Hip to be Square
Is it just me, or are we suddenly seeing less carpeting and more tile floors around here? Lord knows it makes sense, particularly on the ground floor of slab-on-grade houses where a little flooding can do a lot of damage to wood or carpet. Tiles, on the other hand, just require bleach, a good scrubbing and maybe regrouting.
I think this is the sort of thing that’s meant when guys wearing turtlenecks and ponytails talk about “sustainable rebuilding” between swigs of soy chai.
In the name of full disclosure, I must admit that I’m a big fan of quality tiling. A friend of mine and I, who have done about a dozen tile jobs together, often note quality work in historic buildings and foreign countries. “Check out that tile job,” one of us might say while visiting a Spanish cathedral while everyone else is gazing up at the ceiling or altar.
Aside from being a tile connoisseur, I find joy in the work itself. There are the hours of strategizing and prep work, fueled by beer and jocular conversation. There’s the calming activity of mixing the “batter” of the mortar or the grout to the perfect cake-mix consistency. There’s the gratifying work of laying out a perfect grid, which brings a sense of order.
There’s also the part where you make tile cuts with the wet saw. I leave the precision cuts to my friend. I’m not big on placing my wet fingertips within centimeters of an electric saw to make precision cuts. And one certainly doesn’t drink beer for that part.
Anyway, through the years of trowel and error, I’ve picked up a few things that I wish somebody had told me about. What follows assumes you’re merely picking out tiles, not doing the installation yourself.
So, to begin with, choose your tiles carefully.
Take the time to notice tile jobs around town or in magazines and books to see what works, particularly in your particular setting. A rustic kitchen, for example, offers a great opportunity to use a terra cotta tile. Or your cabinet color may influence what is appropriate. Or bathroom fixtures might communicate certain choices. Maybe even the style of your house itself will ask for tiles that reflect the period. The bottom line is that you have to take a holistic view of the room and choose your tiles accordingly.
Consider what kind of traffic the room will get. Choosing white tiles for your kitchen floor may look spectacular, but you’ll have to clean them more frequently to keep them looking right.
An almond-colored tile is often recommended because it’s neutral and doesn’t show dirt as much. But, God, that’s getting boring.
Also, consider the surface. The reason many bathroom floors have small tiles is that smaller tiles mean more grout lines, and more grout lines mean you’re less likely to slip. There are also aesthetic considerations. In a small room, 12-inch or 18-inch tiles often don’t work. To my eye, it usually just looks like somebody got cheap or lazy. But if you do use large tiles in a bathroom, then at least make sure the surface has enough texture to keep you from slipping.
It will help to have some idea of what you want before you go to the tile store because the options can be overwhelming. I can remember spending hours in Pieri Tile & Marble Co., lost amidst the infinite possibilities among the samples.
Know your square-footage needs, and bring your calculator. Avoid anything too cheap because it’s more likely to chip or crack with use, and then you’ll have to go through the aggravation of replacing a single tile here or there –– if you’re lucky enough to have extras or find a match. Maybe it goes without saying, but while you can use floor tiles on the wall (assuming they’re not too heavy), it doesn’t work both ways.
On the other hand, consider splurging on accents or small jobs, such as the backsplash behind a bathroom sink or on the façade of a fireplace. Years later, you’ll forget what you spent per square foot but still appreciate that you’ve done something remarkable.
Then there’s the grout. Make sure you choose something that matches the tile. Be careful here because it may not look quite the same in powder form as when the job is finished. But above all, choose a color that can handle the expected usage. White grout between wall tiles can look great and pretty much holds up, particularly, say, in the shower. White grout between floor tiles can also look great –– for about a day. Thereafter, they’ll gradually become dirt-colored.
Don’t say you weren’t warned. I wish I had been.
Photos taken at Stafford Tile.