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Home Improvement: Laying Tile (on a fireplace, walls, or backsplash)

 We recently moved into a new home and have been busy re-vamping, tearing down, and re-constructing this/that in our new home.  It’s been fun……but a complete learning process.  If you’d like to see other Home Improvement Projects that we’ve been figuring out (from the help of friends, family, and the ol’ internet), be sure to check them out.



I’m being really flippy-floppy with my posts lately because, well, I’ve been flippy-floppy lately.  I’ll share more of the Teaching Kids to Sew Series next week.  But my house hollered at me this week and asked me to hurry and pretty up a few of her walls.  And I couldn’t resist.


So, while we had one of my brothers (thanks Greg!) and Steve’s brother (thanks Joe!) here at different times, we pulled some tiling tips from them……and went crazy tiling a few places in our home.


And, let me tell you……if you’ve never tiled anything before, you’re probably a little nervous like I was.  I had only done a few simple tiling projects in the past but I really wanted these to look nice.  So, I was anxious about them.  But holy smokes……..I’m TRIPLE THRILLED with how they turned out!


So, let me share what I’ve learned.




Maybe you have an area that needs a little love…….like our Powder Room Bathroom did. 


I used to hate using it because it was just icky, un-loved, and the paint was so sad in there.  Now, I just sit (ahem, excuse me) and enjoy the beautiful colors in there!  Ahhhhhh!  (Yeah, I need to share more pictures of the finished space….but I haven’t hung a mirror yet.  Or replaced the light fixture.  Or finished the baseboards.  Or hung anything on the walls.  So one day soon…)




And the other tiling project that makes my heart smile……is the fireplace.  The finished mantel (which I’ll also share another day, including a tutorial) turned out so stinkin’ beautiful……but the tile definitely finished it off perfectly.  Eeeeeeeh, I couldn’t be one ounce happier with how it all turned out.  Really.


And it’s kinda hard to tell, but that glass tile really has some sparkle and texture to it.  The light dances across it once the sun pours through the neighboring window.  And I’m pretty sure that the fact that I laid that tile with my own hands……makes the tile extra gorgeous in my happy little eyes. :)




Ahhh, Elli.  She kept twirling in front of my camera while I was trying to take photos of the tile.  That girl.  I need to find her a dance teacher in this area.




This tile is one of the first tile samples I brought home and Steve didn’t care for it.  He called it “Paris Hilton” tile.  See the random crushed glass tiles in there??  He thought they were too “glittery”.  I laughed and we took it back (because we both need to love something so permanent, right?). 


So, about 13 sample designs later (that we were SURE we’d love) and about 200 pounds of different tiles that we bought and then lugged back to the store after hating it with the paint/lighting/mantel/etc in the room……….we somehow went back to the “Paris Hilton” tile, after many weeks of searching.  Which is so funny because Steve was so sure he’d hate it, remember?  We looked at it with fresh eyes, imagined it grouted, and now…..neither one of us can keep our hands or eyes off of it.  The tile has the right texture, isn’t too loud or obtrusive, it lets the the new fireplace and mantel have more of the attention, and it adds a little sparkle to the space when the light plays off it.  Okay, I’ll stop.  I’m just way too excited about it all. :)  (You’ll see more of what I mean when you see the finished mantel, the hardwood floors, the wall paint, etc.)




But let me tell you, tiling has made a huge different to these 2 rooms.  And once we finish some things in the kitchen, we’ll be adding some back splash tiles in there.  Can’t wait! 


How about you? 

Do you have a tiling project in mind? 

Are you ready to give it a try?  You should…



Let me share what I’ve learned about tiling…


Okay…..let’s get started.  Gather your supplies.

**I also forgot to picture the plastic tile spacers…..but that’s because I didn’t need them.  But you may.



BUT WAIT!!!  Unless your tiling over a concrete floor, STOP!!!  You need to lay down Cement Board on your sub-floor or screw it into the wall or counter top that you’re tiling.  What’s Cement Board?  It’s a sturdy board that is made of yep, cement, and other fibers.  It is used behind tiling to offer stability, eliminates sagging, and gives an even surface to work on.  The “pros” I’ve talked to say they wouldn’t ever tile without having it.  So I just do what I’m told! ;)


Now, you’ll need to place the Cement Board beneath all your tiling but sometimes there are curves or corners or obstacles to work around.  You could cut smaller puzzle pieces of Cement Board and then fit them all together to cover your surface but whenever possible, consider measuring and sketching the place you need to cut out so that you can have one continuous piece of board.



