Countertops – Installing Ceramic Tile

Installing a ceramic tile countertop is one type do-it-yourself project especially rewarding when careful planning yields the expected results and project success. Ceramic that has been properly installed provides a durable, attractive, easy to clean surface that will compliment your kitchen décor.

Ceramic tile is one of the more popular choices for countertops and backsplashes for a variety of reasons. It is available in a wide variety of sizes, colors, and styles; it can also be easily repaired. Another reason tile counters are so popular is because many types of tile are very reasonably priced.

Before you purchase tile or begin your project however, take the following into consideration:

  • Because of the varying sizes of tiles from which to select, tiles combined with the width of grout lines between each rarely works out to an exact match for the size countertop planned. Therefore, it is often necessary to cut tiles for proper fit.
  • The best tile for most countertops is glazed ceramic floor tile; for two reasons. Glazed tile is stain resistant, and floor tile is usually more durable than tile made for counters. Porcelain tile is also hard and durable, and another good choice as countertop tile.
  • Select tile with at least a Class 3 hardness rating.
  • Use grout containing latex to minimize staining in between tiles.
  • An equal row of partial tiles on both sides of the counter will look better than a full row on one side, with a narrow sliver on the other.
  • When planning your tile counter layout, consider the size and shape of edge tiles. Bullnose tiles are flat with rounded edges; V-cap tiles are formed to completely cover edges.
  • Also take into consideration the vertical measurement of the finished edge; the edge tile combined with the thickness of core materials. Measure to ensure edge tiles won’t interfere with base cabinet doors or draws. If so, you’ll need to shim up the countertop using pieces of plywood that have been nailed along the cabinet rims.
  • Adding new tile slightly raises sinks and other fixtures, so plumbing will have to be adjusted. Even if you install the tile countertop yourself, you may want to hire an experienced plumber for this purpose.
  • Recessed sinks should be set in place prior to tiling; surface-mounted sinks should be installed after tiling is complete.
  • If you have to remove an old tile counter in order to install a new one, you will have to use a masonry chisel to break the old tile up; be sure and wear protective goggles. If the counter has a masonry bed, cut it apart using a circular saw with a masonry-cutting blade; be careful not to damage the base cabinets.
  • New tile can often be installed directly over old laminate surfaces as long as the laminates are in good condition and still firmly attached to their substrate.
  • When installing a whole new counter, ceramic tile can be installed on a 3/4-inch plywood core topped by a 1/2-inch thick cementboard; a material made specifically as backing for tile. Cementboard is also known as “glass mesh mortar unit” (GMMU). As an added moisture barrier, a layer of plastic can be inserted in-between the plywood and cementboard.

Countertops - Installing Ceramic Tile

Note: if you decide to install the tile directly to a plywood core, select 3/4-inch exterior grade plywood; free from holes or crevices of any kind. This will help protect against moisture.

If you still feel comfortable installing a ceramic tile countertop yourself, let’s get started! In addition to the tile and possibly a plywood core toped by cementboard, you will need the following materials:

  • Tile, including edge tiles
  • 3/4-inch exterior grade plywood; for frame supports, the core, and base strips for along the edge, unless using pine
  • 1X2 pine (for base strips along the edge, unless using plywood)
  • 1/2-inch cementboard – to fit over the core
  • 4-ml polyethylene sheeting (to place in-between the plywood core and cementboard as an extra moisture barrier – if desired)
  • Tile adhesive
  • Carpenter’s glue
  • Grout
  • Latex additive (for the grout)
  • plastic grout spacers
  • Silicone caulk
  • Liquid silicone sealer, one that is food safe
  • Latex underlayment

You will also need the following tools:

  • Measuring tape
  • Putty knife
  • Framing square
  • Safety goggles
  • Tile cutter
  • Tile nippers
  • Hammer
  • Notched trowel
  • Grout float
  • Grout sponge
  • Caulking gun
  • Electric drill with appropriate screw bits
  • Circular saw with a carbide-tipped blade
  • Screwdriver
  • Galvanized 2-inch wallboard screws
  • Galvanized 4d common nails

Make a Plywood Frame and Core

When constructing a whole new tile countertop, begin by making a 3-inch frame support made from plywood to go around the top perimeter of the base cabinet. Fasten the supports every 24-inches using galvanized 4d common nails. Install frame supports across the cabinets about 3-inches from the sides of the sink and cook top locations; secure in place.

