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Tips for tiling a small bathroom yourself for the first time

January 8th, 2007

We, the lovely and talented wife an I, just finished a full bathroom tiling job. The previous owners had carpeted part of the bathroom and a recent toilet mishap (2 kids + toilet = time bomb) marked the end of that carpet’s life.

We decided to do it ourselves. It’s something I’ve wanted to learn how to do for a long time but I didn’t want to make a lot of first-timer mistakes on a huge job. This bathroom is just the right size for learning to tile. It’s about 60 square feet combined with an inner room separated by a door with the bathtub and toilet and an outer room with two sinks and cabinets. It’s roughly L-shaped. The tub area had been tiled with an ugly 6″ brown tile and the outer area was carpeted. We decided on an offset (“running bond”) pattern rather than just straight rows (“jack-on-jack”) but that was as ambitious as we got.

Here’s what I learned:

  • The instructions online at the Lowe’s website are very helpful and accurate.
  • It’s much more difficult to start this job than to finish it. Psychologically, it’s hard to get yourself to demolish your own house. Just get a hammer and destroy some tile, cut out some old carpet. Once you’ve reached the point of no return, it’s much easier to continue. Your house can take it.
  • Remove all of your bathroom doors before starting. I know you think you can get away with just closing and opening the doors as needed, but trust me: removing the doors is easier.
  • Ripping out carpet, pad, and tack strips is extremely easy. Don’t fall for it. This is a trick to get you to relax your guard so you’ll be totally demoralized when you try to remove tiles.
  • Removing old tile is much more difficult. There are tools that can help but we found that an old flat-head screwdriver and a hammer worked very quickly. Use the hammer to wedge the tip of the screwdriver under a tile until it cracks. Remove and repeat. It goes pretty fast.
  • If you’ve got cement fiber board under the tile, do not try to remove it by demolishing it with a hammer. Find all of the nails or screws holding it down and remove those first. Then the board comes up very easily.
  • Ignore the know-it-all at the home improvement warehouse who says you need a pro-high-power-diamond-tip-bladed-mega-buck saw to cut backer board. You don’t. Get the kind that you can score and snap. Get a scoring tool though and don’t try to do it with a utility knife. The backer board scores and snaps easily.
  • You will spend a lot of time on your knees. Get decent knee pads with an extra-wide strap or two straps. Avoid “value” pads that only use a single strap. They get behind your knees, hurt, and you won’t use them.
  • Cement comes in 50 pound bags. Only mix half of it at a time. If you mix the whole bag, you’ll end up having to buy a new bucket and another 50 pound bag of cement because it hardened in the bucket because you were tiling too slowly because it was your first time. Plus, it’s easier to mix.
  • Get someone to help you. It makes the job go much faster if one person lays cement and another person comes behind to place and clean tiles. Plus, you’ll feel better knowing you’re not making mistakes alone.
  • If it’s a small job, just measure the tiles you need to cut and get the home improvement store to cut them for you.
  • Grouting is much easier than tiling. But buy a regular grout float and an offset grout float. The regular float won’t work under counters.
  • Cement and grout clean up pretty easily. Don’t stress about making a little bit of a mess.
  • It’s hard work and it’s going to take you longer than you think. We completed the job in 5 afternoons and probably put in around 15-20 hours total. If you worked faster you could theoretically do it in a weekend—but I’d count on doubling the estimated time for your first job.

It turned out really well and we saved a bundle. The total cost for the entire job including tools and materials was around $200. Hiring someone would have easily cost us $800 in our area. And I’m confident we can do a bigger job now. And if anything goes wrong with the floor, we now have the experience and know-how to fix it ourselves.