Now, my brother taught us this trick to get pieces out of the center of Cement Board. (Thanks Greg!)

Drill a hole at each corner of the portion you need to remove.




Then, drop your jigsaw blade down into the hole and cut out your marked portion to remove.



Repeat with any other section that needs to be removed.  Works great!

**Cement Board is pretty rough on your saw blades.  So be prepared to burn through an extra blade or two while cutting through this stuff.  The good thing, is that blades are only a $1 or so a piece.


If you don’t have a jigsaw: you can use a utility knife and cut a line in your board and then place it on the edge of a hard surface and push down on free edge to break it.  This works but can be a little trickier. 


Then place your Cement Board in place, to see if it fits.  Make adjustments if necessary.



Then screw the board in place.  Having 2 people holding this stuff in place is helpful while getting your first screws in place.



The Cement Board that we used on the fireplace had little spots to add screws.  The stuff we used in the bathroom didn’t (we bought it at different stores).  Just keep in mind, you’ll need plenty of screws so that the board lays really flat and doesn’t warp.  Oh, and the screws are special Cement Board screws.  I think they’re made of special Cement Board magic.  Maybe? :)



Keep adding your pieces of Cement Board, until your entire surface is covered.



Now, it’s time for tiling.  Taping is optional but helps keep excess gunk off your nice surfaces.  I especially liked having that thick paper taped down below, because I knew globs would be falling soon.




Okay, back to the tiling supplies.  If you’re laying large tile pieces, you can use a square notched trowel…..but the little triangle notches work better for smaller tile like mine.

**I also forgot to picture my plastic tile spacers…..but that’s because I didn’t need them.  But you may.



Also, I’m not sure how strong your muscles are but mine begged me to buy a drill bit mixer.  This saved me a lot of time and energy…….and worked like kitchen beaters to mix up my grout.  Very cool!



Then, I noticed you can buy pre-mixed tile adhesive (but not grout), so I jumped all over that too.  It really didn’t cost much more and came in a nice tub that would help save the extra for future tiling projects.  If you’re mixing your own adhesive, it should be the consistency of peanut butter……so keep that in mind as you’re mixing.



Okay, so let’s get started with laying that tile.  Depending on what type of tile you use, our methods will vary a bit…..but the whole process is the same.

(Steve’s brother taught me how to do everything from here on out.  He supervised while I tiled.  It was a good match! ;) Thanks again Joe!! )


First, grab one of your buckets and fill it half full with water and toss in your sponge.  You will NEED this water… grab it first!  And be prepared to dump it and replace it with fresh water many times throughout this process.


Now, you need to decide where you want to start laying your tile.  Take notice of where you’d like a nice clean line of tiles to start……and begin there.  Generally, you’ll start where your eye will be drawn to first…..or perhaps the area that is most noticeable.  I started at the bottom because the top edge was kinda hidden.  And then from there, you’ll work in rows…..finishing a row and then beginning another row above (or beneath) it.


Use your trowel and slap some adhesive up there on the Cement Board.  Then, just like frosting a cake, try to keep things neat and clean and even, moving your trowel back and forth, and up and down.



Apply enough adhesive for a tile sheet or two (if yours are 12 x 12 inches like mine) or more if you’re laying single tiles.  If you apply too much adhesive at once, it will start to dry before you get your tile up there.  So, just do a little at a time.



Be sure that there aren’t huge globs of adhesive anywhere…..especially those sneaky edges.  If there’s too much adhesive, once you set your tile and push it on, the adhesive will ooze out and will clog all the space in between the tiles for grouting later on.



Eventually you should have a nice layer of adhesive.  I always applied enough for about 1 and half tile sheets. 



Now, put your tiles right in place…..adjusting and spacing it just how you need it.



Now, use your Grout Float to apply even pressure to your tiles.  Press pretty firmly but not too much or you’ll squeeze all the adhesive out.




While you’re working on one row, scrape away any excess adhesive.  Since I was working my way to the left, I would leave extra adhesive to the left because I was working in that direction.  But all the stuff up above would dry before I moved up to that row, so scraping it off kept the Cement Board surface even.



After finishing a tile sheet (or a few single tiles), wet your sponge and wipe off any excess adhesive from your tile surface.  Rinse out your sponge and repeat if necessary.  It’s important to keep your tile surfaces clean. 

**And once your water becomes really mucky, dump it and replace with fresh water.  You’ll have to do this many times to keep things clean.



