Tue. May 21st, 2024

Our front door has a small vestibule. It was originally covered in tile, but when we replaced our hardwood floor we took this nasty blue tile out.

We opted to replace it with new tile since it will inevitably be a snowy, slushy, salty area for 5 months of the year. Thanks, Canadian winters.

I found a cute idea on Apartment Therapy where fellow Torontonians used 1″ hexagon tiles to create this adorable entrance to their home. I obviously had to steal it.

Design

To create the design, I used my trusty Illustrator skills and created a blank hexagon canvas. And of course, my hexagon tiles were to scale because that’s how I roll. 

I also created the design in both black and white to see which I preferred.

and went to work on the border and numbers…

Visually, I was torn between the black or white base. But since white and dirt don’t play nicely together, we decided to go with the black base.

This level of design work was useful in helping me figure out how many white tiles we needed, but it was probably overkill since I just dry fit the border pattern to figure it out. The numbers were a bit tricky, though, so there was definitely value in figuring those out. I was unable to find any hexagon number designs online, so I had to come up with that on my own. The 9 was pretty easy, but the 5 gave me a run for my money.

Tile Shopping

Once we were sure of our design, it was time to go find our tiles. 

Shopping for tile was interesting. We saw a range of tile stores from fancy to wholesale-style. None had our tile, so we spent a lot of time in the clearance section hoping to find some leftover hexagon tiles for cheap.

Olympia Tile, one of Toronto’s largest tile stores, forced us down a long, scary and (obviously) tiled hallway.

Several hours later, there were no hexagon tiles to be found and patience was running thin…

Too bad these wouldn’t work…

Finally we found some hexagon tiles at fancy-pants Centura and for a decent price: only $7.49/square foot for the black tiles and $6/square foot for the white. Tile score!

Unfortunately the tiles weren’t in stock and had to be ordered. They took a could of weeks to arrive.

Our vestibule is approximately 45″ long by 48″ wide, or around 15 square feet, so we bought 20 black tile sheets and 2 white tile sheets – about $150 worth or just under 19 square feet (each sheet is just under a square foot). We wanted a few extra sheets in case we messed up, and at $7/sheet, it was doable.

Supplies and Tools

We ended up buying all of our other supplies (grout, mortar, sealer, etc.) from Centura because they were reasonably priced and the sales guy was helpful. Plus, they had more grout colour options than Lowe’s or Home Depot and I was particular about colour (go figure).

We also needed a few tools to install the tiles: a notched trowel for the mortar, a wooden float to pound the tiles in place, 1/16″ spacers for the tile, a rubber float for the grout, two sponges (one for mortar, one for grout), a bucket for mixing, a tile cutter, nippers, and a utility knife and nylon brush for cleaning out mortar.

The biggest question for us was which type of tile cutter to use. The most common tool is a wet saw, which uses water and a blade to cut through the tile. However, we read that the water from the wet saw could cause the glue to unstick on the mesh of the hex sheet. And we had little interest in placing hundred of individual hexagon tiles…

Instead, we opted for a rail cutter, which scores the tile and then snaps the tile at the score mark. This is where things got less fun. Technically this method worked, but it was extremely difficult and tedious to use. Scoring the tile was hard because the tiles slid around. Also, the tool itself was always in the way. We had to actually remove the cutter blade because it got in the way of the snapper. Once we got the hang of it, it wasn’t the worst, but it wasn’t awesome. The challenge here was directly related to the fact that we were using hex tiles. Otherwise, large single tiles would have cut beautifully on this little beast.

We also had a pair of nippers, which allow small, targeted cuts. This was useful for making small cuts, but it was very difficult to get a perfectly straight line, so we used this tool for cuts that would be covered by baseboard. The nippers were also painful to use after a while because it involved a lot of strength and the vibration was brutal.

Dry Fitting

We dry fit all the tiles as we made cuts to ensure our cuts were precise.

But before we could place the first tile sheet, we had to make sure that we had a straight line to work with. We used our trusty long level to mark straight lines on the subfloor using the hardwood floor. When the tiles were all in place, they looked straight, so we called it a day.

Adding the white pattern was easy. First, we just threw them on top of the black base until we were happy with their exact placement.

We did the same for the numbers but had to keep referring back to my design.

Once the white tiles were in place it was time to take out the black tiles. This step involved some patience and a good utility knife, but it wasn’t too bad. Most of them came right off the mesh with a little leverage from the knife.

It only took about an hour to place the white tiles but it took us a while to decide where we wanted the 59. When it was centred on the floor, it wasn’t centred in the middle of the door (because our door isn’t in the middle of the vestibule). 

We decided to centre the numbers in the tile, not against the door because it looked better this way.

Installing Tile

When we were ready to install the floor, we removed all of the tiles and thoroughly vacuumed the subfloor. We used green tape on each sheet to number the tiles and had a corresponding cheat sheet so we wouldn’t get confused.

