Things I have learned about setting tiles

For some time now my shower faucet has been leaky. I have tried to fix it a couple times, but it seems the problem requires replacing the whole housing instead of just the handle part. Meanwhile, a little while ago somebody slipped in my bathtub and tried to steady themself by bracing their hand against the soap holder. It snapped off, leaving a hole in the tiles and a long crack across the rest of the wall. The tiles in the bathtub were put up by a previous owner, they are plain white and rather boring. So my wife and I thought this would be a great opportunity to upgrade our bath with a new set of tiles and at the same time get the plumbing to the shower replaced. We contacted a contractor with whom we have worked in the past, got a bid, and ordered some tiles. We waited a few weeks for when the contractor said he would have time for us, and on the day he was scheduled to start working we waited for him to show up. And then we waited. And waited, all day. No contractor, no call, no text message, nothing. And nothing the next day. Or the whole next week. How do you agree to do a job and then not even answer your phone anymore? Maybe he died, I have no idea.

Meanwhile, we had taped some plastic over the hole in the wall to try to keep water out and the faucet seemed to be leaking more than ever, more of a flow now rather than a drip, and the hot water steaming up the house was fighting with the air conditioning so our bills were doubled from the month before. We gave up on the first guy and contacted a new contractor.1 This guy actually showed up a couple weeks later. He ripped out the wall around the tub and found out the insulation behind it had become moldy around where the hole in the tile was, and so he replaced the insulation and put up new wall boards. That doesn't seem like so much, tear out a wall and insulation and replace the wall, right? Well, this had taken him a week and a half. He showed up late every day he was working, he was doing this as a side job so he could only work every other day or so, and when he was at our house he spent more time outside smoking or talking on his phone than actually working. And one of the two major problems we wanted to fix in the first place, changing out the plumbing, he finally admitted he didn't know how to do so we had to get a different guy to come in and do that for him. And he never cleaned anything up, the whole house was a mess. So at about 10:30 on a day he was supposed to be there before 9 we finally called and told him to come get his tools and stop work.

That left us with a bathroom that still needed tiles, so I got to learn how to put up tiles. I watched a few videos online, it didn't seem like it would be so hard. Now that I am done putting up the tiles, here are some things I learned:

About the mortar: it is important to get the mortar the right consistency, it should be a thick paste; it should be just thick enough that if you scoop some on a trowel and hold it vertical the mortar does not flow off. If you have too much water it will be too runny and will just drip everywhere and make a mess and not stick to the wall. If you don't have enough water you will get clumps and it just won't spread evenly or stick to the wall. Sticking to the wall is important, that is the whole point of the mortar. I found that it is better to mix small batches of mortar more frequently rather than having one big batch; as it sits the mortar gets thicker and harder to work with, and you end up having to throw a bunch of it away at the end of the day if you make too much.

Speaking of messes, in one of the videos they mentioned taping a sheet of plastic down to protect the tub. I didn't think that would be important, since I was going to be careful, but I am glad I did. Even if you are careful you are going to drop some globs of mortar, and you end up knocking down lots of dried bits of mortar, so it is good to have that plastic sheet to catch everything.

Measurement is important, and don't assume that whoever built the walls before you made everything square. As the old adage goes, "Measure twice, cut once. Measure once, cut twice." Measure across the bottom, measure across the top, measure both sides top and bottom. I found out my back wall was slightly wider at the top than the bottom, and because I had only measured at the bottom I ended up having to re-cut a few tiles to be slightly longer.

Speaking of measurements, I hate feet, inches, and fractional inches. I wish everything would just switch to metric. For example, you need to cut a tile to fit in a space (2 foot 5 and 3/4 inch - 2 inch - 10 and 7/16 inch - 15 and 7/8 - (4 x 3/8 inch)). Easy peasy, right?

The way the pattern was going up the wall I had a bunch of different sized pieces cut for going along the corner of the wall. I found it useful to write the sizes on the back of the tile as I cut them so that it was easy to grab the right piece as I was putting them into the pattern.

We tried two ways of cutting the tiles. These tiles are roughly 8 inches by 16 inches, roughly 20 by 40 cm. For most of the cuts I used a manual tile cutter, it has a blade that scores the tile and then you press down on a handle and it cracks the tile along the scoring. Super simple, it took about ten seconds per cut and they turned out nice and clean. The place where it did not work was if I needed to cut a very small edge off a long tile, like the top row of tiles where I needed to take off less than an inch for the length of the tile. What would happen was either the cut would only come off part of the way or the whole tile would crack in half. So for these long cuts I borrowed my brother-in-law's angle grinder and used a ceramic cutting blade. You could rent a water cooled table tile saw from the hardware store for about $50 for a few hours to do this and it would probably turn out neater; using the hand-held angle grinder the cut was a bit rougher that the other cuts. If I could start over again, I would shift the pattern up by about half a tile so that the cuts would be in the middle of the tile instead of right along the edge.

It is better to get a little more tile than you think you will need based on measurement of the wall than to try for an exact amount. It may cost a couple more dollars to get that extra tile, but if you are trying to make the tiles fit in a pattern you will end up cutting a few inches off some of them, and then you end up realizing that you are one edge tile short in the evening when the hardware store is already closed. I also (as I said above) cracked a few tiles while trying to cut them.

So on to putting up tile. You spread the mortar on the wall, spread some on the back of the tile, and put some lines of mortar on the wall using the notched side of the mortar trowel. We found this is a place where having two people working makes it go much quicker - one person can be putting mortar on the wall while the other person puts mortar on the tile. The thing to keep in mind is that the mortar dries fairly quickly, and so if you are stopping at the end of the night or to do some more cutting and you leave those lines of mortar they will dry and then you won't be able to get the next row of tiles to lie flat against the wall. So before you leave use the mortar trowel to scrape off any excess mortar and leave it smooth for when you come back to start working again. The first night when we stopped I did not do that, so the next morning I took a chisel and spent about fifteen minutes carefully scraping off the dried mortar lines to get back to a smooth surface for the next row of tiles.

  1. There is another contractor that we have hired in the past and he does really good work and we would have hired again, but he is booked out a year and a half and we wanted this done right away. []

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