A Homeowner's Guide to Tile Tools

construction worker installing small ceramic tiles on bathroom walls and applying mortar with trowel
credit: Bogdanhoda/iStock/GettyImages
You can save hundreds by tiling yourself.

Installing tile is an exciting way to express your aesthetics in the kitchen and bath. You can go minimalist, over-the-top, or match the design to the style of your house. If you're on a budget, you'll find plenty of tile options that are relatively inexpensive. And while it's not necessarily a breeze to put in, it's certainly do-able, and you'll save hundreds if you install it yourself.

As a start, here's a list of the essential tools required to install tile. Besides these, don't forget disposable gloves and several buckets. Keep a new bucket on hand for mixing grout and another for tossing in cut-off tile and other trash.

Tools for Cutting Tile

Some of the most important specialty tools you'll use to install your own ceramic tile are those used to cut tile, both for straight and contour cuts.

Tile Cutting Pliers

This tool accomplishes straight cuts on smaller tiles. With this inexpensive gadget, you score the top of the tile with the wheel, then open the jaw, place the tile inside, and apply pressure to snap it along the scored line.

Tile cutting pliers manufactured by Westward
credit: Grainger
Tile cutting pliers are use to score and snap ceramic tile along straight lines.

Manual Tile Cutter

This tool easily cuts straight and diagonal lines on larger tiles much like tile cutting pliers—score and snap—but you'll experience less fatigue than with the smaller tool. A manual tile cutter also has a guide you can set up to break multiple tiles the same size.

To use a manual cutter: Mark the cut line, then insert the tile against the front of the cutter, making sure the handle with the cutting wheel is retracted to the back of the tool. Make sure the marked line aligns with the wheel, then roll the wheel across the entire tile to score it. Without moving the tile, rest the breaker bar on the tile and press firmly to break the tile.

Manual tile cutter manufactured by Rubi
credit: Rubi
Manual tile cutter

Wet Tile Saw

An electric saw glides through porcelain, glass, and stone tiles. A water-cooling system keeps the blade from getting hot while cutting to extend blade life. It uses a diamond blade and can cut on an angle as well as straight.

Wet tile saw manufactured by Husqvarna
credit: Husqvarna
A wet tile saw is perfect when you have to cut many tiles.

Tile Nipper

This hand tool allows you to take little "bites" from the edge of the tile to remove curved areas. It can work best if you first score the area to be removed into small segments that can be broken away one at a time.

Tile nipper manufactured by QEP
credit: QEP
A tile nipper is used to 'nibble" small sections of tile.

Sanding Stone and Diamond Files

Use these tools to smooth the sharp edges of cut tile. The sanding stone may have sides that are two different colors; one is a finer grit than the other.

To use a sanding stone: Place either side of the sanding stone flat against the cut edge of the tile and rub it back and forth until the tile is smooth. If you have two choices of grit, you'll just need to determine which one works better for your tile.

To use a diamond file: Files only cut in one direction. Starting with the tip against the tile, push the file away from you; when the handle reaches the tile, lift the tool slightly away from the tile, then bring the tip back to the tile. Again push the tool away from you to file.

Wet or Dry Diamond Drill Bits and Hole Saws

Designed for drilling through ceramic, glass, and marble we well as other natural stone, these bits and hole saws don't require a constant flow of water during use. Simply dip them in water prior to drilling. They can be used to drill holes in tile for plumbing pipes and other applications.

Tools for Installing Tile

Another set of specialty tools for tile work are those you'll use for the actual installation.

Notched Trowels

Use notched trowels to spread mortar and mastic onto the surface in preparation for laying tile on it. If you put down too much adhesive, it will ooze up between the joints in the tile, and you'll then have to remove that before applying grout. A notch trowel aids you in putting down the correct amount of adhesive, as well as the same amount, with each application. You'll find them available with two types of edges, square-notched and V-notched. For both types, the notches come in different sizes. It doesn't matter whether you use the style with square notches or V-notches, as long as the notches are the right size for the tile.

A notched trowel manufactured by Rubi
credit: Rubi
A notched trowel

Don't worry, this isn't a super-exact science. In general, the smaller the tile, the smaller the notch to use. Here's a rough guide for selecting the right trowel:

  • For waterproofing membrane, use a 1/8 x 1/8-inch square-notch trowel, or a 1/4 x 3/16-inch V-notch trowel.
  • For small mosaic tile, use a 1/4 x 3/16-inch V-notch trowel.
  • For tiles ranging from 2 x 2 to 12 x 12, use a 1/4 x 1/4 x 1/4-inch trowel or a 1/4 x 3/8 x 1/4-inch trowel.
  • For larger tile, from 12 x 12 to 16 x 16, use a 1/4 x 3/8 x 1/4-inch trowel or a 1/4 x 1/2 x 1/4-inch trowel.
  • For thick, large-format tile ranging from 16 x 16 to 18 x 18 to 12 x 24, use a 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2-inch trowel.

To use a notched trowel: Hold the trowel at a 45-degree angle and drag it in a straight line along the surface, spreading the mortar as you do. You want to hear a scraping sound.

Tips

Never use unnotched, straight-edged trowels to apply mortar or mastic in tile work!

Levels

You'll need chalk line with line level and a bubble level to establish level and perpendicular layout lines to install a tile job.

To mark a chalk line: Clip or hook the end of the line at one end of the desired layout line. Extend the body of the chalk line to the opposite end of the line. Holding the line taut, use two finger to pull up on the line as if it were a bow, and release it. It will snap down against the surface and leave behind a perfectly straight chalk line.

Grout Floats

These tools aid in the smooth application of grout into tile joints. They typically have plastic or rubber backing plates to prevent tile from being scratched during grout application, and two rounded corners, which prevent gouging the grout joints, along with two square corners for work in corners. Some are designed specifically for use with epoxy grouts, while other are for use with sanded and unsanded grout.

To use a grout float: After applying grout between the tiles, run the tool over the tiled area, applying slight pressure to force the grout between the joints.

A grout float manufactured by Ridgid
credit: Ridgid
A grout float

Grout Sponges

Because they're used for grouting and cleanup, these sponges are designed to hold a lot of water. Their rounded corners minimize the chances of marring grout. Don't use the sponges you already have under your sink; they won't soak up water like these types do.

Grout sponges.
credit: Home Depot
Grout sponges soak up water better than sponges for housecleaning.

Useful, but Optional, Tools

Suction Cup

Aids in picking up and placing tile.

Mixing Paddle

For use when mounted in a power drill, this instrument resembles the beater paddles used in a kitchen mixer; it speeds up the mixing of grout.

Grout Bags

Place grout into this conical bag—made of either soft vinyl or latex—then squeeze it out through the tip and into the space between the tiles. This is used with some types of grout—many grouts don't require it.

Grout bag manufactured by Marshalltown.
credit: Marshalltown
A grout bag can be used to apply grout into the joints between tiles.