Working With Ceramic Tile: An Overview of the Tools and Materials Needed to Install Tiles

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Ceramic tile is something of a wonder material: It’s durable, cheap (you can often find discounted tiles for less than a $1 a square foot), versatile (you an tile everything from kitchen and bathroom floors to backsplashes and shower stalls), and available in an almost infinite range of sizes, colors, and patterns. And, best of all, they’re surprisingly easy for a relatively competent DIYer to install themselves. Here’s a rundown of the materials you need to install ceramic tiles.

The big box stores make it easy for affordable, one-stop tile shopping, but for more variety of patterns and colours you might also want to visit a specialty tile shop.

Tiles are sold individually in sizes up to one-foot square or as smaller mosaic pieces, usually mounted on perforated backing sheets. You may also need corner trim pieces with curved edges to follow the contours of a kitchen counter, for example.

The other materials needed are adhesive, grout, and sealer. To make life easier you’ll want to pick up a bag of plastic tile spacers. These X-shaped pieces come in a variety of thicknesses, depending on how wide you want your grout lines.

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There are a number of different options for cutting tile. Tile “nippers,” which look like a pair of pliers with pincers on the end, are handy for trimming the edge off a tile that’s a shade too long and for shaping tiles to fit around irregular protrusions (like a pipe).

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You could also do the job with a grinder or cut-off tool (like a Dremel), or use a carbide hole saw to cut circles in tile.

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For straight cuts, a manual, snap cutter works just like it sounds. You first score the tile with the cutting wheel and then apply pressure with a levered handle to snap the tile along your score line.

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The alternative is to buy or rent a wet saw, so named because a pan of water lubricates and cools the spinning blade. A wet saw enables you to quickly remove any width or shape of material from a tile you need. (Be sure to wear eye protection no matter which method you use to cut tile.)

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You’ll also need a serrated trowel to apply the tile adhesive with and a grout float to squeeze the grout into the gaps between tiles.

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Finally, a stable, long-lasting tile installation requires a solid foundation, particularly if you’re applying floor tiles so the surface you’re applying the tiles to may need to be leveled and/or reinforced with a plywood or cement backer board before you begin.

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