how to choose a tile contractor/installer
by clé tile | published: Aug 22, 2023
longtime friends and clients have heard us wax on (and on and on) about the importance of doing your homework on your tile options, the art of blending, and choosing the right grout joint. and while these are indeed key factors to a successful installation, when you take a step back, it really all comes down to what’s possibly our most commonly repeated phrase: “your tile installation is” — say it with us — “only as good as your installer.” it’s as simple as that.
but getting there? it’s not so simple.
time and time again, we find clients entrusting their clé tile to veteran installers, which makes perfect sense at first thought. however, if your installer — veteran or not — doesn't have intimate knowledge of artisan and handmade tile like ours, you’re taking a big risk. setting variegated, “imperfect” tile is a skill that no amount of experience can compensate for if they’ve only worked with mass-produced (i.e. uniformly cookie-cutter) tile. it’s akin to asking a framer to tackle cabinet making: it requires much more bespoke craftsmanship and practiced finesse — and the outcome is rarely good.
but we get it — depending on where you live, it’s not always possible to find installers who’ve worked with artisan tile before, much less installers who’ve worked specifically with clé tile. let us save you from learning the hard way.
we’ll walk you through the steps you can take to find the right tile contractor or installer for your project, from our expert point of view.
the right kind of experience
any seasoned installer will have a solid understanding of most tile matters, but here’s the thing: all tiles are not created equal. someone who’s accustomed to working with the sameness of perfect right angles and zero color variation will be perplexed (at best) by the radical un-sameness of clé tile… and this can lead to installers pushing back on these imperfections out of fear of being blamed for an incorrect install. a fearful installer is never a good place to start. so here’s what you can do before committing to the wrong person:
1. review their past projects
while a skilled installer will always have some form of artisan tile experience — and the ideal clé installer will have both zellige and cement tile experience, since those have their own special quirks other tile doesn’t — there are other qualities that separate a good installer from the rest. ask to see examples of their past work, and request references and testimonials from their former clients to get a sense of their attention to detail, their patience, and level of expertise.
2. a mock-up board is worth a thousand installations
another imperative for a good installation: realistic mock-up boards. they’ll help you filter out good — or less-than-cooperative — installers. a good installer will not only offer but insist on making mock-up boards with each tile on a project for the client to review for grout joint and color selection. these boards can then be placed in each project's area to ensure lighting and general ambience work well with the tiles and grout colors. speaking of which…
3. make sure they know their grout
grout is perhaps the least exciting thing about tile, and yet it’s one of the biggest points of failure. the wrong color can ruin an installation, and a grout joint that’s too wide or too narrow can throw everything off. but guess what? that shouldn’t be on you — it’s on your installer and you will know all you need to know about your grout once they’ve presented you with those MOCK-UP boards!
you’ll know your contractor is right for your project if they understand which grout selections best suit your specific tile — and your design vision — and create several mock-ups before you make your selection.
and if they’re not quite sure? they’ll ask their grout manufacturer for foolproof instructions and again create mock-up boards for review first.
4 familiarize yourself with the installation process
bad news for impatient types: tile installation can be a days-long process (this stellar project, for example, took five days) — and it can only be scheduled after all tiles are received and mock-up boards are approved. to make it as painless as possible, be prepared to ask your tile contractor to take these necessary steps for tile triumph.
measure your space: your contractor, and no one else, should be responsible for taking measurements of your project space. even a quarter of an inch can throw everything off.*
review our material guidelines: so you think you know clé tile — but do you really? once you home in on the look you want, you’ll need to factor in how it’ll hold up in your environment to meet your expectations. we have a guide for nearly everything you can think of, and if after that you still have a question — just ask.
create sample boards: see above under points 1 and 2 and let us say under no uncertain terms: no mock-up boards? no hire.
advise on grout: in addition to having grout recommendations depending on whether your project is for indoor or outdoor use, for wet or dry use and so on, your installer should understand your vision — and help you find the right grout color and grout joint for your design.
understand when and how to seal the tile: a trustworthy expert will understand the nuances of your tile’s material, and how best to treat it for extra longevity. our tile is many things, but it is not low-maintenance — and the right professional will know what to do.
zio & sons zellige in sea salt octagon + charred cedar bouchon
zio & sons zellige in sea salt octagon + weathered white bouchon
5. order the right amount of tile
selecting the right kind of tile for your space is one thing — ordering enough is another. in tile language, “enough” translates to “more than you think you need” — 15-20% more, to be clear — and this is to cover any contingencies such as breakage. in fact, the three worst words to encounter in a tile installation are "add-on order,” which often happens when the contractor doesn’t measure properly and has to order more tile. (give that article a good read, as this is easily the costliest of all tile failures we see.) if the tile you want is too expensive for you to purchase the required amount of overage, you’ll need to select another one you can afford — it really is that important.
6. take every tile out of the box and blend
a non-negotiable, hands down. installing tile straight out of the box will lead to regret (and lots of wasted time and money). blending is a painstaking process, but is worth every minute. see we recommend tackling it here.
7. recognize some pink flags
not all of the qualities below are deal breakers, but they should be enough to make you reconsider.
- your installer has never installed clé or artisan tiles before
- they aren't offering to make mock-up boards for you to review tile color, grout color, and grout size
- they don’t insist on adding at least 15-20% for breakage, cuts, or other contingencies
- they aren't unboxing all tiles and laying out the full selection of tiles for your approval on the proper blend
do your part
sure, the installer’s going to be doing the heavy lifting, but it’s important you take an active role to ensure the installation is everything you envisioned.
first, do your homework. review the “read before you buy” section on every one of our product pages, read the product specifications for your tile of choice, study the materials guidelines, and learn the ins and outs of proper maintenance.
next, ask lots of questions, as early on as possible. go to your contractor for installation-related questions, and for expert product advice you can email us at email@example.com.
lastly, and perhaps most importantly, be engaged: approve the mock-ups, oversee the blending process, be present at the installation. this is not the time to take a break from your construction — this is one of the most important times to be on site to oversee the placement of each and every tile! you've selected clé because you want a work of art. it won't become your masterpiece without you.