Laying tile - a tough job for a layman

photos by Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Robin Rittenhouse lays tile last Thursday afternoon.

photos by Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Robin Rittenhouse lays tile last Thursday afternoon.

The rehabbed house came complete with a white-flecked-with-black carpet every place except in the kitchen area, entryway and bath. The dining area was also carpeted.

Well, that didn't work for the new homeowner, a bachelor who was an avid reader and liked to spice up meals with a book or magazine. This inevitably meant food scraps would be dropped on the rug (a messy eater, he admits). After several months, the carpet in the dining area was dotted with grease, oils and other inadvertent leftovers.

At first, a rug scrubber did the job, but as time went on the rug began to show signs of wear beyond the scrubber's power to remove. The solution seemed to be to extend the tiles from the kitchen around the breakfast bar and over to a natural ending point at the door to the garage. First, a little Internet research seemed in order.

Tiles are the most durable of floor coverings when properly installed, and can last the lifetime of a house. This toughness, combined with the array of tile types, colors, patterns and textures, makes tile the choice when quality and character are most important.

Tile is made from slabs of clay fired for hardness. Tile may be either glazed or unglazed. Glazed tiles have very hard, smooth surfaces that deflect water and stains. The glaze, applied between the first two firings, gives the tile color and texture. Glazed tile comes in every color of the rainbow, and may be high gloss, satin, matte or dull. It may be smooth or textured.

Unglazed tile is unfinished, so is usually the color of the fired clay or an added pigment. It doesn't scratch as easily as glazed tile but, because it doesn't have the hard surface finish, it is more liable to stain. It is generally treated with a sealer or wax for protection.

Tile is made in many different sizes, from 12-by-12-inch (or larger) pavers to tiny mosaic tiles sold prearranged on a webbed backing.

The joints between tiles are filled with grout. The type of grout most commonly used is a very fine, thin mortar that is sometimes colored. But epoxy-base grouts are also used. Sand is often mixed with grouts to make them more durable. Latex-based grouts are used in some situations.

Because tile floors are heavy, rigid and unforgiving of movement, they are applied over a strong, unyielding base - otherwise, they will crack. Wood subfloors are either reinforced with a secondary underlayment of plywood, cement backer board or, for a more durable application, a bed of mortar. Tile may be laid on a concrete slab using a thin-set adhesive.

Looking over the literature on tiles at home-and-garden stores, the work of laying the tiles looked easy. But this homeowner recognized his limitations and turned to a professional for help.

Calling for a pro

David Rittenhouse is a local master carpenter and jack-of-all-trades in the building profession. He first looked over the situation, which was basically to lay tiles in coordination with the existing tiles.

Matching white tiles were not to be found. But a close (and smooth) version seemed to match reasonably well, especially with a row of red tiles separating the two whites (the homeowner had been given four boxes of 13-inch sectioned tiles).

David measured and planned and came up with the format: White tiles surrounding a large, square of red tiles for the actual dining area.

Floor surface, materials, equipment

As the house had been built on a concrete slab, underlayment was no problem. It can be a problem for a wooden floor, possibly requiring new subflooring or joists. But with the carpeting pulled up, the slab was largely smooth, except at the edges, where some crumbling had taken place. This was repaired with a gooey plastic material.

David assembled all the equipment he would need: an electric tile-cutter saw, a large pan for mixing the thin underlayment (and later the grout), a notched hand blade, trowels, knee pads, chalkline, T-square, 4-foot level and other tools.

Materials included two bags of underlayment cement, spacers to go between the tiles and the boxes of white and red tiles.


A good sweeping by David's assistant and wife, Robin, cleaned the concrete. The thin-set, which adheres the tiles to the floor, was mixed in a big mortar pan, and David spread it out with trowels, about enough for 10 tiles.

With tiles in place to guide him, he carefully lowered the new ones in place, being careful to align them correctly ("You don't want to adjust them much once you've put them in the thin-set," he explained.)

Spacers were placed between the tiles to maintain alignment. Some tile pieces had to be cut to fill gaps between tiles and walls. After David spread the underlayment, Robin lowered the tiles into place.

Once the white tiles were in place, the red ones filled in the center of the area, about 15-by-15 feet. While in most places the tiles butted up nicely to the walls, along the side facing the garage a gap of about an inch existed without any way to add matching tiles. A piece of quarter-round wood molding will be added later by the homeowner, who felt he could do this task.

It took David and Robin most of a day to finish placing the tiles. Then it was 24 hours before the tiles could be walked on.

What's next

Grout needs to be added to fill the spaces between the tiles. Adding grout sounds easy, but it requires a deft sweeping motion and the quick removal of grout that sticks on the surface of the tiles.

Watching David at work made it clear that laying tiles is a tough job for the do-it-yourselfer. Many little tricks made the work go smoothly, and as one observer has noted, "As soon as you finish a home job and you've learned how to do it, you'll never do it again."

"It's also a good idea to apply sealer to the grout joints," David said, "particularly in areas like to suffer spills or grease. The sealer will discourage discoloring the grout. It's easy to apply."

But as the homeowner noted after watching the placement of the tiles, the meticulous neatness required, the long time spent kneeling to clean the new tiles, "That's probably the only thing that's easy about laying tile floors."

Do it yourself? No way!

n Contact Sam Bauman at or 881-1236.

Coming next week:

Grouting between the tiles.


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