Months into my basement bathroom reno, I was finally ready to tile. The walls were up, plumbing and electrical were in, and waterproofing was done.
Materials and Tools
My original materials list started relatively small: tiles (Mutina Puzzle), unmodified thinset (Schluter), a 1/4″ x 3/8″ trowel, a wet tile saw and a grinder with a diamond blade. As I worked through each tile situation, my materials expanded: requiring better grinders (from a tile shop instead of Home Depot), drill bits (that can drill through tile) and varying sizes of hole saws.
But as the project went on, my list of materials grew. First, I didn’t realize that I would need multiple blades to complete all the cuts. The saw got noticeably slow as I went on and changing the blade was a big improvement. In the end, I used 2 new blades but probably should have bought a third for the last few tiles. I also ended up using more thinset than I anticipated. For the entire bathroom, I used 5 full bags of the Schluter thinset.
Tile Layout and Pattern
When framing and putting up the walls, I considered the location of the tiles so that everything would line up nicely. Not everything was perfect – if I wanted one thing centered, something else would be off – so I had to find the right balance. Before I started tiling, I confirmed the tile locations to makes sure that I wouldn’t have any awkward cuts or small bits of tiles on each end.
I wanted a random pattern of my tiles, which I luckily found online. I simply cropped it on my phone to match the right number of rows and columns and used it as a guide for which tiles to install where.
Once my locations were confirmed, I marked where the first tile would be placed and then drilled a piece of baseboard to the wall to act as my base for the first row.
I mixed as much thinset as I thought I could use in 2 hours (which is the recommended time so it doesn’t get too dry) and worked hard to mixed it well. A mixer bit would have been helpful, but I just rolled up my sleeves and mixed it with a trowel and my arm. I was covered in thinset…
Then, similar to how I installed the shower membrane, I dampened my wall with a wet sponge, put the thinset on the wall and used my 1/4″ x 3/8″ trowel to notch the thinset. I also back-buttered the tiles before placing them on for extra coverage. For my 10 x 10 tiles, I used 1/8″ spacers.
I checked each tile for levelness as I went to make sure that my tiles were perfectly level. I also made sure they were as flat as possible. I had a few areas where the wall wasn’t level and so I have a small lip. Luckily those few tiles will be hidden by the vanity and I’m hoping to hide the imperfections with grout.
Like with any tiling project, I had to make some cuts to go around the electrical and plumbing fixtures.
For tile cuts on the edge of the tile, it was actually fairly straight forward. I held the tiles at an angle to the tile saw (and it’s about as scary as it looks) and made a series of cuts long the tile until they could be easily cut off by moving the tile back and forth along the blade. I highly recommend safety glasses though since pieces of tile shoot off like crazy.
Unfortunately I had to make square cuts in the middle of two of the tiles, which was considerably harder and annoying. I marked the four edges for the cuts and carefully cut the tile away using the angle grinder. The hardest part of using the angle grinder is that you’re using a circular blade to cut a square, which means that your corners are never cut all the way through. So I kept my cuts on the front of the tile within the cut lines but cut further on the back to get the cut all the way through. Plus, you don’t see the backside of the tile, so it doesn’t matter that the blade goes further than the cut lines.
After 3 failed attempts at cutting the hole, I sought advice from my DIY Facebook group who suggested the tile was likely overheating and vibrating too much. I tried clamping the tile, having Alex constantly pour water over my saw as I cut, and took my time. No matter what I did, the tile kept breaking.
After about 8 failed attempts, I called my tile store and asked if they had any advice. They suggested that my blade was likely cheap and I should invest in a better blade. So I bought a more expensive blade for my grinder and also bought some tile drill bits. I tried with the new grinder blade and broke another tile. Then I drilled 4 corners (which took forever) and then connected the holes by cutting through with my new expensive grinder blade. I also cut an X in the middle of the tile to relieve some of the pressure from the cut. I don’t know what exactly made it work, but I finally had a cut tile that didn’t crack!
The double gang electrical box was considerably easier to make and I only broke one tile in the making. I just used the grinder and made straight cuts. The only annoying bit was then having to cut notches out for the outlet screw holes.
The other kind of hole I had to make was a circle in the middle of the tile to accommodate a faucet valve. Alex had picked up the diamond hole saw pieces and a drill bit, but what I actually needed was a retractable bit, which makes sense because the bit can’t actually drill through the tile (so it has to retract as you press down so only the hole saw itself is trying to go through the tile).
Unfortunately not having the retractable piece meant stopping my tile work so I could drive to Home Depot and pick one up. A trip that (thanks to Covid) took way longer than it should have. Between my Home Depot run and actually making the hole, the cut probably took me 2 1/2 hours.
Straight cuts were extremely easy on the wet tile saw. I simply marked where the tile needed to be cut, positioned it on the saw, and slid the tile through the blade to cut it. Easy-peasy. The saw is loud, though, so I made sure to use hearing protection. It was also pretty cold when I was sawing, so after cutting 5 tiles and getting splashed from the tile saw, my hands were pretty frozen.
