Technical Focus: Level Up Your Tile-Setting Game
How to ensure a lippage-free tile installation
Professionals who can set evenly spaced, lippage-free tile take pride in their work — and they should. Professional results come from many years of accidentally kicking over your spacer bucket, irritatingly scattering knee shrapnel all over your workspace. It is the result of reaching for your level countless times, forgetting you moved it when you brought in the last batch of tile. It is the result of driving consistency across all of your crew, even the rookies.
Professionals recognize that spacers are key to completing a perfect job, but not all spacers are created equal. Many are inexpensive — you can even say cheap — but some are too cheap, and saving a couple dollars on inferior versions can lead to expensive and unsightly problems down the road. If you invested in quality materials up to now, the last thing you need is for a two-penny piece of plastic to throw your floor into turmoil. That’s because some spacers don’t keep the top of the tile level to the tile next to it. The resulting lippage not only looks sloppy, it can be a trip hazard.
Spacers with leveling is the latest wave of progress in the tile-setting world. Spacer and leveling systems have grown in need as tile increases in size, yet many professionals hesitate to take a leap to level up their tile setting game. Spacers with leveling systems typically require two components: a spacer that sits below and between the tiles, and a top component that when connected provides leveling between tiles.
When deciding, here are some questions to consider. How sturdy are the spacers? Do they stand up to the most powerful installers and the strongest of stone? What about the base of the spacer — is it wide with holes to allow the tile corners to bond to the mortar below? How many spacers would you need for a job? Do you just need pieces at the intersections or do you need them every few inches?
The top component: does it allow you to see any thinset sneaking up through the joints? Does connecting it to the spacer cause your tile to move or set up the potential to scratch softer tile like marble? Are those top components reusable?
Does the system require a tension tool? If so, is that tool durable between installers? Can you adjust the tension of the tool? If the system doesn’t require a tension tool, will your hands and arms grow tired from all the twisting?
While these questions may feel intimidating, there are products on the market that allow easy installation of evenly spaced, lippage-free tile quickly. The speedier systems are designed only to use components at tile intersections and have flexible spacers for different intersection profiles.
These systems help to provide consistent results across jobs, no matter who on your crew is setting the tile. To get started, level out the sub-floor, put down the appropriate backer board, then lay down some mortar. As you lay the tiles, insert the appropriate spacer — the flat spacer for along the wall edges and the cross or tee spacers just at the intersections.
Once the tiles are laid correctly, now it’s time for the second component of the system. This is where any lippage can be corrected. While some systems use wedge or twist cap motions, others use caps that push straight down. Caps that push straight down can reduce risk for scratching or moving tile during install. Regardless of the system, many have top components, which are reusable across jobs. If your system requires a tension tool, that’s the third step to lippage-free tile.
Once your tiles are in place and level, take a break. When your mortar has cured, come back and remove the top component of the system. In many systems, the spacer in the grout joint will disconnect from the bottom of the spacer that lays under the tile, leaving a clear line for grout. Caps are reusable by pulling out the separated spacer section.
Don’t forget when deciding which system to use to consider how many pieces you need in total for the job. Some systems accomplish proper spacing using only two pieces, saving time over spacer leveling systems that use up to eight pieces for the same procedure. Two pieces per intersection also means less potential knee shrapnel.
Level up your tile-setting game with lippage control systems.