Kitchen Countertops: Tile Installation Tips, Part 7 of 7

By Jim Mallery Columnist

Last of a seven-part series, Kitchen Countertops

The first six parts of this series delved into the wealth of materials for a new countertop to complement your refaced kitchen cabinets. If you've opted for a DIY tile countertop, you probably can't wait to get it done and see how it spruces up your kitchen in combination with the new cabinet faces.

Tile Installation Tips for Kitchen Countertops

Once you have your equipment in order, it is time to lay the tile. Here are some indispensable counter intelligence tips.

  1. Mortar. Spread a thin layer of the thinset evenly across your surface with the flat side of the trowel, then drag the notched side through the thinset, tilting the trowel at about 45 degrees. Keep the trowel at the same 45-degree angle throughout the pull, as changing the angle will change the depth of the mortar. Keeping the mortar at the same depth throughout the project will help you keep the tiles level. You may find that mortar oozes up between tiles. It's best to scoop it out before it dries. Take one of your spacers and clean the mortar from the grout line. You can avoid a lot of that oozing by scraping the ridge of mortar out of the area of the grout line with your trowel before you put down the tile.
  2. Level. If you don't want your DIY kitchen countertop to look like swells in the Atlantic Ocean, lay a straight edge across several tiles and tap it lightly with a rubber mallet until all of the tiles line up. Do not push a tile too hard or you will have no room for adjustment as you proceed with other tiles. If you have a crooked tile that you cannot get level, pull it up and start over--otherwise the uneven tile will forever show.
  3. Size matters. The larger the tile, the harder it will be to get it to look level, as the slightest tilt is magnified through the length of the tile. A 4"-by-4" tile can be off a tad and it won't be noticed. An 18"-by-18" tile, off by the same amount, will look like a downhill ski slope. The wider the grout line, the more leveling leeway you have. The wider gap between tiles will make uneven heights less noticeable. Conversely, very thin grout lines--though they may make your tile look more elegant--also make it imperative that everything is absolutely even.
  4. Cuts. If you need to mark your tile for cutting, put masking tape on the area to be cut and mark on that. Many tiles can be beveled and polished after cutting--marble and travertine are easy to polish, but should not be used for kitchen counters. Granite can be polished, but with considerable effort, because it is so hard. Ceramic or porcelain tiles that have the color throughout the clay--often the case with porcelain--can be edged. But if the color is just in the glaze--as with most ceramic tiles--you cannot polish them. In many cases, both with granite and ceramic, you can buy matching edge-trim pieces.
  5. Edging stone. A quick primer on polishing tile; you need a reciprocating sander with 120, 220, 400 and 600 grit, available at your Big Box store. You might even want 1000- and 1500-grit paper, which you can pick up at store selling automobile paint supplies. A belt sander with 80- and 120-grit belts will help take blade marks out of granite and marble, but you have to be careful not to chip the material. With granite, figure you will go through a sheet of each grit per edge. Marble will use half a sheet, and ceramic much less.
  6. Grout. Choose your color wisely. Usually, you want it to blend with the tile, but your application may look better with a contrast. Whatever you choose, make sure the grout color also agrees with your kitchen cabinets. Like mortar, you don't want the grout to be too stiff. Try to get the consistency to be a little looser than mayonnaise. If it is too wet, it may shrink and crack as it dries. If your grout lines are less than 1/8", use unsanded grout. An 1/8" or more, use sanded grout. Use a rubber grout float to spread the grout between the tiles, running it at a 45-degree angle to the lines. Be careful not to push down on the float too hard, or the sand in the grout will scratch the tiles.

These are some tips to get a great-looking countertop. It might even look so good you will want to upgrade your kitchen cabinets again.


About The Author

Jim Mallery, a semi-retired journalist and onetime registered contractor, has extensive experience remodeling, repairing and rebuilding homes.

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