We used TEC Super Flex Latex Modified Thin Set Mortar, which we got at Centura. It’s a good quality mortar, which is important because we’re applying it to a wood surface. I’ve read mixed things about applying tile on a wood subfloor, but given that these are hex tiles and the area is small, the flooring guy said we should be alright. We’ll see…

We mixed only as much mortar as we thought we could use in 20-30 minutes. We were pretty slow at first, so we only installed one sheet at a time. I wanted to make sure the sheets were straight or the entire floor would have been off. We mixed it to a consistency similar to frosting. The mortar also had to sit 10 minutes before application, so this slowed things down a bit since we didn’t want to mix the next batch until we were absolutely sure we were ready to use it.

Once the mortar was ready to go, I applied it to the subfloor with a utility knife (just because my bucket was too small for the trowel to fit).

It’s also important to make sure that the neighbouring mortar isn’t too dry. In the photo above, once we installed the tile, the dried mortar caused the tiles to be significantly higher than the existing sheet, so we had some serious lippage. We then had to remove the new mortar and scrape off the dried mortar. It was annoying and messy, but it worked.

We then used the 3/16″ notched trowel at a 45 degree angle to notch the mortar.

Placing the tile sheets was harder than I expected. I assumed that the sheets would slide easily once they were down, allowing us to adjust them so they were straight. Well, I’m not sure if it’s because our mortar was too thick or what, but that didn’t happen. We didn’t have much ability to move them, so putting them down within a couple of millimeters of their desired spot was crucial.

The first sheet was also particularly difficult and stressful because the mortar oozed through the tile sheets. The grout needs to go somewhere, so if the tile seams are filled with mortar, it’s not going to look right. We were also using grey mortar (which is most common and significantly cheaper than white) so if we were using a light grout, then it would have shown through.

We used our spacers to dig out the excess and get as much mortar out as possible. It worked, but we had mortar everywhere and we were stressed about how much had to be removed. The good news (which we didn’t know at the time) is that mortar comes off fairly easily with a damp sponge. So, if mortar comes up through the sheet and gets all over the tile, it’s not the end of the world. The seams should definitely be cleaned out while it’s still wet (because then you have to really scrape it out) but it doesn’t have to be 100% gone. Once it’s dry, a utility knife will cut away any residual stuff fairly easily. We don’t have any photos from this part because it wasn’t a particularly happy time…

Once the sheet was in the correct position, I used a wooden float to press the tiles into the mortar. Any tool that covers a wide(ish) area that will help level out the tiles works.

Once the tiles were pressed in place and any lippage was removed, we used a lot of spacers to make sure that the space between the tiles were consistent. We could only find long tile spacers, so we had to cut hundreds of these tiny pieces of plastic so they wouldn’t fall over when in place. Next time I will make sure to buy the smallest spacers possible. We also bought a pack of 200, but we could have used 3 bags (or 600). We had to keep reusing spacers, which was tough because we didn’t want the tiles to slide.

Our little cut spacers also made our tile installation look like a mini cemetery. 

Once the main sheet was installed, we installed all of the individual tiles: the white border pieces and any black tiles that had fallen off the mesh sheet or cut tiles for the ends against the wall.

We installed all tiles in the square before moving on to the next sheet to make sure the mortar was still wet enough. We also back buttered the individual tiles to make sure they were really stuck.

We kept the individual tiles in bags taped to the wall so that they were easy to find and accessible during the installation.

The installation took longer than we thought (as usual), so at the end of the first day (or 8 hours later), we had installed all but 4 sheets.

The next day we completed the remaining tile sheets, which only took us about an hour since we were pros.

When it was all installed, I took a damp sponge and cleaned off any excess mortar. 

Once we were done, we were pretty happy with our work. So was Gus.

Note that I’m sitting on the tile in the photos above because it had been dry for more than 24 hours. If we had done the installation in one day, I would have been awkwardly leaning into the vestibule and the photos would have been more suggestive.

Grouting Tile

We waited a full week after our tile installation to grout, but only because we ran out of time the previous weekend. Normally, the mortar has to set at least 24 hours before grouting can happen.

We chose TEC Power Grout in DeLorian Gray. Apparently it’s a good grout and they had several colour choices available.

Before grouting, we made sure that the surface was clean and the tile seams were clear of any debris. I also got my OCD on and went to work on any excess mortar. I used a utility knife and carefully cut away the mortar (being careful not to scratch the tile) and then used a nylon brush to scrub it away. This cleaning combo was fairly effective.

Once the tiles were ready to go, we mixed the grout to a peanut butter-like consistency. We also let the grout sit for 10 minutes because it needs time to slake, which allows time for the chemicals to react.

The grout was fairly easy to apply. I used the rubber float and worked the grout deep into the seams of the tile, holding the float at a low angle.

