Archive for February, 2012

And….We Have Tile!

Once the electric floor mats and Ditra was put down and sufficiently dried we went back and filled the Ditra squares. Pros and experienced tilers will do this step at the same time as laying down the tile but we decided to take everything nice and slow especially after messing up the previous layer of thinset. To fill in the waffle like texture we just used the flat side of a trowel. Since the squares are undercut it’s very important to pack them from every direction with thinset.

Making this a separate step also gives you a better surface to mark out and lay the tile so we plan to do this again in the future.


Next up we had to figure out our tile pattern. The American Olean Catarina Coliseum White tile I fell in love with only comes in two square sizes for the floor, 12×12 and 18×18, so that limited our options. For the walls I liked the 10×13 size because it was like an oversized subway tile but it only comes in glossy which I didn’t like the look of in person. The matte tile looked much more real and would help hide water spots. So I had to use one of the two square size tile options in the shower too. I wanted to break things up a bit and not use the 12×12 tiles on both the walls and the floor so I went with 12×12 on the shower walls and 18×18 on the floor.

I knew for at least one of the areas I wanted to use a classic running bond pattern. But because 18×18″ tiles are considered large format they will have some cupping in the center. Non-large format tile (12″x12″ and smaller) has cupping as well but it’s much less obvious. Running bond pattern doesn’t work as well with large format tiles because the low center will be right next to the higher ends of the tile right next to it. Tilers recommend offsetting the tile by 1/3 instead of 1/2 of the length of the tile to counteract this.

Keeping that in mind a 1/2 offset with the 12×12 tiles in the shower would work the best with the length and side of the tub being divisible by 6″. But having a 1/2 offset in the shower and 1/3 offset with the large format floor tile would look strange. Like someone wasn’t thinking the design through before laying it out. So the only other options were a square or diagonal pattern. Of course I wanted the diagonal pattern because it’s much more visually interesting! Putting large tiles on a diagonal meant a lot of cutting. I know I like to make things difficult.

With the tile pattern figured out we had to pick what direction we wanted the “grain” of the tile. One of the downsides of this fake marble tile is the limited number of grain patterns. There were only about 4 different printed grains so you have to be careful with what tile you put where. Flipping the tiles 90 or 180 degrees also helps diversify the look. Originally I thought I would want the grain to all go in one direction like this:

The other option is what our tile pro family friend recommended. It’s called a quarter turn grain pattern where every tile you lay is turned 90 degrees from the previous tile.

This essentially makes a checkerboard pattern of tile directions. We really liked how it helped hide the fact that there was a limited number of grain options. It also doesn’t lead your eye to any one direction like the lined up grain lead your eye to either the toilet or the tub. Quarter turn it was.


Now it was finally time to laying out the tile! Our tile guy recommended we dry cut the tile first because it was a large format tile in a small space. We started the design by snapping a caulk line to base all of our tile off of and measuring off additional lines from that line. Walls and tubs aren’t necessarily straight so don’t measure off of them or your whole floor may be crooked.

We started near the front of the tub since that was the most crucial edge being the only tile edge that wouldn’t be covered by baseboard.

Knowing we’d be cutting a lot of tile between the two bathrooms I bought a heavy duty wet saw off Craigslist months earlier. This was our first time using it and it…um…left something to be desired. More on than later. It worked for what we needed to cut but luckily we had a lot extra.

For the small cuts we bought an angle grinder and a diamond tipped blade. Worked like a charm on the intricate toilet ring cut and the small square cuts around the piping. First Flannel Man cut lines in the area he wanted to remove.

Ooh look sparks!

Then he carefully followed the curve of the line.

Making sure to wet the area with a sponge every once and while.

I think that is one of the nicest looking toilet ring cuts I’ve ever seen! He’s such a perfectionist.

Since we’re tiling under the vanity as well we had to cut squares out for the piping. This was done by drawing the square on the backside and slowly plunging the diamond blade on the angle grinder into the back of the tile. Stopping to wet the area has he went. He cut each side until the most of the front had been cut but stopped short of cutting the full line at any one time. That way when he moved on to the next side the tile was still sturdy enough in the corner to not flex the tile and crack. Once all of the sides were mostly cut he carefully finished off each side to complete the corners. All of the cutting was done from the backside so the backside corners had overlapping cuts due to the radius of the blade. Because of that you have to be careful when handling or laying down that area of the tile. This tile took two tries to get right. The first one cracked between the drain line and the nearest copper pipe.

Same thing was repeated for the toilet water supply. Unfortunately this had to go in the floor as the toilet is on an exterior wall.

The linen closet also had some fun cuts.

This piece miraculously only had to be cut once.

Busting out the wide angle lens to show you the dry fit run.

