It’s been awhile since I’ve updated you on our kitchen remodel. It is nearing completion (we have two itty-bitty things left to do), but I wanted to share some progress photos with you all to show you some context. This post picks up where the first one left off.
In the previous post, we had just finished painting our concrete floor with Red Guard, and had left it to dry. This day, we finally get to lay some tile! It really isn’t as hard as you might think it would be, you just need the proper tools (and company). Meet our project leader, Roland the beer cat.
When laying large-format tile, you’ll need tools. While doing this project, there was not a more fitting saying than “You need the right tool for the job.” The tools I lay out before you here, I believe are essential in doing the best job! I put these in order of use.
Trust me, you’ll be kneeling a lot. Knee pads will save your knees. I used them religiously, and they were a god-send!
You’ll need three buckets. One for mixing your thinset, one for housing your mixer bit while you work, and another water bucket for rinsing your hands and tools while you work. Three in total. You can get away with less, but it really helps to have three, especially during cleanup.
1/2″ Square Notched Trowel
A notched trowel is essential for laying tile. It helps you spread out the thinset in a manner that allows for optimal adhesion of tile to substrate. Substrate is just a word for the foundation you’re laying the tile on. In our case it was a concrete slab. The 1/2″ square notched trowel is best for large format tiles, because you need a little play when actually setting the tile. This gives you some room to make sure that your tile is level with the other tiles surrounding it. Sometimes we had to lift the tile, and put some more thinset under the tile where a corner might not have been quite level. Keep an eye out for that!
We used a pointing trowel not only to do the initial spread of the thinset onto the concrete, but the curved edge made it easier to scrape the edges of the bucket during work, and helped with the clean-up afterwards.
Towels (Not Trowels)
Preferably towels that you don’t plan on using for anything else except more tile-laying afterwards! Your hands can take a beating if you’re sticking them in water constantly. An occasional wipe-off with a wet towel instead of a dunk in water is favorable. Also helps clean up rogue thinset that inadvertently got on the carpet or tile without too much fuss.
Thinset Mixing Paddle
A thinset mixing paddle is essentially a big paddle-like drill bit which is used to mix your thinset. Please don’t attempt to mix by hand or with a trowel. This is a case of the right tool for the job, and that brings me to the next item.
Really, I’m making a distinction between a battery-powered drill and a drill that is powered by continuous electricity via a cord. We learned the hard way that we needed a corded drill – with a handle for the task of mixing the thinset. After one batch of thinset, our poor battery powered drill could not handle mixing a second batch, and I had to call a friend in a panicked rush to borrow a corded drill. Learn from my mistakes!
After you’ve applied the thinset to your substrate, and have used the notched trowel to create ridges in the thinset, you’ll be laying tile! Besides the actual tiles, you’ll need a bag or two of these tile spacers. They ensure that your grout lines are even. They have different sizes, we used 1/8″ spacers for these kitchen tiles, because we wanted a thinner grout line. Once the thinset dries, pick them up and re-use them!
Wet Tile Saw
This one is a biggie. We borrowed the wet tile saw we used from a friend. I would definitely not recommend renting one – you’d probably pay more than the saw itself in the long run because the project will take longer than you expect. Trust. We didn’t use the guide that came with the saw either because our tiles were so large. It was a pain to make some of the cuts, especially the ones that ran the length of the tile. Remember when you’re purchasing your tile, that you’ll need to add 10% more than your exact square footage because of the scraps you’ll lose for going around corners and angles and other weird things. Also, always use your safety glasses while operating machinery with any type of blade or high rotational speeds!
Rubber Grout Float
This tool is used for pushing the grout over your tiles and into the spaces between your tiles. You’ll definitely need it if you plan on grouting your tile. Generally, the grouting happens 24 hours after you’ve laid the tile, so the thinset has a chance to dry underneath the tiles you just laid.
You’ll need plenty of sponges to clean your tiles after grouting. Different grouts have different instructions on application and clean-up, so make sure to read the label before you start. One thing I know for sure is that cleaning grout off tiles after it has dried completely is a pain in the butt! Having multiple sponges also helps, so you have some soaking in water shedding grout particles, keeping a good rotation of clean sponges at the ready.
Under or Around?
