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How to Tile a Countertop

If you are making a tile countertop in your kitchen or bath, plan your tile layout before you begin. Plan your layout with courses of full (uncut) tiles starting at the front edge; any rows of cut tiles will be at the ends and at the backsplash, where they will be less noticeable.

To ensure that cut tiles at the ends are equal width and not too narrow, mark the left-to-right center of the counter and plan the first front-to-back row so it is either centered over this mark or a grout line between two rows of tiles will be. Choose whichever layout yields the largest cut tiles on the ends. Bend this rule on sink counters when the sink is not centered. Shift the layout so it is centered on the sink, which is typically a focal point.

If you plan to edge the front of the counter with trim tiles, dry-fit that trim and, if relevant, the tile that will face the countertop. Allowing for a grout line, pencil a layout line parallel to the front edge at this point to guide positioning the front edge of the first course of full tiles.

Many tiles have built-in lugs on the side for spacing. If your tiles don’t have lugs, use plastic spacers so they align properly.

Follow these steps to lay the tiles:

  1. Dry-fit the first course and the center row of tiles to verify your layout.

  2. Using a framing square, mark a layout line perpendicular to the front edge along the edge of the row.

    Your first tile will be positioned adjacent to the two layout lines.

  3. Mix a small batch of thinset mortar with latex bonding additive according to directions.

  4. Apply thinset to the backerboard up to the layout lines with the smooth side of a trowel. Then use the notched side of the trowel, held at a 45-degee angle, to comb the thinset.

    Combing assures that the correct amount is applied and that the application is uniform. This, in turn, ensures a flat tile surface.

  5. Continue to spread mortar and lay full tiles on one side of the layout line, using spacers between them.

    Push each tile down to ensure full contact with the adhesive and lay a straight board across the set tiles to verify they are flat, check spacing and make needed adjustments as you go.

  6. After all the full tiles are in place, cut the border tiles and fit them into place before moving on to the next section of the counter and beginning the process again.

  7. Spread the grout diagonally over area no more than 5 feet wide at a time. Use a rubber float to push the grout into the spaces between the tiles.

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    Read the grout manufacturer’s instructions for an overview of applying grout. Start with the tool held at a 30-degree angle until the joints are full and then cut away the excess grout with the tool nearly perpendicular to the surface

  8. Wait a few minutes and use a damp grout sponge to remove excess grout off the face of the tiles before it dries, trying not to disturb the grout lines. Wait a few more minutes and repeat until the tiles are clean.

  9. Use cheesecloth or a dry soft cloth to buff off any haze that may remain after 15 or 20 minutes.

  10. Follow the tile dealer's advice and manufacturer’s instructions about whether, when, and how to apply a sealer that will help prevent food stains.

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