Designing a room is the “fun” part for me… despite any initial hesitations, I know that if I put my mind to a design problem, I’ll figure out where it needs to end up eventually. It’s the structural changes that make me more nervous!
We decided to update our little powder room (see the post here), and straight away we knew we needed to re-tile this floor!
Honestly, my intense desire to get rid of this bland builders-grade tile was the springboard for this whole project. A good friend of ours works in tile/marble/granite sales, and he often posts new products to his Instagram feed… which is where we saw the perfect tile for this project:
We initially planned to contract this work out, but due to scheduling conflicts we decided to tackle it ourselves. It’s such a small room (about a 3×5 footprint), that we figured “how much could we possibly screw this up?” I’m glad to report that it went swimmingly:
So, it’s all very well and good that we’re happy with the final result; but we did spend a lot of time researching how to do certain steps properly, via assorted blog posts, YouTube videos and texts to our contractor friend. I’m hoping that by condensing all of that knowledge here, we can help you save a bit of time with your own projects.
Tools and Materials you’ll need for this project
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- Manual tile cutter (if it’s a big project, consider renting or buying a wet tile saw)
- Tile Nippers (if you need to do any curved cuts)
- Sponge or towel
- 3lb Sledge Hammer
- Rubber hammer
- Utility knife
- Pry bar
- Rubber tile float
- Notched trowel
- Power drill
- Grout/Mortar Mixing Paddle
- Safety Glasses
- Knee pads
- Work gloves
- Dust mask
- Chalk line (optional, for larger rooms)
(bring your dimensions to the retailer, they can calculate how much of everything you’ll need)
- Tiles (of course!)
- Thinset (mortar) (Ultraflex 2)
- Unsanded Grout w/Polymer (We used a warm grey)
- Uncoupling Membrane (Ditra or similar)
- Clip and Wedge Tile Levelling System
First up, the demolition! If you’re bringing up an existing tile floor, it’s likely that what’s in place extends under the baseboard trim. Removing this is the first step: score the caulk at the top of your trim with a utility knife – it’ll be much easier to remove the trim, and it won’t take your paint with it. Tap a thin pry-bar between the trim and the wall with your hammer, and gently pry the baseboard off the wall. It can be tricky to know where the nails are after the trim is painted, so go slow and take your time.
Now that the baseboard is off the wall, it’s time to remove those pesky tiles. Our room was small, so we opted for the hammer and pry-bar method. If you have a bigger room with a lot of tiles to remove, it might be worth your while to rent an air chisel/hammer from your local home improvement store.
A couple of things to note before you get started: safety glasses and gloves are an absolute must! Tile will splinter, crack and fly everywhere as you break it up. Stay safe. Knee pads will keep you comfortable. And be sure to remove any hanging mirrors or artwork in the room, or it might end up on the floor, in pieces.
Pick a tile in the middle of the room, and hit it firmly in the centre with your hammer. You can use a regular hammer, but we found it easier with a 3lb sledge. Ear protection isn’t a bad idea during this part, it’s quite loud. Once the initial tile is up, you can get your pry bar under the surrounding ones and lift them up. Some will come away cleanly, but many will break.
What you will find under the tile will be a mystery until you start removing them. Of course there will be mortar holding them in place, but underneath that mortar you’ll likely find plywood, and perhaps an uncoupling membrane (more on this later). Because we’re in an older home, we found an unusual combo of mortar, wire mesh and a plank subfloor! What a headache. In addition to breaking up our old tiles, we had to pull up this mortar-embedded wire mesh by hand.
So here’s what we’re left with after the demo/removal is complete:
Prep For New Tile Installation
Now we need to prep the room for the new tile installation. Already, there are a few decisions to be made:
Because of the way this room was built, we couldn’t remove the baseboard trim on the left and rear of the room.. it’s a structural tie-in that extends behind the rear cabinet. The previous owners had tiled to the edge of these baseboards and under the right side baseboard, which you can see we’ve removed. We decided to do the same, and cover the exposed grout with quarter-round.
The other issue is the plank floor. Modern houses would likely include a plywood subfloor, which, in theory, is more rigid, and less subject to movement/shifting which could transfer to your tiles and crack them. We could have laid plywood over top of these planks, but that would elevate this floor and require a raised threshold at the doorway. Instead, we screwed two dozen 2” screws through the planks into the joists below to reinforce the floor before we began our installation.
One reason we can get away with this is that we’re also using a decoupling membrane, AKA “DITRA”:
DITRA transfers any subtle movement or shear forces in your subfloor to this semi-flexible membrane, instead of the tile.
So it’s time to get started. Make sure you’re starting with a clean, level surface. Remove any remnants of tile debris from the floor, and sweep up/wipe down the subfloor so you have a nice clean surface for your tile mortar to adhere to.
