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DIY kitchen tile

DIY kitchen tile | Saltbush AvenueAdios, vinyl. Hello, sexy kitchen tile. This kitchen tiling project was a labour of love that Jamie and I carried out, a couple years ago. Luckily for you and me, we get to flash-forward through the whole process from start to finish. I’ll also tell you what we think of it today (spoiler: still love it).

The kitchen flooring, before | Saltbush Avenue

Our kitchen floor, before

Our kitchen saw a flurry of cosmetic changes when we moved in: paint on the walls, paint on the upper cabinets and contact paper on the lower cabinets (only as a temporary fix). I hung a floating buffet – the 2010s blogger term is “fauxdenza”, thank you very much – and it became a catch-all for mail, keys, sunscreen, wine bottles. The usual.

Neither of us were fans of the existing vinyl flooring. It was flimsy, drafty and it felt just a little too budget. My to-do list is a long one, but the time was right for this job.

California Eichler home remodelled by Klopf Architecture
California Eichler renovation by Knopf Architecture

Kitchen tile inspiration 

Like most Australian kitchens, our kitchen is the true foyer of the house. Muddy bootprints are not uncommon. (Hands up: do any of you house-dwellers actually use your front door?) The kitchen is a hard-working room, and so it needed a big cold beer for a hard-earned thirst durable flooring. 

As you guys know, I’m a mid-century modern tragic, and I’ve let that inform my aesthetic decisions about this post-war house. I like the honesty of the natural materials that are characteristic of the era: slate tile, stone columns, double-wall brick, exposed ceiling beams, Tasmanian oak floors. However, those “modest” materials of the 1940s and 1950s now command a premium price as newer materials and production methods have come into favour:

  • Pre-fab panels (fibro, concrete, brick veneer, aluminum) make construction projects faster.
  • Known hazards like lead paint and asbestos are now phased out.
  • Environmental sustainability is a greater factor. Old-growth timber is no longer available like it was in the 20th century.

My point is: times change, and the budget that could have bought slate tiles in the 1950s is buying slate-look ceramic tiles in the 2010s. Don’t forget that plastic was a common mid-century material, too.

DIY kitchen tile, in progress

Which kitchen tiles, why those tiles, and how many? 

  • We ordered the Sorrento Charcoal Matt tiles from Johnson Tiles, in a nice, non-dinky 400mm (16”) size. A matte/satin finish is more forgiving than high-gloss.
  • I kept the retro vibe by using staggered square tiles, just like in the Californian Eichler remodel. Large rectangular tiles felt too contemporary.
  • Durability, budget, and ease of maintenance were the deciding factors for me. I didn’t want to re-seal tiles regularly, nor did I want to cry ugly tears if any of them broke.
  • The kitchen is approx 13m², but we ordered extra to re-tile the laundry and bathroom floors one day. (Thoughtful design needs consistency.) We also ordered enough extra tile to go underneath the kitchen cabinets, in case we gut them one day. Never say never.

DIY kitchen tile - before | Saltbush Avenue

DIY kitchen tile - demolition progress

DIY kitchen tile: demolition

This wasn’t a cute weekend job. We both took a week off work in order to get it done. Jamie’s dad stopped by to disconnect the oven and to help us move the large appliances, but the rest of it was all on Jamie and me.

What was behind Door #1? The masonite underlay.

DIY kitchen tile - demolition progress

And behind Door #2? More vinyl. This is when I got freaked out about asbestos flooring. Asbestos products are normally brittle and rigid, and if the product remains undisturbed, you won’t release asbestos fibres into the air. This flooring was very flexible, with very little glue (and dust). Was I certain it didn’t contain asbestos? No. Was I minimising risk? Yes. I had heavy bags, a respirator, and a spray bottle.

DIY kitchen tile - demolition progress

Finally, we found mismatching floorboards behind Door #3. This house was extended twice: once in the 1950s, and again in the early 1980s. Not a big surprise that the subfloors don’t match. I think I spent most of Day 1 removing staples.

Tools for the kitchen tile job

DIY kitchen tile: the process

After subtracting all the layers, it was time to start adding new ones.

New layer #1: tile underlay cement sheeting.

Its job is to be water-resistant and immovable, protecting the tile from any movement in the wooden subfloor. We glued the sheets to the subfloor, nailed them in, and sealed the seams with a poly sealant. I had to drill pilot holes in order for the nails to cleanly punch through. With 50+ nails per sheet, this was slow going. 

New layer #2: floor-levelling compound.

One quadrant of this room has a downward slope. Jamie and his dad, who both have structural engineering experience, reckoned that one of the extension sections wasn’t built square. (Jamie also reckons that if the footings had sank with time, they would be settled by now.) We couldn’t un-slope the floor, but we could even out the pitch in places.

New layer #3: tile adhesive, and tiles.

Oh man. This was my first time tiling! Thankfully the internet is filled with tutorials. I was so nervous, but once you get the hang of it, you feel like you could keep going forever. It’s so satisfying to watch the tiles go down after all that prep work. Jamie cut tiles and mixed batches of tile adhesive while I lay them. The only real advice I have is to be prepared. Have all your gear ready to go: tile saw, spirit level, tile spacers, sponges, water buckets, knee pads, trowels, et cetera. Your time is limited when working with wet materials. 

Mixing tile adhesive

Kitchen tiling, in progress

They’re creeping, they’re crawling! 

Preparing to grout tile

The final layer: tile grout and sealers

  • Scrub off any excess tile adhesive. Let dry.
  • Remove tile spacers, scrape out any excess tile adhesive with one of these jobbies, mix grout, add grout. Wipe clean. Let dry.
  • Scrub to remove grout haze. Let dry.
  • Seal the room perimeter with silicone that’s colour-matched to the grout.
  • Apply a water-resistant sealer onto the grout. 

Charcoal grey kitchen tile

Kitchen tile results

With all that mess and stress behind us, how good is this?!

There were many more tricky decisions and fiddly moments that I didn’t write about in this post, or else we’d be here all day. Just admire the photos with me for a moment, please.

Updated, finished tile in the kitchen

DIY kitchen tile | Saltbush Avenue

I love the colour of the tiles and grout. I think they’re perfect for our house, and I look forward to using the same combination in the bathroom and laundry one day. (That dark passageway above is the laundry. It is dark and full of terrors.)

I painted a few baseboards/architraves to match: white baseboards on the white walls, satin black on the long black wall, and satin black in the kick-spaces under the kitchen cabinets. The tile floor itself has stayed in mint condition, but the floor trims are all showing wear from mop/vacuum use. It’s not beautiful, but it’ll do for now while Future Me thinks it over.

Floating buffet on a black wall

One day I’m going to set up a shoe rack by the doorway, but for now they live here. The best system is the one that works, right?

Like with any home improvement job, I zero in on all the other things that look like hot garbage in comparison. I can’t check one thing off the list without thinking of 5 more tasks to replace it. (Insulation, recessed ceiling lights, a skylight, replacement blinds, and eliminating the busted contact paper coverings are all on the list.) But I’m still very pleased with how the kitchen tile floor turned out. 

My kitchen is looking a lot more like the space I’m envisioning.

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