If you want professional-looking tile floors (regardless if you want to do it yourself or hire someone), you must read this article to find out what tiles to buy, how to avoid cracked tiles, and risk a finished tile floor that is less than professional-looking.
11 Must-See Tips for Professional Looking Tile Floors
I’m here to tell you, YES, you can lay your own floor tile and achieve professional-looking results if you learn a few tips and tricks. First, can I share a secret with you? Seven years ago I thought I had to hire a tile installer when we had our mudroom tiled. I wish I knew then what I know now because I would have kicked that installer out of my house immediately. I still have to look at some of the issues he left behind pointing to a less than professional looking tile job. (Insert Angry Face Emoji!)
But, I completely understand if you still want to hire a professional tile installer for any number of reasons:
- No time
- Don’t have the tools
- Physical disabilities (tile-setting is tough on the back and body)
- No desire to install tile
Did I miss any reasons? If I did, leave me a comment below letting me know why someone wouldn’t want to embark on a DIY tile flooring project.
Before we get to my tips, I want to give you a little education on tiles. Especially if you had problems previously and thought it was your fault the tile job didn’t look professional. Believe it or not, your issues may have been caused by cheap or poor quality tiles. Say what?!
How to Spot Poor Quality (Cheap) Tiles:
Did you know those tiles you are saving a boatload on may not be quality tiles? Did you even know there were inferior quality tiles? Yes, it’s true. A few years ago I hired a tile installer to help me tile some of the bathrooms in the Saving Etta project. (Yes, I could have done it myself, but I’d still be tiling if I did everything myself.) When I first met the installer, he asked me about the tiles I had purchased. I showed him the boxes and he opened several to inspect them. This is what he was looking for to determine if they were cheap tiles:
- Color – Pull tiles from several boxes (if possible) and check to see that the color is consistent for one color tiles. (Obviously, if they are supposed to vary in color and pattern that’s okay.) Regardless, you should always pull tiles randomly from several boxes when laying tile.
- Size – Pull random tiles from several boxes and stack them together. They should be identical. Poor quality tiles can vary up to 1/8″ in size. This will cause issues especially if you are using a small grout joint.
- Printing – Many ceramic or porcelain tiles are printed to look like real stone today. Take a close look at the surface. Is the printing evident? Do you see small dots like a printed newspaper photo? If you can’t see them easily, the printing was well done.
- Thickness – In addition to the overall dimension of the tiles, you should check the consistency of thickness.
- Warping – Are your tiles perfectly flat or do they bend? See below for a picture of two 4″ x 12″ tiles that show some bowing in the center of the tiles.
(To eliminate accentuating this defect, you wouldn’t want to install these tiles with a 50% offset (shown below). Instead, a 25 or 33% would be a better staggered joint pattern.)
- Wedging – Square and rectangular tiles should be cut square. Out of square tiles could would impact your tile job and show up especially in the grout joints.
Typically you can expect good quality from tiles that are labeled as Standard or First Grade. Second grade tiles will have more variations in appearance. Independent tile shops are the best place to purchase good quality tiles. They typically sell to designers and tile installers, but also sell to the general public. Granted, you will likely pay more. But, you know the old saying, you get what you pay for.
Tiles are tiles, right? Wrong, there are many tiles that would not be suitable for a floor. And some tiles are not good for high traffic areas. Finally, some tiles are not a good fit for showers. How can you tell which tiles are best for use in specific areas?
Floor Tiles vs. Wall Tiles:
Floor tiles must be strong enough to handle walking on and an occasional dropped item. Did you know there’s a rating for tile strength? It’s called a PEI rating.
A PEI of 1 is ideal for walls. PEI of 2 is best for bathrooms and kitchens. And a PEI of 3 is appropriate for all residential applications. Meanwhile, PEIs of 4 and 5 are applicable for commercial and heavy commercial applications. When shopping for tiles, they may not have the PEI rating displayed, but there should be a notation if they are acceptable for floors and walls. If you don’t see a notation, ask a salesperson or check with the manufacturer.
How Slippery Are Your Tiles?
Floor tiles must meet certain criteria for COF or coefficient of friction (basically how slippery the tile is.) But, different areas need different COF values. Let’s talk strictly for residential purposes (because commercial and business sites are a whole other beast). Floor tiles in a bathroom with a shower or tub must meet a greater than .42 DCOF test. Tiles that score less than .42 would only be appropriate for areas that will be kept dry or walls.
Polished tiles tend to be more slippery. Tiles that have texture usually score better on the DCOF test, but depending on how textured, they can be harder to clean.
Are marble and natural stone tiles good for floors?
Oh the beauty of real marble! I know, I know, I love marble too, but would it be a good choice for your floor? This depends on several factors. The first being the use of the room. If using in a kitchen or room with a lot of traffic and opportunities for spills, you’ll want to steer clear of marble and stone products that can wear or stain easily. Of course, you can seal your tiles, but the upkeep will be a lot more than porcelain or ceramic tile. But, if you are okay with your floors showing off natural wear and patina, go for it.
