Dan’s Top Tiling Tips

I may have said this before but, I do love alliteration! Anyway, that being the case then “top tiling tips” is the theme of the week!

Quick disclaimer. I’m keen to share my experience in these ‘how to, tips and tricks’ blogs but take any advice at your own risk. Do get involved with DIY on your home but if in doubt, call in a professional. Anything I write is a personal opinion and does not supersede any manufacturers guidelines or recommendations. In other words, if it goes wrong I accept no liability for anything you’ve done, regardless of what I write here. That said, hopefully there will be something here you will find useful.

Tiling is one of those jobs that many a DIYer feels like they can have a crack at. It can be done pretty successfully, without extensive tools or experience, as long as due thought and care is put in to it. As with many jobs, take the time to plan and you will end up with a decent job. Jump blindly in and you will end up with a mess.

Before we get to tiling itself, there is the prep.

Preparation: The idea that you can slap plenty of adhesive on to cover uneven walls or, god forbid, old tiles, is a bad idea. While possible, and a pro might achieve a good finish, still it really is best to get a decent surface ready before you even think about starting to chuck those tiles on. Flat is important.

If you have an uneven surface edges won’t line up, lines will run out, you’re making an impossible 3D jigsaw puzzle of a problem, and it really isn’t worth the bother. I once took a 3” bow out of a floor (at the clients assistance and in the days before I knew to tell them where to go) with 12 bags of 20kg tile adhesive. It looked great in the end, but I wouldn’t recommend it!

Adhesives will work with a variety of surfaces. Pretty much so long as it’s sound and not porous you’re good to go. As a professional we would be looking to tile on to something like cement board or the, relatively new to the market and lovely to work with, Wedi board.

This is assuming it isn’t a solid surface, e.g. masonry. In which case I would hardwall, skim and SBR, which is to say bond the surface! SBR compound is the right stuff to use, PVA can delaminate. Fine, maybe, for a floor but above a 800 bathtub, you’re being very brave. The point is, if the surface is going to suck in water then your cement based adhesive (we’ll look at this later) will dry prematurely quickly. Cement hardens because of a chemical reaction, not because it dries out. Dry it out quickly, not enough water for the reaction and you’ve got a weak final product and tiles without the will to stick to a wall

Adhesives: I can tell you what I use, not everybody will agree and that is fine. I pretty much solely use Topps Tiles own brand (half the price of Bal) rapid set cement based flexible adhesive. At the price it is, I can’t see any point in not using flexible, and I simply cannot abide waiting around for slow set. As to pre-mix, I loathe it. That said others even in my own company disagree so it’s not gospel. I want to be able to use a little more or less water depending on situation, tile type and weight, all sorts of things. Generally a nice creamy mix though and it’s going to all flow nicely. It has good grab, i.e. stuff sticks well. It goes off quickly, I normally want to be able to grout as soon as possible. Choose grey or white depending on your grout colour to make clean up easier, you can’t go far wrong

We’ve covered adhesives, what about tiles? I’ll give some tiles specific laying tips later but how about choosing the tiles in the first place?

Tiles considerations:

Size: Assuming you’ve a decent surface to lay on then you can more or less choose what you like. Having said that, size does matter. Big tiles are going to go down quickly but are unforgiving of an uneven surface. Very small tiles and they take a lot longer to lay.

Shape: If if it’s your first go at tiling, avoid mosaics, hexagons and other odd shapes, they are trickier to get a good finish. There is a lot to be said about giving yourself an easy first project and move up to more complex tiling once you've some experience. Something that suits the room is important as well, a reasonable size to go with your space just makes sense. A last consideration for large tiles, if they are very big you will need either a grinder or an expensive tile cutter to cut them with.

Materials: There’s a host of materials you can get tiles in, most commonly ceramic, porcelain and natural stone. If you are beginner, then ceramic are generally the cheapest and they are easy to cut. Porcelain are very hard wearing but can be tricky to cut. Natural stone are, largely, the hardest to work with, but can give a beautiful effect. It’s worth noting as well that natural stone will generally require sealing, essential before grouting!

Budget: Just a quick mention of cost. Don’t scrimp on your tiles. By the time you’ve put all this effort in to preparation, tiling and grouting this space you don’t want to stand back and think that you wish you’d spent ten quid more a metre on tiles to have the ones you wanted. Value you time and don’t scrimp on materials! Also, with regards to estimating cost, do allow a decent budget for adhesive, grout, edging/trim and sundries, not just your tile square metre cost.

