An experienced tile setter may have the visual acuity and skill to align tiles by eye, but most of us need the help of tile spacers. They're plastic and come in various forms, but the most common is a cross, which are the best tile spacers for walls. You place a cross snug against each exposed corner of the tile you just pressed into the adhesive, and it will keep the surrounding tiles at the exact distance needed for a perfectly straight grout line.
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You can also use tile spacers to create grout lines of different widths, which is extremely difficult to do by eye. Spacers come in bulk packages, and they're inexpensive, so it's easy to have plenty on hand before you start laying the tiles.
Not all spacers are designed to be removed. Some, such as Rubi Leave-In tile spacers, are very thin and hug the sides of the tiles so they don't prevent the grout from filling the gaps. If you're using these, be sure to consult the product instructions for the proper way to set them. Once they're in place, you can forget about them.
When to Remove Spacers for Ceramic Tile Installation
You can't grout over conventional tile spacers or the grout will crack, so you have to remove them. The best time to do this is while the tile mastic is still soft but has become hard enough to hold the tiles securely. This is typically about 30 minutes after setting the tile.
Don't wait until the end of the job to go back to the beginning and start removing tile spacers. The mastic holding the first tiles you set will be hard by that time. Plan to work in sections so you can come back to each tile after no more than an hour to remove the spacers.
How to Remove a Spacer
Some spacers are designed to protrude above the tiles, and if you're using these, you can usually remove them with your fingers. If you're using cross spacers that sit flat on the tile substrate, you probably won't be able to reach into the grout line with your fingers, so you need needle-nose pliers.
Open the plier jaws wide enough to grip the ends of the cross. Once you've clamped the pliers onto the cross, lift the spacer straight out. Try not to wiggle it, which you shouldn't have to do if you're removing the spacers at the proper time.
What to Do When a Spacer Gets Stuck
Okay...you waited a little too long, and when you come to remove the tile spacers, the mastic has already hardened. You try to lift the spacer out with needle-nose pliers, but it's stuck. Now what?
A very small flat-head screwdriver or an awl and a hammer will come in handy. Just tap the head of the screwdriver or awl under the end of one of the crosses, using as little tapping force as possible. There's little danger of upsetting the tiles because if the spacers are stuck, so are they. However, you don't want to chip the tile, so go easy.
The spacer may pop out when you tap it from one side, but if not, tap it from the other side, then from the perpendicular directions as well. As long as you can get the spacer to move, you'll be able to lift it out with the pliers. Hopefully, the extra trouble will serve as a reminder to remove the spacers before the mastic has set in the future.
Chris Deziel is a contractor, builder and general fix-it pro who has been active in the construction trades for 40 years. He has degrees in science and humanities and years of teaching experience. An avid craftsman and musician, Deziel began writing on home improvement topics in 2010. He worked as an expert consultant with eHow Now and Pro Referral -- a Home Depot site. A DIYer by nature, Deziel regularly shares tips and tricks for a better home and garden at Hunker and Family Handyman.