How to Install Cement Tiles
We know. Despite all the materials available for tile and mosaics for some reason cement never seems to be an option to come to mind. But it is an option and it is more available than most would expect. Cement tiles, otherwise known as “Encaustic tiles”, are actually quite versatile. They are excellent options for most applications ranging from floor and fireplaces to wall and backsplashes. Unlike ceramic tiles, which are created using a mixture of very specific clays - cement tiles are handmade one at a time from just about anything and everything ranging from marble powders, pure color pigments, or just sand. Anything is possible.
At the end of the day, the real question is why not?
The only real caveat to cement tiles is that they do not usually come pre-sealed from the factory. Often times you are required to seal the cement tile prior to grouting, upon grouting, and yearly. Be sure to check with your manufacturer prior to installation for guidance on the matter. Otherwise, after being sealed they require minimal upkeep and are very durable. If you’re ready to take the leap and looking to install cement tiles - you’ve come to the right place.
First and foremost, as with any installation, you should inspect the product you’ve purchased carefully. Make sure you’re happy with the product you’ve received and are aware of any variations or characteristics that may be present throughout a large batch of your chosen tile. Most manufacturers may not accept any returns or claims made after the tile has been cut, installed, or treated in some way.
Once you’ve gone through your material make sure you store it properly. Let’s face it, you might not be able to start your project as soon as you hoped, or maybe for some reason you aren’t able to complete it on the same day you start. Properly storing your cement tile in a dry area is very important to preserve your product before or during installation. Any kind of unwanted moisture or damp environments could possibly damage the surface of your tile, fade its color, or even stain it. You should let your tile “season” or acclimate in the area you’ve chosen to install in order to avoid any surprises. Cement tile can be like paint - the final results can have some variation due to the surrounding environment once it has set for a certain period of time.
Preparation is Key
Regardless of how it looks, what color it is, or even its size. At the end of the day, we’re still dealing with a cement product. Like all cement products, there's a good chance it will have a layer of residue of some kind on its surface. This should be removed during the initial cleaning phase prior to grouting. Any remaining residue should be removed afterward during the buffing process upon the completion of the installation.
Pro-tip: wiping the back of the tiles with a damp sponge before applying to thin-set helps ensure proper adhesion by removing any concrete dust residue that could interfere with the bond.
Laying Down the Truth
Actually installing your tile is about as simple as any installation can get. As always you want to place your tile on as flat and level a surface as possible. Whether on the floor or on your wall, the most important thing is that your surface is solid and sturdy. Do not install your cement tile on any surface that can sag or is not 100% solid or rigid. Any play or flexing of your base can and will cause your tile to crack and break. As for drywall? It’s ok so long as you’re using setting materials specifically made for anti-sag applications.
As previously stated, cement tiles are made from natural materials. This makes it prone to variations of color. You should have inspected your materials before beginning any step of the installation, so by now, you should have a good idea of what you’re working with. Sometimes blending of your tiles by shuffling pieces around during installation can help promote natural and smooth transitions of variation throughout your install.
Making it Stick
Laticrete and Mapei products are typically safe bets when it comes to substrates to set your product in. As always, you should be sure to double-check with the manufacturer’s specifications to make sure whatever you choose falls in line with the recommended standards. In the case of cement tiles, you should use a high quality, medium-bed thin-set substrate and remember - cement tiles are not meant to be installed using methods that require large quantities of water.
Your thin-set should be applied to the full rear of your cement tiles using a large notched trowel to ensure proper spread. The thin-set should be spread on the back of the tiles and on the floor similar to any natural stone installation. Continue to ensure your tile is level as your install progresses to avoid any uneven pieces or lipping. If further leveling is required, apply steady pressure using your hand. Do not use any hammers or mallets as they will cause the tile to break. Any and all excess material should be removed while it is still fresh using a damp cloth or sponge.
If you need to cut your tile to size - a sharp diamond blade and water will be essential to avoid chipped or rough edges. For your grout joints, make sure you keep them tight, right around 1/16” or 1/8” is ideal. If you wish to use spacers, make sure they’re made of a soft, flexible material.
Sealing the Deal
We previously mentioned that cement tiles do not come pre-sealed. This is a vital step to preserving your tile to maintain its appearance and extend its lifespan. Be sure to clean your tile thoroughly before applying your sealer. PH neutral cleaners should be your only option here as any acids or alkaline based cleaners could easily damage or alter the finish of your tile.
Your sealer should be applied in thin layers, slowly until the tile no longer soaks it up. Be sure to wipe off any excess sealer that remains before it dries and allow it to cure as per the manufacturer’s recommendations. A properly sealed tile should have water bead up on its surface when wet - not soak it up. Just like a car window after being treated with rain-x.
After your sealant has cured it’s time to grout. Be sure to check the manufacturer’s recommended specifications to verify you are using the ideal type of unsanded grout. Your grout should be applied in small areas and then immediately cleaned as you go. This ensures a good even coverage without any unnecessary buildup or residue. While cleaning be sure not to allow any water to pool up on the surface. If you’re having difficulty removing any tough residue spots - a disc floor cleaner with a white pad is usually a safe option as long as the surface is wet before use to avoid any abrasions.
The Final Touch
Once grouting has been completed and the floor has been cleaned once more - apply another layer of sealant following the previous set of instructions. This includes sealing the grout with a penetrating sealer - be sure to properly dry your installation before applying the second layer of sealant. Be sure to keep your tile clean or provide it a cover of some sort until the final layer of sealant has cured to prevent any unintentional last-second staining or damage.
Once sealed any future maintenance is very low key. Just clean regularly with a PH Neutral cleaner and buff tiles with a white pad. Be sure to check with the manufacturer, as sealing yearly may be a requirement. As time goes on the tile will naturally age depending on activity and elements it is exposed to providing you with an increasingly unique installation.
All that’s left to do now is enjoy!
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