Surface type: If you are picking a patterned/textured tile or natural stone then you are going to take care when grouting. It is easy to clean the grout off the face of a smooth tile, not as easy when there is a world of grooves and valleys for it to collect in.

Let’s go buy some tiles!

Buying: Measure your area carefully. Round up if in doubt and add 10 -20% extra to allow for cuts. You will have a certain amount of wastage, it can’t be helped. (Even if you don’t mind going back to the shop to get more do be aware that tiles of different batches will can be noticeably different in colour/appearance). This is due to slight variations in batch production when they are glazed and fired. Because miscalculations do happen from time to time; if you have to get more, then try to do it before you are near the end, i.e. keep an eye on what you’ve got as you go, so you can randomly mix in the new batch so as to minimise the effect of having some subtly different tiles. You won’t see them if they are mixed in but they’ll stick out like a sore thumb if there is one big patch at the end

Crikey, I guess I should write something about actually tiling soon. As I’ve said though, fore-thought and prep is the key. The surface is prepped, the tiles and other materials have been carefully chosen, now can we stick some tiles on the wall? No, no you can’t. Here is the most important thing about tiling. For me I feel it’s the key to getting a decent result. Before you can start tiling you should now where all of you tiles are going to go. Perhaps that sounds crazy but I’ve done some fairly big tiling jobs where I’ve done nearly all my cuts before I mixed any adhesive. You don’t have to do this, you can do all the hole tiles then all the cuts after, I like this as well. BUT, either way you must know where all your tiles are going!

Having a plan: The reason planning is key is that as soon as you place your first tile it is effectively determining where every other tile goes. There are ways to cheat things, but the more you can make life easy the better. The orientation is going to give the line the rest will follow and the position is going to determine the position of the rest. For this reason the start of any tiling job, for me at least, I to draw out gospels1 and squares2, mark positions (not every single one, I will explain this in more detail) and generally just have a real good think about what I am going to do

You need lines to work to. Walls, ceilings and floors are all uneven, relatively speaking, so squaring up one tile to one part of a wall doesn’t guarantee your floor is going to be straight in relation to the wall. The best way to start is to get a long straight edge, chalk line or string and mark a line on your surface that is parallel, overall, to the surface you care about. For example, in a kitchen I might want the floor to be square relative to the units, or the wall, or the flooring in an adjoining area. From here you can add a perpendicular line, either with a square (a big one ideally), by doing some maths or, by laying out tiles. The square is particularly important if you are doing a wall as you don’t want your tiles at the edge to slowly run out of whack in relation to corners and edges. What was a nice whole tile at the bottom may have become a tile with an unsightly gap next to it by the top.

To avoid this sort of thing you need to mark out lines as you require and then offer tiles in. You can also measure your tiles and work it out on the surface in a more hypothetical manner (not forgetting to allow for your grout line!) but this is more open to error an most people probably prefer to physically lay out the tiles. I like to lay the tiles out with the spacers in between, going along two axis of the surface. If it’s a wall I mark it on as they clearly won’t hold in place by themselves but still, you get the idea. This lets me see where they would finish for a given starting point. It is normal to work from a central point and either put the tile on the centre line, or either side. Just sticking a hole tile in one corner of one edge and going from there is mickey mouse and, while it will occasionally work out right, will generally leave you with a pretty shifty looking tiling job

If you’re doing a wall there is a good chance that the edge of the wall and the base, floor or surface, aren’t square to each other. This being the case I often prefer to but a nice straight batten all the way round, level and square to my other edges, that I can then tile off without having to cheat my lines and levels back in as I go. Speaking of level, best to use one to check where you’re at on the walls as well. If the edge is not level (que supris!) then you’ll want to make sure that it’s a cut so you can gradually increase/decrease as you go up. What you want to avoid is anywhere you need to cut tiles down to less than 20mm. Unless you’ve got a grinder or a bloody good tile cutter (I have the exceedingly sexy sigma tile cutter) then it just ain’t going to happen and you’ve either got to fudge it and/or fill it with grout. The key to this whole process, described above, is to decide where the edges of your whole tiles are so as to give yourself sensible and achievable cuts

BOATERS: Quick note here if you are a boater or are for some other reason tiling a plumb wall next to a sloping wall. The sloping wall is effectively the hypotenuse of triangle taken in relation to the plumb. That is to say, the distance along that part is longer than the distance on the plumb wall. If you ware going to get your tiles to line up on the two walls in the corner, you must allow for this. The easiest way to do this is to tile the plumb wall first (still taking due diligence to think of all the other points first) and then cheat your lines to match when you doing the sloping wall. I will explain how to do this in the following paragraph(s)

