A tile installation project can be a challenging task for a first-timer or even a well-seasoned designer. The outcome of the finished installation will depend greatly on the depth of knowledge of the materials, the processes involved, and the many nuances inherent. This article strives to provide information and tips, as well as help prevent any possible shortfalls in the process of designing for and installing a tile installation. This information stems from my own personal experiences designing and installing for a wide variety of tile installations. In this article, we will assume that handmade tile shall be used for the project rather than standard machine-made tile found in most home improvement stores, which tend to present much less of a challenge.
Lets begin with the palate or planned space for tiling
A finished tile installation can be viewed as an overall art piece, which also serves a function. Tile installations can range widely from a fireplace surround and hearth, kitchen backsplash, bath tub/shower, foyer, wall, or for flooring. Some tile installations are for an exterior application as well. Because a fireplace surround and a kitchen backsplash are frequently a focal point, and handmade art tiles are often incorporated into the design, we will focus mostly on these.
Typically there is greater flexibility in new construction or renovation where demolition has occurred. Often, the tile design and layout can drive whatever else will be happening around it (so nice when that happens). It is important to remember that tiles have certain standards in sizing and this sizing can vary greatly from artist to artist or manufacturer to manufacturer. More often that not, a tile installation will take place within an existing space and have many constraints in terms of sizing, proportion, objects, and cost. These constraints may not be realized until the design layout is already in process or during the actual installation (if an accurate layout has not been done first). Other constraints may involve a new fireplace insert, existing gas valve, pot filler, or even a substrate issue. An existing palate space may also involve something that will be removed and then reinstalled over portions of the tile, after the tile has been installed. An example of this is an existing wood fireplace surround. A wood fireplace surround that cannot be removed will have greater constraints on your design, particularly if using tiles that cannot be cut. In this case, some custom tile sizes may be required in order to fill out the given space. Custom tile sizes will add cost or may not even be available with your selected tile maker.
It is important to mention here that a very accurate design layout should be done, based upon all of the dimensions of the palate and it’s constraints, as well as the exact dimensions of the desired or selected tiles. Grout line spacing should also be taken into consideration when laying out the design.
All tiles are not created equal! Tile artists and tile manufacturers have differing sizes, use differing material, and their processes can differ greatly. Lets begin with the material; some tile is ceramic, some tile is porcelain, some tile is glass, and some tile may be metallic such as bronze tile. Some can be easily cut, and some tiles cannot be cut cleanly or cannot be cut at all. Some are more durable than others such as porcelain. And sadly, consistency can vary with a tile artist or tile manufacturer.
Standard tile sizes will vary. For example, a 6” by 6” tile may be as small as 5.75” by 5.75” with any one tile maker. Or it may be an actual 6” by 6” with another. Some tile makers will take into consideration some separation for grout lines. Some may have an actual 6” by 6” tile and smaller 3” tiles so there can be a grout line in between the 3” tiles but flush to the edge of the 6” tile. Some tiles such as decorative tiles and trim or border tiles are meant to butt up to each other and not have a grout line. Tile thicknesses will also vary. Some tiles can be as little as 3/16” thick and some can be as much as 5/8” thick or greater. So you see, there are standards that really are not standards at all. It is best to decide on the tiles you would like to use and obtain “their” actual tile sizes before starting any layout design.
Most tile makers have the capability of creating bull nosed edged tiles and over-glazed edged tiles. This may be required on more than one edge per tile, depending upon the layout. This will add cost to your project but can give a tile installation a finished look.
Mixing tiles among varying tile makers
On occasion, or budgeting reasons, I have used decorative tiles from one artist and solid color field tiles from another with some good results. In this instance, it is important to remember that tile sizes vary and tile thicknesses vary. For example, I have used decorative tiles that are 5/8” thick and a full 6” by 6” in size. The field tiles surrounding were only 3/8” thick and a smaller width dimension. So the grout lines were greater than they would have been if all of the tiles were by a single tile maker. The decorative tiles happened to be over-glazed on the ends so the difference in height made them look like an intentional accent. I have also used decorative tiles with a lessor thickness than the field tile. In this case, you would need to build out some thickness behind the decorative tile. This can be done by attaching a thin material to the substrate behind the tile such as luan or build up using the tile setting material (or both).
Make sure to order samples of tiles whenever possible to match them up and see if they will work well together. And then send the tile samples you like with your order for the tiles as a reference point for the tile maker to try and match.
Establish a budget
Save yourself some frustration by establishing a budget at the onset. Calculate a budget for installation separate from the purchase of the material. And remember, shipping of the tiles may be additional (tile is heavy). Consider using an experienced Designer regardless of how much of a creative person you are. An experienced Designer can possibly save you from some serious aesthetic and financial mistakes. They may also be able to assist in the selection of a proper tile installer, which we shall talk about later.
Within a tile layout design, there may be a variety of decorative tiles integrated with solid color field tiles. The decorative tiles will have more cost and you may use only a few of them in the design. But be aware, even a small amount of solid color field tile can add up having a total cost beyond your anticipated project budget. Costs for decorative tiles will vary from tile size to number of glaze colors and applications in the tile. Artist hand painted tiles will typically be at the higher end of cost. Handmade field tile costs can be from $35 per sq/ft to as much as $65 per sq/ft. Plan on $50 per sq.ft to be safe (just for the field tile portion).
