A Lost Summer: Laying Ceramic Tile on a Basement Floor

I went into the summer hiatus from my college teaching and theatre designer / technical director job with the intention of catching up on the backlog of planned posts to this site.  My thinking was that except for a 3-week vacation in Florida, I would have plenty of time.  After all, for the first summer in several years I had no summer theatre gig, no major renovation plans and the two sets that I was scheduled to design for the Fall semester were both well on their way to being designed.

Then life happened.  A whole lot of bad things:  a pair of deaths in my wife’s immediate family, a flooded basement and a cat with a broken leg.  While the family losses took the greatest emotional toll, the flooded basement had the greatest impact on my time


Niko’s Cast

My wife and I were one day into a 3-week vacation,  having driven from the midwest to southwest Florida.  Our son (who was home for the summer from his first year of college) called to tell us that one of our cats had broken her leg.  The next day he called again, having  awoken around noon, to enquire as to why the carpet in his basement bedroom would be wet following a heavy rain.  Turned out that a critter had dug a borough clear down to the bottom


The failed sump pump

of the foundation beneath one of the downspouts and the sump pump had utterly failed.  The entire wall-to-wall carpet and carpet pad was wet and moisture was wicking up the drywall.  Eventually, the whole house would smell of mildew.  Of course, this all only became clear to me after I returned home following several days of updates where the report of the condition of the floor and the failure of attempts to dry it out with portable pumps, shop vacs, and fans became increasingly dire.


30-yard roll-off dumpster

My son enlisted the help of some of his friends to rip all of the carpet out of the basement and I rented a 30 yard roll-off dumpster in which to dispose of carpet, pad, and a whole lot of ruined furniture.

The carpet itself was no great loss. It  was installed by a previous owner and was in questionable condition when we moved in over 10 years ago.  Since that time, The basement had seen heavy use, first as a family room , then as quarters for my daughter and son-in law, then as quarters for my mother-in-law and step-father-in-law.  Finally my son moved down there at the beginning of high school.  As a general rule, I don’t think that wall-to-wall carpeting  is a good idea in a basement anyway, so we decided to take this opportunity to replace the floor with ceramic tile.


“Stuff”  following Carpet Removal

I have laid  tile in the past, but at approximately 650 square feet this proved to be the largest tile project that I have ever undertaken. The task was complicated by the immense amount of “stuff” that we have accumulated.  Though some of that was ruined by the water and  discarded  in the dumpster, I still had to work around a whole lot of furnishings and other “junk”.

As a result of this,  and the experience of consolidating the households of the expired relatives, and the prospect of one day moving from our current home, my advice to the reader is to get rid of anything that is not absolutely necessary to your livelihood, comfort or security.

I have yet to take my own advice.

Since it was such a large floor (and relatively flat) I selected a  16″ tile, choosing  to lay it in a brick pattern off-setting every other course.  I planned the installation by dry-laying the tiles to determine the best way to maximize whole tiles and minimize cut tiles (resulting in less work and a more attractive layout).


Brick-laid 16″ tiles & tile-laying tools

The actual work of laying tile is more laborious than you might expect.  The thinset mortar  must be mixed one batch at a time.  I used a 5-gallon bucket and mixed about 3 gallons of mortar at a time.  I used a grey powdered mortar mix and a liquid  acrylic modifier (instead of water to maximize the adhesion properties of the thin set mortar).   Adding the liquid to the powder a little at a time to mix properly, it took about 10 minutes to mix


Grooved trowel used to spread mortar

and required another 20 to 30 minutes to  “slake” or permit the liquid to fully absorb into the powder. Another 30 seconds of vigorous mixing readied the mortar for application.  I prepared the floor (scraping, sweeping, mopping and moistening it) and applied the mortar to the floor  with a 1/2″ square notched trowel (notch size is determined by the tile size).


Back-buttered tile & mortar bed

I  back-buttered each tile to assure that mortar completely covered the back of each tile (again to maximize adhesion).   Once that was done, I pressed the back-buttered side into the troweled mortar bed making sure that it was level and evenly centered.  Small foam spacers assured regularity of the gap.  I also carefully removed any mortar that squeezed out between the tiles so that the beige-colored  grout would have a generous depth


Tile laid into mortar bed with spacers

of gap to fill and would completely cover the grey mortar.  Each mix of mortar was sufficient to lay between 12 and 15 tiles and took about an hour to apply.  The tools and mixing buckets needed to be completely cleaned and rinsed out between batches.  You can imagine that with each batch taking about 2 hours or more and yielding 20-25 square feet, it took around 25 of batches and a lot of time to lay all of the tile.


First Section:  Tiles laid (not grouted), wallboard repaired, ready for paint


I worked the floor in 3 large sections so that I could leave some of the bigger items including floor-to-ceiling bookcase, tables, pool table and other large pieces of furniture in the space (so as not to have to move them up the basement stairs).


8″ of soaked drywall replaced with MR wallboard


Once a section had been laid, I let it cure for a week before grouting and let that cure for another week before moving furniture on it.  Meanwhile, I also repaired the drywall over the finished section and painted the walls.


Diamond wheel on Angle-Grinder

Of course, the tiles did not work out to whole tiles around the edges so, I used a tile cutter that I bought at my local big box store to split tiles to fit the margins around the edges  tile field against the walls.  The tile cutter has a sharp wheel like a glass cutter that scores the front of the tile, and a lever that applies pressure on both sides of the score to split the tile in a nice straight line. Sometimes the cuts needed to be inside corners or close enough to the edge of the tile that the tile cutter wouldn’t work.  After some experimentation and research,  I purchased a diamond cutting wheel that fit my angle-grinder to get those hard-to-do cuts.


Clara the cat (Nicco’s sister) inspects the first section before grout

I staggered these operations so that there was no down time, with something going on practically every day. In this way my summer slowly ebbed away until I was finishing up grouting the last section in mid-August.  After the grout had cured I installed  pvc baseboard along the bottom of all walls and sealed the grout with grout sealer.



Clara approves of the final section


that’s all for now.

Thanks for reading and Be safe!




One Response to “A Lost Summer: Laying Ceramic Tile on a Basement Floor”

  1. Thanks for the sensible critique. Me & my neighbor were just preparing to do some research on this. We got a grab a book from our area library but I think I learned more clear from this post. I am very glad to see such great info being shared freely out there.

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