How to Install a Tile ‘Rug’ within Existing Flooring

By Brent Fisher

Classic homes were not always crafted with all practicalities of modern ones. Hardwood floors were often used extensively and not always in areas ideal for the application. Take the front entrance, where people are constantly coming and going with wet or dirty shoes.

Although hardwood floors have a topcoat finish, they are not impermeable to standing water, scratches and inevitable breakdown over time.

So, what’s the solution?

Incorporate porcelain tile into existing hardwood to withstand the abuse of front door traffic. In other words, create a tile ‘rug.’

A tile rug is a set portion of tiles that are still a cohesive part of the floor. The first steps in creating this decorative yet durable flooring addition are to conceptualize a design and then select a complementary tile product. The key is not to replicate the existing hardwood surface; rather, look for a contrasting tile. Trying to match a tile to the character of the wood will make the installation look ‘patched in’ and won’t deliver the desired outcome.

Tile rugs can be made in all shapes and sizes but when installing within an existing hardwood floor, one with ‘feathered’ out edges makes for an easier and more interesting installation. The idea here is to randomize the tile pattern to produce the effect of a throw rug with tattered edges. This is accomplished by choosing a tile with a desirable shape like a hexagon that can be installed in a modular pattern.

The retrofit begins with dry-laying the tile onto the hardwood surface. It’s akin to putting a puzzle together but with larger pieces. Move the tiles around to determine the desired design effect. Use tile spacers to add a grout joint to the dry lay.

Once the layout is determined, use adhesive tabs to stick the tile to the hardwood. This will ensure the tile doesn’t shift. Trace the perimeter of each tile with a permanent marker that has a wide-edged tip to create a thick enough line to achieve the necessary grout joint. Upon completion, remove the dry-laid pieces.

Cutting the ‘rug’ perimeter line requires the utmost precision and is crucial for the tile installation. It’s necessary to use the right plunge cut saw and a good blade on an oscillating tool to trim away the corners. And don’t forget a steady hand. Once the perimeter line is cut, the hardwood can be carefully pulled away from the floor to leave the opening for the tile. Remember to remove the marker line in its entirety once cutting is complete.

Most often, hardwood is thicker than tile so the depth of the space will be greater than what is needed. The subfloor may also necessitate some TLC prior to installation, as it is important to have a solid substrate for tile adherence. Applying a roll-on crack isolation membrane to the substrate adds a layer of protection and peace of mind. Let it cure for a minimum of two hours or per manufacturer recommendations. Beyond this, a standard tile thinset mortar is adequate to build up any remaining elevation variances.

Spend some time making sure the hardwood line is cut nice and linear, ready to accept the factory straight edges of the tile. This is the best way to marry two products seamlessly without the use of a tile edge product, adding to the natural effect.

The tile installation will be facilitated utilizing the thinset mortar used for the mortar bed. Follow typical tile setting procedures. This includes back-buttering the tile. Work with the same dimension spacers that were employed for the dry lay to establish the grout joints.

The tile work will be cured for grouting after 24 hours. Once grouting is complete, be sure to wipe away any residue with care. The final result is a creative tile insert that is not only a long-lasting and appropriate surface for the entryway but also one that enhances its overall look.

Brent Fisher is general manager of Flesher Marble & Tile 1910 Ltd. in Calgary.

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