There are several distinct phases when it comes to tiling a room.

You've got your tile selection process.

You've got your tile layout decisions.

You've got your tile laying.

And you've got your tile grouting.

I feel like Bubba talking shrimp with Forrest Gump. That's...that about it.

After our initial work in establishing our layout and dry fit throughout the room, we were ready to move onto the middle hump in the project, tile laying.

Dun dun duuuuuuuunnnnn!

That's definitely the soundtrack that should go along with this phase of the project, because it is equal parts intimidating, overwhelming, gut wrenching, and exhausting. At least, it's all of these things to someone who is both a relative tiling noob and a bit of a perfectionist that tortures himself if the work isn't done right.

We launched into our tiling routine with methodical gusto. Having dry fit the whole room with the one foot square sheets of tile, carefully labeled with row and order written on painter's tape, we'd need to stage our room for final layout. We did this by stacking all of the sheets for a given row along the wall opposite from where we'd begin working.

This process allowed us the empty room we'd need on the left and a stacked room full of tile on the right. The main reason for this was due to the way we were going to begin tiling from the center of the room and work our way both across and around the room in a clockwise fashion.

I know this sounds a little unconventional, but there's a method to our madness. Long ago during my college summer construction work days, a professional tile setter named Randy that we all called Pookie or Pookie Pro due to the pookie he was always slinging (that's what the tile pros sometimes call thinset), gave me some sage advice. (Some guys also called him Gus, but I have no idea why, it wasn't his name.)

Pookie said... 

"Now ya' see here, when yur tilin in a room that's got walls, and there's a shower curb in the room...say a bathroom if you will...you've gotta use that shower line as yur guide for the room, otherwise it will look like crap. Don't pay no mind to the doorway, because once you walk through it, yur already probably standing in the room. And once yur standing in a bathroom, you'll notice if it's filled with crap!" 

Brilliant, I know. Pookie was a poet of sorts, and obviously very meta.

In his roundabout way he was saying that the shower curb wall in the center of the bathroom becomes your focal point, and your tile should be square to this focal point. Many people tend to focus on the door threshold to the room, and they try to get that square. But if making the door threshold square will throw your focal point out of whack, all you'll notice once you walk past the threshold is how the tile throughout the room looks crooked. Makes sense to me.

So Pookie is to blame for our tiling beginning in the center of our bathroom, rather than along the back wall and moving forward. There are obviously ways we could have gone from back to front, but given that we had a consistent and straight line to work from already, it was as good of a start as any other spot in the room.

We started as we always start laying out tile, by mixing up some thinset. Once again I went on the looser/wetter side of the suggested mix. I feel like the wetter mix gives a bit more control over getting the one by one foot sheets of tile a little flatter. If I were laying a four inch by four inch tile or larger, or applying the tile to a wall, I'd likely mix it a bit "tighter," but not in this case.

We actually had a third helper during this tile laying process. Our good friend Colin was flying solo that weekend, with his wife and son out of town. With "nothing better to do," (though we know he has plenty better to do) we were lucky enough to have Colin lend an extra set of hands and some much needed encouragement.

Laying the tiles is pretty much a methodical process. Spread the thinset then scrape the thinset with a 1/4" V-notch trowel...

...and then place each sheet of tile.

Though it's a methodical process, the placement of the tile is one of those instances of DIY home improvement that effectively makes my blood boil. It can be one of the most trying and endlessly frustrating endeavors ever experienced. Trying to wrestle the tiles to ensure appropriate spacing, correct alignment, proper height from sheet to sheet, sufficient thinset coverage, and individually correctly orient tiles within the sheet is sometimes a fool's errand. There's just so much to pay attention to that my ears turn bright red and I turn into a real nut. Wendy calls it my "baboon ear," as it resembles the general color of a baboon's ass. 

It's the Hulk of my extremities, a rare creature not often photographed in the wild, but here's an example from a few years ago. Be warned, it's an unsightly beast, and not meant for the faint of heart.

I know what you're thinking, but that is 100% the original and untouched photo. No photoshopping or even moderate retouching or color enhancement involved. That's the "baboon ear" in its natural habitat.

However, no matter how much you try with these sheets of tile, and no matter how much baboon ear you develop, it's essentially impossible to get everything perfect. And close up inspection will literally drive you INSANE!!!

Rather than chasing perfection, we're embracing the concept of "consistent inconsistency."

Some tiles will not be spaced the same, some will not be placed in the correct spots, and others will have gaps that are larger or smaller than the surrounding. But the thing we need to keep reminding ourselves is that this is supposed to look like someone placed these thousands of little tiles by hand, and not by machine.

