How to Install Handmade Tile


Tile is among the oldest building materials – and the most beautiful. While many processes in the building industry have become more automated, handmade tile provides a unique aesthetic desirable for all sorts of installations, from residential backsplashes to public art projects.

Jan Hohn, of Hohn & Hohn, Inc., has worked with handcrafted tile for more than 25 years and serves on the National Tile Contractor Association’s Technical Committee and Methods and Standards Committee. We spoke to Jan about her strategies for successful installations of handmade tile.

TEC®: What factors should be taken into account when planning a job with handmade tile?

JH: Installations of handmade tile tend to take longer than those of machine-made tiles. They’re often more involved. You should plan on tacking on an additional two to three hours onto a residential installation job if it involves handmade tile. That amount will, of course, increase for larger jobs.

Laying out a tile design without adhesive is best practice for any elaborate, small-scale installation. However, this process is especially important for installations of handmade tiles, as these tiles are often not as standardized as machine-made tiles. Also, variations in glaze color within the tile order can be extreme.  Experiment without adhesives to confirm a layout that best masks any imperfections in the tiles. Try rotating tiles in different directions, for example. Wider grout joints, a minimum of 1/8” for small tiles and 3/16”-1/4” for medium and larger tiles, will allow you to compensate for imperfections. Plan for them in your layout. For larger projects – such as murals – any variations in tile sizes will be less obvious.

Above all, you must explain to your client the inevitable variation in handmade tile’s sizes. A handmade tile installation might have a bit more lippage than an installation of machine-made tiles. Your clients have to be prepared for that – otherwise, they may be in for a rude awakening! Hopefully they agree that the benefits of a one-of-the-kind installation outweigh any small imperfections.

TEC®: What setting materials do you use to install handmade tile?

JH: Many handmade tiles are not completely flat, so mastic should not be used for installation.  Instead, I use a thin set mortar.

TEC®: Are there any unique requirements for grouting handmade tiles?

JH: Grouting handmade tiles can be challenging. Since they often have micropores that grout residue can stick in, you should seal the tile prior to grouting. If the tile has lots of crazing, sealing is especially important. Also, if tiles have relief areas where the design is built up or depressed, taping these areas before grouting aids in cleanup.  It is difficult to remove grout from pattern reliefs. After sealing, grout the installation, clean it up, and then reseal. Cement based grouts usually are easier to clean off of handmade tiles, however, other types of grouts can possibly be used. Doing a grout sample mock up would probably be a good step.

TEC®: How involved are the tile artists throughout the installation process?

JH: It’s nice when the tile artist wants to be involved. Most check in periodically – especially on murals – to make sure the project is coming together according to their vision. However, many artists don’t know what types of setting materials are available. It’s important that you let them know which products are best.

Remember, in tile installations, form should follow function. Work with your client to select tile that is appropriate for the project’s environment. When you, your client and the tile artist all work together with the best products, you can achieve a truly one-of-a-kind installation. To find the perfect products for an upcoming installation, contact us here, or call 1-800-832-9023, Mon-Fri 8 a.m. - 6 p.m. CST.

Posted by
TEC Staff