How to Install Wall Tiles

Preparing Your Wall and Tile

1. Make sure your wall is ready to go.Once you've removed the current wall dressings and wall items, like light switch covers, you'll want to check the base layer that you will be building on to make sure that it is structurally sound. This is important, since a rotting or weak wall can cause your tiling job to warp, crack, or even break and fall down.

  • Look for signs of mold or damage to the tiling surface. Cracks are often a sign that a wall may be weak and need to be replaced.
  • Try pressing on the wall, especially at the studs. If it gives way or feels soft, it may require work.

If you are going to be tiling a large area, remember to use tiling board as a backer and not just put the tiles directly onto drywall. Tiling board is installed just like drywall (nailed to the studs) but is made of more water resistant materials which will keep it from warping and cracking your tile work.

2. Use a level and tape to measure for your tile locations.Now, using a level and measuring tape, measure and mark for the middle lines in the area you will be tiling. You want to find both the vertical and horizontal middle, since you will use these to keep your tiles straight and divide the area into sections for tiling.

  • Never assume a fixture in the room like the tub or vanity (or even the ceiling) is perfectly level. They rarely are. It is very important to rely on the level.

3. Mark the locations on the wall using a chalk line.Using a chalk snap line, mark the mid-line and vertical lines which you just measured. If you've never used a chalk snap line before, don't worry: it's easy. Simply place a nail at one end of the space you marked, attach the string, pull it taut and snap it down. This will leave a straight line on your wall. You'll still want to check it for level but it's much more accurate than drawing a line.

  • You can use just regular string and manually chalk it to make a chalk line but using a chalk box, which are easily bought for about $5, will generally be a lot less work.

4. Dry fit and then cut tiles to size using a diamond wet saw. Dry fit your tiles to be sure that they will look the way you want them to look. Once you're comfortable with how it looks, figure out how the tiles will meet up with the corners and edges of your wall. You will probably need only a part of a tile when it comes to some of these areas, so it will be necessary to cut the tiles to size. Measure how much space you need for each row with the spaces and cut tiles to size using a diamond tipped wet saw.

  • So, for example, let's say your wall to tile is five feet long. You're putting up subway tile and the tiles are 6", with spaces of 1/4" between each of them. You'll need 9.6 tiles for each row to cover that space, meaning nine full tiles and one cut to 3.6"
  • If you don't own a diamond tipped wet saw, you can usually rent one from your local major hardware store. You can also use a tile cutter, but this is more likely to end in broken tiles so only take this option if using cheaper tiles. 
  • Dry fitting is especially important if your tiles make up a pattern, since you will need to be very comfortable creating that pattern. You don't want to make a mistake or have to spend a lot of time thinking about it once the mortar is up on your wall.

You can test your dry fit pattern by making a layout stick, which can be made from any straight and level piece of spare wood. Lay the tiles on a floor and mark the layout stick with a pencil at the joints between tiles. Use the layout stick to see how the tiles fit on the wall.

5. Install a batten to keep your first row straight.With everything else ready to go, you'll want to install a batten to help keep your tile rows straight. This is a piece of scrap wood, such as a piece of 1x4 lumber, that you use as a long straight-edge, placing the first row of tiles right against the batten. Align the top edge of the wood so that it follows exactly along the mid-level line that you marked, then screw it into the studs. Once the tiles have been placed, simply unscrew and remove the batten.

  • Double check that everything is level before installing the tiles on the batten. You'll also want to check it all the way across, since there may be dips in the wood you use for your batten.

Laying the Tiles

1. Mix the mortar.You'll need thin set mortar to lay your tiles. While you should always go by the manufacturer's instructions, a general rule of thumb is to start with the powder in a bucket and just add water slowly and mix until the consistency of the mortar becomes like peanut butter.

You should also allow it to "slake" after you first mix it up. This means you allow it to rest for 10-15 minutes and then stir it up again. Now it is ready to use.

2. Spread the mortar.Working in a roughly 2x3 area, use a tiling trowel to apply the mortar. Hold the notched trowel at a shallow angle against the wall, so that the notches on one of its long sides dig grooves into the mortar. Use long, sweeping motions to apply the mortar. The direction of the grooves doesn’t matter but the lines should all be roughly parallel.

  • Your trowel size will depend on the size and type of tile you're using. For the average small wall tiles which are currently popular, you will want to use a 1x4" square notch trowel.
  • Test a tile to make sure the mortar is mixed and spread correctly. Mortar a small spot and then place a tile. Pull the tile up and look at the pattern that is create on the back. If you see clear lines, then the mortar is too dry. If you see goopy mounds then the mortar is too wet.

3. Place your tiles on the wall.With the mortar ready to go, you can start placing your tiles. Just twist them into place, sticking to the small area that you prepared for yourself. Place your spacers between each tile as you go. These are usually cross shaped and placed at the corners but if you have unusual tiles you may have to improvise, such as by placing only one arm between tiles and letting the rest of the spacer stick out.

  • If the mortar rises up between the tiles as you place them, the bed is too thick and you will need a smaller trowel.

Check the tiles for level as you go. This is when a laser level can really come in handy.

Grouting the Tiles

1. Choose and mix your grout.You'll need to choose what grout is appropriate for your project, depending on how large the gaps are between your tiles. Once you've chosen, mix the grout according to the packaging directions, being sure to also mix any additives you want. Usually, you will start with the water in a bowl or bucket and add powder until the consistency is like toothpaste. Mix only what you can spread in about 20 minutes, since mixing any more risks the product drying out.

  • Sanded grout is used for gaps largerthan 3mm.
  • Unsanded grout is used for gaps smallerthan 3mm.

You can find all sorts of additives at your local hardware store. These can do everything from making the grout more water resistant to changing the color to match your tiles.

2. Spread the grout, using a grout float.Now, spread the grout (using a grout float) in a roughly 3x3' area, or whatever size you can grout in about 20 minutes. Hold the float at a 45° angle and push the grout into the gaps using diagonal swipes.

  • You do not want to push the grout around parallel to the lines, since this can gouge the grout back out of the gaps.
  • You can save yourself some time by using the grout float to remove as much of the excess grout off of the tiles as possible.

3. Clean the grout.After allowing the grout to cure for 20 minutes wipe the tiles with a clean, damp sponge to remove any excess grout from the tiled surface. Wipe just a small area, clean out the sponge, and then wipe some more.

It is best to do this for each small area as you complete it but you can wait until you have done two to four small areas as well. Keep in mind, however, that it will be much harder to get the grout off and the final look may not be as professional.

4. Allow it to cure.Now, allow the grout to cure for three hours or whatever amount of time is recommended on your product directions. Make sure that the area remains dry and that it gets adequate ventilation.

  • Some additives may cause the grout to cure more slowly. See the included packaging for any addendums to the curing process.
  • You can clean off any remaining residue after the grout has cured. An old sock or dry rag work well for this.

5. Seal the grout.Once you have installed all of your tile, you'll want to apply a grout sealer. This will help keep mold from growing in the gaps and will need to be reapplied usually every year (preferably every six months). Though every sealer is different, usually it is a wax which must be applied in a circular motion with a rag.

  • You can also get brush-on or spray-on tile sealer.
  • Do not put these sealers on non-glazed, unfinished tile. It will absorb into and possibly stain the tile.

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