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Lessons Learned in Tiling

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Tiling has always been intimidating to me. I think because I only just started to grasp how to measure for cuts around obstacles, and the idea of combining that with cutting something that might just snap in two on me has caused me to avoid tiling projects as a whole. Not to mention we just didn’t own the proper equipment for the job.

In our last remodel we updated a very dated bathroom with a tub/shower insert to a nice soaking tub with a tiled surround. I found some gorgeous tile at Lowe’s that covered a foot at a time and looked almost like a faux stacked stone or slate. It was our first lesson in backer board, waterproof sealer, mudding, cutting tile, and grouting. It went so well I assumed we were good to go for tiling nearly our entire master bath and creating a shower in this house.

Though the basic process is still the same, this time due to the floor being involved and the whole creating a shower part of it, there were some added steps. We opted to use the Schluter waterproofing system which is a series of products that all work together to create a seamless waterproofed area meant for tiling. We did love the ease of the products, they were expensive, but we felt like they made it somewhat easy for more novice level tilers to ensure they waterproofed effectively. The waterproofing segment of the process went by smoothly.

In choosing tile, I loved the look of the marble-esque style porcelain tile in the extra large format. I checked them out in stores and read about smaller to non-existent grout lines that were possible with them. And I assumed that by covering six square feet at a time, these big tiles would not only look smoother, they would also be much faster and easier to work with.

I could not have been more wrong about that last sentence.

These were the big lessons we learned about large format tile:

  • They make it hard to make adjustments for uneven walls and floors. I’ve mentioned before that our house does not have a square wall or level floor anywhere. And that little detail ended up causing us a load of difficulty for this tiling project. With smaller tiles you are able to make more micro adjustments to compensate for bumps and uneven areas of the wall. With large tiles you can’t. A bump means one side or the other is going to stand out from the wall or floor farther, with the middle basically rocking over the bump.
  • It’s hard to find equipment to cut them. In the past this size of tile has mostly been used for commercial spaces, and thus has been cut by more large scale equipment. As homeowners we had a very hard time finding something to cut them with. Even Home Depot’s largest machine was too small, and the manual cutters that could at least cut the two foot side, were low quality and ended up chipping the tile in many places. We ended up having to use a grinder for most of the cuts which didn’t result in very clean lines, and made the process a lot slower and harder.
  • They are HEAVY! Although they do cover a lot of square footage at at time, they require at least two people at all times getting them into place and often in making cuts. The boxes only have two pieces of tile in each of them and were so heavy it took two people to move them. It’s not feasible for someone to tile alone (except maybe the floor tile), and getting precise placement was difficult.
  • They may require special sized trim. Our tile was thicker than the average tile you find in big box stores. And because of that, the metal edging trim I bought was too small. I had to go in search of a less common larger size, and because the tiling was already in process, missed the opportunity to have it in place and then had to find a post tiling option to cover the raw edge in some areas.

Additional general lessons we learned:

  • Consider trim when picking tile. Trim was an afterthought to me. I knew there would be raw edges to cover on the outer edges of the tile, but I didn’t consider that in some places, like around windows and the curb and niche, you would need to place the trim when you placed the tile.
    • There is beautiful metal edging (also from Schluter), that is inserted between the tile and thin set that creates a nice clean edge with the raw tile covered. The key to this being that you need it placed before the tile is set into the mortar. You will need to make sure your metal edging is large enough to cover the thickness of your tile.
    • Make sure there are trim tiles to finish the edges of your tile and to address thresholds. We are still trying to figure out how to transition between the tile and vinyl plank flooring.
  • Use spacers that ensure level tiles. It’s hard to say if these would be able to really help if your walls are as un-square as ours, but they help pull adjacent tiles up to the same level to create a more even installation. I only discovered them after our tile was done and wished I had found them sooner. Would not do another tile project without them.

If we had to do it over again I feel certain we would have gone with smaller tiles. I think even the 12″x24″ tiles would have made a difference in ease of installation. I would have also definitely used the leveling spacers. We are very happy with how it turned out and love the tile we chose, but like any DIY project you learn many lessons in the process, and you see the flaws of your learning daily when you see the finished space. It’s all part of the fun and challenge of DIY.

I’m going to put together a budget breakdown post for this bathroom to help those of you considering a bathroom remodel. I’ll share how we saved and where we didn’t – but now know how to.

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