How to Set Tile With Clean Grout Lines

All tiles have some imperfections in them and tile setters are not always perfect either. These two situations can lead to poor tile placement that causes some variations in gaps between tiles and crooked runs. Keeping clean grout lines is one of the most important parts of tile setting, and it requires constant attention during the installation.

Beginning right is the key to keeping clean grout lines. A room that is a standard rectangle or square serves as a good example on how to lay out tiles and have a good looking finished product.

Practical Tips for Preparing and Setting Tiles

  1. Measure the room at each end and place a mark on the floor in the center of all four sides. Use a chalk line to make a mark from the center to the opposite center in both directions so that the room is marked off into four quadrants. The idea is to have the same amount of tile showing on the last run at one wall as on the floor at the opposite wall.
  2. Tiles should be placed beginning at the cross section in the center of the room and continuing until reaching a wall. This is a single line of tiles to begin with, which keep their edge on the straight line. Once the initial line is in place, tiles should be laid back from the line to complete the first quadrant.
  3. Moving to the opposite side of the first run of tiles and completing the second quadrant finishes half the room, and if tiles were place properly, they should have clean grout lines.
  4. Beginning at the center of the room and following the chalk line in the opposite direction should result is a near perfect line of tiles down the center of the room, and then the two remaining quadrants can be completed.

It may sound rather simple to set tiles so that they look uniform, but clean grout lines are often hard to accomplish because one tile may be off just enough to cause difficulty in staying straight with the line.

Tips For Setting Tile for the First Time

  • Rooms may not be completely square, and it is never completely possible to follow the initial line and the crossing line for that reason. Whichever line you follow first is the most important one. The crossing line is more to give you a starting point for the first tile, and if you cannot follow it, don’t worry as long as you end up with clean grout lines.
  • Guessing at the width of the grout line is a good way to make a mistake. It is best always to use spacers between tiles so the gap remains the same from start to finish. The hard plastic type of spacers are best because they don’t compress the way the softer types do.
  • Clean grout lines are also dependent upon tiles matching up at each corner. Using a straight edge to make certain that the tiles are flush will also make the floor feel more uniform under foot and prevent tripping problems caused by high corners.
  • Cleaning the edges of tiles as you go prevents remnants of adhesive from drying on tiles and their edges. Grout lines won’t be clean if adhesive is left protruding from the grout.

As you can see, getting the first line of tiles set properly makes all the difference between a good tile job and a poor one. Following the few steps here will give the tile job a professional appearance.

Tile Around Tub Faucet

There is no need at all to cut complicated circles or holes (God forbid) into tile.  All you will be doing is notching a square section out of a tile–one tile only–and fitting it into place.

First, cut two parallel lines downward with a rod saw.  A rod saw is a cheap saw, that can either be bought as a blade that fits into your own hacksaw or as a separate saw.  If you’re trying to tile around the tub faucet with tiles no larger than 4″x4″, I recommend the hacksaw.

Next, you need a third line that connects the two previous lines, forming a square that you can knock out.  This can go either of two ways.  You can keep using your rod saw and just cut across.  Or, if you’re tired of sawing, you can score the tile surface with a utility knife or tile cutter.

You need to do some precise measuring to make sure the square you’re cutting out will be covered by the faucet flange.

Deftly knock out that scored piece with a small hammer or handle off a screwdriver.

Fit the tile around the tub faucet hole.

The faucet flange or faucet itself should cover the hole.

Tile Around Tub Faucet

Use Masking Tape When Caulking Sink or Tub?

Let’s say you’re caulking tile against a tub.  This is one place you really don’t want to have excess caulk all gooped around.

Because, if you didn’t know this already, caulking is a strangely archaic and inefficient process.  You squirt the caulk bead where you want it and then…

…Then you dab your finger in water and you smooth the caulk down.  Or you can use little plastic scrapers that are supposed to do the same thing.  But in the end, it’s more efficient just to use your finger.  Messy!

Blue Masking Tape

So, a suggested “cleaner” way to do this is to lay down two strips of masking tape, one on either side of the intended caulk bead.  The idea behind this is that when you smooth down the caulk with your finger, the caulk gets smooshed out in direction you didn’t want it to go.  But by having this masking tape, you can later on strip the tape away and the mess with it.

How well does this work?

It’s certainly worth trying out.  Not all tilers–professional or DIY–use masking tape.

For one thing, it takes a lot of time to lay down the masking tape precisely.  Pros with steady hands can caulk cleanly without the tape, and save time.

Also, it’s too easy to rely on the tape to do the job.  The tape is just clean-up help.

Tile Mastic Dries Before Installing Tiles?

Yes, this happens.  What you do is lay down too much mastic in proportion to the number of tiles you can lay in the next column or row.

Us DIY tilers often have “eyes” bigger than our “hands.”  The opposite scenario is laying down just a little bit of mastic, laying down 2 or 3 tiles, laying down more mastic, and doing this over and over.  It gets tiring.  That’s the point where most of us start increasing the amount of mastic.

