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8 Tips for Installing Top Notch Tile

It’s awesome, but it is equally unforgiving. You can’t sand it, caulk it or re-nail it.

It’s a lot of work, too. Don’t be fooled by TV shows that make it look so easy a baby could install it. From what I’ve seen, some shows omit about 93,000 per cent of the home improvement know-how that matters.

For tile magic, pay a pro to design and install it. Or, go DIY style, and get your game-face on.

Here are ingredients to a tile job you’ll love. Note: When our client saw this tile installed, she cried.

Cried! (The good kind of cry).


Theresa’s eye for colour, balance, texture and space never fails to amaze me.

For this job, she chose TileBar’s succulent wood-themed large format Cerpa Arena plank tile to anchor a look she’s calling basement sophisticate. In the world of tile, it is sensational for a large, but intimate space. The Cerpa’s length unifies the spaces. Its colour shift creates cohesion.

Conversely, a 12x12 square tile, which is better suited for a kitchen, would have functioned but may have pixilated the room.

Thoughtful design like Theresa’s matters. It’s far from the only thing, but it matters a great deal.


A crappy install ruins the design.

In my search for the best products and procedures, my job as co-host of the MyFixitUpLife show brought me to Las Vegas and the International Builders’ Show where I met the guys from Custom Building Products. Those guys know tile and they set me up with the right stuff to make this job a success.

Level up

In most remodeling applications, we use a floor leveler to flatten the floor, not make it level.

If your floor has deep pocks or bellies (some people call them ‘bird baths’) more than a 1/4-inch, mix up some floor leveler and pour it on.

The key is getting the right viscosity: A little more viscous than water—but not much. It needs to be fluid enough to flow so gravity can draw it into a low spot. Strike off edges with a flat trowel.


Tile doesn’t move. Things around it do.

As the best insurance policy ever, I used a waterproof crack isolation membrane called RedGard. Kind of like using rosin paper under a wood floor, RedGard is what’s called a ‘bond-break.’ If the slab moves, the RedGard flexes under the tile. It’s also waterproof and helps keep moisture and humidity from groundwater in check. It’s ideal for bathroom and wet service renovations too.

It’s preposterously easy to apply. Roll on with a paint roller and let dry.


Here is the last thing you want on your finished tile job: A lily-livered sliver-cut on your last row. It’s one of those things that doesn’t sound important, until you see it. Then, you can’t un-see it.

With a few exceptions, the first row of tiles should be the same width as the last row—no matter what the size of the room is.

The bigger the room, the harder this is. And the more criteria there are, like notches around room features. The staircase in this reno is one such example. I chose to avoid the risk of sliver cuts or—worse, tapered sliver cuts—at the stairs in this room because it is the most frequently travelled and seen part of the space.

I used DeWalt’s uber visible green laser to cast a line. It was ridiculously fast to set it up where I wanted my first course of tile, then measure the rest of the room, make small adjustments, then snap my final layout line in chalk. Watch this VIDEO.

Mix it Up

Thinset should be peanut butter-y-ish.

When you comb it with a notched trowel, it should flow but still stand up.

The reason is; the tile is pressed into the standing seam of the thinset. As the mud squishes behind the tile, that’s what adheres the tile to the floor. Mix it too watery, you risk having to replace a tile in a finished job. Evet

Also, a paste-like consistency enables you to ‘back-butter’ a tile. Back-buttering is adding thinset to the back of the tile and the floor to make up for a tile that is setting too low compared it its neighbours.

These are the details you’ll never see on TV that ostensibly gives you information.

Tools: Kneepads, drills, mixers, trowels

Kneepads. They’re ugly, mostly uncomfortable and hot. They’re also 312 per cent better than kneeling on the floor all day.

Drill. With a 0-450 rpm in low gear, my cordless drill turns at just about the right speed to mix the mud without whipping it up.

Trowels. There is zero ‘mud’ jobs I do—tile, hydraulic cement, drywall repair—where I do not use my Hyde Tools margin trowel. Seriously, if you do DIY, just get one. The link is straight to Amazon. That’s how good this $9 tool is. They’re gold for mixing small batches of material, scooping it from the bucket, and for spreading it around on the floor.

I also use a 3/8 x 3/8-inch notched trowel and I learned on this job that it doesn’t take much for these trowels to wear down. My old notched trowel was worthless, so I had to upgrade and I saw a huge difference between new and old. Large format tiles like a large format trowel.

I also use a flat edged trowel to screed a layer over the floor before combing it out. Something I learned on a great video from Custom Building Products Facebook page: For plank tiles, comb the thinset perpendicular to the tile length.

Saw. A high-quality wet cutting tile saw is the only game in town. There’s no such thing as one that doesn’t spray water so set it up inside where it can get wet and you can clean it up without wrecking things. This DeWalt is great at containing overspray, but be ready for water no matter what.

DIY Hacks

In a large project like this, I enlisted some ingenuity to make life easier.

Things on wheels move easier. I built carts—my wife calls them carpenter’s carts—and rolled supplies whenever possible. I mainly used mine for mixing thinset. My water and tools stayed in the same place. Yet, as I moved, all it took was a nudge to wheel everything with me. Saved me hours.

Bridge. To literally keep from tiling myself into a corner, I make a bridge. On one end a carpenter’s cart (I lock the casters of course); On the other, a bag of thinset. Then, when I ran out of room, I’d simply end the day and walk across my bridge out of the room and finish the final tiles the following day.


The final step in any tile job is grout. Custom Building Product’s pre-mixed, super-stain resistant grout rocked! No-mix means I spend time grouting, not mixing grout. It went down lickety-split. I worked it in small areas because it dries quicker than mix-type grouts I’ve used. The client loves it!

One important key to grout going on well is to change the water. Often. Clean water cleans grout better. Damp—not soaking—cloths work the best.