Tiling Walls

This story covers preparing, laying out and tiling walls.


Establishing layout lines on walls is much easier than on a floor. Hold the level on the wall in both a vertical and horizontal plane, and when the bubble centers in the glass, trace intersecting lines.

Gravity tends to pull tiles down the wall during installation. Organic mastic is one solution; tile sticks to it almost immediately. Mastic is not as strong as thinset mortar, however, and not as water-resistant. If you want to use thinset, keep tile in place with spacers, nails, or tape.

If you are tiling a wall and a floor, tile the floor first so you can continue the grout joints up the wall in the same pattern as the floor. Install a cove base, then start wall tile above the cove base. If you are tiling adjacent walls, set the back wall first. Tapered edges on a side wall are less visible.


About 30 to 45 minutes per square yard to prepare and set tile

Wide putty knife, 4-foot level, sanding block, small sledge and cold chisel, stud finder, tape measure, chalk line, utility knife, carbide scriber, margin trowel, notched trowel, straightedge, cordless drill, grout knife, snap cutter or wet saw, tile nippers, masonry stone, caulk gun, hammer, grout float

Reading level, troweling, laying tile, grouting

Repair structural defects

Deglossing agent, release agent, bucket, thinset mortar, dimensional lumber for battens, backerboard, screws, tape, tile, spacers, caulk, grout, rags, sponge, water, tile base or bullnose, nylon wedges, finishing nails

What If... There's a Window On the Wall?

Windows complicate layouts. If possible, arrange the pattern with a full tile around the perimeter of the window and cut tiles at the edges of the wall. You can achieve this balance fairly easily if the window is centered and if tile covers the surface evenly or leaves at least a half tile at the corners.

If a perfectly balanced layout won't work, try adjusting the grout lines or inserting decorative tile. Trim tiles at the window's edge might even the layout. Install the window tiles first to establish the grout lines for wall field tile, then tile the remainder of the back wall, working upwards.

Preparing the Wall: Step 1

Remove any wallcovering and degloss paint. If removing wallpaper, sand or use a wet sponge to clean off the residue of glue and paper. Make sure the surface dries completely before setting tile on it.

Preparing the Wall: Step 2

Using a 4-foot level, examine the wall in sections, marking high spots, depressions, and other defects that would interfere with the tile. Pay close attention to corners to check for plumb. Using care in your survey of the wall at this stage will save time later.

Preparing the Wall: Step 3

Skim coat a layer of thinset on any walls that are out of plumb and fill depressions. If installing backerboard, mark stud centers on the ceiling. Cut and fasten backerboard, centering its edges on the studs. Position the backerboard pieces to minimize cutting and waste.

Marking Layout Lines: Step 1

Set a 4-foot level vertically on the wall about 2 feet from a corner, over a grout joint. If the wall meets at an outside corner, set the level where the inside edge of a bullnose will fall. Pencil a line down the level, extend it to the floor and ceiling. Repeat the process on the horizontal plane.

Marking Layout Lines: Step 2

Measure up from the horizontal line a distance equal to the size of your tile and mark the wall at this point. Continue marking the wall in the same increments. Using a 4-foot level, mark the wall across from these points and snap layout grids so you can keep each horizontal course straight.

Jack-on-Jack Layout Grid

A jack-on-jack pattern is one of the easiest patterns to use. Set the first tile at the intersection of the layout grid or quadrant and lay the remaining tiles in the order shown above. As an alternative, you can set the legs of the quadrant and fill in the interior.

Diagonal Jack-on-Jack Layout Grid

Diagonal patterns always result in cut tiles on the edges. Before choosing a diagonal pattern, work with a dimensional layout drawing to make sure these edge tiles will be as close to a full diagonal as possible. A border frames a diagonal pattern nicely.

Horizontal Running Bond Layout Grid

To make horizontal running bond work, find the exact center of the first tile and lay it on one axis of the layout lines. Work from that tile to the left, then to the right. Then center the next row on the same axis. Check the alternating grout lines with a straightedge.

Pyramid Running Bond Layout Grid

A pyramid running bond is perhaps the most difficult to keep straight because it stacks the centers of tiles not only on alternate rows but also on both sides of the vertical axis. Before laying this pattern, mark all the tiles that will be centered on this axis.

Laying the Tile: Step 1

Mix enough adhesive to cover the size of a section you can lay within its working time (the amount of time it takes for the thinset mortar to set up and become unworkable). Work from the bottom up, spreading the adhesive evenly and combing it with the notched edge of the trowel. Start at the bottom, and using a batten, press the tile into the mortar with a slight twist.

Laying the Tile: Step 2

Continue laying the pattern of your choice, using spacers if your tile is not lugged. Note the placement and position of the spacers. Setting the spacers flush with the surface of the tile will make them difficult to remove. Inserting them in the manner shown above makes removal an easy task. When the field tile is set, cut and install the edge tiles.

Keeping the Tiles On the Wall

If you're not using a coved base and your layout results in cut tiles at the floor, tack a level 1x or 2x batten along the plane on which your first full tiles will be laid. The batten will keep the rows in place and prevent the tiles from sliding down the wall. Even with a coved base or a batten and spacers, you may have to take precautions to keep the tile on the wall while the adhesive cures.

Drive nails partway into the wall at least every third of each tile's length and tape the tiles with masking tape. If your layout calls for a coved tile base, install it first, leveling it with nylon wedges. Then tile up the wall.

What If... Tiles are Lugged (Prespaced)?

Lugged tiles make it easy to space wall installations. They come with small bisque lugs raised on the edges and don't require additional spacers to keep them aligned.

Because the lugs are fired into the tile at the time of manufacture, they don't allow you to make the grout joints narrower. Determine the actual dimensions of the tile when you purchase it so you know how much space each tile covers.

What If... The Wall Has Electrical Outlets On It?

Unless you have removed the wall surface, the thickness of the finished surface will extend beyond the edges of electrical outlet boxes. As a result the receptacle screws may be too short to anchor the receptacle. A box extension remedies this problem, but if local codes don't require an extension you can fix the problem by using longer screws.

First turn off the power to the circuit and remove the cover plate and receptacle screws. Take one of the screws to the store to buy a replacement that is 1/2 inch longer. Push the receptacle into the box and out of your way.

Cut the tiles to fit around the box. Then cut V-shape notches (use tile nippers) that line up with the tabs and screw holes on the top and bottom of the box. Spread adhesive to within 1/4 inch of the box and embed the tile. When the mortar cures, pull the receptacle out from the box and fasten it with the longer screws inserted through the notches.

Turning an Outside Corner

Outside corners can present problems, especially if they are not plumb. You can hide slightly out-of-plumb situations by skim coating the wall with thinset. Then overlap bullnose tiles or edge tiles on the full tiles on the other wall. As long as the tiles meet crisply, the out-of-plumb wall should not be as noticeable.

Grouting the Tile: Step 1

When the adhesive has cured to the manufacturer's specifications, inspect the joints for excess adhesive. Use a utility knife or grout knife to remove any adhesive in the joints and clean any excess off the tile surface. Mix enough grout to cover a section and force it into the joints with a grout float, keeping the float at a 45-degree angle. Work the float in both directions to fill the joints; work diagonally to remove excess grout.

Grouting the Tile: Step 2

When the grout has cured enough that a damp sponge won't pull it out of the joints, scrape off the excess with the float held almost perpendicular to the surface. Clean the surface and smooth the joints with a damp sponge, then repeat the cleaning with clean water and a clean sponge. When a haze forms, wipe it with a clean rag. You may have to wipe with some pressure to remove the haze.

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