Angled cuts were required at the window – and I probably should have done this for the straight edge on the wall as well (lesson learned). It took a few tries to get the hang of it, but it was essential to first do a straight cut to the right length and then cut on an angle, making sure the blade was 1/16″ or so back from the edge of the tile so it didn’t chip it.
But here’s where things got messy. Around the outer 4 corners of the window, I had to make L-shaped tile cuts. I was a pro at the wet saw by now, so cutting the L-shape with straight cuts was no problem at all. But when I went to cut the 45 degree angle of the L, I realized that the tile saw angle was backward for one of the cuts. Flipping it around wouldn’t work, cutting from the back of the saw was too risky (and didn’t really work anyways), so I was stuck. I called the tool rental place and asked if there was a saw that tilted both ways (like a regular mitre saw), I called the tile installation desk at our tile place, and I went to my DIY Facebook group looking for answers. No one had one, except to use an angle grinder. I tried, but there was no way I could make the cut without chipping the tile.
I eventually had the idea to fake the 45 degree by cutting from the backside of the tile and making a series of straight cuts by raising the blade at each cut as I went away from the edge. It was tedious and stressful, but it worked!
Tiling itself wasn’t hard, but it was very finicky and required attention to detail.
I mixed my thinset, applied it to the wall, notched it with my trowel and back-buttered the tiles before placing them on the wall. I made sure each tile was level and plumb before placing the next tile.
I began with the longest and hardest wall (hardest because of all the cuts). It took me two full weekend days and a few evenings to get the entire wall done.
Next I moved on to the opposite wall, making sure my grout lines lined up – both horizontally and vertically. Once I had my first tile marked, I tiled away. This wall is only white tiles, which made it considerably faster because I didn’t have to keep going back to check my pattern before placing the tiles. I managed to finish this small section of wall in about a day and a half. The hardest part was installing the tile edge, which was tricky to get flush with both the wall and the tiles. With the cut tile against the tile edge, it didn’t create a perfectly flush edge – for some reason the tile didn’t sit flush with the tile edge (the tile edge to wall flushness was no problem). I’m hoping I can fix it with the grout so the side of the tile isn’t seen.
Finally, the exterior wall. I was dreading this wall a bit because I had the shower ledge and window to deal with.
Installing the shower ledge was relatively easy. I knew that I wanted one solid piece of stone (because I didn’t want grout lines on the ledge) so I purchased a piece of stone cut by a local fabricator to the right dimensions and installed it like a tile. It cost me about $200 for a 5″ x 60″ piece. I had already sloped the ledge itself, so when I installed the stone, it was easy to get the right angle.
The window was another story. I had a lot going on: 4 pieces of Schluter Finec edging, angled cuts and trying to keep everything looking square and level. Every tile in the window required a 45 degree cut (see more on that above) and it was just tedious and time consuming to get the cuts right. Plus, I was running out of tile so I couldn’t have any unnecessary waste. I pre-cut all the pieces and then installed all at the same time so that I could wiggle things around to make a tight fit with the Schluter edge.
I was pretty worried about the top of the window, since I wasn’t sure if the tiles would hold. The thinset actually does a decent job of holding the tiles in place and I added some wood to make sure the tiles wouldn’t sag before they set.
Unfortunately I was exactly 8 tiles short to complete the tiling work and I had to order more. Since they’re special order tiles, I had to wait 6 weeks for the new ones to come in. It was pretty devastating, but I managed to grout the rest of the bathroom so that I could simply deal with those final tiles later.
Once all the tile was installed, I made sure to remove any extra thinset between the tiles (using a putty knife to break it away) and cleaned the front of the tile so there was no haze from the thinset. After what felt like a thousand wipe downs, the tile was clean and I was ready to grout.
Grouting wasn’t hard. I mixed my grout to a relatively loose consistency, let it sit for 5 minutes, and then spread it on the wall with a rubber float. I had a few spills at first, but eventually got the hang of it and kept most of the grout on the wall.
I used the float to push the grout into the tile and then tried to get as much of the excess off before it started to set. Once it was dry-ish to the touch, I then started to wipe it down, which also smooths out the grout lines. Originally I had gone back and forth between a dark and light grout, but I was really happy with the TEC Standard White sanded grout that I chose.
My least favourite part of grouting is wiping it clean. It took about 10x longer to wipe off the grout than it did to apply it, and it was 100x more annoying. I remembered this problem well from my other tiling projects (here and here), so at least I was prepared. The patterned wall took about 2 hours from grout application to fully clean, and the other walls took maybe 30 to 60 minutes each. They were much easier to tackle because I did each section of wall at separate times, so it felt more manageable.
Once all the walls were grouted, I could caulk the seams – where the tile met the floor, shower base, ceiling and walls. I’m not great at caulking silicone, so I picked up a caulking tool at Home Depot. I also used 100% silicone sealant that was colour-matched to my grout colour. I was impressed by how effective the caulking tool was and will always use it any other time I have to caulk silicone.
With everything tiled, grouted and caulked, it was really coming together and looking great!