Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Constructive Criticism

Well, that was pretty much the response I was expecting to yesterday’s post. In hind sight, No Grout would not be a good idea. I guess what I really mean are no grout lines that are really visible. If the tiles are butted up against each other there will always be thin gaps here and there. The tolerances on tile just aren’t that good. That would be smooshed with grout.

I must say this has been very, very helpful. It is all a part of the process. You come up with an idea. You play with it. The idea gets changed and modified, and hopefully you end up with a workable plan. In this case the plan starts with the expected results: A Vintage Looking Tiled Bathroom. From there I work backwards, looking at available resources, and ways to achieve that look.

As an example, I’ll point once again to the beautiful tile floor in the foyer of Chicago 2 Flat. I hope Jocelyn doesn’t mind me using her as an example. Anyway, click on the picture to enlarge it and look at it closely. If there are grout lines in between each tile, they are not that noticeable. Also, last week I was talking to a friend who was part of a salvage team that took a bunch of subway tile out of a local 19th Century hotel a few years back. He told me that those tiles were butted up against the other and there were no visible grout lines. I even asked him if it looked like they used grout and he said, if they did there wasn’t much.

As someone pointed out in one of the comments, by the 1920s mosaic tiles came on a backer mesh just as they do today. Someone else said the boarders came with a paper face glued to the front. This paper was remove after the boarder was set. I, of course, am doing an 1890s bathroom, so it seems it would not be appropriate to have uniform 1/8th or ¼-inch grout lines. I could be wrong, maybe there are grout lines, but I just don’t see them. A 1/8th inch grout would probably look nice. After I posted yesterday, I remembered someone else on one of the old house forums said they used pennies as spacers for the tiles. Another idea would be toothpicks.

I was very intrigued by the paper faced tile boarders. This gave me a great idea. I bolted awake in bed last night about 4:00 in the morning and had trouble getting back to sleep. I could make my own boarders before I put them down. In the Chicago 2 Flat tile, those boarders look to be about 10-inches wide (10, 1-inch square tiles). I could take pieces of cardboard about a foot wide and build my boarders on those. I could make a wooden frame out of 1X2 stock and build them like puzzles on the cardboard, maybe 3 or 4 feet at a time. Once the tiles are in place in the frame I would lay down a sheet of stencil paper, then remove the frame and start another section.

The stencil paper has a sticky side that is a little stickier than a Post-It note. You can pull it up and reuse it many times. I only need about 40-feet of boarder. I could make those up in the evening while I’m watching TV. When I go to lay the boarder, I would just slide it off the cardboard, gently smoosh it down, and then peel off the paper. Just like old times. Of course, I’d have to even them out a bit after their in place.

As for the field tile, I think someone mentioned they took an hour to do 2 square feet by hand. I can see the first few feet being tedious and time consuming. After a while though, I’m sure the pace would quicken as I reached a stride. After the boarders are in that leaves me roughly 50 sq ft of field to do. Even if I was only able to do 2 sq ft and hour, that’s still only 25 hours of work. In my mind that is very doable. Most days, when I was painting the house, I was able to get in 3 to 5 hours of work before dinner. Considering I could work longer on weekends, I can see doing the whole floor in a week!

So that leaves the mortar/thin-set debate. Right now the room has a 1-inch thick sub floor. This is the original plank sub floor and the boards are a full inch thick. They rest of 16-inch OC joists. The one transition from tile to other floors is in to the kitchen. That is a 7/8th-inch thick wood floor. There will be a marble threshold between the tile floor and the wood floor. The tile is ¼-inch thick, and if I put down a ¼-inch backer board, that would leave me 3/8-of an inch for a mortar bed. All told then, I would have an inch and a quarter floor on 16-inch 2X12 joists -That is plenty firm - and then the mortar bed with the tile. With the use of screeds I should be able to get a smooth bed. The difference in height between the kitchen and bath would be the additional mortar from the 3/16th-inch notched trowel. Extremely minor.

