The month of bath and vanity flooring: Part 3, cutting the tile

Joan Fieldstone

February 16, 2016

By: Joan Fieldstone, Home Improv Advocate

In: Bathroom RemodelingFlooring

Finally, after a couple of weeks of deliberation that took us into the middle of January, we -- or I should say, my BFF -- was able to start the actual work.

Here's a partial shopping list of what we needed for cutting and laying the tile:

  • Concrete backer board and screws for securing the board to the OSB subfloor. We wanted a level surface that would support the tiles so they wouldn't crack. We bought five pieces of ¼-inch thick, 3'-by-5' HardieBacker cement board underlayment. There were several choices of cement backer board and while this was the most costly of the ones at the nearest Home Depot, the difference per board was only a dollar or two between this and the least costly. We wanted the finished floor to not exceed the height of the adjoining bedroom and hall carpeting, which is why we chose the ¼-inch boards. These seemed the most substantial in that thickness.
  • Wet tile saw. I chose the Rigid 7-inch Job Site Wet Tile Saw from Home Depot because we have only one other tile project, the downstairs powder room, to complete after this one. I wasn't looking for the most professional saw. This one was under $200. BFF was satisfied with it, but it seemed to me the saw made it more challenging for her to make some of the complicated cuts for this project. She managed to pull it off, though. The blade, however, may need some reconditioning for the next project.
  • Thin set. At the recommendation of a Home Depot associate, we bought Custom Building Products' Natural Stone and Large Tile white premium mortar because of the size of the tiles. It's a polymer-modified mortar designed to support tiles more than 15 inches in length on any side. It's also supposed to virtually eliminate lippage, a variation in the height of adjoining tiles. Nonetheless, we did have some lippage, which we corrected by removing and resetting the tiles. More on that when I cover the subject of laying the tile.
  • Saw blade for cutting the backer board. We got an Avanti Pro fiber cement carbide-tipped cutting saw blade for the HardieBacker cement board.

BFF also used flat pieces of recycled cardboard boxes to cut templates of the most irregularly shaped pieces she had to fit around the bottoms of all the door frames. There are three doors in that small space: a pocket door between the master vanity and bathroom, a door between the bathroom and the adjoining hall vanity room, and one between the second vanity room and the hall. She was able to trace the shapes onto the tiles, which minimized cutting errors.

A cardboard template for floor tile

Prepping for floor tile

First BFF took out the too tall toilet, less than five years old and still nearly pristine by toilet standards. I'm donating it to Habitat for Humanity ReStore if they aren't overstocked on toilets. When you take out a toilet, remember that it drips. I scraped off the old wax ring on the floor and she plugged the drain with a rag.

Then the old sheet vinyl flooring in the bathroom had to be removed and the particle board beneath it. She also plucked out all the staples sticking out of the OSB to smooth and level the surface.

demoing a bathroom floor

Next, she cut and screwed down the backer board. It's marked where to sink the screws, but BFF wanted to make sure she sunk some of the screws into the floor joists, so she wound up putting in more screws than called for. Drilling through the concrete board made a lot of noise and concrete dust. If you DIY this, wear a respirator and ear plugs.

HardieBacker board for floors

Cut to the chase

With the backer board finally installed, it was time to cut the tiles. The wet tile saw, despite the splash guard and "anti-splash technology" got BFF pretty soaked, and the only place to cut the tiles was the garage. The January weather did not cooperate. It was plenty chilly. We also didn't have a table on which to place the saw, so BFF had to crouch on the ground to cut each piece of tile. I didn't want to rush her, so it took more than a week to get all the tile cut.

While a lot of the cuts were just simple diagonals, quite a few pieces were nightmarish. She showed me how she had to make many small "relief" cuts to accommodate the limitations of the saw and chip away the tile until she achieved the right shape. After a couple of not-so-perfect cuts, she got the hang of it. I was amazed at how well she did with a saw that was really not the best one for the job, but the best I was able to afford. We both felt it was worth buying because we knew this would take a week or two given her availability, so renting would have been costly, too.

A floor tile after cuts

As she went along tile by tile, the floor began to take shape. She kept measuring, cutting and sticking to the floor plan, shifting the tiles a little and placing the spacers between them, making adjustments to the cuts as needed. It was a painstaking process, and she's even more of a perfectionist than I am…which is seriously hard to believe.

Tile laying in progress

A tip about the spacers: They come with four prongs and instructions to stand them up between the tiles. BFF found that cutting off one prong to fit where the offset tiles intersected in a "T" kept the tiles from moving, much more effectively than standing the spacers perpendicular to the flat planes of the tiles.

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