Saturday, June 14, 2014


I promised a more detailed update on what little work we did over the last 2 years and here it is.

We're mostly done tiling the small WC and the larger bathroom but not quite there yet. I'd have loved to do a real vintage-style tile design but this is a family job and my parents own the house, so they had a substantial say in this. In the end after lengthy discussions we agreed on plan white 8x8 (20x20 cm) tiles with black skirting (base trim) and border. Shopping for tile was an experience in itself since this plan was absolutely against current fashion trends. First we went to a small tile and construction supplies store. Most of the tiles the elderly owner showed us were huge (up to 12x24 or 30x60 cm) and beige-y or grey. I said we didn't want beige or grey tiles because they didn't look too good with our existing wood ceiling. To which he replied: "You have to lower the ceiling and plasterboard it anyway! For the recessed lights!" (he used the pseudo-English word "Spots" and pronounced it "Shpotts", which sounds like Spott, German for ridicule). At that point I was ready to ignore all his advice.

Off we went to the next store. They had a small selection of smaller white and solid-coloured tiles and we eventually agreed on the cheapest. This manufacturer didn't offer border tiles and we thought we could avoid ordering Villeroy & Boch borders by cutting our own.

For the floor we chose black and white tiles from the same manufacturer for a chequered pattern (and mentioned this plan to the sales girl). This bit of info will become important later. Order time was 4-6 weeks so we had some time for other stuff. The two rooms are small (the bathroom is 2.35x1.85 m or slightly over 8x6' and the WC is only 0.9x1.2 m or 3x4') and we didn't tile up to the ceiling but we still had a lot of tile boxes. Heavy boxes! I can't remember the weight but I think we essentially maxed out my parents' trusty old Mitsubishi van since we also loaded about 150 kg of thinset and 50 kg of self-leveling floor leveler.

Tiling was a rather time-consuming process, especially the small bits and pieces. The large sections of wall that mostly use whole tiles go reasonably fast and then when it comes to cutting every single tile progress slows to snail's pace. I'm not awfully fond of tiling either but at least I'm getting better at it. My first tile job far back in 2002 definitely sucked!
We did the whole job almost without power tools, except for a drill with masonry bit. Our tools were a traditional tile cutter (first we borrowed one from a friend's mom, then I bought a used one for 5 Euros and finally we broke down and bought a new one for 65 Euros), a carbide file, tile nippers and a large tile saw (looks like a giant coping saw). For the softer wall tiles these tools are rather easy to use but for the hard floor tiles the file was essentially useless and the saw was hard on the arms as well. On the other hand the hand saw allows for rather intricate cuts that just aren't possible using a wet tile saw or angle grinder. Electric tile saws are great for some kinds of tile (I once had to lay large rock-hard floor tiles with a surface scored to look like small brick with wide joints and those were impossible to cut without a wet tile saw) but generally I like an old-fashioned tile cutter better. It doesn't make much noise, it's a lot less dangerous and it doesn't make a mess since the tiles are scored and broken rather than cut.

Since I didn't exactly trust the floor to be level I started one course above the floor and nailed small strips of wood to the walls as guides. Some things I learned the hard way about this method:
- Don't use dabs of thinset in addition to nails unless you're sure you can take down the guide strips again within a few hours
- Make absolutely sure you put these strips up level
- Make absolutely sure to put these strips up at the correct height!

I didn't and so we ended up having lower skirtings in the bathroom.

I also calculated the number of tiles I'd need for each wall and if I'd have ended up with a very narrow strip on one side I'd start with half tiles instead of whole ones. That way you have half a tile on one side and slightly more than half on the other instead of a whole one on one side and a narrow strip on the other. Things you learn on the web and from watching tile layers!

Cutting the trim pieces was more of a challenge than we'd expected. The borrowed tile cutter wasn't awfully precise and our first own one even less so. In the end our trim pieces varied in height by up to 1 mm, which is noticeable if you have 2.5 mm joints. Nobody's perfect...

The old window was rotted beyond repair and one casement was already a non-matching replacement so we decided to replace the whole window. We definitely didn't care for a repeat performance with Mr. D who bodgered our other two new windows so we looked into other options. A local carpenter never bothered to actually make an offer so we decided he probably wasn't interested. In the end we decided on a "long-term temporary" compromise. Unlike most traditional Austrian windows (that are actually two sets of windows in a common frame in order to increase insulation) this was actually two windows in one opening, each with its own frame. Therefore we decided to leave the outer window in place for looks and replace the inner set of casements with an undivided double-glazed casement. Doesn't look good but cost about 1/3 of a proper wooden replacement window (i.e. a set of two true-divided light casements). Waiting for the window to be delivered and installed (8 weeks order time) slowed down our progress considerably.

Once we opened the first boxes of floor tiles we knew we were in BIG trouble. Instead of being the same size, the black tiles were several mm smaller than the white ones in both directions! We immediately called the store and complained, only to be told: "You want to mix different colours? You mustn't do that! You always have to check with the manufacturer if that's possible before ordering! Variations of up to 5% are perfectly acceptable!". Continental European customer service at its finest, customers begging for the mercy of being granted the honour of buying something. We did bother to mention that a) we HAD in fact mentioned that we intended to mix and b) the differency considerably exceeded 5% but at that time we didn't really want to return all the tile to Vienna and start shopping and arguing from scratch again.

Instead we used creative spacing and made do with what we had. That worked, although with the unfortunate side effect that the white grout really emphasises the size difference. I guess we'll have to live with it. My parents suggested black grout for the bathroom but I think that'll get dirty rather quickly.

The floor itself is interesting as well. The base is a thin concrete slab. On top of that we put down pink foam board with a fibreglass mesh and cement coat. This type of insulation is specifically designed as a tiling substrate. It's laid in thinset using a notched trowel and that's one of its core weaknesses. There are always some air bubbles below the foam board and in those spots any object falling on the finished tile floor makes weird hollow noises. And there are quite a few of those spots! Another issue is the amount of flex in the foam board. In order to prevent the tile floor from cracking we used flexible modified thinset and flexible grout. Furthermore, we put down plastic mesh before applying the thinset. In the WC I only covered the seams, in the bathroom I simply put down mesh everywhere.

Anyway, that's where we are now: