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Ceramic Tile Installation

A few things to know before hiring a contractor or buying ceramic tile from a retail outlet.

The purpose of this section is to explain (in general), the phases of the installation process for both wall and floor ceramic tiles. This is so you (purchaser of tile and / or installation) may have an understanding of the schedules and disruptions caused by the installation, and through awareness of these procedures ..... in his/her own way, prepare for the installation.

Ceramic Wall Tile, depending on the nature of the installation, may take only 1 or 2 days to complete. Counter tops, backsplashes, tub surrounds and other basic applications may also be installed and grouted in 1 or 2 days. Any additional preparation requitred by your tile contractor such as membranes, backerboards and/or mudding the walls may tack on extra days.
Of course when installing wall tile on areas such as showers or steamrooms, several days are required because of their special requirements.

Ceramic Tile and Stone installations by Harry Dunbar     Ceramic Tile and Stone installations by Harry Dunbar

    First Things First ...
  • Check condition and strength of subfloor
  • Check size, spacing and span of joists
  • Reinforce joists and subfloor if required
  • Decide on a proper membrane
  • Choose your tile
Considerations to take are related tasks such as; electrical fixtures, plumbing fixtures, shower enclosure door sizes, or anything that sets upon or within the structure being covered with tile. It is not always the responsibility of the tilesetter to implement alterations to accommodate for such things and should always be discussed in depth before the undertaking. When dealing through a retail outlet, the original salesperson is the first person to assume responsibility and all details should be covered at that time.

CAUTION: Don't put complete faith in your salesperson to fully understand the complexities of a ceramic or stone tile installation.

    So Ask Questions
  • Is my existing floor OK for tile? (important)
  • If not ... what changes must be made and why?
  • Will the tilesetter take away the waste?
  • Will they move and replace appliances?
  • Will dust barriers be used?
  • What does the warranty cover?

So get some kind of contract, agreement, quotation, or something scribbled on a napkin to make sure everyone knows what's to be done.

Note: Each product used in a ceramic tile or stone installation has its own separate warranty and must be used as recommended for it to be honored. Membranes especially have several year warranties .... so make sure NOT to settle for a basic 1 year warranty most retail stores seem to feel is efficient.

Installing ceramic tile in a shower is time consuming because of the preparation required to ensure the entire system is water-tight and properly ventilated. If a shower is constructed the right way, it should take approximately 4 or 5 days for completion.
Visit my Shower Gallery to learn about mortar beds, waterproofing, backerboards, drains, liners and everything required to build the ultimate shower.

Ceramic Floor Tile is usually a minimum 3 day installation. It may take longer ... but it depends on the size of job as well as the amount of detail work. The types of mortars and the application of sealer (for stone tile) all determine the time required. Discuss this in detail with your tilesetter.
If your contractor / tilesetter doesn't physically check your floor joists and subfloor to determine excessive deflection, consider THIS to be a RED FLAG. The onus is on the CONTRACTOR to do the job right .... but the onus is on YOU to find a suitable contractor.

  • Installation of Substrate More details
    • Plywood
    • Ditra
    • Cementboard
    • Mud
  • Setting of Tiles
  • Grouting
Use the information provided throughout this website and forum to arm yourself with an understanding and comprehensive knowledge about your particular project. THEN ... ask your tilesetter about the system he recommends. Ask him about the products he would like to use ... and why.
"I've been doing it this way for 25 years."
... Is NOT an answer.
Work by Harry Dunbar
This travertine job over Ditra took me 5 days.
- 1 day for Ditra installation
- 1 day for tile installation
- 1 day for wash
- 1 day for sealer
- 1 day for grout

Understand that although it may only take 3 hours to grout or seal ... it's still a day of work for your tilesetter.

Preparation of the Substrate is very important as is the understanding of each method's characteristics regarding the application and longevity.
The thing to remember is that ceramic tile requires a solid foundation on which to bond, so use the system best able to accomplish that.
Take time to look for information regarding these various procedures at our Discussion Forum , and please don't hesitate to ask questions regarding your project.

Setting of ceramic tile is the most time consuming part of the task, and for larger jobs you'll need to coordinate times with your tilesetter that aren't too conflicting. The installer will need a work station outside your home for the water-saw (if required) and grinders, a water source and clear path from the entrance to the work area. When the ceramic tile is laid, it is very important to stay off them until they set up (at least over night). Any movement of the tiles will affect the plastic bond between tile and mortar and cause you to have loose tiles and cracked grout. 48 hours or more is ideal ... but not always realistic.

