Eye Diy

Tiles and tribulations

An amateur DIY-er's first foray into tiling

By Libbi Hood July 25th, 2012

Photo by Libbi Hood


When my husband and I bought our first house, renovating the main bath was top of the project list. Six years later, we finally got started.

As it was to be my dream bathroom, I desperately wanted to take part in the renos. We decided that tiling the walls and floors would be my job, even though I’d never tiled before. I chose white subway tile for the walls and shower, with black and white ceramic tiles in a checkerboard pattern for the floor.

I started my prep by reading all the tiling sections of our giant book of home renovation, which gave me the basic steps of tiling, and listed the tools I’d need. I spoke to the flooring specialist at my local home reno store about how to tile the outside corner in my bathroom. He showed me corner pieces that give you a finished edge, in plastic (white, beige, black) or stainless steel.

I also learned about bullnose tile. A bullnose is a rounded edge, which is great for the finished edge of wall tile, like the top of my wainscoting. I loved the finished look of bullnose tiles, so I special-ordered bullnose on the short-end of the subway tiles and used them to do the outside corner.

We picked up the tools we needed, including two kinds of thinset for dry and wet (shower) areas and the tile spacers that look like little rubber ‘plus’ signs. With my notched trowel and several other trowels for scraping, a level, a bucket of water and plenty of rags, I was ready to start.

I quickly learned that once all the prep work is done, laying tile is actually pretty easy. My husband watched the first few floor tiles go down, then left me to continue on my own. I hardly even needed the ‘cheat sheet’ that I’d taped to the window. It read:

  • Thinset
  • Notch
  • Tile
  • Spacers
  • LEVEL!

My biggest fear when tiling the floor was messing up the checkerboard pattern, which would have been an obvious and embarrassing gaffe. Luckily, I managed to get it all down properly. I laid all the full tiles, then measured, cut and laid the partial tiles around the walls the following day.

As much as I loved the rubber spacers, they didn’t save me from a few slightly inconsistent spaces between tiles. It felt like the black tiles were slightly smaller than the white tiles, but that could be an optical illusion. It’s not really noticeable now that everything is done.

Next up was the subway tile. Through research, specifically YouTube videos, we’d learned that subway tile just stacks together without spacers, making it even easier to place. I worked to the guidelines we’d drawn on the walls, and made sure to regularly check that my rows remained level.

Tiling the shower was much more difficult. The biggest difference was the thinset that is appropriate for wet spaces. It’s much thicker and quicker to dry up in the bucket. I’d also asked my husband for two shower nooks to use as shelves. Then, I’d been dazzled by the selection of glass mosaic tile at my home reno store and chosen some specifically for the nooks.

In order to avoid cutting glass tile, I purchased an extra tile of square mosaics that I cut up and placed in the spaces left by my brick-pattern full tiles. Unfortunately I ran out of the original colour and had to resort to ‘accent’ tiles in a darker shade. I also didn’t quite plan the subway tile properly in relation to the nooks, and ended-up improvising a bit. See the glass-tile ‘header’ across the top of each nook? That was a design element added to cover up the fact that the subway tile didn’t line up properly.

The bottom line is my bathroom looks fantastic regardless of tile spacing issues or slight irregularities around the shower nooks. I may not have achieved professional-level results, but the satisfaction of “doing-it-myself” was worth it.

I learned a few things along the way that might be useful for other first-time tillers.

First, buy some extra tile, over and above the amount you calculate that you need. These extras are used to replace broken or badly-cut tiles, and tiles with imperfections. This is particularly important if you can’t easily buy more of your chosen tile months later. Luckily, I bought regular store stock as I had to return to buy more subway tile twice during my project.

Second, I found that on most tile I only had to put thinset on the wall or floor, and not ‘butter’ the back of the tiles with thinset as well. You’ll find different people (and different how-to books) provide disparate advice, so I simply went with what felt right.

Finally, clean your tools immediately after you finish. Most of my tools I rinsed in a bucket of water, using rags to wipe away grout and thinset. Washing them immediately kept them in good condition. I only washed the buckets if I’d used most of the grout or thinset. If there was much leftover, I simply let it dry and sacrifice the bucket to avoid the messy clean-up.



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Jan. 17, 2013

7:26 am

You've done a beautiful job, when its about renovating our dream kitchen or bath i will definitely prefer an expert to do it. You have done it quite well without any expert but will suggest you to add some bathroom storage cabinets as well.


Aug. 1, 2012

8:45 am

I didn't like the spacers either, especaily since I used 18" square tiles. I bought 1/4 inch thick, 4' long, about 4" wide oak planks and ripped them to the space I wanted, about 12" long and the they did a great job keeping the tiles in place. GREAT looking bathroom. Just starting my own; it currently just has a toilet - I ripped everything else out. Thought one could use adhesive instead of mortar for the walls; that's what I used in my son's bathroom last year and it worked really well.

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