Well, thank you all. I’m more excited about this than ever now. As for the rotten 1950s walls, it’s hard to say how much of that can be blamed on thin grout lines. Perhaps is was a poorly done job….well, it did last 50 years, so maybe it was too bad. Let’s face it, a lot of bathrooms done in the 70s and 80s are already shot and being ripped out.

The last thing I did want to touch on was this quote.

The low cost of labor and the relative newness and lack of understanding about the physical properties of concrete didn’t hurt either. Backer board, latex additives, plywood sub floors, kiln dried joist material, ect have come a long way to rendering thick bed jobs not necessary for most typical flat floors that aren’t in a shower.

First, as far as I know, concrete was invented by the ancient Greeks and has been in use for thousands of years. I know the Romans made extensive use of. As for the debate of old building materials and methods versus new, well, who knows. I do know that my house was built in 1895 and even after decades of neglect it is structurally in far better shape than most houses built in the last 40 years. I will take any wager that my old redwood plank sub floors and joists will out last any plywood sub floor and kiln dried joist, any day of the week.

There are pros and cons to both methods of laying tile. You said, “…have come a long way to rendering thick bed jobs not necessary for most typical flat floors that aren’t in a shower”. You seem to be implying that the mortar bed method is better, it’s just not needed. Considering what I’m doing in the bathroom, this seems to be a better method.

Much more research is needed.

I just found this discussion on "mud bed" tile installations...

Mud Beds


StuccoHouse said...

I actually got out a ruler last night after reading your post and measured the gaps between my 1924 hex bathroom tile. It most certianly was not on a mesh as the gaps were quite varied - from 1/8" to 1/16". If I were to photo it, it would be very similar to what you've shown in the other photos. My former house 1920's bathroom had all of its original tile - the floor tile had wider gaps (less them 1/8") than the wall tile which were butt up against one another and had a very fine line of grout.

I'm following your tile story closely as I plan a hex tile design to replace rotted wood floor boards under my fridge. I've been looking at these designs -

Greg said...

I've seen those samples a few times. The bathroom in Sacramento and the men's are my favorites. I didn't even bother contacting those guys for a quote. I'm sure they are way out of my league.

Ron said...


You are very correct about the old materials that you have in your place from the original 1895 construction. The unfortunate thing for the rest of us is that old growth redwood material is no longer available in quantities and at a price that is sustainable. Also much of the country never did have that material even in the 1890’s. You are very lucky.

On the history of concrete. The Romans were quite efficient at using natural cement, but all of that knowledge was lost during the dark ages, only to be reinvented in the early 1800’s in England. (hence the name Portland Cement). Almost all of the engineering and understand of the properties of cement had to be rediscovered and that is what many of us see in our old houses as unearth these old building methods. In my day job is see quite a difference not only construction methods by chronology, but also location regionally and on a scale as small as ones proximity to certain ports and the immigrant locating there.

As for the way to layout mosaic borders… I built a jig out of aluminum where the thickness of aluminum dividers dictates your grout width. They now have not only paper for backing, but also an adhesive tape that is about 12” wide that you just peel off when the thinset has hardened. Placing the individual tiles in the jig and then transferring then to the floor is quite nice and easy. The jig is just a half lapped grid of aluminum that you could easily construct on your table saw and then set in a shallow wooden tray.

As far as using a thick bed mud set method. There are certain guidelines that are fairly set. The minimum thick bed is 1-1/2” thick. Anything thinner creates many problems and is not recommended. Have you checked out the TCA yet? They have all of the installation methods that have been tested and proven published in their details. The TCA is the standard by which all architects and installers usually base their details on.

If you can’t find a copy and would like a copy of a page I can make a PDF for you of mine.

Greg said...

