As an avid DIYer, I’m a big advocate for the right tool for the job to get a professional finish. It’s important as it affects the efficacy of your project. This applies to all DIY jobs, including tiling. Let’s explore the essential tools for tilers from the DIY perspective.
Our Experience As DIY Tilers
Over the years we’ve done a few tile projects, starting with helping friends and family tile their spaces which is where we started to learn. From mosaic tile floors to subway tile bathrooms and even a tiled countertop.
We’ve learned a lot along the way and after recently finishing our biggest tiling project to date, tiling an entire bathroom in white subway tile with black grout, it’s a great time to discuss our favorite tiling tools.
We are not professional tilers, our perspective is from the DIY angle. What are the essential tools and accessories for DIY tilers, what’s necessary, and what makes the job easier if you have room in the budget for some new tools?
Our latest project, installing white subway tile in our primary bathroom.
All links to the tools below go to the Home Depot website for the tiling tools we currently use or similar tools.
A tile cutter is absolutely necessary for tiling. But which tile cutter is right for you depends on the project you’re tackling. Different materials require different cutters and blades. For example, porcelain tiles are hard tiles and would be more difficult to cut using a manual tile cutter. Compared to using ceramic tiles, which aren’t as dense.
The size of your tiles also determines which tile cutter to use. Along with how clean and precise you need the cuts to be.
Electric Tile Wet Saws
Having a wet tile saw makes cutting tiles so fast and easy. These wet saws, combined with a diamond or carbide grit blade, use water to keep the blade from overheating and reduce dust and debris.
Electric tile saws cut various materials from natural stone to ceramic tile and more. Compared to manual cutters they are the right choice for cutting harder materials, larger tiles, precise clean cuts, and faster tiling work.
It’s important to choose the right blade for your tile saw. A good diamond blade meant for the material you’re cutting goes a long way.
We used the King Diamond tile cutting blade with our wet saw and have liked it.
In general, an electric tile saw compared to a manual tile cutter can cut faster, requires more skill, and is less convenient to set up.
Manual Tile Cutters
Manual tile cutters are often cheaper than electric tile wet saws. They work by scoring the tile with a scorer cutting blade. Then press down on the tile to snap it. These manual cutters work best with a certain type of tile, including ceramic, porcelain, and glass tiles. Manual cutters do not work well with harder materials.
A manual tile cutter requires less skill, takes longer to use, and is more convenient to use. Set up a manual cutter anywhere in your project zone and move it around easily. It just needs a solid surface to sit on.
Tile Cutter Vs. Wet Saw: Which To Choose
Here’s my personal opinion on the great tile cutter vs. wet saw debate in the DIY tiling world. The short answer, it depends, especially factoring in the type of tile.
I love my wet saw and combined with the right diamond blades for the tile I’m cutting, feel it cuts far better, cleaner (as in a cleaner tile edge), and faster than a manual tile cutter. It also cuts a much wider variety of tiles than a manual cutter. When we used marble subway tile in a shower, we had to use the tile saw because the manual cutter just didn’t work well with it.
Not only does the wet saw cut straight lines well, but with some practice, you can also cut curved lines and notch tiles to fit around plumbing. Manual cutters and tile nippers just don’t create as clean of a cut.
However, with our latest bathroom renovation, where we tiled the entire bathroom with white ceramic subway tile, we almost exclusively chose to use the manual tile cutter. Why? Mostly because of the mess.
Electric tile saws throw a lot of water and there was no easy place to set up the tile saw inside without making a mess. We used a wet saw to make special cuts since it works so much easier. A tarp went up in the closet to protect my clothes from the water thrown by the wet saw.
It was also too cold and too snowy to set up outside at the time we were working. The manual cutter was clutch and it was so handy having it.
Other Tools For Tile Cutting
Tile nippers are another tool that’s handy to have. Before we purchased our tile saw, we primarily used nippers to manually trim a corner off to tile around the plumbing. Nippers don’t cut cleanly so it’s best to use them for tiles where the nipped part will be covered in the finished bathroom. Like under a toilet.
A cordless drill with a diamond hole saw meant for cutting tile yields high-quality round cuts for tight spaces. In some instances, it’s impossible to use a wet saw, tile nippers, or even a manual cutter and you need a super precise round cut. Enter the diamond hole saws.
This came up with the shower hardware in our primary bathroom tiling project. The plumbing was 1″ and the hardware on top of it was about 1-3/4″. The 1-3/8″ Milwaukee Diamond Hole Saw bit made all the difference.
