Layout Tips for Ceramic Tile Floors

by Jim Bessey

Some tile layout choices: diagonal, square and offset

A new tile floor can transform your bathroom from dull to dazzling. Making mistakes on the layout of that tile, however, can tarnish an otherwise fine job permanently. Of all the preparation errors you can avoid , failure to choose the best layout has the biggest visual impact. Spend an extra hour before you begin to ensure your beautiful ceramic or porcelain selection will look its best for years to come.

You might find a simple guide in the tile books: “Mark the center of the room and draw perpendicular lines for tile layout.” If your bathroom was a basic rectangle with nothing in it, that might work just fine. Unfortunately, bathrooms come with part-walls, odd dimensions, and fixtures. Each of these should be considered carefully before you cut any tiles.

Installers use two methods to determine the best tile layout:

  • Graph paper, carefully dimensioned, with all fixtures marked in
  • Trial layout, using the room itself and the tile selected

Most bathrooms are smaller than 10′ by 8′ and can easily fit on a single sheet of graph paper, even at one inch = one foot. This is big enough to draw freehand. Measure everything to the nearest ¼” and double-check your numbers in both directions to be sure they add up correctly.

If you’re a big-picture/hands-on kind of person, and you have a bare floor suitable for making layout marks, you can use the room itself as your graph paper instead. Use a steel tape measure and a carpenter’s pencil (or Sharpie). Whether you use paper or the whole room, the process is the same.

Tile Layout, step-by-step:

  1. Be sure of your tile selection: size matters. The layout will change if you decide on 13″ (metric) tiles instead of 12″ tiles, for instance. For our sample layout, we’ll use 12″ tiles for simplicity.
  2. Don’t forget to account for grout joints: these add up, even on a small floor. A 12″ tile, for instance, is actually just over 11 ¾” — perfect for adding 3/16″ grout lines. TIP: Use a half-dozen tiles dry-laid on the floor, add spacers for grout joints, and measure the total dimension of tiles and grout.
  3. Decide if that “center of room” guideline matters at all. If your tub intrudes into the overall rectangle, or if the toilet (or a linen closet) is offset from the space, then determining a true center gets complicated and doesn’t help much. (see our sample diagram)
  4. To use simple centering, deduct the closest full-tile dimension from your overall length and see what’s left. If that remainder is close to a full tile, use half of that number. If it’s less than a half-tile, add the remainder to one tile-plus-grout, and use half of that number.
  5. Bathrooms are generally viewed from a single doorway. Can you center the tile (or a grout line) in the doorway? If doing so would leave cuts of less than 2″ in width, choose a different layout. Make sure any cuts at the doorway threshold or meeting a Schluter™  trim edge will be at least a ½ tile.
  6. Can you run full tiles along one wall, or against the tub/shower base? This reduces cutting, and takes advantage of two more highly-visible viewpoints. This choice works best when the resulting cuts (opposite wall) would be close to a full tile, certainly more than one-half tile. Check this for both the long and short dimensions of your room.
  7. Now check for tricky cuts. If any of your planned cuts will be less than ¼ tile (or about 2″), try to adjust the layout, even slightly, to avoid this. Better to sacrifice symmetry rather than having to include difficult or ugly cuts in your plan.
  8. Consider how you will cut around the toilet flange. One of the easiest methods occurs when four tiles meet somewhere in the middle of this flange. That way, each of four tiles can be cut to fit. Any layout that somehow centers two or four tiles around the flange will improve the look and ease installation.
  9. Will you be cutting around existing pipes? If so, how does your proposed layout impact that issue? The simplest way is to split two tiles around one pipe. In that case you can use a tile nipper rather than a diamond-drill, and you won’t have to shut-off water supplies. On the other hand, a 1″ diamond-drill costs less than $30 and lets you produce professional results easily.

Let’s see how these steps worked out on our Sample Layout:

  1. We chose 12″ (nominal) tile and 3/16″ grout joints. Makes the math easy: 1′ = one tile.
  2. (see above)
  3. We used “center room” for both dimensions, but only after checking all the rest.
  4. Notice that for the short-way, full tiles worked out. For the long dimension, we added the 7″ remainder to a full tile (for 19″) and took half of that, 9 ½” for each end tile.
  5. Although it wasn’t exact, our layout came close enough to center-doorway to look good.
  6. Our sample layout allowed approximately full-tiles at both long-way walls and at the tub. That was mostly luck and doesn’t happen very often. But it worked!
  7. We ran our tile beneath the vanity (recommended), and checked the crucial cuts at the doorway, the linen closet, and especially at the part-wall between tub and toilet. Notice how each of these areas allowed for fairly large cut pieces.
  8. We came “close enough” to the ideal 4-tile meet-up on the toilet flange. Centering the tile precisely on the toilet, while nice, would have skewed our final layout on the long dimension.
  9. We chose to drill the hole for the toilet’s supply line (pretty typical). The vanity’s plumbing is through-the-wall.

Special notes for diagonal tile layouts:
When you pitch the grout lines at 45 degrees, you don’t have to worry much about “visual centers” like you do with a square layout. You still have to check for tiny cuts. Do this using the diagonal measurement of the tiles. Most installers consider the look of the tile at doorway(s) and at the tub or shower as most crucial. Ideally, you don’t end up with itty-bitty triangles anywhere.

Using real tiles dry-laid on the floor is the best way to check diagonal layouts. Trying to mark-out angled tile on graph paper can be frustrating and misleading. Expect to find that cutting around the toilet flange may be tricky; also plan on buying that diamond drill-bit.

Like most projects, a great tile floor for your bathroom doesn’t happen by accident. A little extra time spent deciding on the best layout for your specific situation can make all the difference. It’s best to get it right the first time, since you can expect your new floor to last, oh, about forty years!

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