Laying and Grouting Tile

As you might have noted from my previous post, we chose to hold off on finishes like flooring until after we painted the walls and ceiling. (My smartest reno decision to date, at least in my opinion!)

As you might have noted from my previous post, we chose to hold off on finishes like flooring until after we painted the walls and ceiling. (My smartest reno decision to date, at least in my opinion!) While most of our living spaces would be covered in hardwood flooring, a few key high-traffic areas were set aside for tile.

Previous experience led me to believe my family is too hard on linoleum. I couldn’t justify spending money on a product that would likely need replaced within five years. In addition durability and longevity against water, mud and who know what else, I wanted the floors to speak to the house’s history. Long before we got to the flooring stage, I knew I wanted classic black and white, hex-shaped tiles in a simple pattern that would lend an air of period elegance.

Tile comes in an array of shapes, thickness, colors, textures and materials—all of which add or subtract from the tiles’ overall cost. To keep a grasp on the ever-looming budget, we chose ceramic tiles in a matte finish to downplay the material and focus on the colors: white tiles with a black border.

This design adds to the floors timeless charm while simultaneously simplifying the chore of laying tile. Many tiles, including the ones we selected, come on a mesh backing so that you can lay large (or small) swathes of tile at one time. (This can make it a little more challenging for patterns, so be sure to lay out your tile in advance.) Our tiles had to be turned to make the pattern fit so that two parallel lines face one way and the other two face another.

A little unnerved by the idea of laying complicated tile, we initially hired contractors to complete the job—only to find out that they too were inexperienced with the process. (Word to the wise: Be sure your contractor understands the tile and pattern you plan to use before they show up to the job site.)  When time constraints and other demands pulled them away mid-project, we decided to take matters into our own hands.

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As we feared, this was no easy task. The small tiles chipped and cracked easily during the cutting process, and as we discovered from the hired help, laying tiles requires very careful attention to levelness and pressure. In other words, push too hard or apply too much thinset, and it bulges up between tiles. Some of the professionally laid tiles were so off kilter that we had to pry them up, scrape out the dried thinset and re-adhere the tile to the floor.

Once that was complete, we began the arduous challenge of cleaning between the tiles so that we would have space to add grout. First, we used a flathead screwdriver and hammer to chisel out the thin lines. Hours of this method proved too daunting, so my husband came up with another option: a Dremel. After some digging, we relinquished the hopes of finding our Dremel and made a trip to the nearby hardware store—a regular stop on our daily remodeling schedule.

It turns out that there’s a Dremel bit specifically for this job, and though it took us a couple tries to find the right size and proper adjustment for the guard, I was decidedly impressed with the tool’s efficiency when compared to the manual technique. That said, it would be an intensely difficult and long process. We didn’t exactly do ourselves any favors by starting in the upstairs bathroom—it was the last room completed by our hired help and so more neatly done than the three rooms they finished—but we chose it because it was the closest to being done and usable. I can’t even tell you how many hours we spent in that room, routing out tile crevices.

Fortunately, we were able to use the hard-learned lesson of the professional tiling job to our advantage. Laying the tile in the mudroom resulted in far fewer issues and much less mess, making it the quickest room, by far, to route. As the mudroom is a much-used access point in the house, we moved it up  on our routing priority list. That said, the two downstairs bathrooms were by far the worst we had to tackle and drove me to the very edge of patience. I thought I was challenged by the painting experience, but it truly didn’t hold a candle to routing around 2-inch tiles for hours on end. (Recommendation: Unless you like the sound of a dentist drill, I suggest wearing headphones while completing a task like this—it was my saving grace for this project!)

Get ready to build some buff arms, because you’re in for a workout when it comes time to grout. To get good coverage, we had to push the grout back and forth across the grout lines in different directions. (If you use square tiles, be sure to go across the lines instead of with them to ensure the grout doesn’t pull back out as you pull the float across it.)

Working in small sections, my mother-in-law pushed the grout into the cracks and stood back for me to sponge off the excess. The sponge needs to be damp but not wet—too much water will thin out and weaken your grout. Squeeze out as much water as possible, then gently pull the sponge across the tiles to remove the bulk of the excess grout. We proceeded in this manner until the whole floor was finished, then waited several hours for it set up before sponging again. A third scrubbing session after the grout was completely dried got the remaining residue so I could seal the floors. This was the easiest step yet—the deep-penetrating sealant could be spread on with a sponge mop and buffed off the tile when dry.

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