Tiler’s Secrets

The critical path to a flawless tile installation.

By Romerico Nieto
Winter 2002

My crew and I are on a job for two days of preparation and layout before anyone sees a piece of tile or stone in place. So I’ve learned to expect the inevitable question, “Why haven’t you started yet?” My answer? “We’re doing our most important work now, and when we finish ahead of schedule, you’ll see the payoff.” It’s all about prep work.

Before each job starts, I hit the computer and develop a critical path plan for our installation procedures, including quantity lists, and color charts. Every one of my installers gets a plan, so they can keep track of their progress as they work to complete their jobs. Sharing this kind of information is key to increasing team efficiency and output. This is a team sport. We train our crew slowly, pay them well, and recognize that they have lives outside of work. This formula works well because our turnover is low and our work is excellent.

Preparation

With installation plans in hand my five-member crew and I start to prep the job for layout and installation. We use dry string lines, plumb bobs, and 6-foot levels to determine how straight, flat, and square the walls and floors are. Since they never really are, we’ve developed a number of ways to deal with irregularities.

  • We use power planers and grinders to knock down uneven joints in subflooring. If a wall has a concave bow, we’ll skim it with thinset mortar to make it straight. For a convex bow, we pull the wallboard off and plane down the studs. On wavy concrete floors, I prefer to build up the surface with cement board and thinset to flatten it. We use self-leveling compound if necessary, but it isn’t as durable as mortar. We straighten base cabinets to set countertops properly, and set proud nail heads wherever we find them.
  • Next, we set our new substrate or backer material. On floors we use a waterproof gypsum underlayment called Fiberock, which provides some flexibility for when the house settles. In areas regularly exposed to water, such as shower walls and steam units, we use cement board. The substrate must go on flat: Humps or dips cause “lippage” which is when adjacent tiles do not meet flush – and the lip of one tile stands above the edge of its neighbor. It’s always easier to prevent lippage during prep work than fix it during installation.
  • As part of our prep phase we make sure to shim behind substrate sheets so they’re square in the corners, especially in smaller spaces (showers, saunas, bathrooms). We also build our countertop decking and set them onto the cabinets. And we fasten the Fiberock and countertop material with 1 ¼-inch long 7/16-inch crown staples; we use 1 ¼-inch screws to fasten cement board to studs.

Layout

Perfect layout means a flawless job. We’ve spent hours laying out one room to maximize the use of full tiles and avoid thin sliver-cuts on the outside. Forethought, patience, and attention to detail not only enhances quality, but also increases productivity. Here’s how we approach layout. The same techniques work for floors, walls, and countertops.

  • First, we establish lines square and parallel to the longest wall. Since rooms are often out of square, “square” is a relative term. We adjust one way or the other to layout a grid that best fits the room’s shape.
  • Because tile dimensions are nominal, we determine actual dimensions by laying a 6-foot run of tile, including spacers that represent the grout joints (as necessary) on the floor. We total its length and its intermediate lengths. For example two 12-inch tiles plus spacers equals 24 ½-inches; 3-tiles measures 36 5/8-inches, and so on up to 6 tiles. From this total dimension, we can determing how the perimeter cuts will look: wide tiles, thin tiles, or sliver cuts. If the layout shows we’ll end up with slivers, we adjust the grid and re-measure. This way we only end up with sliver cuts in the very worst cases.
  • Tiles should be laid out from the center line of the room so the tiles on the perimeters will all the same. Again the goal is to get as wide a tile on the perimeters as possible. You can start layout with one tile on either side of the center line or you can center a tile on the center line to adjust the size of your perimeter tiles.
  • Next, we re-check layout for squareness in four directions and snap our final set of red chalk lines. We spray the layout lines with clear urethane so they won’t be erased by foot traffic.

Installation

Any substrate problems should be identified and remedied by this stage, so the installers can concentrate on setting each tile perfectly flat.

Critical Path. Many tile setters literally work themselves into corners and get trapped waiting for mortar to dry. We avoid this by starting installation on the walls, then counters, then floors. We tile the field first, then do the perimeters. No matter what stage the job is in, we have room to move and work to do.

Ceramic, Terra Cotta, & Porcelain. These tiles come with eased edges and typically require a grout joint, which provides some room for error. Still, we lay these pieces flat. If I see lippage, I’ll remove the tile. Even if you can’t see lippage, you can feel it with bare feet, which lowers the quality of our work.

Stone Tiles. This is our specialty. Due to careful prep work, you couldn’t slip a paycheck between our tiled surfaces and a straight-edge.

  • We set the first piece of stone in thinset, then level it in all four directions. We cut a 1- inch by 2-inch “puck” of the same material, making sure it’s the same thickness as the tile we just set.
  • We then affix that puck to the end of a 6-foot level and run it out in four directions from the first tile. If we’ve done our prep work well, when we place the puck on the floor, the level lays flat on our first tile. From this we know that all the tiles between the puck and the first tile will be in plane with the first piece.
  • We use our 3/8-inch by 3/8-inch notched trowels to comb thinset mortar onto the floor.
  • We check each tile that goes in with the level.
  • When we’re done, you can slide the puck across the floor and it’ll slide like it’s on ice, because it won’t hit any uneven edges.

Ti7: The Ti7 takes an innovative new approach to the Titanium hammer. Dead On has come up with a way to bond a steel hammer face to a Titanium hammer body. The result is a hammer that looks and feels pretty darned good. The Ti7 has the same magnetic nail holder as the rest of the Dead On line. It’s mounted on a long black ax handle and is an impressive tool. The suggested retail price on this one is $99.00–not cheap–but right in line for a Titanium hammer.

Romarico Nieto owns Apache Stoneworks, Inc. in Denver, CO. The company specializes in high- end stone and tile work.