Beginner’s Guide to Laying Tile

How to lay tile (via to see what we’ve done in the laundry room at our Habitat for Humanity project house? As you might remember, this room gave us quite the surprise when we discovered that the floor was rotted out and had to be replaced. The carpets were being removed when this discovery happened, so our tile plans got set aside while some other repairs took place. But now, we’ve made all our tile dreams come true! I (Emma) sourced the large, marbled-looking tiles locally and Josh installed them. Today he’s going to share how he did it in case any of you have tile dreams of your own. Take it away, Josh:

Tile has been used for a good while, close to 4000 years. That’s a pretty good run for a building/decorative material. I tried my hand at installing it for the first time about a month ago. Although laying tile takes practice and time to master, I found that the challenge was a lot easier to approach than I first imagined. With the help of a couple videos and tips from a contractor friend, I felt confident in starting the project. Also, the space is only about 75 square feet, so it was a good starting size. 

Marble tileHere’s what I learned from doing it for the first time. I’m not going to be able to squeeze in 4000 years worth of information or instruction, but it’ll be one more perspective you can work off of. Now that I’ve done it once, I feel pretty good about it. In fact, I love tiling! We spent about $350 to tile the floor including tile, supplies, tools, and tile saw rental. By installing the tile ourselves we saved at least $400!

-mixing paddle
-tile markers
-tile saw (rented)
-measuring tape
-knee pads
-utility knife
-straight edge
-tile (We used a 12″ x 25″ ceramic tile called Calacatta by Happy Floors.)

Step one: The first thing I did was make sure the surface was free of dirt and dust. I vacuumed the entire area and checked for exposed nail heads and loose plywood. After everything was tidy and ready to go, it was time to install backerboard, which provides an even, protective, and moisture-resistant surface for the tile. I used Wonderboard Lite brand. The directions for using it are right on the board, so that was pretty straightforward. A couple things to remember when installing backerboard:

-To cut the boards, either using a scoring knife or utility knife, score, then snap the board along an edge.

-Stagger the sheets as you put them down. You don’t want the sheets coming together corner to corner. Leave 1/8″ gap between each sheet.

-Trowel a thin layer of mortar under the backerboard as you go along.

-You can nail or screw the backerboard on. I went with backerboard screws.  If you want, rent a nailer and save yourself a little bit of time.

-Here’s the more in depth instruction for installing Wonderboard Lite.

Clean up the floorsNote: A step that you probably (hopefully) won’t run into, was sealing up the floor. The laundry room was an add on, probably not built by a professional. There were gaps in parts of the floor (where it met up with the wall) where I could see down to the ground. I sprayed some foam into the cracks in hopes of sealing up the room a bit more. After the foam dried, I trimmed off the excess, making it even with the wall and floor.

Step two: After I had the backerboard down, it was time to start tiling! There are many methods when it comes to making sure your space is square, where to start the tile, etc. Since the space I was doing was pretty small and rectangular, I decided to start at the back wall and work my way toward the kitchen (see the layout in this post for reference.) I knew that we would have a washer and dryer up against the wall where I would finish, so any cut tile would be hidden. There are spec sheets (like this one) and installation requirements for each type of tile you choose (as seen here). You may not use all of the info, but it doesn’t hurt to know about the tile you’re using (like who knew that Calacatta tile had a friction coefficient of ≤ 0,60).

How to lay tileSo I started at the back wall, opposite the back door and worked my way down. I mixed the mortar, per the directions, and started troweling it on the backerboard using a slotted trowel. the size of the slots depend on the thickness of the tile. Since I was laying pretty big pieces, I used a bigger slot trowel. (I found that the correlation isn’t an exact science. Basically, the thickness of the tile should be about the size of the trowel gaps.). I put down enough mortar for a couple tiles, laid one, and tapped it down. (You can use a rubber mallet, I just used my hands.) The goal for each tile, is to make sure they are level and line up with each other. Tile spacers aid in achieving uniform gaps between the tiles.  

A beginner's guide to laying tileTaking my time, I worked my way down, row by row. The tile saw was easy to use, as I had to cut end pieces. Before I knew it, I was at the last row, which took just a little bit more measuring and cutting. When I laid that last piece of tile, I felt like an old pro looking across my finished floor. Actually it wasn’t done just yet. I waited a weekend, then came back, removed all the spacers and troweled in grout between all gaps. Keeping the tile as clean as possible at this stage is crucial. As soon as the grout dries, cleaning it up will be nearly impossible. 