Here’s the simplest breakdown of what we’re doing:
Subfloor > Mortar > DITRA > Mortar (again) > Tiles w/Levelling System > Grout
First step, measure your room for the amount of DITRA you need to lay down, and cut to fit with your utility knife. You’ll need to cut out an area for the toilet flange if you’re doing a bathroom installation – lay it on top of the flange and cut around the raised area.
Next, mix your mortar. We used Mapei Ultraflex 2 Tile Mortar with Polymer. You can mix it by hand, but do yourself a favour and get a mixing paddle attachment for your power drill. It saves so much time and effort. Follow the instructions on the package for the amount of mortar/water you need to mix. If you’re doing a large area, make smaller batches so it doesn’t set in the bucket before you get to use it – you generally want to get the mortar down quickly, within 15 – 20 minutes (and pour it outside if you can, wearing a dust mask… it’s messy).
Using the flat side of a notched trowel, get some mortar from your bucket and distribute on the floor. Smear it across a small area, and then, using the notched side of the trowel, wipe it through the mortar at a 45-degree angle. This ensures the proper distribution of mortar for your membrane. When the floor is properly covered with your “grooved” mortar, lay down your membrane. Press into place firmly and use the flat side of your trowel to smooth out any air pockets underneath. Try not to leave knee indentations if you can avoid it.. we did and had to work to smooth these out to create a level membrane surface.
Now the membrane has to set. Enjoy the rest of your day and revisit tomorrow.
Now that the thinset under the membrane has cured, we can tile our floor! My husband enjoyed the demo, but this was the fun part for me. Mix a new batch of tile mortar and apply over the membrane as you did underneath.. you want smooth, even coverage using the notched side of your trowel.
For a larger room, you may need to snap a chalk-line as a guide, and begin your installation in the middle. We started in the left corner because of our aforementioned baseboard issue.
A quick note on the levelling system we’re using, before we start laying tiles:
This is a “clip and wedge” system. You install the clips under the tile (at the corners for large tiles, in the middle for smaller 8” tiles as we’ve used here), and push the wedges through the holes at the top. The width of the clips ensures an even spacing between each tile, and as the wedge clicks in on the top, it holds the tiles in place and helps to level each tile with the one next to it. I’m a big fan of this system, as opposed to your typical spacers.
Begin laying your tiles. We worked in stages, only added enough mortar to lay 5-6 tiles at a time. Don’t work yourself into a corner! Simply lay a tile in your mortar, add your spacers under the edges and press firmly and evenly into the mortar. Rinse, repeat.
You’ll probably need to cut some tiles to fit. We used a cheap manual tile cutter ($25) that we purchased from Home Depot. You measure your tile, set the “rip guide” to hold it in place, and then score the tile along the top with the built in cutting wheel. Push down to use the padded “breaker bar” to snap the tile cleanly along the score line.
If you need to do curved cuts, you can either use a tile nipper for smaller jobs:
…or an angle grinder (we used this to cut some diagonals for around the toilet flange):
As you get to the edges, it can be tricky cutting smaller, or angled/notched pieces to fit under door jambs and so on. Take your time! This is why you bought some extra tiles (right?).
Now your tiles are laid, spaced and levelled. Once again, the mortar needs to set before you add your grout as a final step. Enjoy the rest of your day and revisit tomorrow. Perhaps enjoy a cocktail, if that’s your fancy.
Whew, this is taking longer than you anticipated, isn’t it? Before you grout, you’ll need to remove the levelling system (wedges/clips) from the floor. With shoes on, you can actually just give these a small kick along the grout line and they’ll break off cleanly. Alternatively, you can use a rubber mallet. You don’t need to swing very hard to break these off, be careful not to damage your new tiles. If there are any remnants left, you can carefully cut them out with your utility knife.
Now it’s time to grout your tiles! We used Mapei Keracolour U Unsanded Grout with Polymer, in a warm grey. (in retrospect, I might have gone darker, but what’s done is done).
Mix it in a bucket with your mortar paddle, per the directions on the side of the bag. Using a rubber grout float, fish some out of your bucket and apply it by wiping across your gaps with the float, holding it at a 45-degree angle.
You want smooth, even coverage – don’t worry about getting grout on the surface of the tiles, you’ll wipe it away afterward.
Chances are that once you have completed grouting the tile you will have “grout haze” on the surface, which is very annoying, because if you’re anything like me you want to see your finished project and soak in all the goodness you feel for a job well done. Right?! Almost there – to get rid of the grout haze, buff the tiles with a clean towel or rag. Wash and repeat until your tiles look as they did when you purchased them. Once they are looking clear and the grout has set, re-install your baseboards and caulk/paint as need be.
And here’s the new floor with everything else in place:
Quite an improvement, and well worth the considerable effort for such a small room! More about how this project came together here. Questions? Comment below and I will follow-up.