Note we just eyed the grout joints as closely as possible and checked them occasionally with tile spacers. Our tile pro says one of the biggest mistakes DIY tilers make are to make the grout joints too thin and to rely more on measuring than your eye. Being an engineer I kind of side eyed that last comment but I trusted Flannel Man and gave him the benefit of the doubt that he could get it as close to exact as possible. He is a machinist who works in the 1000ths of an inch. His eye is trained to be able to pick up small variations.


Once all of the tiles were cut our family friend tile pro stopped by to help us lay the first couple rows and show us how it’s done.

We quickly learned large format tile = lots and lots of pulling up the tile to reduce lippage.

The margin trowel (on the floor) became our new best friend.

Here you get a good idea of how big these tiles really are.



Steps to Laying Large Format Tile (bigger than 12×12″)

First you mix up the thinset (we used modified thinset) to a consistency that is thick enough to hold the notch of the trowel but wet enough that it still sticks to the tile. Then keep a sponge and bucket of water handy.

Next smooth over the Ditra one more time to make sure all dimples are filled in.

Then run more thinset over the area with the notched side of the trowel. We used a 1/4″ x 3/8″ trowel.

Now back butter the tile with a thin layer of thinset. Just enough to cover the square pattern on the back of the tile.

In the corners we added a small extra dollop of thinset. This accounts for the higher corners of the cupped large format tile. Most of it gets squeezed out but it ensures the corners are solid and won’t crack from a lack of support.

Next you lay down the tile by getting it in the right spot and dropping it ever so slightly into place. Followed by a firm press you should have even coverage of the thinset under the tile. Pull up your first couple tiles to double check this.

With the tile down slide it up to the neighboring tile on one side and check that the whole length of the tile is flush. Our tile pro and this tile pro recommend this procedure. If it isn’t flush pull up the lower tile and add more thinset on the back of the tile in that area.

Wipe off the excessive thinset and pull the tile back into place.

Repeat on the other sides of the tile. This should give you a level floor and fairly clean grout joints.



Overall Flannel Man’s tile cutting job was pretty flawless but when it came to the tile around the sink piping some minor adjustments with a Dremel was needed.

As we tiled the available floor space got smaller and smaller. Soon I was kicked out and let Flannel Man to pull up and put back down tile after tile. I’m not kidding when I heard “Sigh…that is at least 4/1000ths of an inch of lippage!” come from the room.


Heating, Decoupling, & Waterproofing Tile Floors

The main bathroom is moving along. We have the tub in, the last wall built, and the drywall up so it is time to work on the floors. The first thing we needed to do was install the electric in-floor heating mats. Yup that’s right we decided to add these two both bathrooms not just the master bathroom like we originally planned. From what we’ve heard they are the best thing for bathrooms since sliced bread. It seems like everyone says they are the best bathroom decision they have made and love the way they feel. When my co-workers heard I was remodeling our bathrooms this was the first thing that came up from multiple people…”I was at a friend’s house and he had these heating tile floors so I tried them out and they were fabulous!” …”We’re just finishing our basement bathroom and we’re using this new state of the art thing that heats the floors. Have you heard of it?”…”My dream bathroom, you know in my dream house, has heated floors.” In fact we had a hard time finding anyone who had heated floors and didn’t like them.

We knew we wanted some extra heat in the bathrooms because although we love our geothermal system the lower temperature heat isn’t the most comfortable when you’re getting out of the shower and the vent is right next to you. My parent’s bathrooms have those ugly red warming lamps which were effective but they always made me feel like a burger at a fast food restaurant so those were out. Electric baseboards could work but they are the prettiest thing. A towel warmer is another option but those things are pricey and don’t fit the more traditional look we’re going for. Electric in-floor heat seemed to be our best option. We went with the mat style vs. the wire you run yourself because it is thinner and easier to install. We opted for SunTouch’s TapeMat system and Nuheat’s Solo Thermostat.

The mat was a little long for our room so we cut the end and flipped it to cover a little of the nook the toilet is in. Don’t worry we were far from the clearance that is needed around the wax ring of the toilet. (This is the big reason we went with SunTouch’s floor mats because you can cut them to work. Though we’ve heard nothing but good things about Nuheat they don’t let you cut their mats and they cost more.) It would have fit fine that way but we realized the wires running to the thermostat were facing the wrong way. We considered flipping the mat but then we would have to cut another section away for the toilet area so that that would be on the right side. Instead we decided to keep as much mat on the main part of the floor and just cut the end with the wire so that it faced the right direction. That way the channel we had to cut for the electrical connection would be as short as possible. The temperature probe was run right next to it and a small square chiseled out of the floor for the end of the probe. We attached the mat to the floor with staples over the non-wire sections of the mat. We found it difficult to get it absolutely flat without a lot of staples. Looking back we should have tried unrolling instead of leaving it in the box.

I had read of people installing more than one probe in case one breaks (it’s buried under the tile so you’ll never be able to get down there to add a new one). Other people including the electric mat company said it wasn’t necessary. But the way I see it it’s a $35 insurance policy. We ran both temperature probes right next to each other and used the same chiseled out area. One will be connected to the thermostat on the wall and the other will just sit in the back of the box in case we ever need to use it. The single gang box on the left is where the thermostat is going.

