Determining the layout prior to installing the tile is the key to the success of a quality tile installation.

Common Sense can be applied in many cases, like a tub surround where the cuts can be hidden on the inside wall, leaving full tiles on the highly visible areas of the outside walls.

I belong to a secret club in our industry. You can spot us in every crowd. We are found on our hands and knees in airports and restaurants, examining grout joints and counting the distance from one expansion joint to the next. We have been spotted in bathrooms running our hands against the wall, searching for uneven tiles or lippage. Often, our spouse can be seen burying their head in shame as we either praise or criticize the workmanship performed by the tile installer. It is an addiction, and one that many of us with a passion for our industry are unlikely to overcome. We are the critics of our trade.

Often, I find myself marveling at the quality of the craftsmanship in installations. I will point out to those willing to listen to me the attention to detail, the uniformity of the grout width, and the reflection of the sunlight off of a perfectly smooth floor installation. Conversely, I can be heard moaning and groaning when I find poor workmanship. In my opinion, nothing is more destructive to the growth of our trade than poor quality installations. And most of the time they can be avoided.

There are many factors that determine if an installation is successful or not. But beautiful tile installations all have one common denominator. It factors into every job before the mortar is mixed, the tiles placed, and the grout is spread. Proper layout is the key to it all. 

Layouts are important because any errors in layout are so readily apparent that tile setters must master the technique if they are to succeed in the tile trade. A good layout will make the actual application of tile easier, whereas a poor or indifferent layout slows the work process and does not enhance the beauty of the tile being set.

Most floors and walls are not square, and failure to properly lay out grids can result in disastrous tile installations, such as this shower wall.

It seems simple enough. Find the center of the room, snap some chalk lines and install the tile. The reality is that achieving proper layout can be a challenge. Rooms are often not square. Numerous sizes of tile, in varying patterns and shapes and thicknesses, are commonly selected. At times it is like trying to put one big puzzle together. It takes planning and thought. Dry layout is imperative, so that you can determine where it makes the most sense to place your cuts. There is a strong likelihood you will have to account for doorways, windows and outlets, interconnecting rooms and out of square bathtubs, counter tops and vanities, and more. Each job is different and requires proper layout planning.

Failure to properly layout a floor or wall can lead to uneven or inconsistent grout width, creating a visually unattractive installation.

There are many good books on tile installation. The NTCA offers an excellent training manual called Math, Layout and Construction Drawing for the Tile Professional. It is part of our series of incremental training manuals for the trade. It is an excellent training resource. All tile-contracting companies need to spend time with their crews on this vital aspect of successful tile work. It may seem elementary or that I am stating the obvious, but my travels have proved to me at times that this attention to detail is sometimes lacking. It is not uncommon to find a sliver of tile along the wall in a shower or on a floor that could have been avoided. Sometimes I will spot an extraordinarily large grout joint in this situation because the installer couldn’t cut the tile thin enough to fill the gap. These issues can be avoided with proper planning and dry layout, with the size of the tiles you are working with factoring into the equation. You need a strategy. This layout pattern should generally be determined when you measure the rooms in the field before ordering the tile.

The following are some rules of thumb to consider when planning a layout strategy for your tile installation:
  • If you have one wall that is definitely more visible than the others, you want your tile to be square to this wall. Snap a chalk line or draw a line out 90-degrees from the center of this wall to the opposite wall.
  • Next, find the center of this line and draw a line perpendicular to it that runs into the remaining two walls. Double check that these lines are perfectly square; these are your starting reference lines.
  • If your walls are all equally visible, draw lines between the midpoints of the room’s opposing walls. This should give you two perpendicular lines crossing at the center point of the room. These reference lines are the key to a good layout.
  • Test-fit a row of tiles along each reference line to see how they lay out. Be sure to account for the thickness of the grout lines.
  • Check the size of the tiles at the end of the rows. If they end up being less than half their original size you should measure the tile and divide this by two. Then add the measurement to the measurement that was less than half the tile. The result is the cut size.
  • If both ends of a row are visible, you’ll want the end tiles to be the same size. If only one end of a row is visible you’ll probably want to start there with full tiles. Smaller cut tiles can be hid behind doors or under cabinets.
  • Continue with a grid pattern to ensure you are staying true to the layout. A grid styled layout allows the installer to see exactly where each tile and cut is going to fall. This is especially convenient in multiple room settings and areas with a lot of square footage. In addition, it allows for the installation of a ceramic tile floor that is consistently square throughout. It is very important that you maintain accurate measurements throughout the layout process. Use the largest tiles to determine your grid.
These are just a few tips extracted from our Book on Math, Layout, and Construction Drawing. The book gives examples of room settings and employs a common sense approach to jobsite layout. There are other excellent resources on how to lay out ceramic tile properly.

Successful tile contractors understand the importance of layout in a tile installation. They incorporate this into their training programs. It entails helping your employee with some basic math skills necessary to map out a strategy. Careful planning can be the difference between a work of art and just another tile job.