Ceramic Floor Tile Design: DIY Installation Instructions

Since Hurricane Katrina came through the Gulf Coast and decided to remodel our home, I have learned some great skills. Floor Tile happens to be one of them. We used 12 x 20 ceramic tile. I didn’t want a bricked style pattern. I longed for something different. I brought a box of tile in the house, laid them out on the floor and started turning them in different directions. From here I discovered a herringbone pattern that is positively gorgeous. First know this, you should not lay tile on just any surface. If you do not have a slab, you should use a concrete board that attaches to your wood sub-floor. I used Hardi-Back (sometimes called backer board) and special Hardi-Back Screws to attach the backer-board to the wood sub-floor. Each sheet looks like pressed concrete board. The more flush the tops of your screws are to the board, the easier your installation will be. Use a rechargeable type screwdriver.

Things you will need:

Grout (goes between the tile)
Grout Pad (works grout between tile)
Mortar (goes under the tile)
Spacers (go between the tile)
Sealer (get the type in the spray can)
Mop size bucket
Huge Sponge
Flat Metal scraper (one with a point on one side is nice)
A roll around is nice for a stack of tile to wheel with you
Knee Pads (spend the extra money you will thank me)
Clean 5-gallon bucket with handle
Electric Drill with a mixing wand (I used the one for mixing sheet rock mud and it worked just fine)
Tile cutter (and tile nippers if you have strange corners and such)
Tape Measure

All the supplies listed are available at either Lowe’s Home Improvement or Home Depot.

This backer board allows the sub-floor to stretch, flex and move and doesn’t let the tile or grout crack as easy as if it were attached directly to the sub-floor. Also the mortar you lay down before you place your tile has structure to attach to that is similar to its own properties. This does not stretch and give like regular wood, or plywood type sub-floor will. If you start on slab, be sure the surface is clean and smooth.

Find the center of your room, and using a chalk line, snap lines that divide the room into four sections. Center your design on this room centering. I like to lay a few tiles on a dry run (with no mortar) just to be certain I completely understand the pattern, since once this center is set it will not easily move.

Next some mortar and a trowel. Typically for larger than 12″ x 12″ tile you should use a 3/8″ trowel to lay the mortar down with. It really is easy to mix, just read the instructions on the bag of mortar you choose. Color does not matter because it will be covered, but be sure you have plenty of tile as well as a clean surface to work with before you mix the mortar. Start from the center of the room and work your around until only the tile by the wall (pieces that must be cut to fit remain).
By following these steps:

Scoop some mortar out of your bucket and “sling/plunk” it in the section of floor very close to the centerline. You want to spread mortar evenly and in an area large enough for a few tiles. Start with a small area till you get the hang of it. Only put out the mortar you plan to cover with a tile, do not spread your mortar and then take lunch without cleaning up the excess mortar. (as this mortar dries, what doesn’t have a tile on it, will be very hard and you will have to scrape it up before you can lay tile there. Scraping up these mistakes is fine, but after so long, you will grow tired of this exercise. Each tile should be gently pressed into the mortar. Because floors are seldom “dipless” lay a level across the tile as you go will help you keep the same height. Do not be afraid to remove a just placed tile, it is do-able, just wash the tile off to remove the old mortar and repair your mortar, adding or deleting as appropriate, then reset the tile.

If you are laying square tiles lay more mortar at a time, if you have a pattern start small with the mortar. The length of time it takes to dry the mortar will depend on thing such as: are you on slab or backer board? Backer board dries faster than slab. Do you have humidity/dry climate to consider? Is there a fan blowing on the work area? This fan is great for you but bad for the mortar to dry too quickly.

Between the tiles use the white plastic disk type spacers, either 1/4″ or 3/8″. Some people like the smaller grout spaces between the tiles, less to have to clean they say. I didn’t use larger than 3/8Th’s for any of our tile. The old rule states: “large tile gets larger grout”.

You will need your tile cutter here. I used a wet saw to do the first room, but after that, I used a “score” type tile cutter and it worked just as good without the water to deal with. Advantage of a scorer type, you can have it right there with you while you lay tile, this means you do not have to get up and down as much.

Oh let me say this, if you can recruit a friend to just be your legs while you are laying the tile, it is great. Not totally necessary, but very nice.

Measure the last few tiles, cut them with the tile cutter, add mortar enough for a tile at a time, set the tile, and take a break. This tile should sit at least 24 hours with no one walking on it. Come back the next day, remove your spacers, make sure there is no “excess” mortar on the surface of the tiles. You might consider a vacuum job just to remove trash tracked in during laying the tile. Otherwise you are ready to grout.

Grout color to me is very important, it can make or break your design idea. A light color grout is usually asking for dirt stains. I tried to keep all the grout medium to dark. The picture of our tile has a smoke grey color tile with “gray” grout. It is actually darker than I thought it would be. It does dry lighter than what you see when it is wet, so don’t worry too much about that.

Mix the grout, wait for it to set the recommended time on the bag, then go to work. I start in the farthest corner from the door and work my way back. You will need a grout pad, it looks like a hand held sander but instead of having sand paper it has a black pad on the bottom, this pad helps push the grout in the cracks. Take your trowel and place some grout on the top of your tile. Work the grout in with the pad in sweeping arched motions being careful not to dig lower than the height of the tile. Now, you have a small area grouted, rinse your pad and get your sponge. The idea is to remove all the excess grout on the tile and over the seams where the grout was installed without taking away too much grout from the seams. Keep your sponge as clean as possible. Repeat this exercise until the whole floor is done. Let it dry well before you seal it. If you can keep any traffic off the tile until it seals, you will do great. After the grout dries, clean it one more time with the sponge. You will notice a color change in the grout. Once it dries this will go back to the previous color.

I recommend the sealer that comes in a spray can. You take the lid off, shake well and pick a corner. Cover each grout line with sealer until the room is complete. Wait for the sealer to dry, and mop the floor two or three times. If you notice a grout color change, then this area must be re-sealed. Wait till it dries, then reseal the area. Basically if the grout changes color, water is getting to it, so it is not sealed.

This job is not exactly easy work, but I will say this: It is Very rewarding to look at your creation and feel proud enough to say “I did that!!” Good Luck. Send me a message if you have questions, I’d be happy to help.

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