A metal plate covers the notches we made in the sill and keeps us from running a drywall screw through the wires. The poof of white behind it is the spray foam we used to seal the old holes in the sill plate from the ceiling below.

Once that was all hooked up we could put up the last piece of drywall.


Then it was time to cover the wires with thinset. There are a couple ways you can do this. (1) tile or apply your Ditra right over the mat, (2) pour on self leveling concrete, or (3) skim coat the mat with thinset. (1) is what most of the pros do. They have plastic tile trowels or are skilled enough with metal trowels to nick the wire. But being first time tilers we chose to do everything in smaller easier to handle steps. After reading all of the prep work and disasters people have had with (2) we opted against that. Caulking every seam and crack in the floor and priming the wood didn’t sound like fun. So we thought we’d try option (3). So we mixed up some latex-modified thinset to spread on top.

Everything was going good until the drill we had started smoking. I guess thinset was just too much for it to handle. Luckily, Flannel Man had just bought a heavier duty drill but it was still sitting in the box because I didn’t think we needed it. Guess I was wrong.

At this point we double checked our resistance from the mat compared to what it was before and checked on our LoudMouth monitor to make sure nothing had been damaged.

We carefully spread the thinset out with a flat edged trowel making sure not to hit the wires.

When we got toward the end we ran out of thinset and had to break into our second bag of thinset which was white for the glass accent tile we’re using. We completely underestimated how much thinset we would need even though we had tried to calculate it out. The gray section was a full 50 lb bag.

It wasn’t looking perfectly smooth but it was our first time ever using thinset. We had mixed it a little runny hoping that would help it level out.

The next day this is what we had:

A crappy totally uneven surface! The thinset had shrunk as it dried or soaked into the plywood subfloor or something. You could clearly see the plastic mesh and wires of the mat in some places. Other places had trowel marks and low spots. It was a mess. At this point we wish we had tried the self leveling concrete. More prep work and a rushed process but we could have predicted what we were going to get. At this point we wish we had tried the self leveling concrete. More prep work and a rushed process but we could have predicted what we were going to get. We didn’t really have many options left and after discussing what to do with a family friend who was a pro tiler we decided to put a second skim coat over the top. This time getting it as smooth as we possibly could. We used up the rest of the white bag we had on hand for the second coat.


It wasn’t perfect but it was much better than the first coat. So we went ahead and cut the Ditra for the room. Schluter’s Ditra system is a decoupling membrane for tile that allows for some movement in the structure below without cracking the tile or grout above. No matter what we do there will always be some movement from the structure below because it’s wood. Wood expands, contracts, and flexes. Back in the roman era tile was set on a thick layer of mortar, a fine layer of compacted sand, and another thick layer of mortar. This allowed for the two layers to move independent of one another. Ditra does the same thing but with a lot less thickness added to your floor.

The majority of the floor we were able to cover with two long pieces of Ditra and the toilet nook had it’s own piece. Because we’re tiling under the vanities and into the linen closet there were some trickier cuts.

To adhere the Ditra to the floor we mixed up unmodified thinset because we were sandwiching it between a thinset layer and the Ditra neither of which are breathable. Unmodified thinset doesn’t need air to cure like modified thinset does. And bonus unmodified cost a fraction of the price modified does! I’ll go through the types of thinset needed for each layer in a follow up post.

We spread the thinset down with a 5/16″ x 5/16″ V-notched trowel.

Then we laid down the Ditra and smoothed it out with a 2×4. Pulling up corners as we went to double check that all of the pockets were being filled. We started from the front because getting the Ditra over the piping in the floor was the hardest to line up.


Once all of the Ditra was down we used some Kerdi strips to waterproof the floor. Ditra itself is waterproof so by paying a few bucks more we had a waterproof floor. Being on the second floor over a drywalled ceiling and wood structure this was appealing incase water spills over the lip of the tub, a toilet overflows, or a pipe leaks. My parents had this happen in their powder room and it was raining in the basement below. The worst area was under the trim where there was an air gap between the tile and the wall. At the same point we do have a floor register so it’s not like the room would hold 3″ of water. It is just an extra protection to keep small spills from leaking to the drywalled ceiling below.

We used thinset to adhere the Kerdi strips to the Ditra seams and around the perimeter of the room. I had read you needed different widths of Kerdi strips for each area but after calling Schluter they said the standard 5″ strips available at Home Depot were fine.

The next day the unmodified thinset had started to dry but wasn’t completely dry yet.


The next day the unmodified thinset had started to dry but wasn’t completely dry yet.

Next up tiling the floor!

This is the story of two twenty something newlyweds who are learning to adjust to life in their first house, a 1973 fixer-upper.
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