Here are some tips I would pass on to somebody doing tile for the first time (since I’m a seasoned tiler now. OK, not really but I do have some tips I picked up.)

-Spend the extra time making sure the floor is free of any debris, dirt or even dust before starting to tile.

-Unless you plan on doing a lot of tiling, like starting a tile business, (unlike painting tools) you don’t have to buy the expensive tools. I got the cheapest trowels, spacers, mixing paddle, etc. and it all worked great. I think the more expensive tools are just sturdier, made to last longer, but if you’re only doing one job, it doesn’t make sense to drop a bunch of cash on tools.

-Keep your tools clean, the mortar and grout rinse off easily before it sets, after that—good luck.

-Have a good route in mind. You don’t want to tile yourself into a corner. Fortunately I had two exits to work with. I still had to stretch out a bit to lay that last piece though. -Josh

Credits // Author: Josh Rhodes. Photography: Emma Chapman and Josh Rhodes. Photos edited with A Beautiful Mess actions.

  • Is the tile (Happy Floors Calactta) you used on your floor polished or matte? I can tell. It looks beautiful!

  • The detailed perspective of explaining how laying tile works somehow works for me just fine and installation could be done by myself and I think that is good teaching skills. Would definitely look forward to doing this project in our bathroom once I’ve cleared my schedule. Thanks!

  • We are looking to spice up our kitchen a little bit and thought that installing tile would be a good way to do so. It is interesting to learn that tile has been being used for close to 4,000 years. Thanks for informing me that laying tile takes practice and time to master. I will talk about this project option with my husband before starting.

  • My grandpa laid the tile in my mom’s kitchen while I was growing up. It was so fun to watch him!

  • The tile is gorgeous. We considered similar tile for our bathroom but went with a creamy color instead. I really like the tutorial because it is so thorough! Great job!

  • This is awesome! Thanks for sharing! Love attacking big projects like these!

  • love this tile, it brightens up the room so much

    my friend was recently killed by a stray bullet, could you please donate to his fund

  • Oh my goodness these tiles look so amazing! Looks like a lot of work but it definitely paid of – it’s gorgeous! Good job, I love keeping everything clean and white like this. Very nice.

    Melissa @ The White Corner Creative

  • We’re planning on redoing the bathroom so THANK YOU SO MUCH for this post!

    My Morning Routine 2015 | Spring 2015

  • That pattern looks awesome. Love it. Thanks

  • Hi Emily! Actually, Josh finished everything before he moved. Now it’s time to do some decorating! 🙂 -Jacki

  • Nice! Now that’s DIY! It’s funny, because I was actually thinking about taking a class to learn tiling, as we always seem to need to do it in our fixer-upper.


  • Great progressive pics and the results look fantastic. It was certainly worth the effort.

  • Timely post. We just finished our bathroom where we tiled the shower surround and floors. Quite the job and I don’t want to do it again anytime soon. Your floor looks great.

  • Wow, Josh and ABM Team! This looks beautiful. I love the house updates and am so looking forward to the final walk through. I was wondering, who will be doing the rest of the construction and installation work now that Josh and his family have moved on?

  • Definitely worth the time and effort! This looks amazing!

    Warm Regards,

  • These posts are my favorite. I’ve decided this is what I want to do for a career, so these are extremely helpful. And interesting. It looks like hard work, but totally doable. I love the tile choice! It’s beautiful!


  • This looks great! I always save these home renovating posts for the day when we own a house. I know they will come in extremely handy some day 🙂

  • That tile is so beautiful! I am pretty sure my bathroom could use an update 🙂

  • I worked as an apprentice to a mason for a couple years. My additional tips would be:

    a) if the room is any bigger than this one, do not start laying the tiles along the wall, you would want to start from the middle (taking measurements and setting a chalkline) making sure that the cut rows on the outside walls are not going to be too small (an easy way to test this is by laying out tiles on the floor in a “dry run”). If you start on one side of a room and the room is not square, it will be noticeable and the larger the room, the worse it will be.

    b) use actual masonary/tiling sponges for grouting and when you think you have the tiles perfectly clean, get a new sponge and fresh water and wipe them down twice more. “Kim” towels are perfect for buffing out that last bit of grout residue from the tiles

    c) everything to do with spreading masonary and grout or wiping it away should be done at about a 45 degree angle especially when you are “sponging” the grout — never do so straight on.

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