Ceramic Tile Saw
DEAR TIM: I am going to try to install ceramic tile in several bathrooms. I have to do wall tile and floor tile. Since I have never installed tile before, I was wondering how in the world to make the circular cuts for the pipes and toilet flange. I also am confused about making cuts where the resulting tile will look like the letter L. I know how to score tile, and snap it using a simple tile-cutter tool. Someone told me I need a ceramic-tile saw. How do these work, and is there an alternative method? What happens if I decide to use some marble and granite on my jobs? Cindy H., Key West, FL
DEAR CINDY: The first piece of advice I can offer is to start in the smallest and least-complicated bathroom first. You are a rookie tile setter, and in the trade you might even be called a grasshopper. You need to get up to speed quickly, because tile work requires significant skill and precision.
Often you deal in tolerances as small as one-sixteenth inch. When it comes to professional tile setting, the margin for error decreases as the contrast between the color of the tile and the grout increases. Mistakes made in measuring and cutting tile stick out like a sore thumb if grout lines vary in size.
There are any number of ways to make circular cuts in ceramic tile. But the method of cutting is dependent upon the type of tile you are using. Not all ceramic tiles have the same hardness. Common ceramic tile is made from a very pure clay, and it has a thin glaze that is transformed into glass when the tile is fired in the kiln. These are the easiest tiles to cut and shape, as the clay is fairly easy to chip, saw and grind.
But some ceramic tiles, like the popular glass tile and porcelain tile, are extremely hard. The molecular structure of these tiles is very different from standard clay tile. You will need a ceramic-tile saw that has a wet blade to make all of your cuts. Granite and marble fall into this category as well. Virtually every cut on granite and marble must be made with a diamond wet saw. These saws cut tile, granite and marble exactly like a table saw cuts wood. The difference is the ceramic-tile saw blade has diamonds in it, and water is used to cool the blade so the diamonds last longer.
I will assume for the moment that your job will require standard ceramic tile made from clay. You can make every cut, no matter what the shape, using hand tools. This will save you money, but you may invest lots of time and muscle power. I would consider renting a ceramic-tile saw at a tool-rental store if you have lots of cuts. Also, most snap-type tile cutters have a limit to the smallest piece they can cut without shattering the tile. I have found that the smallest piece I can cut with consistency is only five-eighths inch wide. Pieces that are narrower than this must be cut with a ceramic-tile saw.
The hand tools you need are a carbide-tipped masonry drill bit that is one-quarter inch in diameter, a carbide-rod saw and a carbide hacksaw blade. The rod-saw blade fits into a hacksaw frame, and looks like a long pipe cleaner. This blade can follow any curved line you draw. The stiffer carbide hacksaw blade has carbide particles, instead of teeth, at the edge of the blade instead of teeth. Only one leg of the L must be cut with the carbide saw blade. You can use this blade to make only the longer straight cut in an L-shaped piece of tile. After this, you can use your snap cutter to make the shorter straight cut.
A ceramic-tile saw with a diamond blade can also be used to make some circular cuts in tile, marble or granite. In certain situations, you may discover the resulting circle cuts across three or maybe four different tiles. This means that a piece of tile shaped like a slice of pizza must be removed from each separate tile.
In these instances, you make parallel cuts with the diamond wet saw into the tile. The blade should approach the curved line as close as possible at a 90-degree angle. Space the cut lines at three-eighths inch apart. Once all cuts are made, you can use a ceramic-tile nipping tool to bite off these small slivers of tile that are to be removed. As you approach the final cut line, take smaller bites of tile with the nipping tool. You will discover the nipper does a great job of biting off small pieces of the tile.
Smaller holes that are 2-inches or less in diameter can be cut with diamond hole saws. These are very expensive tools, and it might make more sense to have the holes cut by a local marble or granite company that fabricates granite and marble countertops each day. They have all of the necessary tools and experience to make perfect holes.
Larger holes for single-lever faucets may have to be created with a 4-inch grinder outfitted with a special diamond blade. If the tool is set at an angle, it can sometimes be used to make a roughly circular cut. I highly recommend that you leave this task to a professional, as it is easy to ruin a piece of tile or granite while trying to control the aggressive grinder.