One thing you have to decide is whether or not you’re going to tile underneath your cabinets or around them. Talking to different contractors who are friends, everyone had a different idea of what to do and why. Because of time constraints, and our cabinet makers schedules, we decided to tile under our new island, but around our new cabinets. Ideally, I think tiling around the cabinets is a better idea in the event that you want to change your tile later. We also now have an island that is approximately 1/2″ higher than the counter tops along the wall. You can see by the following pictures that we had a pony wall that housed both plumbing and electricity. This was the only original part of the kitchen that remains today. We couldn’t get rid of it because we didn’t want to mess up any water or electrical, and decided that tiling around it, and building the island on top of that tile would be the best for us.
First, stage your tiles. The large format tiles we got had many different patterns, so we went through all the boxes, and laid all the tiles out, and stacked tiles of the same pattern together. We wanted to make sure that there weren’t two of the same tiles sitting too close to one another, so having them all stacked makes the design process go much faster! Also, creating names for them that you and your partner understand quickly also helps with communication.
Because these are long tiles, we had to figure out how to stagger them. We decided on three staggers, so any slight imperfections are less perceivable when it comes to lining them up. Divide the length of your tile by 3, and that’s the number you should stagger by. Also, take into account your grout lines! One eighth of an inch on either side you should account for if you’ll be using 1/8″ tile spacers. Those little fractions matter!
Tiling under our island meant tiling around the pony wall. That went well, but we came to a point where we had to stop tiling because we were waiting on our cabinets to be installed. When tiling, it’s extremely important to go row-after-row, not laying tiles from a more recent row before an older row. If you have a situation where you have to fit a tile in-between two that have already been laid, you run the risk of things not lining up very well. It can be frustrating, and in the worst case scenario, you may have to pry up tiles you just laid, scrape up the hardened thinset, and start over. You don’t want to do that. Once our wall cabinets were installed, we were able to finish the tile installation.
One very important question is the question of deciding where to start. Think the tile laying process through, and so some visualization on how it will go. If you start bottom left, how will that process go? Top right? Do you have a carpet-to-tile threshold that will be visible? We had a line where the tile met the carpet, and wanted that to look its absolute best. You definitely don’t want to have a cut tile edge butting up against the carpet. Cut tile edges can be much sharper than the regular tile edge, and can be troublesome if you value your bare feet. We also knew that we would have to wait for our cabinets to be installed to finish the job, so starting the furthest away from that was ideal. We also had a square edge to start with where the tile/carpet line and back wall met. These were all factors that contributed to determining where to start. Also, before you rip up the existing tile, take a look at what the previous layer did. I believe now from my experience that every situation is unique, so my advice is to think it through, and make the best decision you can make for you.
Final Advice a.k.a. Patience & Beer
These things are essential. Tiling and grouting is a tough job just on its own. Add in the stress of “THIS IS YOUR KITCHEN YOU’RE DESTROYING”, not having a place to cook, having all of your belongings strewn around your house, physical exhaustion, communication breakdowns, learning things as you go, and pretty much anything else that can go wrong (thanks Murphy), and sometimes you’ll be at your wits end. I offer you the things I’ve learned during this process to make it MUCH easier to navigate all of these emotional mines:
- Establish the project leader. Admit it or not, but one will always want to take the project by the reins and drive. This is the person who will have the final say in the decisions as you go through the project and decide what to do next.
- Have a plan. Taking the time to stop and get a game plan of what you’d like to accomplish for the day is essential. It is all about communication after all, and having a solid plan, and being on the same page about it will minimize any arguments. Nobody likes arguing when you’re doing such a personal job like this.
- Kiss often. That’s mainly for couples who are embarking on a job like this together. These little random acts of affection will help keep the mood light and happy. If you’re doing it with a plutonic friend, kiss them anyway. JUST KIDDING (or not), but give each other praise and affection more often than you normally would.
- When you feel any inkling of an argument starting, be the first to stop it. Stop, and talk about the plan that you agreed on in the beginning, and do so as calmly as you can. Nobody does their best work when they’re pissed at each other. Especially if you’re doing this for the first time, the room you’re working on deserves all the love you can pour into it.
- Speaking of pouring, pour me a beer! Don’t get me wrong, you don’t want to be smashed while working, but beers can also help lighten the mood, and keep it light. This is hard work! You deserve a beer.
I hope this post helps de-mystify laying tiles for your kitchen or bath! Once you get the hang of it, it’s really fun! If you have any questions, leave them in the comments below, ok? One last word of advice – accept the essential clean-up after a day of tile laying. Get everything buttoned up so that you can start fresh the next day, ready to conquer the world!
P.S. You can continue by reading the other posts in this series!