Tiling a bathroom floor hard but worth it

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What's practical, durable and a pain in the knees?

Tiling a bathroom floor.

Coming off a weeklong slog through that project, I can say that I'm thrilled I didn't fail completely. Floor tiling requires planning, patience and an ability to quickly shift between finesse and heavy-handed grunt work. But if you have all that, plus a good how-to book and some luck, your tiling project may not end up in the dump.

To prepare for my job, I sought counsel from Arthur Moloian, senior manager of merchandising at Ann Sacks, a tiling manufacturer, and Michael Schweit and Robin Nicholas, authors of "Tiling Complete" (The Taunton Press). Their advice: Brace yourself.

"We used to say: 'Oh, a floor is the easiest DIY project. Jump right in,' " Ms. Nicholas said. "But it's a little more complicated than that."

Just a little.

Still, my panelists said, a bathroom floor is a good place to tackle intermediate-level tiling, because it is a relatively small space but not too small to move around in. Mine measures roughly 30 square feet.

First things first. If your floors are weak, warped, rotted or made from asbestos, consider it a 3DIY project (as in, don't dare do-it-yourself). And this is most definitely not an 11th-hour job: Set aside at least a week for selecting and ordering tiles, and another week for installation.

Bathrooms have the added complication of a toilet, and Mr. Schweit advised me to have a licensed plumber remove and reinstall mine. But more ambitious homeowners can do it with little trouble, as long as they shut off the water supply and seal the sewer line with newspaper or plastic wrap to keep gases at bay. As with any plumbing task, try this only during working hours, so you can call a plumber if things go awry.

After removing the toilet and wood trim bordering the floor, I took stock of the subflooring, which showed no signs of rot.

I had planned to remove the vinyl flooring, but Mr. Moloian suggested covering it with so-called backer board and simply tiling over that. "This may add a few dollars per square foot and also add a little thickness, so account accordingly," he said.

After ordering the tile and grout, I stopped by a local lumberyard for thinset cement, rubber gloves, a dust mask, safety goggles, joint tape and backer board. Nicholas suggested cutting the board with a sharp scraping tool, and measuring precisely to prevent gaps where pieces meet.

Cutting the boards was much harder than advertised. I wore out my arm, then wore out a jigsaw blade and finally dulled a circular saw blade. (The dust mask was important, as backer board dust filled the air while I cut.)

Ms. Nicholas said I should've simply scored the board and bent it downward to snap it.

After laying out the boards, I prepared to screw the boards to the floor. But first I coated the floor with thinset mortar to keep the boards from shifting.

"We've fixed multiple floor failures that were caused by people skipping this step," Mr. Schweit said.

I drove 115 screws into the boards, quickly scrapping my weak cordless drill for a more powerful corded model. I then taped over the joints and coated the tape with thinset.

Next came the trickiest steps: laying out and cutting the tiles. I had chosen 6-inch-by-6-inch tiles instead of mosaic sheets because Mr. Schweit and Ms. Nicholas said mosaics were harder for beginners to cut precisely.

Using a snap-line and a framer's square and a good set of kneepads, I marked a line across the threshold and a perpendicular line from the center of the threshold to the opposite wall. I then marked a line running parallel to the opposite wall and to the threshold. I laid tile along those lines, then laid adjacent pieces, working from the farthest corner toward the doorway.

Fortunately, I remembered to insert one-eighth-inch spacers between the tiles, to account for the grout.

The next step nearly cost me my sanity: cutting the tile. I bought tile nippers for my four curved cuts and my two L-shape cuts, and a mechanical tile cutter for my 31 straight cuts. (I had 59 full tiles left.)

I donned goggles and started with my L-cuts because "tile nipping" sounds about as easy as operating toenail clippers.

And that would be an apt metaphor if your toenails were made of titanium.

The metal teeth chipped off my first pair of nippers within 10 minutes. I switched to a bigger set of nippers and 15 minutes later ruined my first tile. I slowed down considerably on the second tile, and after 20 minutes of teeth-grinding work, I sheared the corner off my "L."

I called the local tile store in desperation. The woman laughed. "Ceramic tiles are so dense these days it's almost impossible to use nippers on them," she said, suggesting a place to rent a wet saw.

It cost me $50 for a day, and if it had been $500, it would have been money well spent. I spent the afternoon happily zipping through my cuts.

Finally, it was go time. I mixed thinset to the consistency of peanut butter and got on my knees again. I might as well have been praying.

The notched trowel, when held at a slight angle, left channels of thinset just big enough to set the tiles nicely. But this time, my rookie mistake was in failing to place the spacers flat at the intersection of the tiles. Instead, I inexplicably stood the spacers straight up, so although the tiles were well spaced and level and firmly set in cement, they were slightly skewed at the intersections.

After 24 hours, I was ready to grout.

First, I scraped cement from the channels. Yet again, this required much more time and effort than necessary because I failed to drag the tile spacers through the channels to remove the excess cement.

Next I mixed a 10-pound bag of grout with a 27-ounce bottle of GroutOnce, which, a TileAmerica representative said, saves the step of sealing the grout. Judging from online posts, tiling contractors aren't completely sold on GroutOnce.

After waiting 10 minutes to let the grout set, I began filling the grout channels, which was easy and took about 20 minutes. I then waited the recommended 15 minutes before shaping the grout joints with a sponge, stupidly forgetting that the grout joints I'd started with had already been drying for 20 minutes. It took nearly an hour of shoulder-searing work to get the calcifying grout into passable shape.

When I willed my body into an upright position again, though, I beheld a floor that was not bad looking at all.

A few days later I reassembled the room and my first impression still held. I had needed fully twice as long as a professional to finish the job, Ms. Nicholas said, but at least I didn't ruin it.


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