TILING With the right tools and a little patience, almost anyone can do it

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Incomplete information was provided with pictures of tile installers in Saturday's editions of The Sun. The two men pictured, Don Conrad and Dave Sykes, are with R. F. Williams Jr. Ceramic Tile Inc., a Pasadena company that specializes in tile installation.

The Sun regrets the errors.

They're fit to be tiled. Not only bathroom walls, but stylish kitchens, casual sun rooms, foyers, fireplaces . . . ceramic wall tiles are making their way even into more formal areas previously sacred to paint and wallpaper. "It's become an actual decorator item," says Don Sekira of the Maryland Tile Center, a wholesale distributor.

These are good times for home decorators who like the look of tile. Old-fashioned glazed tiles, invariably 4 1/4 -inch squares in neutrals or pastels, have been joined by a lively spectrum of styles. What's new? Local tile merchants agree that larger, sometimes rectangular, tiles are making strong gains in the market. Not only do they have a richer, more dramatic look than the little squares, but they offer a larger canvas for romantic floral patterns or jazzy geometrics.

Leslie Storm, owner of Tile Exhibits on Falls Road, points to Mexican-style tiles with earthy colors and interesting finishes as style leaders, as well as tiles with the look of marble and granite.

According to James T. Stratigakos, a co-owner of Tile Concepts in Carney, loud patterns and colors aren't big in Baltimore and the local best sellers are conservative, reflecting the buyer's desire not to damage the resale value of the house with anything too individualistic. But if that's not a concern for you, he says, "The sky's the limit. You can create a dream if you want."

Tile is available all over town, too.

In connection with the openings of its new Home Project Centers, Hechinger's has beefed up its ceramic tile sections and hired seasonal professionals to assist customers. (New to the staff of the North Plaza Mall store is Bob Nichols, who has been installing tile for 33 years.) The company also has produced a tiling videotape and advertises occasional classes in its circulars.

Wholesale and retail tile centers have scores of tiles on display and often can order unusual tiles not available in Baltimore. Such lifestyle emporiums as Laura Ashley offer tiles color- and pattern-coordinated to fabrics and paints. Even craft shows can be good sources; some potters make ceramic tiles and can provide hand-painted motifs that match your decor.

While a professional tile installer or contractor will provide the most finished look in the shortest time, there is nothing inherently difficult about doing the job yourself.

"Most of your retail stores have people who can walk a customer through a step-by-step procedure," Mr. Stratigakos says. "As long as you have the proper materials, the proper tools and a little bit of patience, you can do just about everything yourself." However, he warns, the amateur who takes shortcuts will probably run into trouble.

Although tile dealers have installers who will do the job, they make it easy on do-it-yourselfers by having the aforementioned in-house experts to answer questions, as well as tools that customers can buy or rent. (Or, in some cases, use for free with a deposit.)

For on-the-job help, pick up a step-by-step illustrated text at the library or the hardware store.

Below are some basic how-to tips for installing ceramic wall tile. If your job has special requirements, don't hesitate to ask a pro for help.

"The best tip is to talk to the people you are going to buy your tiles from about proper installation," offers Don Sekira. "Different jobs have different requirements. . . . You don't bake all cakes at 350 degrees for 45 minutes."

A prerequisite for a successful tiling job is a dry, flat surface in good condition, painted with primer to prevent the adhesive from soaking in.

It's possible to install a new set of tiles over the old tiles, but Rich Pettit, another owner of Tile Concepts, doesn't recommend it. A special adhesive is needed to stick ceramic to ceramic, and the results are often bulky and awkward. Chip off the old tile first. "It's basically demolition work that some people actually have fun doing," he says.

It's almost guaranteed that your wall won't be the "right size." In other words, you will probably have to cut some tiles to get the right fit. For professional-looking results, you will want to end up with equal-size tiles at the edges, and full-size tiles in such noticeable spots as over a counter or tub. To get these results -- without ragged edges or unsightly gaps, and with no gnashing of teeth -- planning and accurate measurement are essential.

Measure the width of the wall at the base and divide by two to find the center point. This will be where you begin. Centering a tile at the center point, make a pencil mark at each of its sides on the wall. Working from the center to each end, continue marking. If you end up with too narrow a gap at each end, you will have to move your center line and make one end shorter than the other (shorter tiles in corners are least noticeable). Readjust your markings until you have a well-balanced pattern.

Before applying tiles to the wall, make sure your first line of tiles is level. Some professionals recommend nailing a narrow board of the proper width to the wall with masonry nails. This "batten" should be positioned so that its top edge is one tile's height above the top of the baseboard, counter or other surface. The batten will support the first row of tiles to be laid and assure that subsequent rows remain straight. Use a level to make sure that the batten is aligned properly and make your marks right on the board.

Once you have decided where your tiles will be placed it is time to apply the adhesive. This comes mixed and is spread directly on the wall with a V-notch trowel. Experienced tilers cover a large area with adhesive at once, but beginners, Mr. Pettit says, should only spread as much as they can comfortably cover with tiles in 30 minutes.

"Start very, very slow. As you build up confidence you can start spreading more," he says.

If you are using a batten, place your center tile so that its bottoedge rests on the top of the batten. Work out to the edges.

Your edge tiles may have to be cut to fit. Several tools can do the job: a table cutter for straight lines, a hand micro-cutter for curves and a pair of nippers to nip off small pieces. Cutting is not as hard as it seems. When the glazed top is scored, the tile should break quite easily. Some tile dealers will provide customers will practice tiles, and may be willing to take care of the trickier cuts themselves.

When all the tile has been laid and the adhesive has dried, remove the batten and add the bottom row of tiles.

It will take around 24 hours before the adhesive is completely dry and the wall is ready for grouting.

Grout comes in powder form, in a variety of colors. Mr. Pettit recommends mixing it with latex, a milky-looking liquid, instead of water: "The latex gives it elasticity, which means that over time it doesn't shrink or crack," he says. Mix the grout to the consistency of creamy peanut butter.

Using a trowel-like grouting tool with a sponge bottom to keep it from scratching the tile, he continues, "Spread it all over the wall -- you'll have grout everywhere! Ten minutes after you've grouted, come back with a clean sponge and a clean bucket of water, and wipe off the face of the tile."

If your tile project is a shower, you can use it a few hours after grouting. But a few days later, add a silicon sealant over the grout to protect it from stains, soil and mildew. Spread the sealant on with a sponge, then buff off the tile surface with an old washcloth.

If you are tiling a kitchen or bathroom, your last step will be to apply waterproof caulking around the tub or sink area.

Done well, a tiling job should last the lifetime of your house. So make sure, even before you open your how-to manual, that you have chosen a tile you absolutely love.

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