For an expert tile job, rely on an expert |

For an expert tile job, rely on an expert

Sam Bauman
Appeal Staff Writer
Dave Rittenhouse polishes the tile to remove the excess grout from the joints and tile surface on Wednesday. Chad Lundquist/ Nevada Appeal

A week after setting the tiles for the remodel of the dining area, it was time to do that grouting.

This required two kinds of grout, a reddish one to fill in the spaces of the four-piece, 13-inch tiles, and a sand-colored one to fill the spaces in the one-piece, 12-inch white tiles. The 13-inch tiles were a gift from Bob Ostrow, a Stateline architect who winters in New Zealand and had several boxes of tiles on hand. The whites were from Lowe’s.

David Rittenhouse, a sometime tilesetter and remodeling expert, was on hand to do the job. (He is a relative and agreed to do the job as a favor and, while I didn’t know it, to protect this do-it-yourself homeowner from the agony of a poorly done self-set job.)

A week had gone by the time we were ready to lay grout. The tiles were firmly in place, the edges neatly matching.

Prep work

After laying the tiles, David and I went over the surfaces to clear off any slopped-over underlayment. Now we did it again carefully with a damp sponge. This was to clean up surfaces to assure that spilled grout would be easily seen. This required lots of kneeling, which David did on a thick sponge pad.

“I don’t like knee pads,” he explained. “They keep slipping around and riding up my legs.” I helped, but my knees wouldn’t take it so I had to do it in a sitting position.

Then David churned the grout-and-water mixture in a large pan. Proportions are given with the grout, but David did it by experienced eye. Once mixed, the grout needs to “rest” for about 30 minutes or so, or until David lets it slide from one trowel to another at what he know is the right consistency (something that takes time and experience to judge).

With a trowel, he slops grout into an open space. Then with a rubber-base grout trowel, he swipes the grout in diagonal strokes into the open spaces. This requires repeated return to areas to make sure that the grout fills the cracks between the tiles.

This is a demanding task when dealing with the four-piece, 13-inch tiles. Obviously, a lot more grout is needed, and the effort of filling the spaces is compounded. After a large section was covered, David would halt, let the grout that had come over tiles dry, then we both scrubbed the film off with terrycloths.

“That’s one thing they don’t tell you about,” David explained. “How to judge when the surface film is dried enough to be wiped off, and that terrycloth is the best thing to wipe with.”

Once you start grouting, you can’t just stop. The grout is only workable for a period of time. Section by section, the red-tile cracks were filled, the surfaces cleaned. Grouting the red tiles took most of a day, so a halt was made after that section was grouted.

That night, the homeowner went over the tiles again with a damp sponge to remove any film left by the grout. This required frequent halts to rinse the sponge so as to not smear film.

The white tiles

While the area covered by white tiles (not a perfect color match for the original tiles, so they were separated from the new whites by a long section of 13-inch red tiles) was larger than the red section, David was confident the whole section would go much faster. After repeating the prep work, the grout was mixed and applied.

Now, David worked in much larger strokes, covering the area much more quickly. Still, it was easy to see how deftly he worked the grout around in rhythmical, smooth movements – not easily duplicated by the amateur.

David was right: the whites were done in a morning, and that it was a job for the expert. The white still needed to be cleared with another going over with the sponge later in the day.

“I think that any do-it-yourselfer can apply the grout sealer, something that must be done to protect the grout from grease and food spills. You can buy grout sealer at any home store. Use sponge brushes to apply it to the grout, but wait at least 48 hours before applying it. Read the directions that come with the sealer, and be sure to wipe up any sealer that you get on the tiles. And then wait a while before mopping up,” David said.

Some thoughts

Setting tiles is not for most of us. And I missed some points, as reader Chris (no last name) pointed out in an e-mail:

“Before they start, prepping the floor is very important on slab or wood. After sweeping, mop the dust raised from sweeping. … On a plywood floor, Wonderboard, Hardiebacker or some of the other newer underlayments on the market (is needed), not straight to plywood. Also you set tile (not “lay,” as I wrote).”

“Over the last few years … a lot of wannabe tile layers have infiltrated our trade and many others not having a clue of the job at hand, and sad but true, they do not take any pride in their work.

“I have always been lucky enough to hook up with a great company of real journeyman setters with pride. I was told a long time ago by a setter. ‘It is only a bunch of squares and if you tilt your head you have diagonal.'”

To which, I can only say, “Thanks,” and add, in no way do I think an inexperienced person can simply go ahead and set tiles. It’s a job requiring a real craftsman in almost all cases.

Consider yourself warned.

Incidentally, dinner is much nicer now that I don’t have to worry about staining the carpet.

n Contact Sam Bauman at or 881-1236.