Grouting is the last phase of the installation. The application of the grout is the process which brings it all together by blending the lines of the tiles, edges of the room and fixtures into what you've waited so long for. So what that you've eaten pizza for 3 days .... the heartburn was worth it! After the sponge cleanup by the installer, there will be a fine dust residue (haze) left on your tiles. The next day after the grout is dry, you may wipe the tiles with warm water and white vinegar (1:1 ratio) for a final cleanup. Rinse with clean water.
It is not necessary to seal your grout, but if you decide to take the extra precaution ... PLEASE check with the installer to find out the manufacturer of the grout and their recommendations. Normally 10 to 14 days is required for the grout to cure.

Finally ... do not replace your appliances upon your ceramic tile floor until the next 24 hours or recommended time from your installer. Also, ask your installer the best way to move them across your new floor.
Although there are 3 phases to most ceramic tile installations, there is also the preparation by the homeowner. Disconnecting and moving appliances is important and if it can be done by the buyer, it cuts down the cost of the installation as well as save on time. If there is existing flooring to be removed, make sure that it has been discussed upon purchase and again .... never assume it is the installer's responsibility.
When dealing with either a retail outlet, or directly with a contractor, you should be provided with a complete list of tasks and materials detailed into a contract.
Everything should be explained and detailed from start to finish.
Definitions of Substrate:

The following methods for securing floor areas in preparation for a ceramic tile installation are the approved methods used in North America today. Some procedures take preference over others based on physical examinations of each individual job (strengths and weaknesses of the joists, subfloor and height restrictions), but the purpose here is to explain each method without bias.
If you would like to learn more in preparation for your own tile job ..... refer to the Discussion Forum. You'll receive lots of information and suggestions regarding every aspect of the installation as direct answers to your specific questions..

Douglas Fir exterior-grade plywood Select Tight-faced, meeting CSA-0121 minimum thickness of 5/8" should be used to strengthen the existing surface in preparation for a ceramic tile installation. The procedure can involve removing the existing floor (ie:1/4 inch underlayment and cushion vinyl or VCT), exposing the original 5/8" exterior grade plywood or 3/4" Oriented Strand Board (OSB) and starting fresh. Each installer has his own opinions of what should be done for a guaranteed installation as well as considerations regarding height differences in the floor surfaces. The sheets of plywood are secured with screws and/or staples. Adhesives may or may not be used between the plywood and existing surface .... this again depends on the installer and circumstances. Remember ... although the wood adds structural strength to your floor, it isn't the best surface to bond ceramic tile to. All wood products expand and contract applying extreme stresses upon the ceramic tile or stone installation. Using a uncoupled membrane gives you a rated floor ready for ceramic tile or stone. You need to create an entire system ... not just an installation.
Also, additional layers of plywood MUST be installed a certain way. Visit the Discussion Forum to find out all the complete details.

Cementboard (CBU)
Sheets of aggregated Portland cement boards with glass-fibre mesh embedded into their construction. This may change in various degrees depending upon the manufacturer.
The sheets should be set into the proper mortar and then nailed or screwed into the existing floor. The seams should then be taped and filled with thinset mortar as well. Always refer to manufacturer's recommendations for installation procedures.

Mud (Mortar Bed)
The mortar is prepared from a mixture of portland cement and sand, generally in proportions by volume of one part cement, and 5 parts sand. This in turn is poured over a "cleavage" or separation membrane of asphalt sheathing paper, felt, or polyethylene film separating the mortar bed from the existing floor. Metal lath is used to enforce the mortar bed. A mortar bed when finished gives a seamless and very strong foundation for your tiles. Unfortunately ..... the 1 inch or more thickness of your mortar bed combined with the 1/4 inch bond coat and 3/8 inch of ceramic tile gives you quite a raise in your completed floor surface, so again .... examine all your options.

Ditra (Schl�ter)
Ditra is a product which compensates for the expansion and contraction of subfloors by allowing independent movement between the tiles and substrate through its unique uncoupling system. Ditra can be used over any surface. There are many advantages to this product where various restrictions limit your options.

For more information on Ditra, visit their Website

Scratchcoat & Wire Mesh
This method is meant only for walls. Used on walls it creates a superior system to support a ceramic tile or stone installation.
When used for installing floor tile, this stuff is a joke! If anyone has told you this is a preferred or recommended method for a ceramic tile or stone flooring installation .... I advise you to question them as to what authority they base their information on.
It has IN FACT, failed every test given to it by both the Terrazzo Tile and Marble Association of Canada (TTMAC) and the Tile Council of America (TCA).
Wire mesh is stapled to your existing subfloor and unmodified mortar is then spread into the lath creating a very thin layer to act as a base for your tile or stone.
It is the most inexpensive system to install ... but it will end up costing the most in the long run through repairs and replacement. I've never heard of this system receiving more than a 1 year warranty in North America.

In the words of the Terrazzo Tile and Marble Association of Canada (TTMAC):

"This installation failed to meet the lowest level of performance criterion defined by ASTM C627 for residential applications."

More on the Scratchcoat System

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