Ceramic-tile countertops look great and have a long lifespan. Whether you need a countertop as part of a kitchen or as a standalone work and storage surface, as I needed in my cottage, ceramic tiles work well as long as you install them right. Just as important as the right technique are the right tools and materials for the job.
Tiled countertops require more than just a wood foundation to deliver maximum reliability, and that’s why I fastened cement board to the 3/4″-thick plywood countertop base. Flexible plastic substrates in sheet form are available too. If you’re using rigid board, as I did, drive screws every 3″ to 4″ in all directions to ensure flex-free performance.
Tiles need to be cut for most countertop projects, and a dry-cutting diamond wheel in a handheld grinder is a simple option that works well for straight cuts. Always do this work outdoors while wearing a dust mask, safety glasses and hearing protection. Cut and dry-fit all tiles before installing permanently with thinset mortar.
Thinset mortar is the stuff that secures ceramic tile. It comes as a powder that you mix with water into a paste-like consistency. If your substrate is porous, like the cement board used here, choose modified thinset. Use unmodified thinset on plastic substrates since they don’t soak up water.
A notched trowel is the tool of choice for spreading thinset. As the tips of the teeth ride against the substrate, the notches deliver a consistent amount of mortar to the surface. Depending on the tiles you use, look for a trowel with square notches that measure about 3/8″ x 3/8″. You can also adjust the amount of mortar delivered to the surface by angling the trowel. Holding the tool more vertically means more mortar is applied.
Tiles need to be supported by mortar fully, level with each other and set with consistent gaps for grout. Here, cross shaped plastic tile spacers are used to ensure ideal gaps. If excess thinset mortar oozes up between tiles as you press them home, the plastic spacers also can be used to rake out the excess.
Grout is a mortar-like mix that fills gaps between tiles. It’s a powder that comes in different colours, then is mixed with water into a thick paste. A rubber trowel is the tool of choice for working grout into tile gaps because of its flexibility.
With the grout pushed into the gaps between the tiles, scrape off all the excess you can using the edge of your rubber trowel. Aim to leave as little excess as possible on the surface, so final cleanup with a damp sponge is as easy as it can be. Wait for the grout to become half-hardened before sponging. Just don’t wait too long—hardened grout is difficult or impossible to remove.