Tile Installation Tools
Beyond tile-cutting tools, several other tile installation tools are necessary to get your tiling job done right. From a tile adhesive mixer to a notched trowel, tile spacers, and leveling tools.
Let’s talk about electric mixers for mixing tile adhesive for a second. By electric mixers, I’m talking about professional-grade mixers like the Rubi Rubimix, which we do not own.
While an electric mixer is not an absolute necessity, you can mix small batches of adhesive by hand using a trowel. It is MUCH easier and more effective to use an electric mixer. Electric mixers produce a more even and consistent mortar mixture.
This is where the tools vary for a DIYer vs professional tilers. A pro uses professional tools such as a dedicated tiling adhesive mixer that is a power hog and can mix a big batch of adhesive. As a DIYer, this professional-grade tool is not necessary.
A word of caution when it comes to using a drill with a paddle mixer attachment for mixing. First, if you have a corded drill or a more powerful cordless drill, use that one. Second, mix in small batches especially if you’re using a cordless drill.
Mixing tile adhesive is a tough job for your drill and requires quite a bit of power, especially for a bigger batch. We learned this lesson the hard way and almost burned up a cordless drill but thankfully stopped mid-mix and switched to a smaller batch. We did use a Milwaukee M18 cordless drill to mix all our adhesive for our latest project but only mixed a couple of quarts at a time. A corded drill is most recommended to mix adhesive.
Notched trowels are used to spread thinset mortar onto the floor or wall surfaces the tiles will be installed. These hand tools come in a variety of sizes. There’s typically a notched trowel size recommended by the tile manufacturer of the tile.
For our latest project, we used 3″ x 6″ subway tile with the recommended 1/4″ notched trowel, one of the most commonly used trowel sizes. Other subway tiles have different recommendations so it’s always best to look at the installation instructions for the product you’re using.
Who knew that something so small as a tile spacer would be so important to tiling?!
What exactly are tile spacers? They are small wedges placed between tiles to create a consistent gap for tile grout. They give your tiling project a professional finish when everything is spaced just so.
Tile spacers are inexpensive and come in a variety of sizes for different-sized grout lines. The simple x-shaped tile spacer is my favorite style. I’ve tried quite a few over the years and these have been the easiest to use for me.
The unsung heroes of any great tiling project are leveling tools. The first line of tiles always seems to be the line that I’m trying to set up just right since it sets the tone for the rest of the tiling project, and I always have a small arsenal of leveling tools to help with the beginning stage.
Before I start tiling any project, I always whip out my trusty pencil and a basic spirit level, also known as a bubble level, to draw a bunch of guidelines on the walls or the floor. I love how they give a visual guide and reference to the levelness and evenness of a project.
A spirit level is also great to use when tiling a wall since you can place it on top of your latest line of tiles to check for levelness.
Our latest bathroom tiling project was a larger project and I pretty much kept the laser level on for the entirety of the tiling process to make sure I was keeping my lines straight and level as I laid the subway tiles throughout the space.
There are also leveling tools that keep your tiles’ surface even, like the popular clip and wedge system, which we don’t have or use.
Most of our tiling projects have been with laying subway tiles in bathrooms so we often prescribe to the SUPER technical (note the sarcasm) system of feeling the tiles with the palm of your hand to check for evenness.
But I would 100% reach for a tile leveling system if I was laying large floor tiles where feeling for levelness wouldn’t work as well.
With the tile installation tools covered, let’s move on to grouting tools and accessories for that final, big step of the tiling process.
A grout float is one of the most important tools for tilers along with one of the most specialized. It is specifically made for pushing grout between the tiles, forming the grout joints, and scraping the excess grout off the face of the tile.
This tool looks kind of like a trowel but it has a special rubber base that helps get the grout in the small spaces between the tiles. Not all grout floats are created equal. Some help get into tight spaces, like corners, better than others.
I have two grout floats that I like to use for different grouting areas and materials. One is a heavy grout float with a rubber base. This one works best for wide, flat surfaces. It scrapes off excess grout well and easily pushes grout into the grout joints. This float is well suited for harder materials but could scratch softer materials when using sanded grout.
The second one I love is a lighter-duty grout float with a foam pad. This grout float is well suited for glass, marble, or other tile surfaces that are more prone to scratching. We used this float for grouting marble tile but I also find it easier to grout corners with.
