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Getting ready to lay some tile? Here are the tools you’ll need

From tile cutters to the tiles themselves

Person smoothing grout on floor as they install black and white patterned floor tiles. Credit: Getty Images / ronstik

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When it comes to changing up a floor, wall, or backsplash in your home, the job requires quite a few specific tile tools and materials. To keep things simple, I’ll assume you’re going to work with a standard ceramic subway tile, since it’s so common, timeless, and easy for beginners to DIY.

Here are the tile tools you need

Measuring tape and levels

On left, square laser level being used to apply wallpaper to wall. On left, yellow and black tape measure.
Credit: Bosch / Stanley

The best way to ensure even, uniform tiles is with a level tool and measuring tape.

As you’d expect, you’ll need a way to reliably measure and lay out your tile.

First, you’ll need to know exactly how much tile and grout you need to buy.

Second, you’ll need to understand how your tiles will be laid out and where the trickiest cuts will be.

Once you’re ready to begin installing, you’ll also want to have a tool to ensure that your lines remain even and level. I really like this square laser level from Bosch, which lets you ensure that your initial tile is set so that it’s level vertically and horizontally.

You’ll also want to check that your countertop or floor is actually level all the way across, or you’ll wind up with some very odd cuts later on.

Spacers, a square, and a Sharpie

Though some tiles come with prefabricated spacers on the edges, in most cases you’ll be sticking the little plastic 1/8th or 1/16th-inch (your choice) spacers between each tile. If you get that first tile lined up perfectly square, it’s easy to get the rest of the wall in line, since each tile will be pushed apart equally by the spacers. As long as your first line is level, the rest should be as well.

The square and Sharpie are used to mark up your tile as you work and draw straight lines that you can use as a guide for making your cuts.

You’ll want a square big enough to cover at least half your tile, but this will ensure when you make a straight cut it’s actually straight. If your tile has a glass surface, the Sharpie will rub right off and not leave a mark. If you’re using a stone tile or other porous surface then you may need to mark the back of the tile or just carefully cut as you go.

Tile cutting tools: a tile cutter, tile nippers, sanding stone, and saws

Person using tile cutter on floor to cut tile while installing.
Credit: Getty Images / -lvinst-

Rely on a tile cutter to guarantee your chosen tiles will fit together seamlessly.

No matter what design you pick, you’ll need to cut your tile. Ceramic tile is the easiest to make straight cuts (which is most of what you’ll need).

A simple tile cutter works great for this purpose. It’s just a glass cutter that moves along a rail. Align your tile using the built-in locking square, roll the glass cutter over it, then rock the handle back, and the rubber pads will snap your tile along that line.

This will work for standard vertical cuts as well as longer horizontal “rip” cuts, though if you’re taking off less than a half inch then the tile may snap apart unpredictably. You can use a sanding stone to help smooth out the cut tile or shave it slightly if your cut wasn’t quite right.

A tile nipper works differently. It’s a hand tool that basically has two teeth that compress and snap a “bite” out of your tile. It works best on the corners where you can take off small pieces at a time. If you try to use the nippers in the middle of a side, the tile will probably just break in multiple pieces and go to waste. Either way, use this over a bucket so the shards it bites off are easy to collect and dump.

More complicated cuts (like taking a square corner out to work around an outlet) will likely require a tile saw of some sort. You can go all-out and use a wet saw (a saw that uses water to keep the blade cool so it doesn’t get damaged) or opt for a smaller rotary saw with a specialized diamond blade that can handle cutting through tile.

As with any saw, it’s critical that you be careful and use the devices appropriately.

If you really don’t want to mess with a saw you can just work slowly with tile nippers and a cutter, but be aware that you’ll likely need multiple tries to get your cuts right as the tile gets brittle once you cut it.

Either way, you can leave small spaces around some areas like outlets, window sills, your countertops, and cabinets. You’ll cover these areas up with outlet covers and caulk to some extent, so you don’t need to be perfect.

A notched trowel (or two), grout float, and sponges

Person on hands and knees using sponge on tiles to clean up grout.
Credit: Getty Images / Rich Legg

Got unsightly excess grout? No problem–use a sponge to perfect your install.

Finally, the tools you need to actually put tile on the wall: a trowel to scoop out, spread, and thin out your tile adhesive, a grout float to work grout into the spaces, and sponges to clean up stuck-on grout.

For trowels, you can get away with a simple small margin trowel if you’re doing a small backsplash. It isn’t great at spreading a lot of adhesive over a large area, but it’s great for working adhesive into corners, tight spaces, or on the back of small tiles.

The notches are critical here, as you’ll scrape them along the surface and the adhesive will either catch on the trowel or move through the gaps. This leaves just enough adhesive on the wall so it doesn’t squish out the sides and in between your tiles.

The grout float is just a rubber spreader that helps you work the grout between all the spaces of your tile so it fills the gaps evenly. It’s usually rubber, so it won’t damage the surface of the tile.

Finally, the sponge is just a big sponge. You get it a little wet and it’ll help break up the grout stuck to your tile and let you work it back into the spaces.

Beyond tile tools, here are the materials you’ll need before installation

There are three basic materials you’ll need for your tile install: grout, adhesive, and the tile itself. If you choose a porous stone tile, you’ll also need a sealer but we’re not covering that here.

Grout

When it comes to choosing grout, you need to pick something appropriate for your wall, chosen tile, and design. You also need to decide if you want a pre-mixed option (so you just pop it open and go to work), or if you want to buy powder and mix it yourself.

The powder versions are more economical, but it’s messier and adds a lot of steps. For a beginner DIYer, I’d recommend sticking with pre-mixed since you’ll likely be working slowly and may need to start and stop. If you are tiling a huge area, just consider if the cost savings will be worth it to you to try powdered mix.

For grout, you’ll also need to pick a color that complements your tile. That’s entirely up to you, but options typically range from bright white to dark gray.

Adhesive

You'll need the glue that makes everything stick, and when it comes to tiling a backsplash, that glue is either a tile adhesive, called mastic, or it is mortar. You can dive deep into their differences and use-case scenarios, but for basic ceramic subway tiles, you can generally use either mastic or mortar. Mastic is sold pre-mixed, whereas mortar is not.

Tiles

White subway tiles on top of gray grout.
Credit: Getty Images / nycshooter

Not only are subway tiles easy to find online, but they can easily be polished and cleaned once their initial luster wears off.

Finally, you’ll need to settle on a tile. Subway tiles are typically just rectangular ceramic tiles. They have a glass-like layer on the top that makes them non-porous and very easy to clean.

You can opt for a basic white subway tile that is easy to find everywhere, or go with different colors (such as gray), or even branch out with more modern textured versions. Either way, buy at least 10% more than you need to cover waste.

Once you’ve got everything in place, practice cutting your tile in a few places to get used to your tools and see how your tile takes to being cut.

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