Interior design is chock full of related specialties and sub-sets of specialties with their own world of nomenclature. Tilers are no exception and if you have ever talked to a tiler, you may have heard some unfamiliar words or terms.
When you pick a tile to go on a shower wall or kitchen floor for instance, the work is not over!
Before any tile ever goes down, a tiler must think about the area and what will be done there. Every application needs some sort of surface or substrate under the tile. This is called a sub-floor and in fact is not only used for tile but for any floor at all. Hard wood, laminate, and carpet all need to go on top of a sub-floor which is often made of plywood.
But special attention needs to be paid to wet areas like showers and tubs which need to protect against moisture and possible mold from the water that will be on and around the tile. This is usually in the form of what is often called backer board, a material that looks like sheet rock but is actually made from cement. Brand names include HardieBacker and DuRock by USG.
In showers, the next layer is often a waterproof membrane to further protect against moisture. A bed of mortar needs to be laid before any tile can be applied. This mortar is also called thinset and goes on top of either the waterproof membrane or onto the cement board. This is the glue that holds the tiles in place.
Now tile is ready to go down and another consideration at this point is how far apart the tiles can or should be. The space between the tiles is what will be the grout line. I personally like the smallest possible grout line--the point after all is the tile, not the grout!--so that means spacing the tiles as close as they can get. Tile spacers come in different shapes and sizes which allow for different grout lines. The most common tile spacer looks like a little plastic plus sign.
Here is a tile installation in a shower, showing spacers at the corners of the tiles, keeping them equidistant.
Part of the tile selection and plan should have been whether or not the edges of your tiled surfaces will have a rounded edge tile, called a bull nose tile, or if it will have some other kind of decorative edge detail.
Many tiles come in an edge style as well. This allows a nice finished look instead of seeing the ragged edge of a tile. You can see below how the rounded detail accomplishes this.
Bullnose tiles are quite traditional so if you are looking for something sleeker and more contemporary, you can use a Schluter edge which is a long strip of plastic or metal that sits partially beneath the tiles along the edge. The detail that is seen can be a color, or it can be a finish such as brushed nickel, oil-rubbed bronze, or even copper.
Here is an image of a Schluter strip being installed in a bathroom I recently completed for a client. This chrome edge caps off not only the filed tile in the shower but the decorative band that runs across the walls. It is a very convenient and clean way to finish off different kinds of materials at once.
We used this chrome edge not only in the shower but as a way to cap the same mosaic decorative band we used as a back splash at the sink. The entire project can be seen here in a previous post.
Once all the tile is set and the mortar has dried (it's usually best to wait at least 24 hours), the grouting process begins. This involves troweling on a paste that gets in between the tiles, sealing off the thinset and any access to the sub-materials that could cause mold or mildew. Grout comes in many different colors and can be coordinated with the tile so it does not stand out, or it can be used as a contrast. Choose carefully as this can be a make-or-break element.
Grout color can blend with the tile colors, giving a soothing appearance, like this luxury bathroom I designed for a client (previously here)...
...or it can make a tile choice stand out like this dramatic black grout on a traditional white subway tile.
I hope this helped to demystify tile, tiling, and tiling terms.