Backbuttering mosaicsSometimes I  get asked how to backbutter mosaic tiles. I constantly have to tell people that you really don’t need to. There are very few instances when you’ll need to backbutter a mosaic tile. Normally if you feel the need to backbutter mosaics it is easier to simply use a larger trowel on your substrate.  

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Backbuttering tile When I answer questions on my site I am always telling people to backbutter their tile. It has recently been brought to my attention that normal people (the ones who don’t stand in showers all day) have no idea what that means.

Oh.

Backbuttering tile simply means spreading a flat layer of thinset onto the back of the tile before installing it on your wall or floor or whatever.

First you have to ‘comb’ the thinset onto the substrate – that means it is spread with the notched side of the trowel leaving little ridges. It should look like that first photo there on the right with the ridges all combed in one direction. This allows any air to escape from beneath your tile more easily.

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One of the most frequent questions I get asked is ‘What size and type of trowel should I use for…?’  The proper answer to that is ‘whichever trowel gives you the proper coverage for your particular installation’.

So there really isn’t one perfect answer to that question, a lot of factors are involved. But I’ll try to help you out.

Proper thinset coverage

The first thing you need to know is what constitutes proper coverage.  As stated in ANSI A108.5 3.3.2 for installation of tile on floors; “Average uniform contact area shall not be less than 80% except on exterior or shower installations where contact area shall be 95% when no less than three tiles or tile assemblies are removed for inspection. The 80% or 95% coverage shall be sufficiently distributed to give full support to the tile with particular attention to this support under all corners of the tile.”

Let me translate that for you:

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In my previous post about thinsets I explained what modified thinsets are and how they came about. That post actually started out as this post, I tend to get sidetracked by beer my dog.

Unmodified thinsets, in one form or another, have been around forever. With the expanded use of modified thinsets, the unmodified version had nearly gone by the wayside with everyone except us hard-headed setters who bought unmodified thinsets and added liquid admixes to them – to create modified thinsets. I no longer do this for my modified thinsets, but it was a hard habit to kick. :D

The reemergence (I know – doesn’t even look like a word) of unmodified thinsets came about in November of 2001. At an NTCA / Schluter workshop the statement was made that the preferred method of installation over ditra is the use of an unmodified thinset.

Mass confusion ensued.

This has continued to this day with even seasoned professionals questioning if unmodified should be used, and if so – why and which unmodified to use. This problem is compounded for do-it-yourselfers who don’t have nearly the understanding nor material and product access that we do. It’s difficult to find and purchase. If it helps, it’s sometimes difficult for us as well.

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Laticrete 3701What is the difference between modified and unmodified thinsets?

Which unmodified thinset is better?

What makes a modified thinset modified?

Why do you drink so much beer?

These are questions I get asked a lot, along with ‘why is my dog on fire’ (because you used the incorrect product for a specific installation).

Unmodified thinset is simply a thinset which does not have any latex polymers or other products added to it. It is essentially portland cement, silica (sand) and lime. Recipes vary, but those are the basics.

History (pay attention – there may be a quiz…)

To understand modified and unmodified you should understand why modified exists. Way back in the 1940’s Henry M. Rothberg was a chemical engineer. Back then the standard installation procedure for floor tile was the full bed method. This was a 2″-3″ deck of portland cement and sand upon which tile was installed. The need for the thickness is at the heart of the development of modified thinsets.

It needed to be that thick in order to retain enough moisture for the cement to fully cure.

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Finished tiled shower ceilingMichael has recently pointed out (a bit more eloquently than I would have) that I have indeed been a lazy bastard and have not yet written this post. Apparently people actually want to know how to do stuff I do – weird, right? So here you go – making your ceiling shiny.

The main problem people have with tiling a ceiling is getting the tile to stay where they put it. Believe me, I’ve had more than one tile fall on my noggin before I figured out what works. Since I’m relatively certain you aren’t very interested in what doesn’t work I’ll tell you what does, it saves headaches – literally.

You do not need a $75 bag of non-sag thinset to tile a ceiling. Non-sag thinset is basically just thinset that is sticky – it’s great stuff! It’s also expensive stuff. You can accomplish the same with the $15 bag of regular modified thinset.

Before you start hanging head-bashers (ceiling tile) you should, as always, have the substrate properly prepared. They do not always need to be waterproof. It’s a good idea and never hurts, but it isn’t always necessary. The photos of the shower I have here was in a small bathroom with limited ventilation so I waterproofed the ceiling as well.

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There are three basic materials used to set tile.

  • Mastic
  • Thinset Mortar
  • Epoxy

For each installation there is a specific material you should be using. Before you start any tile installation you should ensure that the material you choose is suitable for that application.

Mastic

Mastic is a latex or solvent based adhesive that cures by evaporation. It is sold in airtight containers (buckets) and requires no mixing. It is ready to use immediately. It is suitable only for non-wet applications.

Mastic should never be used for showers or floors! Ever! When mastic gets wet the water will re-emulsify the adhesive base. This means that mastic turns to goo when it gets wet. Goo will not keep your tiles on the wall. Every one of the failed showers that I’ve ever replaced were installed with mastic.

With that said typed, mastic does have its place. It is “stickier” than thinset mortar which is why some prefer to use it – for everything. It should only be used in non-wet areas such as a backsplash, wainscot, or fireplace. An area that is not consistently exposed to water or moisture. It should also only be used on tiles smaller than 6 inches square.

Think about it like this: mastic is stored in a bucket with a lid on it. This keeps it from being exposed to air which would cause it to cure (dry). If you spread it on your wall and place a 12 X 12 inch tile on it, that’s just like putting the lid back on the bucket. It will never fully cure. If any moisture gets behind that tile with the mastic it will eventually re-emulsify and lose adhesion. That means is that your tile is going to fall off the wall.

There is also a product called “premixed thinset adhesive”. This product is pushed as a suitable material with which to set tile – it is not. It is only mastic with sand added to it. While sand does help materials from shrinking as it sets, it does not make mastic suitable for showers or floors. [click to continue…]