How to Spread Thinset Evenly for Tile Walls

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Big-box home improvement stores and cable television have made do-it-yourselfers of us all, but a few skills are still mysteries. Thinset is the adhesive recommended for tile applications on walls, particularly in showers and other areas with high humidity. You will need a trowel to spread thinset evenly. Professional tilers know a few secrets that explain what the do-it-yourselfer needs to do to be successful.

Things You'll Need

  • Ceramic tile
  • Thinset adhesive
  • Notched trowels
  • 1-by-4 inch boards
  • 4-penny nails
  • Carpenter's level
  • Soft mallet
  • Drop cloths
  • Choose the right sized trowel for the job. Use a 1/4-inch V-notched trowel for 4-inch ceramic tiles. Switch to a 1/4-inch square-notched trowel for 6- to 8-inch tile. Use a larger 1/2-inch square-notched trowel for tile larger than 8-inches square.

    The size and shape of the notches--the teeth along two sides of the trowel--will determine the amount of adhesive that is laid on the wall to form a “bed” for the tile.

  • Carry prepared thinset that has “set up” (rested for 10 minutes after mixing) to the wall. Take only as much you will be able to use in 10 to 15 minutes. Smooth the adhesive over an area. Work it into the surface, pushing it upward as you go.

  • Turn the trowel so that it meets the surface at a 45-degree angle and, beginning at the place you started laying it in, draw your trowel in gentle, opposing curves over the fresh thinset. Always "comb" the trowel upward at a 45-degree angle. This creates channels of adhesive that stand at the same height all over the wall.

  • Add mortar to thin areas and comb the trowel through it again. The ridges of adhesive will expand into the space between when the tile is placed rather than squishing up around it. If thinset "skins" over, work it in with surrounding areas until it is evenly spread.

  • Place tiles using spacers, ledger boards and a level to set the first row. If the tiles do not adhere well, you may want to use a larger trowel. Remember to spread the adhesive drawing the trowel at a 45-degree angle, no matter what its size. After finishing the first few rows, continue up and down the wall until finished, applying thinset the same way for each group of tiles.

Tips & Warnings

  • Properly mixed thinset should “mound” on the trowel, not drip. If thinset begins to crust over, mix it again.
  • Thinset adhesive remains workable for a while after tile has been set on it. You should be able to move the tile around to adjust spacing and to check to see that it is holding properly. Tap a 12-inch piece of 1-by-4 inch wood with a soft mallet across several tiles to level surfaces before inserting spacers. Tap a carpenter’s level on top of rows to assure level rows.

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