You will know if the mastic is too dry to install tile when it has “skinned over.”  Skinning over means that the very top of the mastic has develope a thin, dry layer.  To the touch, it may not feel like much.  In fact, you can even break through it with your fingernail.

But don’t do this.  Even that thin skin is enough to prevent your tiles from sticking properly.

Don’t throw skinned-over mastic back in your bucket of mastic, or you’ll ruin the stuff in the bucket.

Carefully scrape off any “skinned over” mastic from the wall and dispose of it.

Then reapply mastic to your wall–less mastic this time around, of course–and start tiling again.

Tile Outside Corner

You’ve got a host of problems to manage.  What if the corner is not straight or plumb (and few corners are truly straight or plumb)?  How do you match up the two tiles on either side so that you get a smooth corner?  How do you deal with the problem of slipping tiles?

Frankly, there is no magic bullet.  It just takes a few tips and a little patience, and you’ll get it right.

Use Bullnose on One Side, Flat on Other

On one side of the corner, you will use bullnose edged tile.  On the adjacent side, you will use tile with a flat edge (i.e., non-bullnose).

This is the only want to make sure that when the two tiles meet, they will form a smooth corner.

Tile Outside Corner

Trim Off the Bullnose

So, where do you get the “flat tile” mentioned above?  You can either buy tile without the bullnose, or you can use your wet tile saw to trim off just the bullnose part of some tiles.  Do not go too far; just the bullnose.  And don’t worry, you won’t notice the smaller dimensions if you’re judicious about trimming off only the bullnose.

Don’t worry about any special skills needed to trim the bullnose off.  This is an extremely simple cut to do with a wet tile saw.

Bullnose Overlaps Flat-Edged Tile

Now, make sure that the bullnose overlaps the flat-edged tile.  The bullnose is the “show” part of the tile.  The cut-off flat time may have some minor ridges, but this will be covered up by the bullnose.

Tile Both Sides of Corner Simultaneously

Ah, now here’s a great tip.  Do not tile an entire column of bullnoses upward, stop, and then tile the flat-edged tiles upward.

Instead, do a bullnose and its around-the-corner neighbor.  Then the next one up.  Then the next one, and so on.

Stacked Tile Design, Not Overlapping Design

Now, this is no requirement, but it’s a helpful thing–unless you’re really confident about your tiling skills, you will find that the stacked tile design is much easier than the overlapping tile design when working with corners.

Note that by “overlapping” we’re not talking about bullnose overlapping the flat-edged tiles in the tip above.  This is an entirely different thing, where you lay the tiles out in a grid fashion:

Stacked Tile
Stacked Tile
Overlapping Tile
Overlapping Tile

Stacked Tile or Overlapping Tile?

Let’s define what the two terms mean, and give some advantages and disadvantages for both:

Stacked Tile

Stacked Tile
Stacked Tile

You’re familiar with stacked tile, and it’s the most common tile configuration for showers and bathtubs.  Stacked tile forms a grid-like pattern.

  • Easiest tile design because you never have to guess about the placement of the next row.
  • Too many stacked tiles (especially with wide grout lines) can look imposing and grid-like.
  • When wet, if a tile on the bottom row is loose and slippery, the column of tiles above it will force that tile downward.

Choosing between stacked tile and overlapping tile, the beginning tile-setter may choose stacked–it’s a bit easier to execute.

Overlapping Tile

Overlapping Tile
Overlapping Tile

With overlapping tile, there are no “crosses” formed.

  • Take a little more work to install overlapping tile because you have to rely on your eye to determine the halfway point for your next row of tile.
  • Reputed to be a bit more structurally sound, much like brick is laid in a staggered fashion.
  • When wet, overlapping tile will not have problem mentioned with stacked tile of a column forcing the bottom tile downward.
  • Can break up that grid-like imposing look.

Batten Board for Installing Tile on Wall

First, the problem:  you lay down a row of tiles on the wall.  Nice, good.  We’re happy.  Uh oh…

You start to notice that the row is slipping downward.  Sometimes, it’s not much, and it’s not always the entire row of tiles.  While it may not seem bad, when you get that bottom row of tiles wrong, it becomes exponentially worse for the top rows.  It seems to multiply.  So, getting that first row right is essential.

No, you cannot just hold the tiles with your hand until they stick.  You would be there forever.  Instead, use a batten board for installing tile on wall:

Board placement?  You’re leaving out that first (bottom) row of tiles on the wall, and replacing it with the board.

  1. Cut a 1×2 the length of the intended row of tiles.
  2. Screw the 1×2 onto the wall.  Be sure to drill pilot holes first, because that 1×2 will crack.  Top of the board goes where the top of the row was supposed to go.
  3. Then install the “second” row of tile atop that board.  The board will prevent this “second” row from sliding down.  Be sure that you don’t get a lot of mastic and crap under the board, or it will be hard to remove.
  4. Wait as long as humanly possible for the tile mastic to set (or as long as the directions say).
  5. Then, remove the board.

Who cares about the screw holes in the wall?  We don’t.  They get covered over by tile.

Batten Board for Installing Wall Tile