How to Install Ceramic Wall Tile
Ceramic tile provides a beautiful, long lasting wall that's easy to take care of and is almost impossible to mark or stain. You can install wall tiles literally any place you want to be able to enjoy their beauty, but the obvious locations are in kitchens (as backsplashes or countertops) and in bathrooms. Although most people think a ceramic wall is difficult to install, the reality is that it's not beyond the range of a do-it-yourself homeowner who is willing to spend some time understanding the process and take his time installing the wall.
Some Ceramic Tile Info
You probably know that ceramic tile is available in lots of sizes, all the way from 1 square inch, usually sold attached to sheets that are 12x12-inches, all the way up to 18-inches. They also come in a wide range of colors that can tie in with any décor. However, you probably didn't know that not all ceramic tiles resist water. In fact, some ceramic tile, called non-vitreous, will actually absorb water, so it should only be used in areas where it won't come in contact with water. Semi vitreous and impervious ceramic tiles both resist water (impervious tiles won't absorb any water all). So if you're looking to put your tiles on a bathroom or kitchen wall, be sure you get semi vitreous or impervious tiles.
Step 1 - Preparing the Wall
Ceramic tiles can be installed directly on drywall, plaster, or if they are in moist areas, onto "green" drywall or even better cement backer board. Green drywall is specifically designed for use in bathrooms. It's as easy to work with as ordinary drywall, but it's specially formulated to resist moisture. Its best use is in a kitchen or bathroom where the environment will get moist, but not where it will actually be exposed to water.
Cement backer board is actually made from a fiberglass mesh and Portland cement, so moisture doesn't bother it much (just be sure to do some research to make sure the brand you buy is totally waterproof). It is available in 0.5-inch and 5/8-inch thick sheets (similar to drywall), and is usually sold in 32 or 36-inch wide panels 5 or 8-feet long. Cement board is cut the same way as ordinary drywall - score it with a utility knife and then snap it at the line. It's installed by screwing it to the underlying studs; place the screws about 6-inches apart and use special galvanized screws that won't rust. The seams are finished by taping with special fiberglass seaming tape. Cement board is the best thing to use in a shower installation and even makes sense if you are installing a backsplash close to a sink.
Step 2 - Laying Your Tile Pattern
Find the center of your wall and use a carpenter's level to mark intersecting plumb (vertical) and level (horizontal) lines. Dry fit the first row of tiles starting at the center and working your way to the ends of the wall. You want the tiles at both row ends to be approximately the same size, so you may have to adjust your vertical reference line to make them match up.
Step 3 - Installing the Tile
Starting in the center, on one side of your reference line, apply a coat of tile setting adhesive to an area about 3x3-feet square. Take care not to cover your lines. Spread the adhesive with the smooth side of your notched trowel and then go over it with the notched side to create ridges in the adhesive.
Firmly press each tile in place and give it a slight twisting motion to be sure it makes good contact with the adhesive. As you work your way along, place tile spacers on all 4 sides of each tile, so your grout lines will be consistent. Take your time and work on the wall in 3 square foot sections.
At the end of a row or around fixtures, you'll probably need to cut some tiles. A rented ceramic tile cutter is the easiest way to make your straight cuts. Using this tool, score the cut line on a full tile and then snap the tile along the scribed line. Smooth the edge with 80 grit sandpaper (the edge of a cut ceramic tile is very sharp).
Cutting irregular shaped tiles or around obstructions will require using "tile nippers." These are a heavy duty hand tool that you use to "nip" or bite off little pieces of a tile, one at a time, until you have cut the needed shape.
Step 4 - Grouting
After the tiles have all been installed and the adhesive has set up (probably overnight), it's time to grout the tiles. Depending on the width of your grout lines, you will need to choose either sanded or unsanded grout. If the spaces between the tiles are bigger than 1/8", use sanded grout. (Sanded grout actually contains sand particles that help make the grout joint stronger.)
Remove all your tile spacers and mix the grout following manufacturer's directions (it should end up with a peanut butter-like consistency). If you're grouting in a bathroom or kitchen area, be sure your grout includes a waterproofing agent. Ask or read the manufacturer information to be sure you get the right grout.
Using a rubber float, apply the grout at a 45° angle to the grout lines. Press firmly; you want to get grout all the way down to the bottom of the seams. Get uniform coverage of all the grout lines. Wipe off any excess grout with a wet sponge and clear water.
After the grout has had about 30 minutes to dry, go back over sections with a soft cloth and buff away any grout haze.
Let the grout dry for a day and again buff away any grout haze that has appeared. If your wall is in a kitchen or bathroom, use a mildew resistant silicone caulk to seal the edges of the ceramic tile section where it meets the counter or top of the tub.