Once the grout was in each seam, I cleaned off the float and used it at an almost-90 degree angle to scrape off the excess grout on top of the tile. This is an important step because cleaning large chunks of grout off when it’s dry isn’t super easy.

We then waited 20 minutes for the grout to dry slightly and went over it with a damp sponge. By slightly moistening the grout, it started to look smooth and fill in any small gaps or ridges. 

After another 30 minutes, once the grout was dryer, we went over the entire surface with a damp sponge and started to actually clean off the grout. This process involved a lot of back and forth between the vestibule and the kitchen. We basically got one wipe out of the sponge before having to rinse it. We used a large tile sponge for the grout clean up and a small kitchen sponge to scrub the difficult parts. Allowing it to dry almost an hour at this point also meant that there wasn’t too much grout coming off when we wiped it. If we hadn’t waited this long, then we would have risked taking too much out of the seams.

The major challenge here was that the grout slightly covers each tile edge, creating a less than perfect line. I basically scrubbed each tile individually to make sure that no grout was on the tile. This is where hexagon tiles get annoying.

Once I was happy with the grout lines, we moved on to the rest of the floor. We used the same process: mix grout, wait for it to slake, use float to apply grout, scrape off excess grout, wait 20 minutes to dry, moisten grout with sponge to make grout lines smooth, wait again, clean grout off tiles. I think the grout was slightly too dry when we did this the second time, so we had to patch some spots with additional grout. This was also painful, since we had to carefully scan hundreds of tile seams to find the problem areas.

But it was starting to come together.

Once we were happy with the results, we did our final clean. It was pretty late on Sunday night but I wasn’t sure whether or not we’d be able to scrub off the grout the following day. We know now that the next day grout does not come off.

Even with all the grout cleaned off, there was still a cloudy film on the tile that took a couple of days of wiping to get off.

We also moistened the grout for 2 days after the installation with the giant sponge to both clean the floor and slow the curing time for the grout. Apparently this is a good extra step if you’re working in an area that you don’t need access to – which is true for us. What’s another week at this point… 

Caulking

Once the grout was cured and fully removed from the tile, we caulked the threshold between the tile and the hardwood floor. We used AccuColor Silicone Sealant in DeLorian Gray to match our grout colour. The silicone was interesting to use and was clearly the highest quality caulking product I had ever used.

After a shotty bathtub caulking experience from another life, I turned to the internet to find out how to properly caulk.

Using some painter’s tape, I taped off the area on either side of where I was going to caulk to create a perfectly straight line.

I vacuumed the area one last time to make sure it was clean from debris or dust. I also got a bowl of water and paper towel ready.

I cut the top of the caulk tube at a 45 degree angle and put it in the caulking gun. I then applied a fairly thick bead of caulk to the seam (we had a fairly big gap to fill). The silicone was an excellent product and went on extremely smoothly.

Once the caulk was fully applied, I then had to smooth it out. I also had Alex nearby to take the caulk from me and release pressure on the caulking gun, which was particularly helpful when I was covered in silicone.

Using a wet finger, I smoothed the caulk from one end to the other.

It took a few laps before it was perfectly smooth. I made sure to always re-dip my finger in the water to help with the smoothing. It’s a fairly sticky substance but the water completely prevents it from sticking to your finger.

Once it was perfectly smooth, we immediately removed the tape.

The lines were extremely smooth. I was actually surprised by how well it worked!

I didn’t caulk by the front door because we will eventually have to replace the door jamb, which won’t happen until the spring. Luckily the silicone caulk came with a trusty little cap, so we should be able to use it again.

We are extremely happy with our finished product! Here’s a little before and after action:

Sealing

Grout should always be sealed to prevent staining. The grout we bought is a commercial grade product and doesn’t require sealing. We did some internet research and confirmed that this was the case, so we didn’t seal the grout. We’ll see how well it stands up to Canadian winters…

Cost

Our vestibule project was fairly low-cost (in the grand scheme of things). Here is a breakdown of what we spent:

MaterialCost/UnitTotal UnitsTotal Cost
Tile$7/sq ft20 sq ft$150
Supplies and ToolsN/AN/A$120
Total$18/sq ft20 sq ft$270

Time

As usual, it took us longer to finish this project than we thought. We cut all the tiles ahead of time so that we’d have a full Saturday just to set the tiles. It ended up taking us both Saturday and part of Sunday (largely due to a hangover) to set the tile, so we couldn’t grout until the following weekend (since mortar needs 24 hours+ to set). The next weekend we managed to grout everything on a Sunday but it took longer than we expected because we had to clean up each individual seam. If we had done it on Saturday, we could have finished the grout and caulking in the same weekend. So, it took us 3-4 days, but we could have done this in a weekend – especially if the tiles are cut ahead of time.

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