Measure your space (palate), add it all up and don’t forget to include some overage. You may surprised at the material cost. Now is the time to determine if you can afford to do this project or if you will need to make some adjustments. It is ok to fall in love with some tile designs and wanting to use them in your project. Just make sure that you can afford them before a perfect layout design is completed and you have time and money invested.
There really is no standard for installation or Designer costs. It will vary from region to region, talent and experience.
Everybody wants his or her project to happen quickly. Be prepared. This process is not a quick process. Information needs to be gathered. Questions need to be asked. Revisions may be required. Materials need to be ordered and produced. And installers need to be scheduled. It is not unusual for the production of handmade tiles to run from 6 weeks on up to 6 months. Remember….good things are worth waiting for!
The Layout Design Process
Measure the palate space and be as accurate as possible. Sketch out the space and all of its turns and crevices, jotting down the dimensions with arrows of the spaces. Don’t forget….older homes and buildings may not be level. For example, a width at the top of a fireplace surround may be different from a width at the base. Measure and take notes for everything. Too much information is not a bad thing here. If you are working with new construction, obtain dimensions from any architectural drawings and then do a field site trip and measure! Things change in the construction process. Not just sometimes, but often. Try to anticipate the worst while maintaining a positive attitude (because you are being smart).
So you think that you can just get some graph paper and design it yourself? Go back to the beginning of this article and read again. Remember, tile sizes vary and accuracy will play a major role in the quality of the outcome. You can certainly begin the process with graph paper. But consider using a Designer who works in CAD for at least the final layout.
I will not discuss design itself or aesthetic judgment. The focus of this article is on the process and helping you to avoid possible mistakes and loss of money. What you should be aware of however is that designs typically evolve. Things look different on paper. And they often look different in 3D. So be open to change and don’t get hung up on achieving exactly what you had in mind. It’s better to strive for an overall feeling or effect.
Using a Designer who uses CAD
Anyone who draws in CAD knows that it’s the best possible tool for generating accurate layouts. It also allows one to create a variety of layout variations quickly, easily, and save many versions. The best starting point is to draw out the palate based upon on all of the field dimensions. In CAD, various tiles can also be drawn out to exact dimensions based upon the tiles sizes of the tile maker(s). They can be color coded for ease in identification. Keeping in mind the desired affect, overall space, and end user wishes, the process now becomes a composition effort using the tile maker’s standard tiles sizes as much as possible, in order to avoid custom tile sizes and tile cutting. The tile composition will also incorporate exact grout line widths in between tiles. Altering grout line widths may be necessary in order to fill out a space accurately.
Most CAD drawings can be exported and imported into a working visualization tool such as Photoshop. I prefer Photoshop because of its power, flexibility and multi-layering capability. Quite often, you can locate tile makers’ tile designs and glaze colors online, copy, paste and size into the layout (see figure B). Ultimately, a best possible design layout and visualization tool can be generated with many variations. Whence a design layout is settled on, it’s a good idea to get a quote for all of the tiles in the design. Be sure to spell out any custom tiles in the design.
Design process options
With many of the tile layout designs that I work on, I prefer to create actual sized print outs of the finished/approved design. Over-sized print outs can be done at service centers such as Kinkos or Staples. They require a .PDF file. For larger projects the printouts may need to be created in sections. Over-sized printers and copiers typically have a roll width maximum of 48”. The actual sized print out can be brought to the site, cut and taped right onto the palate. Pretty cool huh? The actual sized print outs can also be used by the tile installer as reference in spacing, etc. The print out can be taped to a floor and the tiles assembled onto the print before installing.
With complex designs involving multiple tile sizes and custom tile sizes, it’s a good idea to create a “key” with the tile sizes color-coded (see figure C). This can be useful when ordering the tiles from the tile maker, as well as useful for the installer. Make sure to identify any required bull nose edges or over-glazed edged tiles.
The Importance Of An Experienced Tile Setter
I cannot stress enough just how important a tile setter can be for the success of your tile installation project. The tile setter should have experience in laying out and installing handmade tiles. Handmade tiles, unlike machine pressed tiles, can be somewhat irregular in size and the edges are not a precision straight-line edge. An experienced tile setter will know how to select tiles for placement, rotate and adjust tiles as they are set on a tile-per-tile basis. Simply put…there is a great deal of artistry and finessing on the part of the tile setter (installer) in order for the tile layout to work out properly. It is not at all unusual for a tile setter to have to make some level of adjustments in the installation process. An experienced tile setter will know how to prepare a substrate and what type of tile adhesive will be best the project based upon the substrate and the type of tile. Make sure to tell them, a lot has been invested up front in time, effort and cost and you would appreciate them carving out a proper amount of time to do the job.
Thank you and I certainly hope that this has been helpful for your future tile projects.
About the author:Joseph Galli is a Designer as well as owner/operator of Oak Park Home & Hardware, Inc. and Tudor Furnishings. Joseph has BFA in Industrial Design from Rochester Institute of Technology.