The nitty-gritty on installing a tile wall

Maybe you saw our post from a few weeks ago about our new tile bathtub surround?

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When I wrote it, I was so wiped out from doing the project that I couldn’t do much more but marvel at the finished product. Which was fun for me, but not so helpful for any of you who might be thinking about doing something similar.

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We’ve written a lot about our design process (here and here), but we haven’t shared anything about how we actually got the thing from the design idea in our head (and garage) to the bathroom walls. It’s one thing to have a small sample/prototype of the design and quite another to get it translated to 3 walls.

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After making this on a table top, we knew we wanted blocks of neutral tiles separated by single rows of colorful tiles.

Today, we’d like to share what we did/learned–because we think it’s a cool thing to use salvage/discarded tiles, but not necessarily an easy one.

Laying it all out there

My original hope was that we’d be able to come up with some kind of easy system for laying out the tile. My inspiration was a piece from Better Homes & Gardens, in which the homeowners had a palette of 8 tile colors. The tile installers were told to put the tiles up in no particular order, as long as no two tiles of the same color were touching at any point (even corners).

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(Image via Better Homes & Gardens; original URL no longer works)

I tried various ways to come up with a similarly easy way to deal with our tiles, but I couldn’t make it work (and look good).

We had way more than 8 colors, and there was just too much variation in them to be able to group them into a smallish number of distinct colors. We realized we were going to want to purposely place every single tile and be able to see the whole thing before committing to each tile’s placement.

So, we measured the walls, and then used masking tape on the garage floor to outline the three walls we needed to fill.

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The little box within the left box represents a cut-out we put into the wall.

We then laid a row of tile vertically, to determine how many rows of tile we’d need:

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Once we knew that, we were able to determine how many rows of neutral tiles would separate our rows of colorful stripes.

Our first step was to fill in all the neutral rows with neutral tiles:

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Then, we filled in rows of color. We originally had a yellow line (which I don’t have a picture of), but we decided to try pink instead of yellow. The pink tiles are on top of the yellow ones in this photo, which is why they are elevated.

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We weren’t bowled over by this design, so we let it sit for awhile and focused on other things. We finally landed on this for our color stripes:

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But the neutrals still weren’t quite right. I played around with them quite a bit, landing on these guidelines:

1. We removed any neutral that had any hint of the colors in our stripes. This eliminated a lot of subtle green, yellow, and blue tiles from our stash.

2. We decided we wanted a gradation of intensity in the neutral tones. The bottom and top two rows would be the least intense (with the most white tiles), and the band in the middle would have the most intensity (no white tiles).

3. To make #2 happen, I categorized the neutrals. Some were dark neutrals (sand, tan, coral) and some were light (off-white, bone, hazy gray).

4. I created some layout “rules” for the bands. For example, in the two top and bottom bands, there had to be two white tiles in each chunk of 6 tiles and no more than one dark neutral.

Then it was a matter of applying the rules. And just moving tiles around until it all looked right.

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The differences between our original laying out and the final one aren’t huge, but we felt it made a big difference in how the walls look.

Getting it from the floor to the wall

As we fussed with the layout, we realized that we were going to want to be sure to put the tiles on the wall exactly as we had them laid out on the floor. So we  needed a system for getting them from the floor to the wall.

We picked up the tiles one row at a time, and in the same order. We started at the left side and stacked the tiles underneath each other, in the order they were on the floor. This left us with a stack of tiles at the end of each row. (And we did this separately for each wall.)

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Each stack got taped together (with painter’s tape) and labeled so we’d know which wall it was from and which row it was.

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These tiles are from the right wall.

We then stacked them on the workbench in our garage until it we had time to put them on the wall.

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The taller stacks are tiles for the long center wall.

Getting them on the wall

One of our first decisions was to spend the money to buy a tile saw. As Cane outlined in our earlier post about the saw, we realized that the cost of renting one could easily equal the cost of a saw if we were going to want the saw for more than a day.

We didn’t want to rush the process of applying the tile, so we decided to purchase a cutter. We’re really glad that we did. We never felt rushed and were able to take the time we needed to learn how to make the cuts and to do the best job we could.

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There was definitely a learning curve to cutting the tile, and we don’t have the kind of life (or stamina) that accomodates marathon work sessions. Buying the tile saw was a great decision.

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As for getting the tiles on the wall, it’s really not that tough. We consulted some books and YouTube videos, and they all outlined the same basic process.

We figured out the height of our first row of tiles, and attached a batten board right above it to hold the first row of tile to apply. This board stays in place to hold the tiles as you work your way up. After getting to the top, you go back and remove the board to apply the first row of tile.

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We also lined the tub with cardboard and a drop cloth, to protect it from any tiles we might drop.

We also drew some guiding vertical lines on the backer board.

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As you can see, we make mistakes.

We don’t want to delve into the technicalities of this part too much because so many others have already done that, and likely better than we would. We’ll just cover the things we discovered that are specific to working with salvaged tile.

The biggest thing:  Be prepared for tile that isn’t uniform in size.

We thought our tiles were all the same size–or close enough–but when we began putting them on the wall we discovered that really small size differences made a really big difference in keeping our grout lines straight.

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It meant that our spacers weren’t of much help to us. Our green tiles, particularly, had a lot of variation in size, so we had to make small adjustments in the rows above and below them to keep our lines as straight as possible.

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At first we worried about this. We decided that there wasn’t much to be done about it, though, and to embrace this as simply part of the charm of salvaged tile.

