Ceramic Floor Tile Installation

DEAR MIKE: I want to replace my bedroom carpet with ceramic tile, but when I pulled up a corner of the carpet, I discovered that the floor is concrete. Is this job difficult, and how much will it cost? -- Christina L.

DEAR CHRISTINA: The most difficult part of this job, aside from the physical demands of lifting and setting tile while on your knees, is the layout of the tile. Ceramic tile starts at less than $1 per square foot and goes up from there.

The job is not overwhelming, though. When I was a kid, I remember my mother tiling our front entry. I climbed out of bed one day and saw the old lady on all fours, with a trowel in one hand and a tile in the other. She was a tiling machine.

The first thing to do is remove the carpet, the tack strip, and all the nails that hold the tack strip to the slab. Next, remove the dirt from the slab. When you remove the carpet, leave about 4 inches of extra carpet coming into the bedroom. Fold it under so no one trips on it. You'll use this as a transition to the new tile at the end of the job.

Like I said, laying out the tile is the most important part of the job. Your goal is to arrive at a starting point that doesn't leave you with thin pieces of tile around the perimeter of the room.

Snap a chalk line down the center of the room, then snap a second line to run perpendicular to the first line from the adjacent wall. Use a framing square to make sure the lines are square. Lay out the tiles with tile spacers along these lines. You'll probably have to move one or both chalk lines so you don't have slivers of tile around the room.

You'll also need a wet saw if you want professional-looking results. A cheapie costs around $100 or you can rent one for about $40 a day. If you only have a few tiles to cut, you can take them to a home center where they typically charge 50 cents per cut.

Mix up a batch of thin-set mortar, which costs about $8 a bag, but is enough to cover about 90 square feet using a trowel with one-quarter inch teeth. But don't mix more than you can use in an hour, because after that it tends to clump.

When you snapped the chalk lines, you divided the room into quadrants. Start in one quadrant and complete it before moving on to another one. It's best to start in the quadrant farthest from the door to avoid tiling yourself into a corner.

Spread the mortar using the trowel. Start in the quadrant at the intersection of the chalk lines and work your way back, holding the trowel at a slight angle to spread the mortar. Get it close to the lines, but don't cover them. I usually do several rows at a time depending upon the size of the room, head back to the wall, make any cuts with the wet saw then move on to the next row. Leave yourself enough room to make any needed cuts for the corners, then back out of the quadrant.

Set each tile into the mortar with a slight twisting motion as you press down. Keep the tile's edges aligned with the chalk lines, inserting spacers as you go. Remove the spacers after the tiles have had time to firm up and while you can still reach them without disturbing the tiles.

There will be some mortar that squeezes out between the tiles (where the grout will go). This is normal, but don't let the squeeze-out build up too much or it will rise higher than the surface of the tile, which will affect the grout. I usually keep some cotton swabs and paper towels on hand to scoop out excess mortar while it's still wet.

Once the tile is down, wait at least 24 hours before you grout. By the way, the floor will look pretty bad with just the tile down, but the grout will pull it all together.

Before I grout, I put painter's tape on the baseboards at the height of the tile. After I grout and before it has had a chance to completely harden, I slowly pull the tape off the baseboards. It leaves a crisp grout line with no smudges.

To grout, you'll need a grout float (a piece of rubber attached to a handle), bucket of water, large sponge and dry white rag. Mix the grout, then use the grout float to push it into the spaces between the tiles. Keep the face of the float at an angle and pull it diagonally across the face of the tiles filling every nook and cranny. Wring out the sponge in clean water and wipe up the excess grout.

When the sponge gets clogged with grout, dunk it in the water and wring it out.

About 15 minutes after you sponge off the grout (depending upon temperature, humidity, blah, blah), you'll notice a haze forming on the tile. Use the rag to buff it off. You should do this promptly.

Lightly mist the grout with water for three days to help it slowly cure.

You can buy a transition strip for the entry to your bedroom, or you can use that extra bit of carpet you had left from the hallway. Hammer down some tack strip, stretch the carpet over it then trim the carpet to size. 

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