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Depending on the size of your tiles, you can usually fill the area between a countertop and wall cabinets with two or three vertical rows. Because tiles create a gridlike pattern, they look best when the completed installation is symmetrical, plumb and level from side-to-side and top-to-bottom.
To ensure a level horizontal layout, stand a tile on the countertop and mark the wall at the top of the tile, then use a level to extend this mark as a reference line around the entire area to be tiled. If the countertop isn't level, place this tile at the lowest spot and mark a level line as your starting point. Each tile installed outward from this point may have to be cut (from the bottom) to line up with the reference mark. Tiles installed above this line won’t require cutting unless you are tiling all the way up to the cabinets; if so, you can opt to end the tiles below the cabinets and leave a gap, or cut the top row of tiles as needed (from the top) to fill this gap.
To ensure a symmetrical layout from end-to-end, locate and mark the center point of each area to be tiled. Do a "dry run," lining up the edge of one tile with the center mark and then place tiles side by side to determine how many pieces will be needed and what size (width) the end pieces will be. Don’t forget to include spacers between each tile. If the end pieces will be very small, repeat the dry run, centering the first tile on the center mark. This allows you to cut larger and more attractive corner pieces. If one side of your tile work will have exposed edges, use whole tiles near this edge and cut only the tiles that end at the wall.
When you’re ready to begin tiling, use a notched trowel to apply adhesive mastic to the wall, starting at the center mark and working up to the horizontal reference line and across the area to be tiled. Spread only as much adhesive as you can tile in 10 minutes. Hold the trowel at a 45-degree angle when spreading mastic. The trowel's notches ensure even distribution of the adhesive (Image 1).
Beginning at the center mark, set the tiles firmly in place in a straight row, placing spacers between each tile. If corner pieces must be cut to fit, do not set them in place just yet.
Trim tiles as necessary to accommodate electrical outlets. Measure the position of the outlet and transfer the measurement to the tile. Use a wet saw or angle grinder with a diamond-grit blade to cut out openings for fixtures. Wet saws may be rented and are indispensable for making square, smooth cuts in any type of tile, and especially in hard-to-cut stone tiles (Image 2).
After the first row of tiles is complete, begin the second. Work upward one row at a time. Spacers are especially important between horizontal rows to maintain an even grout space between the tiles. Periodically check your work to make sure the rows are level.
Measure and cut corner tiles to size and set them in place with the cut edges facing into the corners.
After the tile adhesive has set (typically within hours or overnight, but check the manufacturer’s recommendations), begin applying grout. Unsanded grout is usually specified for wall installations, tiles with narrow grout lines and glazed tiles. Grout comes in a wide variety of colors. Choose a contrasting color for a more dramatic effect, or one that matches the tile for a seamless, monochromatic look.
Mix the grout to the consistency of peanut butter, using a mixing attachment on a variable-speed drill set at low speed.
Natural tiles like stone and terra cotta often absorb moisture quickly, so wet them before applying grout to prevent them from soaking up moisture from the grout or causing the sticky grout to adhere to their faces.
Apply the grout with a rubber grout float, “squeezing” the grout into the narrow spaces and filling all of the joints completely. If the grout spaces are wide, work on each line individually to ensure adequate coverage (Image 1).
Allow the grout to set for about 10 minutes, then wipe off the excess using a large, small-pore synthetic sponge. Dampen the sponge slightly (it should not be wet) and wipe at a 45-degree angle across the grout lines to avoid removing too much grout (Image 2).
After the grout has dried, wipe a stone sealant onto the tiles and allow it to dry.
Replace the receptacles in the wall. You'll need longer attachment screws to compensate for the thickness of the tiles.