Penny Tile Installation
This is a story about a real-life installation of Penny Tile. I am not a professional, and have installed ceramic tiles previously in my bathrooms and on kitchen backsplashes. The key is to make penny tiles look good. You absolutely want to avoid bad penny tile installations, but you also want to do it yourself. Penny tile is relatively easy to install, cut and grout – but you have to pay attention to the little details to avoid a bad installation. It is definitely a do it yourself project if it is not too large, and if you are patient! Here is the story:
Real Life Renovation
In those reno shows that I’m so addicted to on HGTV, they rip everything out, send the family to Disneyland and do everything over the right way. Unfortunately none of us have been whisked off to Disneyland during this pandemic, and anyway that’s not real life for all of us – is it? In our old house we have to get things done while working with a mostly full house.
Our large family members come and go, step on the floors, need to use ALL the bathrooms, and generally lie around in whatever room we are currently working on. This is reality, not a reality HGTV show.
We have been busy over the past few months with a few projects in our 130 year old house – we have now moved on to fixing the upstairs – but in the meantime we finished up the downstairs powder room (mostly). I have procrastinated about posting this project, but it’s been done for a while now!
Unplanned Powder Room Renovation
Our downstairs powder room was not originally on our to do list, until late one night last winter when a pipe froze. We knocked holes in the wall sometime in the middle of the night to find the pipes and found a mysterious space behind the walls and thought about tearing the whole room down.
Later on we decided against reclaiming an extra one foot of space, and just patched things up. The potential extra space could maybe have held an extra very tiny shower, but we didn’t really want one on our main floor anyway. We did knock down a 2 inch jut-out wall which was covered with modern ledgestone, because it just looked odd and didn’t fit with the age of our house – oh and it had big holes in it from our pipe excavation night!
So we had sheet vinyl tile to pull up, from the powder room floor, and we also had pulled up hardwood which was buckling in an area at the adjoining side door. We wanted to put in a ceramic tile of some sort to hold up to the snow that gets tracked indoors in the small side entranceway, and carry the same tile into the powder room.
So this post is just about the penny tiles!
Why Use Penny Tile?
We had four reasons to choose penny tile:
- It suited a century home from of our home’s style, and the local architecture.
- I can put it down in sections
- I don’t need an electric tile cutter
- The tile had a thin profile
- It is relatively waterproof and durable
A little more about each of these points:
1. Penny Tiles are Historically Appropriate for our Century Home
We thought about and researched what would be appropriate 130 years ago, and honestly it was likely painted floorboards in our area, but if we were going ceramic, the only thing that was used locally was penny tile or small hexagon tiles. Penny and hexagon tiles appeared in many kitchens and bathrooms in the early 1900s. Penny tiles are essentially round tiles about the size of a penny, but they are not pennies!
We thought about doing a mosaic pattern of some sort, but just went with simple white penny tiles, as it is a very small area.
2. I can lay penny tile in sections.
(For example, I replaced the toilet one day when no one was home but put down the penny tile immediately around the toilet flange, so that by the time the boys returned from fishing, there would be a working toilet and floor underneath). During the first part of this pandemic, we were blessed to have 4 young adult children home from the now closed Universities, but couldn’t do without this powder room and entranceway for a day! As I didn’t want people to step on my newly mortared tiles for 3 days to allow them to properly dry – I tiled in phases so that there was always a walking path in this small area.
This is just not the right way to do a floor in the HGTV world, but in a tight space with lots of people isolating – they all followed “don’t step there” instructions pretty well.
Penny tile comes in sections on a mesh backing. They are relatively easy to handle and lay over a thin layer of mortar.
3. I didn’t need to pull out the electric tile cutters.
(How to cut penny tiles)
I do have a small electric tile cutter, and a few manual tile cutting tools for 12 and 18 inch ceramic tiles. I didn’t need to use these. The sheets of penny tiles can be resized by cutting individual rows or sections of penny tiles from the mesh with scissors, or by pulling off individual tiles by hand. This is easy. To cut individual penny tiles – you use hand nippers.
I planned the layout of the tile to minimize cutting and used nippers to clip a few tiles – the rest of the edges fit under the molding. With hand nippers, you take individual penny tiles, and snip them. I practised this with a few, and eventually got quite good at it – I created a collection of tile pieces to use along my edges, and under the side door.
Laying penny tiles perhaps takes more patience and planning, but not having to bring out the big tools makes it a great do-it-herself project.
4. The tile had a thin profile.
The penny tile sheets had about a 5mm thickness, which was similar to the difference between the family room hardwood and the plywood surface the tile would be laid on. We didn’t want something thick that would rise above the other floor and require a join.
5. Penny Tile is relatively waterproof and durable
We wanted a waterproof, durable surface for our small side door entryway and the adjoining bathroom. We chose a white grout that we were assured never needs sealing and won’t stain. I can say though that there is a bit of darkening of the grout in the high traffic areas – but not too bad. (One year later, for a small heavy traffic area – the grout is a little bit grey but I clean occasionally with a gel bleach and a magic eraser.)
I do find that the texture of the tiles (so far) has kept me from slipping a few times on the way in the door from the snow, so I am happy with our choice for the surface.
How to Lay Penny Tile
The keys to installing penny tile are planning and patience. As I said before, penny tile comes in sheets with a mesh backing. I laid out the tile, and moved it around to position it so that there would be minimal cutting. I cut the sheets’ mesh backing with my kitchen scissors. I also had to deal with a bathroom floor that was 5/8ths of an inch higher than the entranceway floor, so I needed to plan how the floors would join. I ended up using a piece of 5/8″ would spleening as an edge – painted white, and sealed with grout and flexible white caulking.
As I laid each sheet in the mortar, I made sure that I didn’t let too much mortar smooch through the tile. It’s really important to have a good thin layer of mortar, but not too much so that the mortar comes up over the tile – as it’s hard to remove later.
I also stood back after each sheet was laid and looked (for ages and from all possible angles) to make sure that no odd patterns were emerging. You also want to make sure that obvious seams between the mesh sheets of tiles aren’t visible. That’s the thing about penny tile – it can look great as you are laying it and perfectly lined up – but then if you look at it from across the room, you may see odd slants and patterns or seams that you didn’t even know were there. So do small sections at a time, stand back and take a look, adjust and be patient.
Before we started the tiling, my husband and son removed the pedestal sink so that we could tile underneath. It needed to be moved anyway as it sat a few inches away from the wall it was plumbed into. We did have some angst and drama because we have a house rule during this pandemic that everyone has to wash their hands when they step in the door – but where did the sink go?
We also needed to ensure that we had a flat and smooth floor to tile over. We were lucky to have nice clean plywood to tile on – but had to screw down or remove any nails that were sticking up!
Once all of the tile was laid and had set for a few days, I mixed up the grout in small quantities and grouted a few square feet at a time. With this as well I had to be patient – putting down just enough grout to fill in between the tiles, and then sponging off the excess.
After the grout has partially dried – but not too long (follow the instructions on the grout package), use a damp sponge to remove all of the extra grout. Revisit the grout and fill in any air bubbles.
We had a few more things to wrap up before the powder room was complete., but the penny tile project was definitely do-able with some patience and planning but without too much expertise, and no fancy tools.