Relative (in)competence

by Carl Dyke

I spent much of the winter break re-tiling the kitchen floor. It was a moment in a general experience I have as a home do-it-yourselfer, the ‘man of average mechanical ability’. Each new thing that needs doing is something I’ve never done before. I have to learn principles and techniques from scratch, take way too long because I’m unsure of myself, and still make all the newbie mistakes. By the time I’ve internalized the rules of the job and started to get a feel for its practice, I’m done and probably won’t be doing it again soon enough for the acquisition to stick.

Rachel and I first tiled the floor back when we were friends before we hooked up. She had done some tiling at a resort she worked at in Maine and at her Mom’s, so she had a pretty good idea what to do. As a result, we did it almost right. It turns out that tile is one of those things where almost is importantly not good enough.

Tile is very hard and durable, but it has almost no flex. This means it will work itself loose or/and break where a more resilient material would absorb and dissipate force. Therefore it really matters to get the underlayment smooth, firm and level. We knew this, so we popped for the special tile underlayment panels and screwed them firmly to the subflooring. The underlayment is basically a thin, hard sheetrock with a mesh matrix. It turns out to be a little tricky to get the screws all the way set into it. It’s a bit more than a power screwdriver can handle and forearms/backs start to cramp up after muscling dozens of screws. Like so many things about such jobs, if you did this for a living you’d work it out, but we don’t and didn’t.

We figured a slight screwhead protrusion here and there would not be a problem because they’d be small and buffered by the mortar. That turns out not to be reliably true. Over time any play there is in the floor (and there’s always at least some if your house is made out of wood) combined with traffic impact from the top uses those screwheads as fulcra to crack the tile, or failing that to wiggle and then seesaw it back and forth until it dislodges the grout and then the whole tile comes loose.

Spreading the mortar evenly is also a must. Any place where the mortar is thick or thin invites eventual problems. Still we might have gotten away with our screwheads if we’d gotten the polyblend additive for the mortar so it had some give rather than going right to crumble under stress. Thicker tile and smaller tile may also have compensated a bit. We used 12″x12″x.25″ tile, which was thin enough to break easily and big enough to offer a lot of offcenter leverage on each footstrike.

Knowing what I know now I’ll also be more attentive to the condition of the grout. When the tiles started to play it showed up in the crumbling grout first. It may have been possible at that point to scrape out the grout, inject some mortar under the tile edges, and regrout. Until it was too late that seemed like a lot of bother over a little cosmetic imperfection, but read on. [UPDATE: This technique did not work for me and I’ll be taking out and replacing a few more tiles over the summer. Seems to suggest it’s just worth biting the bullet and re-doing everything that’s even slightly loose all at once.]

OK, so eventually we had five or six tiles that were definitely coming up. So we took them out, walked around with attentive feet for a few weeks and ended up removing another dozen (out of maybe 120 or so total; like I said we did it almost right) that were showing signs of wiggle. At this point the real fun started.

Chipping up mortar by hand is an unpleasant task. I got a mortar chisel (big wide blade) which helped some, but some of the mortar wants to stay put no matter what. That’s what it’s for, after all. Plus kneeling on the floor pounding on a chisel with a hammer is not a recommended workout for thighs, hips and lower back. I did find, as is so often the case, that relaxing and letting the tool do the work was better than trying to muscle it. But for me at least that’s easier said than done. The bigger problem was that the adjacent pounding loosened up a couple more tiles. Eventually out of frustration I discovered that cutting cross-grooves in the mortar with a carbide-tipped scoring tool and then scraping it out with a grout scraper (I got the kind with the triangular carbide tip) was faster and less counterproductively violent. [Update: I’ve now got an oscillating tool with a chipping blade that looks very promising should this task arise again.]

So at this point we’ve got some open spaces on our floor ready to accept tile. Of course I went back and torqued down the offending screwheads. Some of the previous tiles were already broken, some more broke in the process of getting the mortar off them (which is just as fun as getting it off the floor), and of course the Home Depot no longer stocks those exact tiles. Given bad alternatives of approximate color-matching, tracking down remaindered tile, pasting broken tiles back in or digging up the whole floor and starting over, we decided to see if we could turn an embarrassing repair of a failed installation into a triumph.