Our bathroom is not formal, and neither is the rest of our house. It has humble roots. The 70s split-level was originally  a modest house for middle-class families, and we think it can sit easily with our kinda bohemian tile. (We know, “bohemian” and “suburban” don’t usually go together–but we think they can.)

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Our tile is definitely “custom”–though not in the usual sense of the word. Still, we took so much care with the design and layout that this feels almost like a piece of art to us.

Another thing we learned:  Applying the tile to the wall is mostly a one-person job.

We worked together for about half of the the first wall (we started with the big back wall). I do recommend this, particularly with the kind of design we ended up creating.

It helped to have two people, to make sure we were doing it right as we got started. Once we got the hang of it, though,we really didn’t need two people.

For our process, we brought one or two rows of tile up to the bathroom at a time.

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We laid out a whole row of tile on the floor, and then simply put it on the wall in the same order.

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There really was nothing too tricky about our process. One way it varied from the standard is that we found ourselves not using spacers too much. Because of those variations in tile size, we kept having to make adjustments in the space between tiles. If you study the grout lines closely, you’ll see that they aren’t standard at all.

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We did use spacers early on to help us make sure we knew exactly how many tiles we needed in each row and to determine the center of our lines.

Getting it done

Once the tile was all up on the wall, there was nothing left but the grouting.

Sounds like a piece of cake, huh? “Nothing left but…”

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The grouting was a serious beast of a job. And, like the laying of the tile, mostly a one-person job.

Again, there are lots of online resources you can find about how to grout. A few things I discovered that I didn’t see in those sources:

1. I really recommend a sponge like this one:

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The soft side is good for removing excess grout from the tiles while the grout is still wet, and the scrubby side is good for removing the grout residue that remains after the grout has dried.

2. You’ll need to let a good amount of residue sit on the tile and begin to dry out. When I tried to get it all off right away, I ended up getting too much water in the grout lines. This either flooded the grout out, or it seemed to change the color of the grout. We used white sanded grout, but some areas turned dark. (And I then had to regrout them.)

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I got too much water into the grout here.

This is the process that worked for me:

A. Wet/rinse your sponge and wring it out well.

B. Apply grout with a float to a section of tile. I probably worked in sections of about 6×6 tiles. (As all the resources will tell you, apply the grout diagonally, and really push it in with the float.) Rinse the float after doing this.

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After the grout is in, you’ll have quite a bit of it left on the surface of the tiles:

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C. Use your semi-dry sponge to wipe away grout from the tiles. (Being sure to swipe diagonally across the grout lines.) Don’t worry about getting all of it off. Focus on getting the grout smooth and even in the grout lines.

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This is what the tiles looked like at this stage of the process. I actually had a bit too much water in the sponge when I took this shot.

D. If you’ve done an earlier section, go back to it with the scrubby side of  your sponge. Swipe it lightly across the tiles, using the same diagonal sweeps. Don’t press too hard, and know that you’re still going to leave some residue. Just try to get more off. After doing this, return to step A and a new section of tile.

The next day, after the grout is dry, go back and remove the residue that remains.

To do this, I got the surface of the tile wet with the sponge. I let the water sit for a few seconds, then worked at it with the scrubby side of the sponge.

I’d finish it by buffing with a clean, dry cloth.

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There’s just no way around this:  It takes a lot lot of rubbing, a lot of muscle, and a lot of time.

It’s not only time consuming, it’s also messy.

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There was no way to keep the floor of the tub from becoming a mess of grout.

After tracking grout through the house and having to scrub it off our cork floors, I began grouting in my bare feet. I kept a pair of flip-flops at the bathroom door, and I slipped those on whenever I had to leave the room. I had to leave the room a lot because we currently have no sink and I needed to change the water in the bucket often so that it would be clean.

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Lost count of how many times I had to change the water in this bucket.

Oh, and in addition to being time-consuming, messy, and tedious, it’s also boring. I highly recommend finding something you can “watch” that doesn’t require you to actually look at the screen all that much. I found Mad Men to be perfect for this.

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I know, I know: A huge part of this show’s appeal are the gorgeous mid-century styles. I still got to peek at some of them.

In the end, of course, we felt it was all worth it.

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Even though the bathroom is far from finished, we feel a huge sense of accomplishment. As I said, we began this whole thing in January. Back then, we blogged about it as part of the Imagine the Impossibilities challenge hosted by some of our favorite bloggers.

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(Clicking on this image will take you to its post.)

So I’m especially tickled to be able to link this post up to another challenge hosted by the same group. This one is called Mission Possible:  All About Color. 

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We think our wall is definitely all about color, and we’re so pleased that we can finally share this finished project in the same places we shared the start of this journey.

I originally linked to the impossibilities challenge because the idea of tiling was something that felt impossible to me. 

I can now say it’s like almost anything in life that feels impossible:  You don’t have to know every step of way before beginning. You just need to figure out the right first step. And then the right next step. Until you’re done.

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Of course, we’re not really done. Our right next step is to paint the walls that surround that tile. And we’ve got a pretty colorful idea about that, too…

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Hope you’ll check back with us soon to see what’s up with that brown wall…

In the meantime, if you want to see a whole bunch of colorful ideas, you can find them at any of these party-hosting blogs: It All Started with Paint, The Space Between, Eclectically Vintage, Thistlewood Farm, The Cottage Market.

And if you want to see the whole bathroom project from the beginning (which is still very much in progress) you can check it out in the master bathroom section of our home/project tour.

We’re also linking up to One Project Closer’s Before and After Series, which benefits Habitat for Humanity.

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UPDATE 8.10.12:  Also pleased to connect to a new feature at No Ordinary Homestead. It’s their Natural Life Link-up, running every Friday.

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