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Dean's tile tips.

Most pros in any trade are creatures of habit. When something works, we stick with it. But during the 15 years we've worked with Dean Sorem, our tiling consultant, he's been constantly researching his trade, trying new products and looking for a better way. So we asked Dean to show us the methods and materials he's using these days. Whether you're a tile setter or a remodeler who occasionally tackles a tile job, you're sure to find at least a few tips here that'll come in handy on your next tiling project.


Back-butter for a better bond

After returning to a floor tile job the other day to reset a loose tile, Dean decided he would make it standard procedure to back-butter every large tile he and his crew install. As bigger tiles have become more common, so has the problem of loose tiles in a finished tile job. It's harder to get a good bond with a large surface. Big tiles require a special technique: You need to trowel a thin layer of thin-set on the back of each tile before you set it. Set the loaded trowel near the center of the tile and spread a thin layer of thin-set to the edge. Then rotate the tile a quarter turn and repeat until the back is evenly covered.


Plan layouts with a laser level

Laser levels save time and increase accuracy. Dean uses a self-leveling laser to help plan the tile layout. He projects a level line around the room and measures from it to determine the size of the cut tiles along the edges. Then, after figuring out an ideal layout, he uses the laser as a guide to chalk layout lines. The laser saves time by eliminating the fussy job of extending level lines around the room with a 4-ft. level.


Dean uses the Stanley Fat Max Cross Line Laser (about $100) which is self-leveling and projects level and plumb lines. Self-leveling lasers reduce setup time and can be swiveled without readjustment. Mount the laser on an inexpensive ($25) camera tripod for maximum versatility. More-expensive lasers project perpendicular lines on the floor that you can use to plan floor layouts.

Don't wash the grout too soon

Dean says one of the biggest mistakes you can make on a grout job is to start cleaning up the grout too soon. Wiping the grout before it's hardened a bit allows too much water to penetrate the surface. That means blotchy-looking grout or, worse, hairline cracking and grout that falls out. To avoid these problems, be sure the grout is very firm, about like a wine cork, before you start cleaning it. Press your fingertip into the grout to test it. If it dents easily, wait.


Use a self-feeding screw gun

Screwing down backer board is monotonous and time-consuming, so when Dean discovered that cement board screws were available for self-feeding screw guns and that they didn't cost any more than loose screws, he bought a self-feeding screw gun and left his old screw gun at the shop. The Senco Duraspin tool shown is available at some home centers. If you need help locating a dealer, go to


Corded versions of self-feeding screw guns sell for about $100 and cordless for $150. Dean actually prefers the corded version because it always offers full power and he doesn't have to worry about keeping batteries charged. With different screws, you can use the self-feeding screw gun to hang drywall or install decking, too.

Use a Schluter system for a leakproof shower

Dean loves the simplicity and security offered by the Schluter shower system. Before, he had to pour a sloped mortar bed, cover it with a waterproof membrane and then pour another layer of mortar over that. This traditional method is tricky and time-consuming, and the shower will leak if it's not perfectly executed.

The Schluter system eliminates all these hassles by providing the tile setter with a preformed shower base and curb, a special drain and a waterproofing membrane. Schluter even includes preformed inside and outside corner pieces to seal these tricky spots. All you need to provide is unmodified thin-set and some tools.

The complete system for a 48-in. square shower costs about $400. Dean likes feeling confident that his showers won't leak and being able to start tiling right away without waiting for mortar to set up. For information on where to buy the Schluter system and how to install it, go to (800-472-4588).


Instructions are included with the kit, but here's an overview. You embed the foam base and curb in thin-set. Then you install the special drain assembly, embedding it in thin-set as you attach it to the drainpipe. Finally, you'll embed the waterproof membrane in a layer of unmodified thin-set and tile over it. The membrane and corner pieces can be installed in any order.

Polish stone edges

To save money and get a better-looking job, Dean prefers to make his own trim pieces for marble, granite and other stone tile jobs. Take the top of a shower curb, for example. You would have to buy enough bullnose trim to cover both edges, and you'd end up with a grout joint down the center where the two rows of bullnose meet. Dean covers the curb with one piece of stone, polished on both edges.

Dean prefers the honeycomb-style dry diamond polishing pads with hook-and-loop fasteners. They allow him to quickly run through a series of grits from 60 to 800 or higher without wasting a lot of time changing pads. One caveat, though. This type of disc requires a variable-speed grinder because the maximum allowable rpm is about 4,000. If you own a single-speed grinder that runs at 10,000 rpm, you'll need a set of PVA Marble Edge Polisher discs that are safe to run at high speed (they polish all kinds of stone). One source for both types of discs is Benfer Blade & Saw (; 952-888-1448), or search online for "marble polishing discs."


Polishing stone is a dusty operation, so work outside. Start by using the coarsest grit to remove the saw marks from all the edges. Then progress through the grits until you reach the level of sheen you desire. Use light pressure to avoid overheating the disc and wearing it out prematurely. You'll have to progress through the finest grit to create a glossy surface.


Waterproof wet areas

It's a surprise to most people that a tiled wall or floor isn't waterproof. Some types of tile are porous, and most grout isn't waterproof either. Water can seep through tile and grout and leak into cracks at corners and other intersections. The only sure way to keep water from reaching the backer board is to waterproof all areas that may be exposed to water. That's easy with the new waterproofing coatings. Dean uses the RedGuard brand, but there are others. Dean says, "If in doubt, coat it with waterproofing."

Follow the application instructions on the container. Dean applies the RedGuard with an inexpensive paint pad, which he prefers to a brush or roller because it works like a trowel, allowing him to quickly spread a thick, even layer over the surface.


For more tiling tips, go to and type "tiling" into the search box.

Flatten walls with shims

Modern tile backer board beats a traditional mortar bed--unless you're trying to flatten a crooked wall. In the old days, a skillful tile setter could float mortar over the waviest framing and end up with a perfectly flat surface. Nowadays most tilers use some type of tile backer board. But if you screw backer boards to crooked framing, you'll get a wavy surface that makes it tough to do a nice tile job.


The solution is to flatten the walls before you screw the board to them. Dean chooses the longest level or straight screed board that will fit across a wall and uses it to see if any studs are bowed in or out. If a stud is really bowed out (1/4 in. or more) Dean saws a kerf about two-thirds through the stud at its midpoint and pushes it back. Then he'll screw a straight stud alongside to hold it in place. In most cases, though, shimming the studs with thin strips of cardboard to get them into alignment is enough. You can buy long, thin strips of cardboard for shimming at some home centers, but any strips of thin material will work. Leftover vinyl flooring cut into 1-1/2-in. strips is a good alternative.

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Title Annotation:Just for Pros Special Section
Author:Gorton, Jeff
Publication:The Family Handyman
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2010
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