I'm only just learning about this process. I've been reading a lot the past day or so about shower installations and I didn't see any exact thickness mentioned. What I read was "as thin as 3/8th of an inch at the drain" and "1/4 inch per foot slope towards the drain". If the space is 6 feet wide with a drain in the center, which mine is, then that would be a lot less than an inch and a half. Perhaps I read that wrong, though.

The other things I was reading about were wire mesh backer with a "mud" wall. This was for vertical tile. Again, it didn't have an exact thickness mentioned, but an inch and a half of mortar protruding from the wall seems like a bit much. Again, a lot of this was for shower installation, and again, as I said, I’ve only started investigating this. I came up with the 3/8ths inch measurement because that is the thickness of a traditional plaster wall. It protrudes 3/8ths of an inch in front of the lath. In a traditional room with a wood wainscoting, the wainscoting and plaster protrude the same thickness from the studs. The are flush with each other and then a cap hides the transition. With tile it seems to come out a little farther. I assumed that was only the thickness of the tile.

I would love to read anything you have on the topic of historic tile installations. Most of what I've found has been on the subject of backer board and thin-set installations. Please email any info you have on historic methods to I would LOVE to see it. Information on modern building codes are of no use to me. I can get those from the building department down at city hall.

It seems like a lot of new things for buildings now days are designed not so much because they are better, but because they are faster and more convenient. For trades people, if you can finish a job faster and move on to the next job you can make more money. Quality and longevity are often a secondary consideration. As you pointed out, labor is a big part of that equation. My labor is free. If there is a better way to do something, that takes a little more time, than I will opt for it.

This leads to the use of building materials. I think we're talking about 2 different things when it comes to building materials. Yes, if I was building a new house with new materials, then I would be using plywood and modern lumber, but I'm not. There is a lot of salvage out there for those the have the time and desire to find it. Fortunately for me, a lot of people don't. It kills me when I see a front loader demolish a turn of the century building because it is not economically feasible to salvage a superior building material. We bull doze a superior product and rebuild with an inferior product because that is what is best for one person, not the community. It’s wrong.

Anonymous said...

Greg check out:

StuccoHouse said...

Have you checked out the Shop Pics on their website? They have page after page of some nice design ideas there too.

Greg said...

Yes, I saw those, and if you go to Patterns and Sizes and then click on one of the links on the right you can see more field patterns. There are a lot of ideas to chose from.

slateberry said...

Ron wrote: backer board, latex additives, plywood sub floors, kiln dried joist material, ect have come a long way to rendering thick bed jobs not necessary for most typical flat floors that aren’t in a shower.

Greg wrote: I will take any wager that my old redwood plank sub floors and joists will out last any plywood sub floor and kiln dried joist, any day of the week.

I agree they will outlast, but the point I think Ron was trying to make (and the secret thing most of those items in his list have in common) is that they are more dimensionally stable through temperature and humidity changes than non-kiln-dried joists and plank subfloors. Of course those joists have stabilized as much as they're going to now, but imagine going back 100+ years, if you were building a house and the joists were still drying out. You'd have a mess of popped tiles if you installed your bathroom while that was going on. And the plank subfloors will always have a little movement, although in our little old baths, I can't imagine a 5' long plank giving too much trouble. On the other hand in mcmansion bathroom it would be a recipe for cracking to use planks instead of backerboard. So, yes for strength and longevity there is nothing to beat the old growth stuff our ladies are framed with, but back in the day they laid those thick mortar beds to keep tile and grout from cracking due to seasonal movement of those house parts (makes me wonder--did they float those mortar beds? hmmm). The latex additive just adds a bit of resilience to the mortar--it's like extra insurance. I am not an expert, but apparently the backerboards are even more stable than plywood. Some pros won't use plywood for a tile substrate. Some super-pros, like Bill V on gardenweb, will use plywood as a substrate, but he's got a long list of ifs and qualifiers to avoid cracked grout. Sorry to go on and on but it's all very interesting to me.