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How to Tile a Wall: Preparing Mortar, Grouting and Dealing with Obstacles

By Edited Jan 13, 2015 1 0
Tiling a Bathroom Wall
Credit: Opensource

Tile is a natural choice if you are looking for a wall covering that is beautiful, durable and affordable. Whether it is ceramic, glass tile, travertine or porcelain, all types can be installed  as a DIY project.

Known for its durable and ease of installation, one of the other benefits of tile is that it allows for a lot of versatility and creativity for the individual home. For example, some might alternate varying colors to form patterns on walls, create elaborate insets or a unique kitchen backsplash  and that is just the beginning. However, it is important to choose the right tile for your needs.

Tiling walls is the time to let your imagination go and have fun with your design. There are styles for every effect you desire, from subtle to more formal, so figure out what you want and how it will blend in with the rest of that area of your home before you go out and purchase large quantities. The tile design can make rooms seem larger or more intimate if that is the goal. If you want to brighten a room or make it seem more formal, there are options for that as well. The combinations are endless but it important to select the right option for each area of your home.

Selecting the Right Wall Tile

You may not have noticed, but there is a difference in the type of tile used for tiling walls and floors.

Wall tile is generally thinner and weighs less than tile used exclusively for floors because it does not have to hold up under a lot of weight and heavy traffic. Furthermore, because wall tiles lend themselves to more creative designs, there tends to be more trim and decorative options for insets, borders and finished edges for kitchen backsplashes.

You can use tile designated for floors as wall tiles, but because of its weight, it tends to slide down the wall when applying it with thinset. There are devices called battens that can help control this, however, it is probably best to use wall specific tile if it is your first time tiling a large project.

Again, look for brands with a rating by the American National Standards Institute or the Porcelain Enamel Institute if possible.

Wall Tile Ratings

Wall tile comes with a moisture rating so pay attention to this aspect if the tile is going to be in an area of heavy moisture or humidity, else mildew and mold will form or on behind the tile and the surface it is adhering.

Grade 1 – Standard grade

Grade 2 – Indicates minor glaze and size flaws

Grade 3 – Indicates major flaws, recommended only for decoration purposes

Backboard- the material used for the wall behind the tile which can be cement, fiber cement, plywood, gypsum or even plastic

Thinset – the mortar that bonds the tile to the backerboard usually mixed with a latex admix to make it easier to work with

Grout – similar to thinset and mixed with a latex admix to make it water resistant; used to fill in the gaps in between tiles

Before You Begin

Before beginning any tiling project on a wall, you will need the following supplies and tools.

  • Ceramic tile, Thinset mortar, Latex admin
    Laying Tile on a Wall
  • Wood and plastic tile spacers  and plastic spacer removers
  • Grout, grout sealant and Silicone caulk
  • Combination square, tape measure and 4’ level and clamps
  • Tile cutter and rod saw
  • Notched trowel and rubber grout float
  • Power drill with mixing attachment and tile cutting bit
  • Grout sponge and foam brush

Before you go to buy the tile, use a tile calculator online to estimate the number of boxes you will need based on the dimensions of the wall or rooms you will be tiling. Do not open the tile boxes until you need them so if you overestimated the amount, you can return them without issue.

Make a Tile Stick

For this discussion, it is assumed that you have already prepped the wall or replaced old board with new backerboard sufficient to support tile. If you are tiling in a bathroom, it is strongly recommended that you use cement board as the backing for your ceramic tile.

Start out by doing a dry run with the tiles on the floor separated by plastic spacers which will represent the thickness of the area of the grout that will be applied. Using spare piece of wood, lay it at the bottom of the layout and mark where each tile will go on the board with the spacing in between.

This stick will be used to mark your backboard on the wall to create a guide for your first few tiles you will be laying on the wall. Some people skip this step and simply go at it, but it is a valuable tool to keep you lined up in the beginning.

The first row you lay is the most important of the entire project  and if it is off just a bit, the entire wall will be out of alignment or off center.

Draw Out a Starter Line for Reference

  1. Using a 4’ level, draw a line on the wall in the middle of the floor and ceiling, and around the entire room if you are tiling everything. This is usually the case in a bathroom, so start the line there level with the top of the bathtub.
  2. If you are planning on using border tiles in a more intricate design, draw a second horizontal line with the level. If there are any fixtures that are recessed into the wall, note that also. This is typically the case in a shower stall.
  3. Draw a vertical reference line in the center of the room using the level.  Place the tile stick you created earlier at the intersection of the horizontal and vertical reference lines.  Mark the horizontal line to show the edges of the tiles and what will be the grout lines in between each.
  4. Draw a vertical line marking the outside edge of the last full tile before hitting a corner. This is the corner where you will begin the project.

