Laying Out The Finished Floor

Before you start installing your finish flooring, measure and plan the job. Careful planning is especially important for ceramic, stone, or vinyl tiles, but it is a good exercise for other types of flooring, too. Plan with these considerations:

  • Avoid ending up with thin slivers of tile or strips, which look sloppy.
  • If both sides of a room will be visible, plan so that the tiles on each side are close to the same width, for a symmetrical appearance.
  • If one wall is not parallel with a nearby wall, or if the walls are significantly out of square each other, you will end up with a row of flooring that grows progressively narrower along its length. Make this row as wide as possible, so the imperfections will be less noticeable.
  • Sometimes you can’t avoid having a row of narrow or sloping tiles or strips. In that case, try to position them where they will be covered with a couch or other large piece of furniture.

Often you need to make layout compromises. In the basement shown below (bottom left), for example, it would be ideal to have tiles or strips of equal width at each of the walls, for symmetry. But if that leads to a very narrow row against the cabinet, you may need to adjust the layout. Starting with full-size tiles at the left will lead to 5-in.-wide tiles against the cabinet and 7-in.-wide tiles against the right wall—perfectly acceptable. But you may want to cut off 2 in. or so from the left-side tiles for an even better look.

Layout stick

With ceramic or stone tiles that have grout joints, it can be a bit confusing to get the measurements right. So make a layout stick: Lay a row of tiles on the floor, separated by the spacers you will use. Set aboard next to the tiles and make a mark in the center of each grout line. This layout stick will help you visualize how the tiles will be arranged when you lay them.

To make a layout stick, set the tiles on the floor with spacers and mark the centers of the joints.

Measure and plan so the tiles abutting both walls and cabinetry will be of pleasingly substantial width.

Marking layout lines at a right angle

If you will install tiles, you’ll need to start with layout lines at a perfect 90° angle.

  • Use the 3-4-5 method. Start by snapping a chalk line (or drawing a pencil line using a long straightedge) that is two or three tiles away from a wall.

  • Make sure you will be able to kneel on one side of the line and install tiles up to the wall. Make a short mark on the chalk line indicating where you want a tile to end in the other direction. Measure 3 ft. along the chalk line and make another short mark. Mark a line 4 ft. away from the chalk line, estimating to be at a right angle to the first short mark.

  • Then measure carefully and mark the place that crosses the third line precisely 5 ft. away from the second line. Chalk a line between the first mark and the intersection of the last two marks. The two chalk lines will be exactly square to each other.


Be sure to choose tiles made for flooring; wall tiles will almost certainly crack. Choose your cutting method: Ceramic and porcelain tiles can be straight-cut using a snap cutter; for cutouts, you will need a grinder (or a circular saw) equipped with a masonry or diamond blade, or a wet tile saw. The natural stone tile should be cut with a wet tile saw, which you can rent.

The surface you are tiling over must be very firm: When a large adult jumps on it, you should feel no flex. This is usually not a problem with a concrete basement floor, but if the subfloor is plywood, it should be firmed up with a layer of the concrete backer board. Set the tiles in polymer- or latex- reinforced thin-set mortar.

You can use standard sanded grout to fill the joints. In the example shown on the bottom, I used epoxy grout, which is a bit more difficult to install (you’ll need to wipe it more often and more thoroughly), but it forms a stain- and mold-resistant surface that is easier to clean. Buy plastic tile spacers that produce the grout width you desire. I used 3⁄16-in. spacers, a common choice. Sweep or vacuum the subfloor thoroughly. If it is dusty, give it a quick damp mop to ensure that the mortar will stick to it.

USE THE RIGHT TOOLS AND MATERIALS The right tools and materials are key. Ask your tile dealer which notched trowel is best to use. For most tiles, 1⁄4-in.-deep notches work best; for thicker tiles, use a trowel with 3⁄8-in.-deep notches. Fortified or reinforced mortar gets mixed with water only. If the mortar is not fortified, manufacturer’s directions may tell you to mix with latex liquid. If you mix this type of mortar with water only, it will not be strong enough and tiles will come loose.

  • It’s important to start nice and straight. Temporarily attach a long straightedge to the floor, aligned with your layout mark. Here we use the factory edge of a sheet of drywall, but you can use plywood as well.
  • Pour a couple of inches or so of water into a 5-gal. bucket. Add powdered polymer-reinforced thin-set mortar. Using a drill with a mixing paddle, start with short bursts, then Work clean; squeezed-up mortar is easier to remove before it dries. You may need to regularly wash your hands and your the drill steadily to produce a smooth mix.

