cement tile installation: essential how-to tips & insider insights

by clé tile | published: Feb 16, 2024

we receive a great many questions when it comes to installing cement tile, and ultimately, our advice is this: remember three things.

1. that our cement tile is artisan tile (and thus full of delightful variation which only enhances its beauty) that will wear and patina with use (also delightfully)

2. your cement tile installation is only as good as your installer. (sound familiar?)

3. before choosing cement tiles for your next project, make sure you understand everything you need to know, such as where it can be installed and what you can expect in terms of maintenance.

how to install cement tile

as long as you find the right contactor for your tile project, you can defer to them for the most important decisions, such as tile placement, edging, and grouting. here are the key things your tile installer should keep in mind.

pre-installation preparation

one of the most important aspects of pre-installation is ordering the correct amount of tile from the start. because artisan cement tile is handmade in small batches, color and texture will vary from batch to batch.

our advice: have your contractor measure (twice) and have them tell exactly you how much tile you need, building at least 15% overage into the order (many of the contractors we work with will want more than 20%). this will help you avoid the dreaded add-on order because matching another order of tile to your order will be nearly impossible.

take it from us: the failure to order enough tile ends in tears and tantrums. best to avoid all that by taking due care. 

Top-down shot of checkered blue and red cement tile floor next to a striped blue and grey cement tile floor.

cement squares in metal and barn

Closeup of matte black cement tile floor with a light colored fern on each tile.

erica tanov fern in metal + plaster. Design / photo: erica tanov

surface preparation

not only does a good installation require the right installer, but it will require the right substrate and surface. the substrate is literally the supporting layer beneath your tile that determines the short- and long-term success of the tile installation (and your tile investment). but substrates are complicated. they can flex or warp over time, causing tiles to shift, crack, or loosen. because of this, it’s easy to see that the wrong preparation can not only put your entire installation at risk, but it can be a safety hazard as well.

your contractor is in charge of preparing your space for installation. every install should start with the right substrate and a level, dry surface that is free of paint, adhesive, and debris. emphasis on dry — any moisture underneath your tile will surface over time and damage the tile.

cutting cement tile

any cutting will be done with a water-cooled tile saw. this is a notoriously messy and intricate process best handled by an experienced professional.

tile placement

blending is the careful process of laying out exactly which tile goes where, and it’s an essential step when working with any handmade tile including cement. any professional with experience installing artisan tile will carefully place your tiles — and have you sign off on placement — before installing them. this will take time — but it’s worth it.

cement tile edging and trim

at clé we follow the international model of no trim and highly recommend our clients do the same. here are our recommendations for trim alternatives for cement:

if your project needs to turn a corner either inwardly or outwardly, mitering the tiles to meet seamlessly in a corner gives it the cleanest, crafted finish.

another way to complete your tiling is to run a bead of caulk or grout along the exposed tile edge.

if you have a painted surface next to your tile, you can choose to paint the outer edge of the tile to match the painted surface. our cement paint pairing guide includes paint color suggestions for every cement tile color and finish we offer.

as with any of our tiles, you can also build out the sheetrock so that the surface of the finished sheetrock is flush with the surface of the tile.

for more information on trim, read our blog on trim alternatives.

grouting cement tile

always check the product page for our latest recommendations on the right grout to use, and a 1/16″ grout joint width with the cement collection.

grout color selection is best left to the design professional. however, clé is often asked for our opinion on best grout selections for our tiles. due to the large array of grout colors that are now available, clé would like to offer this general guideline on a foolproof grout color selection for any of your clé tiles.

1. have your professional tile contractor complete your tile installation, except for the grout portion.

2. when ready to grout, ask your contractor to bring all grout color charts from their preferred grout manufacturers, for your review. then, have them create grout boards with your preferred colors. this will give you a better idea of the final looks and help your contractor be sure they aren’t using a color that will stain your tiles.

3. choose a time of day when you are most pleased with the lighting in your space (either natural lighting, installed lighting or a blend of both). during that lighting and time of day, review the grout boards and select the grout color that best matches your tile selection.

for further information check out these grout articles:

how to use grout as a design element in tile installation
the power of grout
why tile grout matters
the art of the grout joint

sealing cement tiles

due to the porous nature of cement, all applications (dry and wet) must be sealed after grouting.

always check the product page for our latest recommendations on the right sealant to use. in addition, have your contractor seal the mockup boards they grouted to ensure they are using the right sealant. for most installations, their impregnator pro sealant is preferred. please contact the sealant vendor directly if you are looking for other options.

if you are using a colored grout or stain, use this product as a grout release to avoid staining and quicken cleanup. Your contractor should also use a grout release when working with heavily patterned tile.

grout lines and the tile surface must be sealed as the final step of installation.

exterior walls require vertical weather flashing and a waterproof, penetrating sealer.

