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Wall Tile Installation Tips for DIYers

Properly installed wall tile will provide years of beauty and durability, whether they’re in the shower, around the fireplace, or behind the stove or kitchen sink. Mosaic tile walls are always in style, and they liven up your space in a way that paint just can’t achieve. Best of all, wall tile installation is a fairly simple project to do on your own.

While the process of installing wall tile is basically the same as installing floor tile, there are a few considerations to take into account when putting tile on a wall. Here are some helpful tips for wall tile installation that’ll have your DIY project looking like a pro did it.

uncoupling membrane

Wall Tile Installation Checklist

1. Know what’s behind the tile.

It’s important to ensure your wall is up to the task of holding the extra weight of the tile. Most walls will bear tile without a problem, but make sure the wall is in good shape and the studs are solid before laying the tile. 

If your wall tile installation is in a high-moisture area, make sure the walls are waterproof. For tub and shower enclosures, install a 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick cement backer board to support the tile and provide a waterproof barrier to protect the wall behind the enclosure. Anchor the cement board with thin-set mortar, and secure it with galvanized screws placed six inches apart. If you’re tiling over drywall in a dry area, rough up the surface with a course-grit sandpaper to help the thin-set adhere to the wall better.

Before you begin tiling, clean the wall surface. Vacuum it to remove all traces of dust and debris. Use a damp cloth sprayed with all-purpose cleaner to remove dirt and grease, and use a damp cloth with water only to “rinse.” Allow the wall to dry thoroughly before you apply thin-set.

2. Design the layout before you start.

The layout of the tile is the most important aspect of the job. Once the tile is laid and the adhesive sets, it’s stuck there for the foreseeable future, so getting it right the first time will save a lot of regret.

The Golden Rule of layout is that the pattern, whatever it is, must be square. Snap intersecting chalk lines on the wall at the midpoint of the installation, and use an A-square to ensure right angles. The chalk lines will serve as a guide as you lay the tiles. 

You can create virtually any pattern with wall tile. You can use multiples colors, styles, or shapes of tiles to create a planned or random pattern, or you can use a single tile for a cleaner, monochromatic look. Consider creating a border with contrasting or decorative tiles to finish the edges, and think about using three-dimensional accent tiles to add a dramatic layer of interest to your wall.

Use graph paper to create your layout ahead of time, and follow the pattern as you tile. Check your work frequently so that you can catch and fix any mistakes before the adhesive sets.

3. Use a saw to cut tiles.

Chances are, you’re going to need to cut some tiles at some point during your wall tile installation. Cutting tiles by hand with tile nippers can be tedious, and until you really get the hang of it, you may end up with chipped or broken tiles or uneven lines. Investing in or renting a wet saw makes quick, accurate work of cutting tiles. A wet saw equipped with a diamond blade cuts through tile like butter, and its brace and guide stabilizes the tile to ensure perfectly smooth, straight lines. 

wall tile installation
Solistone Atlantis Glass Mosaic Wall Tilein Majorca Frosted / SKU: 15264965

But don’t toss those tile nippers! You may still need to use them to carefully craft oddly-shaped cuts, such as round cuts to fit around fixtures, or you may need them to cut small glass mosaic tiles. To keep the tile from breaking and to improve accuracy when cutting tiles by hand, mark the tile where it needs to be cut, and nip off small pieces at a time until you achieve the desired shape. Use 80-grit sandpaper to smooth the edges of the cut. 

Whenever possible, position cut tiles so that the cut edges are hidden as much as possible. Always begin your wall tile installation at the center point of your chalk lines so that cut tiles will be placed at the edges of the installation rather than in the central and most visible part.

4. Don’t skimp on thin-set, grout, and sealer.

Don’t be stingy with the materials that can make or break a tiling job. Too little thin-set, and your tiles will pop off the wall at some unfortunate point in the future. Not enough grout, and water will seep behind the tiles, and mold and mildew will stain the joints. Not enough sealer, and your tiles and grout won’t be as durable, and they’ll stain and, in some cases, absorb water more easily. You also don’t want to opt for the cheapest materials on the market, since they won’t be as easy to work with or as durable as the better-quality adhesives, grouts, and sealers.

For wall tile installation, a pre-mixed thin-set mortar is the ideal adhesive. If you’re tiling an area prone to water or high humidity, make sure the thin-set is designated for high-moisture areas. Scoop a big blob of adhesive onto your 1/4-inch notched trowel, and generously apply it to a three- by three-foot area. Holding the trowel at a 45-degree angle, comb through the thin-set so the notches create ridges and valleys. Make sure the ridges have a uniform height and that every inch of space in the area is adequately covered. Lay the tiles in the thin-set, and gently press down evenly. Be sure to use spacers so the grout lines will be precise. In areas that you can’t reach with the trowel, simply butter the tiles with the thin-set and adhere them to the wall.

wall tile installation
Troya Marble Tile in Calista Cream Medium / SKU: 15001843

Once the tiles are laid and the adhesive has set, it’s time to grout. Only spread as much grout as you can tile in 15 minutes, since it dries rather quickly. Fill your rubber float with grout, and apply it generously to the wall in a diagonal direction, working the grout fully into the joints as you go. Move the float up and down and side-to-side to get full coverage. Once the joints are packed full of grout, sweep the edge of the float across the surface to remove the excess. Let the grout set for a few minutes, and then, working in three- by three-foot areas, run a big, damp sponge across the wall to remove the film left by the grout. 

When the grout is dry, you can apply sealer to the tiles and grout. Most glazed ceramic and porcelain tiles don’t need to be sealed, but all unglazed tiles should be sealed before grouting, since grout can stain the tile surface. Even when it’s not necessary, sealing your tile and grout makes them impervious to water and stains, and it enhances the color and sheen of the tiles. Liberally apply the sealer to the wall tile with a brush or roller so that the tile and grout are soaked. As the sealer begins to dry in three to five minutes, wipe the excess from the surface. After a half hour, wipe the wall again with a dry, white terrycloth towel to remove any remaining sealer.

With plenty of planning ahead, you can DIY a wall tile installation with confidence and ease. Follow these tips, and make sure you have everything you need on hand before beginning your installation. Do it up right, and your tile job will outlast even you.