The idea that these tiles would be placed by hand give credit to the idea that the spacing would be a little off. The idea that the tiles could be cut by hand give credit to the idea that the shapes might be just a little bit off. As long as we can make the inconsistencies of the tiles look truly consistent throughout the field, rather than along the lines in the sheets throughout the room, we feel like the end result is something more fitting with our older home. It's our home that the end result will simply look like it belongs.

We ended up laying about 95% of the tile over the span of two days separated by several days of non-action between. As you can see from this photo, we placed painters tape in strips on the edge of the tiles that had fully cured and could be stepped on. Cured tiles to the left, wet pookie to the right. This is a must when you're aimlessly wandering around your bathroom and looking for a solid place to step that won't also ruin your work.

Or at least so says the crazy guy in rolled up ripped pants with one bare foot covered in thinset, one socked foot, and a dragon t-shirt on that seems to be wielding a grout/thinset saw of some sort in a rather threatening manner.

Our tiling adventure has spanned several days, but we're not quite done. We still have a few sheets to cut and place, but the lion's share is already in. In total, reaching the 95% mark on laying the sheets took a pair of six hour days of effort and ended with lots of tile boxes in the recycle bin.

But the thing that's most important when laying small format mosaic is the process of looking back over the tile after it's had a chance to cure a bit. Rather than leaving well enough alone and moving onto grouting, you have a great chance to assess any problems throughout your install and correct them proactively. The caveat, it just adds a couple of days to your projects.

Before the tile has fully cured on the thinset, look over the install for any really major problems. Things like tight spacing, apparent lines, crooked tiles, or even damaged tiles. Using any number of tools, like a grout saw, screw driver, putty knife, or pry bar, pop up any tiles that particularly offend you.

If the tile is on a sheet, use a utility knife to score the mat around the tiles and pop them right up. Once they're free from the floor, just scrape away the thinset to leave a clean base. Then all you need to do is back butter the replacement tile (wipe a little thinset right on the back of the tile), and then pop it into the open area.

This is a great way to correct major issues (or even minor issues that might bother you) before you get to that rather permanent step of grouting.

We'll give you another update on our process in what we hope is a rather short time. But these are some of our best tips for laying mosaic tile in a very effective manner. If you have any great tips we'd love if you share them here. Because, honestly, nothing beats a great tiling tip that you can pass along, much like Randy/Pookie/Pookie Pro/Gus did for me many years ago.

Comments 11

Comments

Margie
7/11/2014 at 2:37 PM

I bet Pookie Pro would be very pleased to know that you remembered his sage advice. Your "room with walls" looks great!

Alex
7/15/2014

I would hope Pookie would enjoy this fact. I was able to interact with so many interesting "old pro" characters during those summers, and it was really a great experience.

Laura C
7/11/2014 at 2:46 PM

The tile looks great. Those pants, on the other hand... I seem to remember during your scaffolding/siding adventure, reference to the fact that your DIY wardrobe needed an upgrade. What happened? ;)

Alex
7/15/2014

Yes, yes, yes! Wendy told me "this is the last night for those pants, you know?" I bought them in 2000 (for work, no less), and this commemorated their last hurrah!

Mia
7/11/2014 at 5:34 PM

Got a picture of the shower curb and start point? And every tile box on the curb, is a tile box out of the basement.

Alex
7/15/2014

So true on the box, though I'm rather certain I immediately replaced it with a bucket or something. That place is a disaster. The shower curb is right in the middle of the room, to the left of the photo with the thinset, but it's not wrapped with marble yet. We'll have some good photos of that soon...hopefully.

Tanja
7/12/2014 at 9:27 AM

Wow, that ear is literally glowing! Alt wink
I'm so in love with these tiles!

Alex
7/15/2014

I should use my ear color to inspire some very loud wall colors in a room that is intended to make you uncomfortable.

JC
7/12/2014 at 2:27 PM

Lookin' good so far. I assume you laid all the field tiles first, and you'll go back to do all the edges after? If so, that's what I did with my tiles, and I found it made things quite nice and easy.

Grouting should go quite smoothly, but will require a lot of water changes and sponge-cleaning, haha.

Alex
7/15/2014

Yep, field first, then all of the tricky cuts and edges. Still working on those last steps of adjusting the tiles with problems, but we're getting close.

I do hope the grouting goes well, I get so flustered by the whole process, even though it's not horrible. We have a good grouting bucket to make the water changes and sponge wiping go much easier, but it's always a bit of a pain.

Andy
8/26/2014 at 4:50 PM

Nice tile! Not so nice ear..Thanks for posting all this info. You guys have great taste and do fabulous work. I wish I could hire you to come fix my old money pit.

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