Installing wood look tile
Wood plank tile floors have gained a good amount of popularity in the last couple of years. For good reason: they don’t have ugly wear patterns after a couple of years, they don’t need to be refinished, and they don’t dent and ding like real wood floors do. But when it comes to installing wood look tile there are some unique challenges.
I wanted to elaborate on my previous post: Wood plank tile floors: What you need to know. In this post I talked about the challenge of getting the tiles to be flat from one to the next. This is called lippage: when one tile is higher than the tile it’s next to. There’s basically two things that contribute to this: 1) The fact that most of these types of tiles have a crown, or a bow, to them; and 2) the offset patterns that are usually used.
*Poorly Installed Plank Tiles - This job was showing Extreme Lippage. We had to tearout the previous contractors work.
The centers are higher
These wood grain tiles may look flat but they rarely are. Hold two tiles together: either face-to-face or back-to-back and you’ll see gaps either in the center or on each end. Why is this a big deal? When porcelain plank tiles are installed in an offset pattern the center (high points) are next to the ends of the next tiles (low points). Sort of like a weave pattern. This is how you get lippage- one tile is higher than the tile it’s next to. Then add in the next challenge:
If you want to really exploit the lippage problem then the worst offset that you can do is a 50% offset. In fact the tile industry has come out with a recommendation that you offset no more than 1/3rd of a tile (33%). The less offset that you do the better chance that you give yourself to not have any lippage issues when installing wood look tile.
This isn’t to say that 50% can’t be done. In fact, I’ve done mostly 50% offsets with 12×24 (30cm x 60cm) tile but it’s always on a case by case basis and the subject is always discussed ahead of time with the customer.
This is where wood grain tiles have an advantage. Typically people want a random offset to mimic a wood floor installation. With a random offset you vary the rows and can make it so that none of them, or very few of them, exceed the 33% recommendation. When installing wood look tile I recommend a random offset pattern for this reason.
Floor Flatness revisited
The previous post discussed the importance of a flat floor when installing wood look tile. The tile industry recommendation for these porcelain plank tiles is no more than 1/8 inch deviation in 10 feet. Basically they are saying that the floor has to be perfectly flat- and nobody’s floor is that flat. So what can you do? For concrete subfloors, you can grind the high spots and fill the low spots. Self levelers usually work the best in these situations.
For wood subfloors I don’t think self levelers are as practical and would recommend a trowel-able floor flattening product. A feather finish product is easy to use and trowels smooth. They can be applied from nothing to an inch oftentimes. These work great to fill in the low spots and they dry fast. If you are installing a membrane such as Ditra you would do the floor flattening first and install Ditra on top.
Orientation of Planks
When it comes to installing wood look tile I’ve found that it works best to run them across the room first. Start with 2-3 rows and run them from end-to-end across them room. Take the time to make sure these rows are perfectly flat. Place a straight edge across the top of them and lift and reinstall any that are too low or high. You’ll also need to make sure they are flat to each other. Once these first starter rows are in and flat then continue to work your way down one complete row at a time.
Grout joint size
It seems that the strategy that is encouraged is to go with as thin a grout joint as possible and a blending color so that it looks like real wood. But let’s go back to the lippage issue. If one tile is higher than the one next to it then putting in no grout joint is only going to make the problem worse. A wider grout joint can help to relieve the difference between the tiles.
So what does this mean?The absolute minimum grout joint that you can have is 1/16th of an inch. The recommended minimum for plank tiles is 1/8 inch (recommended by the tile industry). I would also recommend 1/8 inch if possible. You can do smaller but you are increasing the difficulty of the installation.
The bigger the tiles get the more popular these become. I want to caution you on these- they are not miracle systems. They won’t magically bend the tile into conforming with the rest. But many pros and DIY’ers have found these to be useful for installing wood look tile.
The Tuscan Leveling System and the newer MLT system are very popular with professionals but for DIY’ers I recommend systems like the Lash or Tuscan Seamclip because they have a lower startup costs.
So I hope this post has some real “nuts and bolts” type tips for the DIY’er that is installing wood plank tile flooring. I’ve tried to supply some tips and tricks to help keep you out of trouble. Please let me know in the comments below if you have any questions or if anything needs clarifying.