Step 2: Dry-fit the tile

dry fit the tile
Photo: Kolin Smith
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Measure the firebox opening behind the hearth and determine its center point. Extend that location to the hearth and draw a line on the substrate, bisecting it. If the center is close to an obvious mortar line or other focal point on the firebox, draw the bisecting line at that point. Then find the center of the hearth front to back and draw another line through it perpendicular to the first, so that the hearth is divided into quadrants.

Starting at the front edge of the hearth, dry-lay a line of tiles in one of the quadrants, beginning at the center line and moving out to the edge. Make sure to leave space between the tiles to account for grout. Mark edge tiles that need to be cut. If any cuts would create a tile less than 1 inch, cheat the grout lines to absorb this measurement rather than use a tile sliver.

Continue filling in the quadrant until you reach the center line front to back, following the pattern you’ve determined you want for the layout. If the tiles at the center extend above the line, mark a new reference line along their edge.

Dry-lay tiles in this manner until you fill the the whole hearth area. Mark tiles at the back edge for cuts, if necessary.

Tip: Once you have a satisfying layout, transfer all the tiles, in order, to a board to keep track of where they go.
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    More in Painting & Finishes

    Tools List

    • utility knife
      Utility Knife
    • drill
      Drill/Driver with mixing paddle
    • notched trowel
      3/8-Inch Notched Trowel
    • caulk gun
      Caulking Gun
    • wet saw
      Wet-cutting Tile Saw
      (rents for about $40 a day)
    • four-foot level
      4 Foot level
    • putty knife
      Putty Knife
    • rubber float
      Rubber Grout Float
    • grout sponge
      Grout Sponge

    Shopping List

    1. TILES
    Available at home centers and tile dealers, though most high-end tile requires ordering as much as six weeks in advance. Tiles are sold by the square foot, ranging in price from $2 to about $50. You should look for tiles with a foot-traffic rating of 3 or above (on a scale of 1 to 5). Given a set of measurements, some tile dealers will calculate how much you need, and art-tile manufacturers may make you all the tiles, in the right sizes, to order. But you can also determine the square footage yourself: Multiply the length in inches by the width, and divide the result by 144. Then add 10 percent to that number for waste cuts.

    2. ½-INCH CEMENT OR FIBER-CEMENT BACKER BOARD
    to go over a plywood subfloor and create a flat, stable surface for installation.

    3. CONSTRUCTION ADHESIVE
    to glue backer board to the subfloor.

    4. 11/4-INCH BACKER-BOARD SCREWS
    to screw the backer board to the subfloor. 5. UNMIXED THINSET MORTAR
    Also known as setting cement. One 50-pound bag should be enough. Do not use mastic; it can’t take high heat.

    6. LATEX ADDITIVE
    to mix with the thinset, as the liquid. It improves flexibility and creates a stronger bond than a water-based mix.

    7. TILE SPACERS
    Porcelain tiles can have as little as a 1/8-inch gap between them, while ceramic tiles can be 3/6 to 3/8 inch apart and terra-cotta tiles can be spaced 3/4 inch apart. Handmade tiles may require special surface spacers that accommodate irregularities on the top edge. Buy spacers appropriate for your tile type and the grout lines your layout dictates.

    8. GROUT
    Use sanded grout if the space between your tiles will be greater than 1/8 inch, unsanded if it’s smaller. You can also buy colored grout to more closely match your tile.