We settled on smashing up the used tiles and using them for mosaic. The original floor is a checkerboard of reddish and tannish tiles, so we mixed the colors in the mosaics to locally fractalize the larger pattern. Doing the mosaic was a matter of sitting there with lots of tile shards of various shapes and sizes and piecing them together like a puzzle. That part was kind of fun. Once we had the mosaic laid out we took the pieces back out one by one, mortared them up (we used a premix acrylic mortar at this point) and stuck them down. By now my hips, back and thighs were getting downright blase’ about all the crabby work postures on the floor.

Grouting was no sweat in comparison, just more floor work. Over the last couple of weeks my feet, which are in full ptsd hypervigilance mode at this point, have found a couple more wiggly tile corners, so hoping I’d learned my lesson I promptly dug the grout out, pushed mortar under and grouted them back up.

Meatball tests the new floor

This is the main stretch

The main section from the other side

We like the subtle contrast of the grout and repainted the cabinets to match

Optimistically I think I now have a pretty good skill for the job — not just the brute instructions and techniques, but the logic and feel of them. Of course we have no plans for any other tiling in the foreseeable future. We’ve also gone that much farther toward turning our little suburban development starter house into something no one likely to buy such a thing will want to buy. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

6 Comments to “Relative (in)competence”

  1. You rock. Literally “thinking outside the box”. Also, your shards, now smaller than the original 12×12″ tiles, are less likely to attain cracking leverage.

    Lemonade for everyone!

    Of course, the downside of this post is that it makes me really paranoid about the job I did tiling our bathroom (moved to a bigger room) this fall. My solution: move before defects develop, and leave the problem to future generations.

    Maybe I should consider the Republican Party.

  2. I LOVE this!

    I would totally buy a place that did this. Given that I have just started looking at condos to buy, I can tell you that this kind of inventive irregularity is NOT very common. And the one place I’ve seen so far that has interesting bits also gets absolutely no direct sunlight, which is likely a deal-killer for me.

  3. Yay, lemonade! I bask in your praise, even if Asher is a devious Republican scoundrel.

    The point about the stability of the mosaic pieces is a good one. It’s easy to get the mortar right on the smaller pieces, there’s less exposure to surface imperfection and less cracking leverage, and they get locked together more intimately by the grout. They feel rock-solid.

    On the other hand the feel of the mosaic on bare feet may be an acquired taste, although I like it a lot. In general I agree with you both that ‘creative class’ types like us are going to find the floor (and other similiar touches throughout the house) enhancing. Our worry is that this is not the kind of house or location that creative class types are usually seeking. To the natural clientele for cul-de-sac starter homes it all might just seem ‘weird’. So what we’ve probably done is reduce the appeal for a larger fraction of the market while intensifying it for a smaller one, making a good realtor to seek and triage the right buyers that much more worth it when the time comes to move.

    Narya, you’ve already done your cave time for this life!

  4. Btw, as an index of what selling a creative house in the ‘burbs is up against, when I told the guys I play tennis with about the tiling one of them tossed off a bonding line about what a pain the little spacers are that you put between the tiles to make sure they’re exactly even. When I agreed and said we didn’t use those there was an audible gasp and physical withdrawal, as if in the presence of the uncanny, and the conversation was over. These are college-educated professionals, mind you. Fortunately they make allowances for me.

  5. I have to learn principles and techniques from scratch, take way too long because I’m unsure of myself, and still make all the newbie mistakes. By the time I’ve internalized the rules of the job and started to get a feel for its practice, I’m done and probably won’t be doing it again soon enough for the acquisition to stick.

    The role of forgetting and having to start over is, I believe, an important point. It sparks, in rapid succession, the following associations: (1) the role of long cycles in resilience thinking and of rare events in Taleb’s Black Swan; The abolition of the Glass-Steagall Act after a long enough time for the Great Depression to be, if not forgotten, removed to historical memory’s dream time, allowing a new generation of “financial geniuses” to persuade Congress that the markets had everything under control; and Robert Kuttner’s Everything for Sale, in which he observes a recurring cycle in American history, pitting advocates of regulation against those for whom the American dream means unlimited freedom.

  6. Yes, that’s awesome. Oddly enough I had written most of this post before yours on resilience, and only really thought about the convergences after I posted. They’re all through it, from the brittleness of tile on up.

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