KEEP THINGS CLEAN: Work clean; squeezed-up mortar is easier to remove before it dries. You may need to regularly wash your hands and your tools.

  • You will need to add water or powder as you go. The final mix should be the consistency of mayonnaise—plenty wet, but firm enough so ridges produced by a notched trowel (next step) hold their shape. Work in small sections at a time; you should be able to finish a section in 10 minutes. Drop dollops of mortar onto the area, then spread with the smooth side of the notched trowel. (Many installers skip this step, but it ensures that the mortar sticks to the floor.)

  • Then comb the surface with the notched side of the trowel. Use long, sweeping strokes, aiming at an even surface with no large blobs.

  • The trowel should graze the subfloor only gently if at all. Take care not to cover any layout lines. Lower the tiles into position. Avoid sliding them more than a half-inch or so.
  • After several tiles are set, insert plastic spacers to produce straight grout joints. In the center of four tiles lay the spacer flat, so it spaces all four tiles. Where only two tiles meet, set the spacer on end.

  • Once you install adjoining tiles, you will pull out and lay most of these spacers flat as well. Once in a while pick up a tile and look at its back, to be sure it is resting in thinset over at least 75% of the surface.
  • If not, you may need to press the tiles or lay mortar with greater thickness. Run a short straightedge, like the board shown, over the surface to check for any high or low tiles. These can often be leveled out by laying a board on tiles and tapping with a hammer.
  • In some cases, you may need to pick up a tile and either add or scrape away some mortar, then reset the tile. After a number of rows, the tile lines may start to get a little wavy, especially along a line that will be highly visible. Press a straightedge against the line to fine-tune the positions.

  • Allow the mortar to dry for at least a day. Probe gently with a screwdriver to see that the mortar is dry. Mix a batch of sanded grout according to the package directions. Here we mix epoxy grout, which has an epoxy additive.
  • Drop dollops of grout onto the floor. Use a laminated grout float to first press the grout into the joints.
  • Press firmly with the float held nearly flat, and sweep the float in at least two directions at all points, to be sure there will be no voids. Then tilt the float up and use it as a squeegee to scrape away most of the excess grout.

  • Always scrape at an angle to the grout lines, or the float will dig into the joints. Fill a bucket with clean water. After you have grouted for 15 minutes or so, start wiping with a large damp sponge. Press gently and use long, sweeping strokes. You will need to turn the sponge over, then rinse repeatedly.
  • Clean several times. When the water gets dirty, replace it with clean water. As you clean the tiles, also use the sponge to create consistent grout joints. This is sometimes best with the sponge bunched up. When grout dries on the tile surface and produces a haze, wipe it gently away with a damp sponge. The next day there will still be some haze. Buff it with a dry or slightly dampened towel.

This is How To Cut Tile

  • To make straight cuts on ceramic or porcelain tile, position the tile against the fence of a snap cutter so the cutting wheel aligns with the cut mark.
  • Lower the wheel onto the tile and press down with medium pressure as you slide the cutter to score a line all along the length of the tile. Lift up on the handle, then press down to snap the cut. To make a number of same-size cuts, position and tighten the tool’s guide. If you have an angled cut to make, position the tile so the cut marks are both over the center strip, and score a line in the same way.
  • You may need to use a nibbling tool to complete the cut. A nibbling tool, also called tile nippers, can often be used to make rough cutouts or small cuts—which may be accurate enough if they will be covered with wall trim.

  • If you need to cut a narrow sliver, first score a line with a snap cutter, then use a nibbling tool to complete the cut.
  • A wet saw makes neat cuts and is the best tool to use when cutting stone tile. You can also make occasional cuts using a grinder with a diamond or masonry cutting blade. This produces clouds of dust, so do it outdoors.

Scrape before Grouting Before you start grouting, wash the tiled surface clean of any mortar smears. Check the joints to see if the mortar has squeezed up near the tile surface. If so, scrape it away with a screwdriver. Otherwise, the mortar will show through the grout.

A FAN CAN HELP On a basement floor, and especially if the room is humid, it may take more than a day for the mortar to dry before you can apply grout. To speed up drying, direct a fan to gently move air around the room.

How To Cut Mosaic Tile

  • Mosaic tiles come on sheets of individual tiles attached to a mesh backing. You can cut out whole tiles easily, by slicing through the backing.
  • To cut through individual tiles, use a wet saw. Or, for ceramic tiles (but not stone tiles), score cut lines with a snap cutter.
  • and finish the cuts using a nibbling tool. When you wipe up the grout, don’t try to tool individual grout lines; just wipe gently and repeatedly with a damp sponge.

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