A grout sponge, unlike a traditional cleaning sponge, is a large dense sponge specifically for cleaning grout off the surface of the tile. It’s important to purchase a sponge specifically for grouting since they are much larger and denser than an ordinary sponge. Meaning, they’re less likely to pull grout out of your grout lines.
I’ve made the mistake of purchasing the wrong sponge before and trust me, a grout sponge is worth it. It was so much harder, made a bigger mess, and ruined some of my grout lines by using a regular sponge (which I think was a car washing sponge).
FYI…grout sponges aren’t normally this beat up. This is ours after using it in our bathroom reno. It’s starting to fall apart and needs replacement before our next tile project.
Regular clean water is important when grouting to clean the grout and the grout haze off the face of your tile. Since you don’t want to be dumping grout water down the drains in your home, utility buckets are an essential tiling supply.
I use your basic, run-of-the-mill, 10-quart plastic bucket with a pour spout for grouting. It’s small enough to lug clean water and also the dirty water outside to dispose of it. I like running two at a time to reduce trips outside.
Health And Safety Supplies
While most of the health and safety supplies aren’t requirements for DIY tiling, they make the project healthier and safer for your body.
When doing a floor tile installation, knee pads can help protect your knees. I’ve tiled a small floor before and was grateful for a pair of knee pads. If you don’t have knee pads, a great garden kneeling pad is helpful too.
Safety glasses are important personal protective equipment for cutting anything, tile included.
A mask or respirator is also highly recommended especially for mixing grout or anytime dust and debris is in the air.
Gloves are also really great protective equipment to use for tiling. I use two different types of gloves for tiling.
When grouting, I like wearing a good quality pair of breathable gloves with a coated palm and fingers. These kept the grout off my hands and were also helpful if I needed to use my finger to push the grout into a corner.
The second pair I use are rubber gloves with a long cuff, like kitchen rubber gloves, for cleaning grout. They protect your hands and arms when submerging them in grout water and keep them clean.
Handy Hand Tools
As with most projects, there are a whole host of basic hand tools that are helpful to get the job done right. The hand tools I reach for regularly when tiling include:
A rubber mallet to help tap tiles into a tight fitting area or adjust the levelness of a support board.
A tape measure to measure for tile cuts and find a starting center point.
A trusty pencil, like a traditional old school style number 2, for marking guidelines or mark tiles for cuts.
A small chisel to clean dried tile adhesive from the edges of tiles before grouting.
Budgeting For Tiling Tools
If this is your first tile job, I know this list of tools, equipment, and accessories can seem daunting. I’ve been there and I’m forever grateful to our contractor friends who lent us tools and equipment when we were first getting started. So I’m going to leave you with a few tips to help you budget for tiling tools and get started.
Borrow What You Can
If you have friends or family who DIY, ask around to see what you can borrow. Tile saws aren’t something homeowners use regularly so I’m willing to bet there is someone out there willing to lend you what you need.
Some communities, ours is one of them, have very active Facebook pages. It’s a great place to ask about borrowing tools.
Many hardware stores also have tiling tools, like tiling saws for rent. Home Depot is a popular place to rent a tile saw for a weekend tiling project.
Budget For New Tools In Your Project Budget
We are big believers in having the right tile tools to get our tiling job done right. Because of that, we always budget for a few new tools that we either need or will help us get the job done more professionally. We do this for every project, not just tiling projects.
When we first started DIYing, our only tools were a cordless drill and a circular saw. And a couple of hand tools like a hammer and tape measure. We slowly took on projects and bought the tools we needed along the way. It has been an affordable way to build our tool arsenal.
I like to justify it by thinking, “How much would it cost me to hire tile contractors to do this job?” And then, “How much would it cost to purchase the tools for this job?” Often, there’s a huge gap. Even with buying a few new tools to do the DIY project, I’m still saving a ton of money vs. hiring it out. And if I take my time and educate myself, I often get the finish I’m looking for.
Good Enough Tools
There’s a big difference between professional tools and DIY tools. And you don’t need professional tools, which are often more expensive, to get quality products.
For example, when tiling you could purchase a professional-grade electric mixer to whip up your thinset mortar mix. They are not cheap tools. OR, you could purchase a heavy-duty corded drill and a paddle attachment to mix the mortar in small batches. It saves you money, works well for the few times you mix mortar at your home, and you end up with more versatile tools.
You just need the right tiling tools not necessarily the best tiling tools.
Pssst…Show of hands, any other DIYers out there with a favorite grout float? Or another favorite tool? Do tell! I love stories about favorite tools!