exterior floors must be installed above grade with waterproof, penetrating sealer.

looking for more shine?

we do not recommend using a gloss sealer to add more sheen to a cement tile finish. instead, you can wait for your cement tiles to take on a soft gloss with time, or have a professional finisher polish your tiles. for any further questions, please refer to our cement resources.

maintenance and care

cement floors develop a natural patina as they naturally wear over time. in terms of everyday maintenance, immediately cleaning up liquids such as acid or oil is key. a mild, ph-neutral soap should be sufficient for most situations — just be sure to start with a spot test.

cement tile needs to be sealed regularly, whether installed in wet or dry areas. if used in the shower or areas with heavy traffic (bath and kitchen floors or commercial floors) the tile will need to be resealed once or twice a year. if used in a dry area, the tile can be resealed every one to two years.

cement tile installation tips

we’ll say it again: be sure to hire someone who has experience with handcrafted cement tiles — and lots of it! again, your process should like something like the following:

1. order the right amount of tile to prevent add-on orders.

2. unpack all tiles when they arrive and lay them out for inspection.

3. blend all tiles before having them installed.

4. create mockup boards to gauge the right setting materials, grout, and sealants.

5. place mockup boards in the installation space so you can weigh your options with the correct lighting.

additionally, here are some of the most important things to keep in mind for a high quality installation.

planning the tile layout & utilizing dry layouts to preview the design

every batch of cement tile will have slight variations in tone and saturation, not to mention shape and texture. that means it’s crucial to plan the tile layout before installation. (enter: the art of the blend.) make sure your contractor utilizes dry layouts — and that you are present when they are mapping out the tile — so you end up with a balanced, harmonious look.

ideal conditions for cement tile installation

keep in mind that cement tile should not be installed in exterior locations that will be exposed to frost or freezing temperatures.

wherever you do choose to install your tile, a good contractor will prepare the space properly so you end up with a beautiful, long-lasting installation.

choosing the right adhesive

the adhesive you use will impact the longevity of your installation, so this decision is best left to a professional. factors for choosing the right adhesive include where you are installing it and whether there will be moisture or heat.

frequently asked questions about installing cement tile

we often get questions about where you can install cement tiles, and the short answer is: almost anywhere! there are a few exceptions to keep in mind, depending on where you would like to install them.

are cement tiles suitable for outdoor installation?

cement tile can be installed virtually everywhere, including outdoor patios and verandas. there are, however, a few caveats. for instance, cement tile can only be installed externally in non-freeze/thaw locations, and when installing it near a hot surface such as a pizza oven, there must be at least a 6″ space between the tile and hot surface. also note that in sun-exposed areas, all tile colors will fade over time.

Closeup of a black and white checkered cement tile wall, next to a wooden surface with dried flowers.

cement square in checkmate. design: ruth sleightholme + gabby deeming / photo: yuki sugiura for house & garden uk

Sunlit bathroom with white walls, a red hexagon cement tile floor, a stone vanity, and a sunny window.

cement hex in red clay. design: timothy balon / photo: mariko reed

can cement tiles be installed on both floors and walls?

yes, absolutely. cement tile can be used on almost any surface, in large and small areas. kitchen floors, exterior floors and walls, sink backsplashes, and fireplace surrounds are all common installation areas. you could even install cement tile on the ceiling.

can cement tiles be installed in wet or high-moisture areas, like laundry rooms, kitchens and bathrooms?

cement tile is a popular option for high-moisture and wet areas, including bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms. if installing tile on a shower floor, keep in mind that your shower will still need a shower pan, which provides a waterproof surface to lay the tile on. always work with a contractor who understands how to do install this while creating the proper drain slope, or else you see drainage issues down the road. this is important for any type of shower floor tile but especially cement.

for wet and high-moisture areas, tiles sealed during installation and maintained regularly will last for many years.

can cement tiles be installed over existing tile or hardwood flooring?

while existing flooring in good condition can sometimes serve as a subfloor for a new layer of tile, we never recommend this practice. the bond between your adhesive and your tile is one of the most important factors in ensuring your tile floor will last for years to come, and therefore a fresh installation is best.

can cement tiles be refinished?

of course. the beauty of any unglazed tile, including cement, is that it can be refinished by a professional refinisher to bring it back to a like-new finish.

diy vs. hiring a pro for cement tile installation

one of the most common misconceptions about cement tile is that it can be a diy job. installing cement tile, especially the handmade, small-batch artisan options we offer, is a highly specialized skill best handled by a seasoned professional who has worked with the material before. the right contractor will understand the unique nuances of cement and take the necessary steps for proper installation, including blending, sealing, and ordering the correct amount of tile from the get-go.

interested in installing cement tile in your home? take a look at our many, many handmade cement tile options.

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