile is an unforgiving material, and floors and walls are rarely as square and level as you might think—or hope. One of the secrets to a successful layout, therefore, is learning how to fudge the installation so the fudging isn’t apparent. The other secret is to plan for as few cut tiles as possible. Adjust the layout to minimize cuts and hide those cut tiles along less conspicuous walls and under baseboard trim. Don’t be surprised if your house exceeds some of the tolerances recommended here. Tile setters have had to deal with such irregularities for centuries, and cures are plentiful.

1. Check for tolerances. Check tiling surfaces for square, level, and plumb using the techniques shown below. If a surface is out of alignment in excess of the amounts shown above, the best solution is to change the surfaces—for instance, fur out a wall, or shim up a subfloor. If this is not feasible, make the unevenness less visible by avoiding narrow tile pieces at the corner. You might be able to split the difference, making two edges slightly out of line instead of having one edge that is way off.

2. Check floor for square. For small rooms, check the squareness of the floor by setting a framing square at inside and outside corners. For larger rooms, use the 3-4-5 method: Measure along one wall exactly three feet from the corner, and along the other wall four feet. If the distance between those points is exactly five feet, the floor is square.

3. Check floor for level. Use a 2- or 4-foot level to check along each wall. To check for level over a longer span, place the level on the edge of a straight 6- or 8-foot board. If the floor is only slightly out of level, and you are not planning to run tile up the wall, this should not affect your installation.

Planning for Focal Points - When you walk into a room for the first time, chances are there is something there that catches your eye immediately. As you stand in the room, other areas may become more noticeable. It might be another doorway, a fireplace, a window, counters, or appliance groupings. Plan your layout so that the installation looks best in these focal areas. For example, cut tiles placed around a sink should all be of equal size. If your floor is out of square so that you must have a line of cut tiles that grow progressively smaller, plan so it will be behind a couch or in an area that is not a focal point. Use perpendicular lines and full tiles at focal points.

4. Check walls for plumb. Place a level vertically on the wall at various spots, or use a plumb bob. Set the level horizontally on the wall to see how flat it is (you can also stretch a string tightly along the wall). A wavy wall, even if it is plumb, should be corrected before tiling.

5. Establish reference lines. Accurate reference lines are critical to the success of a tile installation. Trace around a piece of plywood with two factory edges, or chalk two lines that are perfectly perpendicular. You will place the first tile at the intersection; this tile establishes the alignment and position of the rest of the tiles.

Laying out an L-shaped room. Often, the outside corner of an L-shaped room will be a focal point, so start there. Here’s the simplest way to lay it out: From the corner, extend two straight lines along the floor to the opposing wall. Plan to set three full tiles at the corner, then extend the layout. This will not work, however, if the outside corner is seriously out of square. Also if this method results in very small pieces along a wall, it may be best to modify it.

6. Do a dry run. With reference lines drawn, you can measure from the lines to the walls and calculate how the tiles will be arranged. However, the safest method is to set tiles in place along the reference lines. For this dry run, don’t use any adhesive, but be sure to space the tiles properly. Take your time, and find out how each edge will look. Don’t hesitate to change the entire layout if it will make for a more attractive appearance.

Using Tile Scraps - By making adjustments in your layout, you can save some money. That’s because you can plan ahead to use as many of your tile cutoffs as possible. As explained below, avoid using tiles that are less than half size. There are times when you won’t have a choice, however, especially if you are tiling an oddly shaped room or an irregular surface. In those cases, try to use tiles that have already been cut rather than wasting full ones. Tile scraps can also be used for mosaic installations.

Hiding cut tiles. One big advantage of a careful and thorough layout is that you can plan where cut tiles will go. A simple rule of thumb is to place cut tiles in the least visible areas. On a floor installation, for example, one wall may be largely covered with furniture. If you place cut tiles under or behind the furniture, they are not likely to be seen. On other installations, you may prefer to adjust the layout so that it has evenly sized cut tiles along the opposite edges.

Caution! Avoid Thin Tiles - One of the golden rules of tile setting is to use as many full tiles as possible. Another rule is to avoid using tiles that have been cut in size by more than half. Sometimes those rules are easier to remember than to follow. Then follow the most important rule: Avoid using very thin tiles. Not only are they unattractive, but they also may not adhere properly. When your layout reveals the need for one row of very thin tiles, make an adjustment. Plan to cut tiles along two rows rather than one; that way they won't be so thin.

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