Tiling! Finally, you’ve got yourself ready and you’re going to start putting some tiles on the walls/floor/ceiling (probably not ceiling). You’re following the game plan and might have done some of your cuts so you can speed along. Cutting is the time-consuming part. If you are stopping to cut each tile when you need it then you’ll be there forever, plus if you’re using rapid set then the gear is going to have gone off before you are half way through. Worth baring in this in mind when mixing up. Big areas with no cuts, big batch and smash it on. Lots of little fiddly bits, small batch and if it goes cheesy half way through (i.e. starts to dry/cure while you are still using it) then just chuck is away.

Right, get that all important first tile on. Like I say, getting all the whole tiles on then doing most/all of your cuts can be quite a nice way to go. You get the satisfaction of covering a big area and your cuts are easy to work out as you can see them. That means you can cut a load at once which is another time efficiency saving. You can then fix in the bulk of the cuts with a smaller batch and any that are wrong you can recut.

Cheating lines: As you’ve worked out your lines and starting position carefully you will naturally avoid several pitfalls that may have occurred but, you will still find yourself in situations where the lines don’t seem to be going as planned or are somehow just seeming to slip out of alignment. This is where you will want to be able to subtly cheat the position of your tiles as you go on. To do this the first thing you should know I that those little cross shaped spacers that go in the corner of tiles DON’T go in the corner. Not only does it stop you cheating lines, it is a pain to grout if they are too near the surface and are then showing and anywhere you’ve only got a T, by another surface or with a brick pattern tile, they just don’t fit.

Instead of sticking them flat in to the corner of each tile they stick out from the wall. (diagram) Two on each side. Okay, it uses more but hey, they’re cheap. Plus, you can pull them out and re-use them as areas cure so you’ve an unlimited supply. The other thing I like to have on hand is a bag of packers or shims, between 1 and 5 mm though mostly lots of 1mm. You will want to cheat grout lines up and down to keep things going straight and true. It’s amazing how, even with the best prep and planning, lines still creep out as you go along. You can use these packers with, or instead of the spacers. I even find myself using the spacers the other way round, on a 2mm spacer the legs are often just slightly different thicknesses in the two directions and this can be very useful for micro-adjustments. With regards to sloping walls, this is where you will want to add an extra 1mm or so packer to each line (depends on tile size etc.) to keep the lines true. You won’t notice the difference in grout line but if the lines run out it’ll stick out a mile!

At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if the thickness of the grout-line varies a little. It may seem to look obvious while you’re doing it but once you get the grout in all the differences will melt away. So long as the lines run through and you don’t have any massive gaps or silly little tiny pieces then grout covers a multitude of sins. Before we get to grouting there is just one more thing to finish off your tiling. If you are using the rapid set then I always try to clean out the grout lines before the end of each day. Even though the adhesive has set, it is no as hard as it will be once it’s cured over night. It’s easy to pull out the packers and run a spacer along the lines to remove the excess (don’t use anything sharp if you’ve tanking beneath!) and this leaves with nice clean, easy to grout lines for later.

Grouting is a relatively easy, and also quite satisfying job. Just make sure to follow the instructions on mixing and to get it cleaned off quickly. I have always gone for a measure by eye, devil may care approach to quantities of water/grout (again, I don’t like pre-mix but that’s personal choice) though we had the rout crack on one job and I have taken to thinking twice about this since then (there you go Brad, I said it). Don’t mix more than you can work, do get it off promptly and don’t leave the final buff till the next day as it’s much harder to do. If it’s a textured tile I would take care to keep the bulk off the faces are they’re harder to clean. I get on a batch then chuck water in the bucket I have just taken it from and go round for a quick first clean. After that I have time to clean my bucket and do another clean or two before letting it dry for a final buff. Don’t scrape all the grout out the lines by running the sponge down them or working it too hard while it’s soft. Don’t leave the lines in an unsightly mess by doing too big of a batch and then letting it cure to much before you start cleaning

Well, I could go on about a number of these points in greater detail and I haven’t even touched on the what, how and why of tools, but that is some 3000 words on tiling and that really is enough for now. If you haven’t been bored to tears and have found this useful then watch this space for more tips and tricks. If you’ve questions then feel free to ask and I will answer if I can. Also, watch this space for our DIY upskilling courses, yet to come in to existence but I am really hopeful we might be able to do something about that in 2019. Thanks for reading, take care and take your time