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Ceramic Tile is one of the oldest manmade floorcoverings there is, and has been covering the floors of palaces and more mundane buildings for thousands of years. Due to its durability, ceramic tile will also be one of our civilization's most intact artifacts, should some invading alien race or future civilization start digging around our former settlements millions of years from now. The first ceramic tiles were probably made with the same methods and from from the same clay as pottery used to carry and store food and liquids. Though the process is much more refined today, ceramic tiles are still made with the same basic processes as they were thousands of years ago. This includes:

Molding wet clay into the desired shape
Allowing excess moisture to evaporate. At this stage, the pottery or tiles are known as greenware.
Subjecting the green tiles to high temperatures in a kiln.
After cooling, the tiles may be glazed with a decorative or protective coating, and fired again to fuse the glaze.

Installing a ceramic tile floor

For better or for worse, I have decided to install ceramic tile in both of the bathrooms in my new house. I like the look and durability of ceramic tile, and the modular home manufacturer did not offer a vinyl floor tile I liked for the bathrooms. Installing a ceramic tile floor is a bit more involved than laying down a new sheet of linoleum, but is not exactly rocket science either. It will also tie up the affected room for several days as well. Ceramic tile is less forgiving of a poor or spongy floor or subfloor than vinyl or linoleum, so more work is involved preparing the floor for tile. With a bit of patience, the average person can do a good job, but it is more work than it first appears. Here is what you will need:


Many of the tools you will need are standard carpenters/homeowners tools, such as a hammer, tape measure, pencil and paper, ruler, utility knife, cordless drill, as well as a suitable work surface. If you are pretty well fixed for standard carpenter's tools, you have a pretty good start. Most of the specialty tools are fairly inexpensive, except for the saw, and can be had at any decent Home Depot or Lowes. Here are some tools that you will need for tile work that you may have to buy, rent, or borrow.

Tile Saw: This is for cutting large pieces of ceramic tile.
Snap Cutter: Scores and breaks in a straight line a piece of tile. Not really needed if you have a tile saw.
Nippers: A pliers like tool for cutting small tiles
Trowels: You will need one or more notched trowels to spread thinset mortar and a grout float.
Sponges: To clean excess grout from the tile faces.
Drywall Square: Useful for marking out and cutting underlayment board.


In addition to the tile itself, you will also need to acquire the following supplies to complete the tile job:

Thinset Mortar: Thinset Mortar is a cement based product used to bond the underlayment board to the subfloor, and also the tile to the underlayment board. You will probably need 100 pounds or more for the average 30 square foot bathroom. It is also sold in premixed containers as well.

Underlayment Board: Underlayment board provides a smooth stable surface for the tile to adhere to. Because ceramic tile is more brittle than linoleum or vinyl, it is less forgiving of spongy or unstable subflooring or the current floor. Most underlayment board for this purpose is a cement and wood fiber composite going under the trade names of Wonderboard or Hardibacker, and will cost 60 to 75 cents a square foot. If going over a stable subfloor or intact and stable linoleum base, 1/4" underlayment will do. If there is any question about the floor's stability, 1/2" is recommmended. Ironically, the 1/2" stuff is not much more expensive than 1/4", but is harder to move and to cut. It can be cut with a masonry blade on a saw, or scored with a knife and snapped.

Grout: Grout is a cement or plaster-like product that is used to seal the spaces between the tiles. It is mixed with water and troweled on with a grout float, a special trowel with a surface like a hard sponge. Grouting is done only after the thinset mortar has had a chance to set up.

Grout Sealer: Grout Sealer is a clear liquid that keeps moisture from seeping into the grout. It is not absolutely necessary, but it does help the grout lines stay cleaner.

The Work:

The descriptions of the various tools and supplies you will need have probably given you an idea about what is involved, so I will keep the process steps brief.

Step One: Prepare the old floor or subfloor The old floor should be stable and smooth, without any chunks of missing wood or linoleum. This step is vital to do a good job that will last for decades, rather than months or a few years. Linoleum that is crumbling should be removed completely. This can be a ball-buster of a job in a large room, so allow plenty of time and wear gloves when scraping up the old tile. If you are real lucky and building on a concrete slab, you can dispense with the underlayment altogether. It is a good idea to remove fixtures such as a toilet or pedestal sink before applying the underlayment. It may also be necessary to raise the toilet flange as well when you are done.

The next step is to dry-fit the underlayment boards. As I indicated above, the best way to cut the underlayment board is with a masonry blade on a circular saw, but the blades are quite expensive. Satisfactory results can be had by scoring the board on both sides with a utility knife, and snapping off the desired piece. Measure carefully, it is a pain to redo it.

Attaching the Underlayment: After dry fitting your underlayment, apply your thinset mortar with a 1/4" notched trowel, and lay down the underlayment boards. In the old days you would nail your underlayment to the subfloor, but today there are special screws available to screw down the boards to the subfloor. Your cordless drill is your friend here. After the underlayment is laid down and fastened to the subfloor, get out and forbid anyone from using the affected room for at least a day, preferably two.

Laying Tile: It is a good idea to dry fit the tiles as well, and precut tiles which will have to be cut. With a typical rectangular room, with some protrusions, find the longest, straightest wall in the room, and mark a line one tile width from this wall. This will be your starting course. Mix up a batch of thinset if you don't get the premixed kind, and spread it over an area you can easily reach with the proper notched trowel. Starting with the starting course in a corner, work your way out towards the door. If you have taken the time to dry fit and precut your tiles, this step should go quickly and smoothly. Once you are done, let the tile set for at least a day before grouting.

Grouting: Grouting is applying a cement or plaster based filler between the tiles. It can get a little messy, so have plenty of sponges, and a couple of buckets of water at hand when you start. Start by mixing the grout to the proper consistency, and apply it to the tile using your grout float, working it in to all the spaces between the tiles. As you finish a section, remove the excess grout from the surface of the tile with a damp sponge, rinsing it frequently. Once you are done, again forbid anyone from using the affected room for at least overnight, two days before taking a shower or washing the floor. A few days later you can apply grout sealer if you wish. If you have done the job well, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that the tile will probably outlast you.