Make the core the same size as the base cabinet using ¾-inch exterior grade plywood. Top with ½-inch cementboard cut to fit; lay over the core. Be sure all edges are flush; fasten the core and cementboard to the frame supports using galvanized 2-inch wallboard screws. Use the underlayment to fill the cracks and screw holes. Allow to dry before sanding flush with the surrounding surfaces

Measure the locations and sizes of sinks and cook tops; cut according to the rough-in dimensions provided by the manufacturer. Wear goggles when cutting the cementboard; use a circular saw with a carbide-tipped blade. The safest cutting procedure is to make several passes along each line, setting the blade a little deeper with each pass. While cutting, it is important to provide support under the waste material to prevent tear-out.

Make a base for edge tiles and overhang. Install 1X2 build-up strips of pine along all countertop core exposed edges. Attach the strips using carpenter’s glue and galvanized 6d finish nails; the strips should be flush with the top of the core. If you prefer, use 1X2 strips of exterior grade plywood in place of pine. Note: instead of using pine strips or plywood, you can cap the edges of the plywood and cementboard topper with strips of cementboard; finish with fiberglass mesh tape and thin-set mortar.

Prepare to Install Tiles

Before installing the tile, makes sure the surface area is dry and free of debris. Begin by measuring and marking the middle of the countertop core. Your first full tile will be placed along this center line; be sure it is flush with the edge of the build-up strip.

Use a framing square to establish perpendicular lines that extend to all edges of the core. If you are using V-cap edge tiles, begin with an edge tile; allow for grout spacing, and then place a full tile against the layout lines. Dry fit the first row of tiles along the perpendicular lines; if tiles don’t have spacing lugs on their edges, use plastic grout spacers to set gout-joint gaps between the tiles. Make adjustments as necessary.

Cutting Tile

To make work easier, precut all partial tiles before you begin actual installation. For straight cuts, place the tile face-up in the tile cutter. After making adjustments for the proper width, score the tile with the cutter wheel. Apply pressure to snap the tile, according to tile cutter directions.

For curved cuts, use a tile scoring tool to etch the outline of the curve on the tile. Cover the unwanted portion of the tile with crisscrossed lines; use tile nippers to break off small pieces of the section of tile to be discarded until the cutout is complete

As you work, remember:

  • Take into account the grout lines when measuring for partial tiles.
  • Where tiles meet the wall surface, allow 1/8-inch of space; or the thickness of one tile.

Installing Tiles

When installing a tile countertop, begin with edge tiles. Apply a layer of thin-set mortar to the back of the tile and the edges of the countertop using a notched trowel. Use a slight twisting motion to press tiles into place. Add (temporary) plastic gout spaces between tiles, if needed. The rounded tops of bullnose tiles should be flush with the surface of field tiles, so keep a loose tile along the build-up strips for easy reference.

Once the edge tiles are in place, begin laying top tiles working one small area at a time.

Spread adhesive along the front of the counter top core; install a row of full tiles. When finished, begin a perpendicular row of tiles along the layout lines. Insert gout spacers as needed.

After each small section is complete, lay a carpeted 2X4 block of wood over the tile and tap gently with a hammer, and then run your hand over the tiles to insure they are even. Remove any spacers with a toothpick; scrape any excess adhesive from the gout joints. Use denatured alcohol to remove any adhesive from the face of tiles before it has time to dry.

Continue installing tiles, alternating perpendicular rows as you work. Once you are finished installing field tiles, you are ready to start installing the backsplash tiles. You will want to leave between 1/16 to 1/8 of an inch between the bottom of the backsplash tiles and the field tiles; this will be filled-in with silicone caulk once tile installation is complete.

Applying Grout and Caulk

Once tiles are all in place, mix grout according to package directions; use a latex additive if desired. After making sure all plastic grout spacers have been removed, use a rubber float to apply the grout in sweeping motions, forcing the gout into the joints between the tiles. After all spaces between tiles are completely filled-in, use a damp sponge with rounded edges to wipe away excess grout. Do not use a sponge with squared corners, which could wipe away grout from the joints.

Allow grout to cure for one hour before wiping away the powdery residue left on tiles; follow the manufacturer’s directions, and allow the grout to dry completely. Once grout is dry, caulk along the backsplash using a fine, unbroken bead of silicone caulk; smooth with the tip of a wet finger and wipe away excess.

Once the caulk has had time to cure, apply a penetrating liquid silicone sealer to the grout; one that is food safe. Use a foam brush for application. Allow the sealer dry, and apply a second coat. Once the second coat is completely dry, buff the tiles using a clean, soft cloth. For proper maintenance purposes, reapply a sealer once a year.