DIY Blues: 11 Reasons Not to Tile Your Own Floor
This is part of a series of articles on the real costs in labor, materials, and mental health involved in various DIY projects, from someone who’s lived through them all.
I realized recently that my spouse and I have spent most of our adult life restoring and renovating old homes. That’s less a boast than a confession. It’s not how we wanted to spend our precious hours. But given the “death by a thousand fees” model most of us live under, it’s one of the few stable ways to create financial stability, in this time of shrinking wages and hyper-inflated housing costs.
If you’re really committed to paying the physical and emotional price of DIY, you ought to know what you’re really getting into. And your family should know too. They’re likely to be paying the price too.
I say that as someone who’s done it all, along with my intrepid wife. We’ve pulled wires through 100-year old ceilings, installed ERVs and mini-splits, remodeled multiple bathrooms and kitchens, laid up concrete block walls and on and on. The work never ends.
The “Screw That” Impetus
What often happens with our most overwhelming projects is what I call the “screw that!” factor. For example, after hiring an electrician to put in one outlet and a ceiling light for $1,100, roughing in 20 more outlets ourselves seemed economical. But oh, the suffering…
Let’s flash forward to this year, and my latest project: Putting an entire large format tile floor down on a slab in a 1,000-square-foot home. I resisted DIY at first. My first estimate for an epoxy-over-concrete floor came in at $6,000 for a speckled finish that looked like a garage floor.
The upgraded marble look, the contractors said, would raise the price to $10,000, or about $10 per square foot.
That price seemed high, but more importantly, the installer had no portfolio examples proving he could pull off the look we wanted. And he was the only guy within 40 miles doing this type of work. Our tile estimates came in even higher. So we opted to do it ourselves, not realizing what we were saying yes to. We thought the whole job would take a week. We underestimated by 75 percent.
Underestimating Time and Costs
In the Southwest, I’ve seen teams of experienced workers, most of them from across the border, make short work of tiling an entire custom home, with beautiful results. They make it look easy. It’s not. They have skills gained from decades of hands-on work that you can’t hope to match. Ultimately, I was able to complete my project, but not without backbreaking work and hard lessons.
Researching the best way to put tile over a slab, we found contradicting information. Most pros advise putting down a membrane, then laying tiles on top of the membrane. This is supposed to reduce tile breakage if the concrete slab cracks underneath. But adding this step means mixing even more bags of expensive, heavy thinset mortar.
Another option is to apply the tiles directly to the concrete slab. Our slab was old and settled with no cracks, so we decided to take that risk. But to get the tiles to stick properly, it had to be pristine-clean. Thus began the many-phase process. Here are 11 reasons I wouldn’t DIY tiling on concrete again:
1. Floor Grinders are Nasty and Brutish
Cleaning the concrete slab thoroughly required renting a diamond-blade commercial grinder. I spent a long day in a self-induced dust storm, grinding off the glue from old adhesive tiles, questioning my life choices. This also meant buying a couple of professional grade respirators, not to mention having to wet wipe every single surface in the home after sanding.
The machine takes a lot of strength to manage, and can easily leave an oversized divot in your concrete. That can create problems for your large format tiles. It’s a nerve wracking, dirty job.
2. Concrete Requires Coating First
To make the tiles adhere properly to the concrete, it needs to be coated with an acrylic polymer bonding paint. This stuff is expensive too. We paid about $45 per gallon and used four gallons. The idea is that it chemically bonds the concrete and the polymer thinset mortar so tiles don’t randomly come loose. Worse, you’re supposed to lay the tile within 24 hours once you coat the concrete, or you have to recoat it. So you’re racing against the clock as you mix mortar and lay tiles and try to keep the section you’re walking on clean and dust free.
After Grinding, Coating. This floor has the MAPEI primer on it, so the clock is ticking.
3. Cutting is Unavoidable
In almost every scenario, laying a whole room of tiles results in a complete set of cut tiles at the perimeter. This is to avoid having a thin “slice” of tile on one side or the other. Typically, you start in the middle of the room and work outward to the walls in four different directions. Guestimating this requires actually laying dry tiles out and carefully marking them before you ever mix mortar.
And here’s another zinger: This purplish sealing paint is thick enough to cover your marker lines. Also, expect to do lots of cutting. Dozens and dozens of cuts. Don’t bother renting a tile saw. Just buy one that works with water. Harbor freight has them for under $100 bucks. If you break it, bring it back for a new one. You’ll be doing this job a lot longer than you expect.
Loud and messy. Expect to spend a lot of time using your new tile saw. After a while, you get used to it, but, weather permitting, it’s a dirty, outdoor job.
4. Large Tiles Break Easily
Large format tiles are all the rage right now, so we went that route. But of the 360 or so tiles delivered by pallet from Lowes, about 1 in 5 was broken in some way. That meant creating a “cull” pile and using all of those tiles for our cuts (and there were many).
