I know, I know. You’re going to say I deserved this. Remember a few weeks ago when I rather smugly wrote about my kitchen makeover? How, I crowed, thanks to my careful planning and coordination, the entire project took only three days, except for the backsplash. Remember that?
Well, now I’m wearing the hair shirt. True, all was going swimmingly. The new counters, the new cabinet hardware, the new sink and faucet, all went in without a hitch. I was waiting, however, until the counters were installed to choose new backsplash tile, because I wanted to see the tile against the new quartzite counters in my light. After the counters were in, I dragged home 10 samples from two tile stores. These are heavy. If you ever want to sink a dead body in a lake, use tile samples. I picked one and waited a week for the order to arrive.
When it did, I called my jack-of-all-trades handyman Richard Swann. I have not found any job around the house he can’t do. The only problem with Richard is there is only one of him. When I told him I was ready to have him install the backsplash, he said he would send his tile guy, whom we’ll call Joey.
Joey arrived the next morning at 8:30, sporting a neck tattoo, a braided beard, and gauges in his ears large enough to put my fingers through. I tried not to stare, but he had so much not to stare at. He got right to work. He zipped along installing the warm white, 2 x 8-inch tiles in a horizontal subway style, with staggered joints, straight across, nothing fancy. After the tile was up, he swiped on the grout, wiped up and was out the door by 5:30 p.m. When it got dark, I turned on the lights. That’s when I noticed the tile edges poking up at angles, and lines that looked like waves. I told myself I was just being too critical, which I am often accused of. Then my husband came home and said, “Are the tiles supposed to be crooked like that?”
I shake my head. “We probably need to have the installer back,” I say.
“Either him or an orthodontist,” he says.
I text a picture of the uneven backsplash to Richard, and say, “Seems like the tile should lie flat, shouldn’t it?”
“Yes, it should,” his replies. “We will fix.”
Here’s my philosophy: Every business makes mistakes now and then. Take Southwest. What counts is not that they mess up, but how they fix it.
To confirm this wasn’t just me, I text the photos to my salesperson at the tile store, whose husband is also an installer. They’ve seen a lot of backsplashes. “Unfortunately,” she texts back, “it looks like he didn’t check with a level to see if the wall was flat. The only way to fix this is to take the tile down and start over.”
I call Richard. He calls Joey, thankfully when I wasn’t around. Joey comes back the next day and takes down the rock-and-roll tile. A few days later, Richard returns. While he’s busy apologizing for the inconvenience, I’m apologizing for his having to do the job over.
“I tell my tilers,” he says, “their number one job is to install the tile straight, square and flat.”
He made no excuses. He leveled the wall, installed a backer board level and true, scraped the thin set off the tiles, so we could reuse them, and reset the tile using a laser beam to keep the joints perfectly square. Thirty-six hours later he applied the grout.
After 30 years of installing tile, Richard has this advice to offer those who want their jobs to look exactly right:
· Get a good installer. The best tile looks only as good as its installation. Consider getting a referral from a specialty tile store or from another tradesperson.
· Assess before you start. Proper prep separates the amateur from the pro. Before setting the first tile, a pro makes sure the surface is ready and any blemishes are fixed before tile goes up and amplifies the problems.
· Start with a flat surface. Use a level to make sure your substrate, whether a wall or floor, is even. If it’s not, flatten out the humps and fill in the lows.
· Be square. The most common mistake Richard sees is tile that is not laid square. Laser levels emit beams of light on walls and floors that help you keep tile lines perfectly straight.
· Know how to cheat. Very few walls or floors have perfect right angles, so tile that is set straight can still look slanted. You need to anticipate where the flaws are and make subtle adjustments to trick the eye.
· Don’t rush. Generally, it is not a good idea to install tile and grout on the same day. Give tile a day or more to set.
· Work small. Today’s grouts dry fast. To make sure grout goes where you want it (between the joints) and not where you don’t (on the surface of the tile), apply wet grout firmly using a float. Press it into joints, then wipe it off the surface with a clean, only slightly damp sponge before it hardens.
· Act fast. If you do see a mistake once tile is in, remove it quickly.
CAPTION: Kitchen refresh ─ A cream-colored, glossy, subway-tile backsplash replaced the tan tumbled marble tiles in this 20-year-old kitchen. That along with new counters, a new cooktop and range hood, and updated cabinet hardware helped modernize a kitchen that had outlived its prime. Photos courtesy of Marni Jameson.