Prepare the Mortar for Tiling

You are now at the point where you can prepare the mortar

Laying Tile on a Wall Part II
and actually start tiling.

Be sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions on the side of the mortar and make sure there aren’t any special requirements. Some brands have different mixing procedures.

If the mortar doesn’t already contain latex, mix it in with the mixing tool and your power drill. The latex additive serves two purposes: it gives the mortar strength and it slows down the drying tile allowing you more time to work.

Laying the First Row of Tiles

Starting in the corner and the row near the floor, spread mortar on the wall with a notched trowel. The type of notched trowel you use is important because it determines how much mortar is spread and how deep or wide are the grooves in the mortar. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendation. Only spread enough mortar on an area for one or two tiles initially.

Place a tile on the wall at the intersection of one of your vertical and horizontal reference lines. Press firmly in place and wiggle it a little. There should be an area below this first tile that is not large enough for a full tile below it. Measure that distance to the floor, then subtract the width of the grout lines from this measurement. This will be the length that you will cut the bottom row of tile.

Place a full tile on a tile cutter, then cut it using the measurement. Cut enough tiles at this

Laying Tile on a Wall Part II
length to get you across the entire wall at this time.

Take the smaller tile you just cut and backbutter it with mortar, then press it firmly against the wall below the first tile, using plastic spacers in between each.

Finally, to get out of this corner, you may have a small sliver of wall still left untiled. Place one of the smaller pieces you cut earlier into the corner and measure the gap, then cut to that length allowing for grout lines. Back butter that small sliver and press into place using plastic spacers where appropriate.

Continue setting tiles along the reference line for the first row, then lay the bottom more narrow row across the wall just as you did in step 4.

Dealing With Obstacles in the Walls

Eventually you will come to something jutting out of the wall that must be dealt with, particular

Laying Tile on a Wall Part II
pipe fixtures in a bathroom. For this, you will need to either drill a hole in a full piece of tile to fit the pipe through, or if the cut needs to be at the edge of a tile (this depends on your layout), use a rod saw or a keyhole saw to cut out a round portion of the tile.

When cutting tile with a saw or a drill, be sure to clamp it down tightly to a solid surface like a plywood work table. One cut to the right size, simply lay it on the wall and press into the mortar.

Again, normally this is reserved for tiling bathroom, but you will also have to deal with this when tiling around outlet boxes and switches.

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Inserting Borders

If you created a design for a border midway up the wall, you should have marked their location early on using the tile stick. Once you reach that point, the process is the same as with normal tiles.

Follow your layout reference line and use the appropriate spacers. Once you have the border in place, continue up the wall with the regular ceramic tiles.

Grouting Ceramic Tile

Laying Tile on a Wall Part II
Credit: Opensource

Once the tile has been set for the wall, remove the plastic spacers and allow to dry overnight. After the wall is dry, mix enough grout and latex admix to fill all of the joints and gaps in the tile. Grouting is not that difficult, but it can be a little more challenging when doing walls instead of floors simply because you will be working high up at times, and the grout may fall to the floor if you try to float too much at one time.

  1. Work in sections no bigger than 3 square feet at a time.
  2. Apply grout with a grout float using sweeping motions with the float held at a 45 degree angle to make sure you push the grout within the gaps.
  3. Do not grout any gaps along the floor, in corners or along the base of a tub.
  4. Let the grout set following the recommendations of the manufacturer then wipe the joints with a damp sponge to remove the excess grout.
  5. Rinse the sponge often using clean water each time.
  6. Wait 2 hours then sponge away any remaining grout from the tile.
  7. The next day, apply a coating of silicone to the grout lines using an applicator or foam brush to help protect the color of the grout, as well as prevent mildew.
  8. Finally, apply silicone caulk to all room corners, and floor joints. If you tile upward from a bathtub, apply a bead of caulk at the base of the tub rim and the last tile line. The trick to caulking if run a line with the caulk gun, then wet your index finger and run it along the caulk to smooth it out.
  9. Once the caulk is dry, buff out the rest of the tiles with a dry cloth.
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Final Thoughts

Tile Terms
Credit: Opensource

Whether you choose natural stone, porcelain, ceramic or glass, tile is a versatile and durable option for your home that allows maximum creativity and elegance.

Be sure to choose the right option for the kitchen or bathroom, and pay attention to manufacture’s ratings and recommendations during installation. Some products have very specific instructions set forth by a particular manufacture and you must follow them if you want your work to adhere properly.

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