What’s most terrifying, however, is the process of laying and settling the tiles. Mortar thickness has to be just right, and tiles must be pushed, tapped, and nudged into the mortar deeply, or you risk leaving voids under them where they will snap later on. This takes a lot of strength and multi-tasking, even if you use a good tile leveling system, as we did.
To make matters worse, you can’t walk back over your tiles to clean off excess mortar, so you have to clean them thoroughly as you lay each tile, or face rock-hard mortar on your surfaces the next day.
Expect Breakage. Delivered by pallet in two batches, about 20 percent of tiles were broken or damaged. We managed to use most of them in our extensive need for cut tiles.
5. Mortar is Costly, Heavy and Labor Intensive
We paid about $35 per 50-lb. bag for polymer-enhanced large tile format mortar, and found that we could lay about 10-12 tiles per bag, so we kept buying more, after our initial pallet drop. We put down 360 tiles, so we spent about $1,000 altogether.
Along with the cost, however, mortar just requires hard, hard labor. We bought a high-powered drill and mixing rod and some five-gallon buckets and mixed it in those. But each bucket weighs close to 100 pounds, and has to be carried to the work area. The drill finally burned out and had to be replaced on the next-to-last bag of mortar.
6. Tool and Bucket Cleanup Sucks Time
Chances are you won’t have enough hands to keep up with laying grout, “back buttering” tiles before laying them, and cleaning all of your tools and equipment in between every round of mortar. So you end up with tools that get a little more caked with mortar with every batch, to the point where they can quickly become unusable. This means you either have to pause and clean everything (as we did) doubling your job’s labor time, or keep buying new tools.
7. Grout Lines Will Make You Cry
Even with a laser level, keeping grout lines straight and true is a harrowing process. It’s incredibly easy to drift off just the slightest bit, and end up with big problems at the other end of a room, a giant grout line that shows you’re an amateur.
No matter how carefully you lay out your tiles in advance, when mortar is hardening in a bucket beside you, and you’re covered in thinset because your rubber gloves have torn to shreds, your biggest challenge will be keeping tiles straight, on track, and perpendicular to each other.
Expect failures. There’s a reason tile pros are well paid. They seem able to create perfect lines with uncanny precision. It’s a mystifying skill.
The Last Tile. I couldn’t have been more happy to see the end of the tile laying phase, but still had a long way to go before completion.
8. Spacers and Wedges Have Hidden Labor Costs
Getting big floor tiles to adhere properly means that you have to get them to “touch” the mortar at about 90 percent of the tile’s underside. On top of keeping the grout lines straight, you have to keep the top surfaces at about the same height as you sink four tiles into perfect alignment and the same depth of mortar. We used a wedge system that cost another $250, and meant that every tile had to have about 6 spacers and 6 wedges at the perimeter. Unless you want to spend hours washing the wedges, they’re only reusable a couple of times. What we didn’t realize is that most of the little plastic spacers don’t break off completely in the grout lines. So we had to go back with a chisel and spend hours making way for the grout.
So Many Steps. Laying a tile floor might look easy, but each step involves multiple tools, careful alignment, repeated cleaning and a lot of crawling on your hands and knees.
9. Your Tools and Gear Will Be Ruined
Overall, we spent about $250 bucks or so for the right trowels, floats, plastic buckets, mixing wands, drills, cleaning supplies, sponges, Shop-Vac bags, rubber gloves, and multiple sets of knee pads. At the end of the job, most of the tools had become caked enough with bits of mortar that we’d want to start with all new gear if forced to do something like this again.
10. You’ll Crawl Around Doing Another Coating Before You Grout
Before you tackle the grouting process you’ll be digging out grout lines and doing yet another pre-coat, this time with a “grout release.” This product, applied with mop or sponge, makes the grout less likely to stick aggressively to the surface. But you can’t just slop it on. You have to be careful not to get it in the grout lines, where it might ruin your grout adhesion.
11. Grouting = Grueling
Finally, grouting is slow, repetitive work, typically taking two or three days between applying, waiting, cleaning, and so on. I haven’t figured out any better way to do it than on my hands and knees with a water bucket and sponges. After numerous passes, you then have to “buff” each tile with a dry rag, and finally apply two coats of silicone tile sealant over the whole surface.
It took us about a week to physically recover from our tile job. The entire job took about a month. It looks good, but perhaps not perfect, and we cringe every time we drop an object on the gleaming new surface.
The goal was to create one simple, waterproof “forever” floor that can hold up if the house ever floods, and won’t need much maintenance. We achieved that benchmark, but we paid a high price in the toll on our aching bodies. If you’re thinking about a project of this magnitude, put all your other projects and social events aside, because this one’s gonna hurt.