Now, if your tiles are heavy and are sliding out of place, add some plastic spacers between your tiles to keep them in place while the adhesive dries.  These spacers come in all sizes……so get what you need, depending on your tiles spaces.  However, I didn’t even use one of these.  I just wanted to show when and where you’d use them.  My tile stayed in place and even  Whew……lucky!  But part of that is that my tiles were pretty forgiving and weren’t super precise with sharp corners or anything.  Yours may be different though.



At some point, you’ll probably need to cut your tile to fit around different obstacles.  Place some painters tape on your tile along the edge that you need to cut.  Place the tape on the section you want to keep…..and then cut away what you don’t need.  This will keep your measurements accurate.



Now, place your tile in the area you need it and check for accuracy before laying down more adhesive.



Then go ahead and add your layer of adhesive and place your tile where it needs to go.  Repeat the above process of scraping away excess adhesive from, wiping with a sponge, etc.



And again, if you need to add spacers between each sheet of tiles, go ahead and do so before everything dries.



And then let everything dry in place for 24-48 hours…..or whatever your product says on the label.


Now, it’s time to grout.

***EDITED TO ADD: Instead of mixing my grout powder with water, I mixed it with a grout sealer, which was liquid like water.  That way I didn’t have to seal my grout after it dried in between the tiles.  It saved us a step and any future steps of sealing the grout in the years to come.  Definitely recommend it.  (I just can’t remember the name but just ask for something similar at the tile store.)


Again, you need to fill up your bucket with clean water and keep it handy.  You’ll dump it and replace it many times throughout this process as well.


Mix up your grout, per your product’s instructions.  You don’t want it too stiff and I actually preferred it to be slightly thinner than the adhesive.  I mentioned above that the adhesive should be like the consistency of peanut butter……I liked the grout a little thinner than that.  (Just because it seemed easier to get into all the cracks a little thinner.)  Then grab a blob of grout with your Grout Float and start from the bottom and push it into all the cracks as you slide it upwards. 




Then use your float and slide it across the surface pushing from the left, then the right, then down from the top.  This will just help work it into all the cracks.  If you have blobs fall down below, just scoop the back up, return them to the bucket, and continue on.  It’s a little messy but you’ll get better and better as you go.



Once you finish grouting like a 2 x 4 square foot area, wet your sponge and wipe away any excess grout from the tiles and the surfaces around your tile.  Rinse your sponge and repeat a few times.  And replace your water with fresh water once your bucket gets too clouded and mucky.



Then repeat, repeat, and repeat some more…..until all of your tiles are grouted.


Then get new water in your bucket and make one final wipe over the tiles.  Wipe a few feet of tile, rinse your sponge, repeat, and repeat again.  This final wipe will help assure you get all the final grit off the surface of your tile.


Then, allow your grout to dry for a couple hours and then wipe your tile surface with a dry cloth or paper towels to help shine them up.



Let your grout completely dry (check the label of your grout brand to see how long this takes) and then caulk all of the edges.  Your grout brand probably offers a matching caulk color, so that you can help blend the caulk into your tile cracks.  However, mine didn’t.  Luckily, my grout was a light grey and the fireplace was white… I just used white and tried to wipe out the excess from the tile cracks.  When caulking, use your finger (or a caulking tool) to press your caulk into the cracks and to remove the excess.  Have lots of wet paper towels (or a smaller sponge) ready to wipe the other surfaces around the tile, including the tile.  Do this right away because caulk dries pretty quickly. 

Caulking will help hide uneven edges and will also help your tile job to last longer……so don’t skip it.  Just be patient with it and wet your finger or your caulk tool) with water as your pushing it into cracks.  Water glides right over it while it’s wet… you’ll notice a huge difference if you keep things wet.


Also, be sure you’re using PAINTABLE caulk so that you can touch up any surfaces that butts up against your tile/caulking project.



And at last……YOU’RE DONE!!!!!  So worth it, right?? 



Let me know what tiling projects you’re thinking of doing.


And good luck!





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Ashley Johnston

Administrator at Make It & Love It
Ashley Johnston is a professional DIY costume maker, sewist, crafter, and owner of Make It & Love It. She is a mom of 5 and a wife to a very patient (with the craft clutter) husband. In case you’re wondering, she always chooses crafting/sewing/designing over mopping/dusting/wiping base boards……but bathrooms/laundry/full bellies are always attended to. Whew!

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Hi, I'm Ashley

Hi, I’m Ashley—the DIY-enthusiast behind this crazy blog!

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