Porcelain vs. Ceramic – What’s the Difference?
Porcelain tiles are stronger and more dense than ceramic tiles. They don’t absorb as much moisture as ceramic tiles (Porcelain tiles must be tested and absorb at 0.5% or less to be certified porcelain.) Because they absorb less, porcelain tiles are more ideal for shower floors or areas that stay damp or humid. While porcelain tiles will usually be stronger, thicker, and less porous, they can be tougher to cut and more expensive. Ultimately you can use ceramic tiles on your floor, as long as they meet a 3 or higher PEI rating (as discussed above).
How Many Tiles Should I Order?
Typically most tilers would suggest you order anywhere from 15% -20% extra for your job. If you are using small tiles, you can order as little as 10% overage. Usually, I order 15% because it’s better to have a few left over to keep on hand should you ever have to replace a tile. Besides, it’s a real pain if you run out of tiles mid tile job.
Know Your Finished Height:
If you are picking out tiles, be sure you know the difference in height of adjoining rooms. Choosing your floor tile can mean the difference between perfectly matched floor levels or the need for a transition strip (or worse, a step up or down!) Luckily there is a transition strip for most floor differences.
(I’ve included affiliate links for your convenience. I earn a small percentage from a purchase using these links. There is no additional cost to you. You can read more about affiliate links here.)
I’m a big advocate of having good tools. Having a good tile cutter means the difference between flying through a tile job or having it drag on for an eternity. A good tile cutter also reduces waste because they cut tiles cleanly.
When possible, I prefer cutting the majority of tiles with a scoring tile cutter. It’s quicker, a lot less messy, and clean up is as simple as brushing off the platform.
Occasionally I’ve run into tile that resisted cutting on my scoring cutter (thick porcelain tiles usually fall into this category). For those tiles, I use my wet saw. A wet saw can also cut angled and corner cuts into the tiles. I’ve used the same inexpensive wet saw for years, but when it dies I’ll upgrade to a bigger wet saw.
Recently I started using an angle grinder with a diamond blade for more precise intricate cuts or to knock off a small amount. It works faster and is less clean up than the wet saw for those intricate cuts.
Finally, if you are tiling a shower, you’ll inevitably need to cut a hole in your tiles around a pipe. For that task, I use a drill with a diamond hole saw.
My Tile Cutting Tools:
- Wet tile saw
- Scoring Tile Cutter
- Angle Grinder with a Diamond blade
- More Tiling Tools and Supplies
- Mixing Drill with diamond hole saw
Now it’s time to learn my top tips for a professional-looking tile floor. If you are a newbie and want to learn the basics of tiling, you’ll find these two lessons helpful: Learn How to Set Tile
and Learn How to Grout.
Okay, let’s learn how to get those professional tile results that will even fool the pros!
11 Must See Tips for Professional Looking Tile Floors:
Over the years I’ve taken several courses on tile setting and worked directly with several professional tile setters. From each experience, I’ve learned a lot and now I want to share the things I’ve learned with you so your next tile job comes out beautifully.
In my video you’ll get to see the progress at the Millie’s Remodel project as I tiled the kitchen floor. I decided to incorporate the tiling tips I’ve learned into the video for you.
Watch the video for the tips and how I install floor tiles:
You can also watch the video on YouTube if you prefer (especially if you want to click on the links to the other videos I mention).
1. Flat and Sturdy Subfloor:
Like building a sturdy house, your foundation is super important. When you walk on your floor does it flex, bounce, or squeak? If so, you need to solve these issues now. Use a level and rest it in several different areas (and directions on your subfloor). Are there low spots, high spots, or a slope? If you have dips or valleys in your subfloor, you can’t get a good tile job that will last. If your floor isn’t sturdy and flexes, you will have cracked grout, or worse cracked tiles.
As specified by the TCNA (Tile Council of North America), you want no more than 1/4″ difference in 10′ and no more than 1/16″ within 12 inches. If your subfloor isn’t flat, you can learn how to level your floor here.
If you have a wood subfloor, make sure your wood substrates have the manufacturer’s recommended spacing (typically 1/8″ gap between plywood sheets.) Backer board or uncoupling membranes should be laid onto the subfloor before tiling.
Never tile directly onto new concrete. In fact, keep reading to learn why I use uncoupling membranes and how to prevent your tile job from being ruined by expanding or contracting concrete.
2. Consider Using an Uncoupling Membrane
In another previous post, I shared how to apply the orange Schluter Ditra waterproof membrane before tiling. The Schluter Ditra material also acts as an uncoupling membrane which prevents cracks in your tiles and/or grout.
After taking the Schluter workshops, I will never tile a room without an uncoupling membrane again. As a bonus, their membranes are waterproof. No more need to worry about water soaking into your subfloor and causing mold to build up.
