Illustration 1: Plotting the two marks, made at an equal distance from the baseboard, is the first step in checking a floor’s dimensions with a laser beam.

The title of this article might suggest the use of expensive trim tiles or hint at exotic setting bed shapes, but since all tiles are decorative, the title actually refers to a set of basic principles that can help turn the most economical ceramic or stone tile installations into works of art.

To do this, accurately measure the square-ness of a floor or wall, perform a few simple math calculations, plot a precise layout on the setting bed, and cut and install the tiles with care. The bare essentials of this approach may be found on pages 29 and 30 of the 2005 ANSI A108 Handbook. This must-have-behind-the-seat-of-your-pickup item for professional installers forms the basis of the TCNA Handbook. In particular, refer to “4.3: Workmanship, Cutting & Fitting” for finishing details. While you’re in that neck of the booklet, take a few minutes to absorb the contents of another rather brief yet very important collection of specification, “4.4 Movement Joints,” which according to entry 4.4.2, “are a requirement for tile work.”

Illustration 2: The thin chalk and ballpoint pen lines on the left provide greater accuracy than the thick chalk and grease pencil lines on the right.

Measuring for Square, Layout and Estimating

Some of the most important skills required of an installer are the ability to measure and compute structural and tile dimensions, and to plot accurate layouts for installation materials and the tiles. Accurate tile layouts are comprised of three elements:
  • Measuring the dimensions of the structure to be tiled
  • Measuring the dimensions of the field and trim tiles (or the backer boards, sheet membranes or other installation materials)
  • Plotting a layout to guide their placement.
Simple installations and large tiles require fewer lines than do installations complicated by borders, inserts, or other features.

Traditional layout and measuring methods are still effective, but for maximum accuracy, the most economical way to do it is with a laser device. Although there are a number of six-figure laser measuring systems ideal for estimating, I’ll be focusing on line-projecting lasers.

Quality laser squares allow an installer to assess the condition of the setting bed in seconds - more accurately than with spirit levels, carpenter’s square and string. To check the square condition of a floor, I make two marks at the ends of the baseboard extending the longest dimension of the floor (Illustration #1). The distance from the wall is irrelevant as long as the two marks are made at the same distance from the base of the wall.

Once a beam of a laser square is aligned to the marks, measurement of the room can begin with nothing more than a tape measure to provide a reading of a floor’s true dimensions and level of straight- and square-ness.

Illustration 3: The author uses two leveling lasers to ensure accuracy. If the two beams give the same readings, one can be switched off to plot the layout. If the two beams diverge or collide, one of the lasers needs to be re-calibrated.

To extend the reference marks into a layout grid, I prefer to use a chalk box with a very fine marking line (Illustration #2), or a straightedge and ballpoint pen. To check the accuracy of a laser square, I plot x and y lines 90-degrees apart, then rotate the laser square 180-degrees and align it with these. The new lines should overlap or parallel the first set. If not, the laser should be calibrated.

Illustration 4: The author plots a pencil line over the laser line.

To project vertical and horizontal laser reference or layout lines with an accuracy of 1/16-inch (the width of the laser line at 10-20 feet), I mount two different laser devices to an adjustable laser holder, know as a Laser Jamb, and proceed as follows: Setup the adjustable jamb and set the lasers so that their horizontal beams are within 1/4-inch of each other (Illustration #3), and are positioned at a convenient working height. If the beams coincide to within 1/32-inch over their spans, I turn one of the lasers off and proceed to make reference marks on the setting bed (If the beams diverge or collide, one of the lasers requires calibration). I position the lasers so that the self-leveling horizontal beam extends to three or more walls. I carefully mark the beam ends on each wall with a thin pencil or ballpoint pen mark, and connect them with a straightedge (Illustration #4).

Illustration 5: Three views of the same floor with defects exaggerated for clarity. On the left, sliver cuts point to the dimensional problems with the structure. Balanced cuts on the center floor minimize the problem while the diagonal insert on the right gives the eyes a more pleasing focus.

Although creating a specific layout or pattern is easy on paper, from a practical perspective, installers have to deal with floor and wall perimeters that are neither square nor straight. A good layout tricks the eye into believing that the structure is flawless. This is covered in ANSI A108 4.3.2, and is accomplished by arranging the tiles so that cuts are balanced on each side of a wall or all sides of a floor, and eliminating cuts smaller than half-size. Beautifully balanced layouts require more tiles and generate more waste than the most economical layouts, but the difference is minimal. This is illustrated by the three floors, each with the same exaggerated defects, in Illustration #5.

The setting bed on the left of this illustration can be finished with 43 tiles (36 whole and 13 cut tiles) requiring 14 cuts. Unfortunately, because the sliver cuts glaringly point out the straight- and square-ness issues with the structure, the eye’s attention is immediately drawn to the problem, with the tiles actually pointing the way. In the center, though, the same floor takes on a more balanced appearance because the larger cut tiles around the perimeter hide the tapered area without being too obvious. This version can be finished with 49 tiles (25 whole and 24 cut tiles) requiring 28 cuts. Another way to install the floor is with a diagonal insert surrounded by a border, shown on the right. The insert of this layout tends to focus the eye away from the uneven perimeter. This layout can be finished with 40 tiles (12 whole and 28 cut tiles) requiring 38 cuts. Obviously, the floor on the left is the easiest to install but yields the worst look of the three. The center floor takes more work and more tiles to mask the perimeter problems. The floor on the right requires more cutting, and considerably more effort, but because the diagonal insert is so prominent, this approach is the best way to mask perimeter problems.

Illustration 6: Instead of cutting larger tiles into smaller squares, the author uses patterns to create the radial cuts for this shower floor.

Fancy tiles are always nice to work with, but by cutting plain tiles into tasteful patterns, designs and inlays, installation contractors can enhance and individualize the installation while increasing the profitability of the job. All you need is basic math, the dimension of the floors and walls, and the dimensions of the tiles to create uniquely crafted accents and layouts.

The author uses a conventional wet saw and a dedicated blade to hand-cut inlays pieces.

An example is the technique I use for shower floors. This involves using copper patterns to cut 12-inch granite tiles into radius-cut segments (Illustration #6) that conform to the sloping pitch of the floor, and present a close network of grout joints that can significantly improve traction in a wet area. The same floor could be covered quicker and easier by cutting the 12x12s into 4x4s or 3x3s, but the custom radius cut allows me to bill more labor, and all the cutting is done on conventional wet saws using hand-held cutting techniques and blades dedicated to this kind of work (Illustration #7).

Expensive tiles are one way to decorate, but by using inexpensive tiles and inlay techniques, more money from the tile budget goes to the installer.