3. Use a Good Tile Cutter
Using good tools will help your tile job go smoothly and it will keep your tile cuts from looking like a jagged mess. If you can’t afford to buy good tools, look into renting some, or ask a fellow DIYer if you can borrow theirs. (Always clean their tools before returning them. Nothing irks me more than dirty tools.)
4. Layout Tiles Ahead of Time
If you’ve heard that spending time doing the prep work will save you time in the long run, nothing could be more true than when tiling. Before I start any tile job, I always lay out my tiles first. I dry lay them out to see what I’m dealing with. First I layout a run of tiles along the length of the room and position the tiles to avoid having to cut a small sliver of a tile at either end. Then I layout a run along the width of the room making adjustments to avoid the same situation.
If I have printed tiles, I separate them into piles by their individual print design. Then when I pull tiles later I pull from different stacks. I also step back to make sure two of the same tiles aren’t next to each other (like in the example below thanks to that so-called professional I hired).
Nothing screams rookie tiler louder than two printed tiles being installed next to each other. And in the same orientation!
5. Leave an Expansion (or Movement) Joint
Despite what you might think (especially if you have perfectionist tendencies), you do not want to cut and install your tiles tight against the wall (or other objects in your room like columns, pipes, or walls.) You must leave at least 1/4 inch around the perimeter of your room or around immovable objects. Not adhering to this rule can lead to your tile floor popping up or tenting (See this article for a photo of tenting tile.) Additionally, you need to install a movement joint in any interior room at every 25 feet in each direction. However, if this room is exposed to direct sunlight or heat, you’ll need an expansion joint at every 12 feet in each direction.
6. Use Recommended Trowel Size
Tiles come in all shapes and sizes and therefore they require a variety of trowels. Be sure to check with the specifications on your tile to find out the trowel size. Or ask your tile shop representative for their recommendation. Using a too-small trowel with large tiles would cause the tiles not to adhere to the surface. And too big a trowel with smaller tiles will make it difficult to level the tiles.
7. Back Butter Large Tiles
When tiling a floor with large tiles, back buttering is a must. Typically I’ll spread the thinset mortar onto the floor and trowel through it. I’ll use the excess to scrape a thin layer over the back of the floor tile. This accomplishes two things:
- It keys mortar into any voids on the back of the tile.
- It ensures full coverage on the back of the tile.
If you don’t back butter large tile, you run the risk of having air pockets behind your tile which can sound hollow when walked on or cause the tile to pop up.
8. Use Leveling Spacers
Leveling spacers are a relatively new product, but I will never tile a floor without them again. I’ve tried several brands but prefer the wedge-shaped leveling spacers. The wedges are inserted into the tile spacer and ratcheted tight to bring tiles to the same height as the adjacent tiles. You can see how they work and how to remove the spacers in my video above. (It’s a lot of fun removing them as you’ll see!) Using leveling spacers virtually eliminates lippage on tiles.
9. Clean Thinset Off Tiles
Anyone who has had to clean dried thinset mortar off tiles will never make the mistake of letting it dry on tiles. When tiling, keep your area clean. Be sure to clean off any mortar on surrounding tiles. In addition, make sure to clean thinset that squeezes up between the tiles. You want to make sure you have enough room for grout to set on top of the mortar.
10. Use Grout with Sealant
Grouting is the final step for any tile job, but if you didn’t add a sealant additive to your grout, you will need to seal the grout after the fact. I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want to do after tiling a floor is hand paint sealant on all the grout lines. And if you skip sealing all together you’re going to hate keeping the grout clean.
11. Plan Your Transition Pieces Ahead of Time
One thing that will truly set your tile floor job a notch above is using sleek transitions. Personally, I prefer using Schluter profiles strips for my floor transitions. There are a variety of finishes, sizes, and styles. Some of the profile strips are laid under the tiles for a stronger bond. Others are installed after the grout has cured. In the Millie’s Remodel kitchen, we had a big change in height between floors. I ended up using the the Schluter Reno-V profile which has an L shaped piece that slides under the tile edge during installation. (You can see the way it works in my video.)
However, in the Saving Etta house, I used simple Schluter Schiene profile strips between tile and wood flooring.
How to Speed Up Your Tile Job:
It helps to have a helper when tiling. Once you mix thinset or grout, you’re on the clock. Both will harden within a set time. If you have a helper, you can give your helper the task of cutting tiles or changing out your dirty water buckets, or mixing more thinset mortar. Speaking of mortar, never mix more than you can spread before hardening. As an experienced tiler I try not to mix more than 1/3 of a 50 pound bag of mortar. Otherwise, you’ll be left with a big boulder of thin set when it hardens.
If you can’t get a helper, make sure to fill multiple buckets with clean water before you begin. It also helps to cut some of your perimeter tiles ahead of time.
Tip for Working with Grout: You can slow the curing time of your grout if you set your mixed grout into a second bucket filled with ice water to slow the curing process. I show this in more detail in my grouting tutorial.
Best of luck tiling your floor. I know you can do this.