Scott Hanselman

How Geeks become Do-It-Yourselfers and Tile their Kitchen

September 30, 2006 Comment on this post [24] Posted in Musings
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Josh and Scott Baby PicturesPerhaps you'll see yourself, Dear Reader, in this story.

My family is Handy. Well, let me qualify that. The {set of all people in my family who are not me is Handy}. That's "Handy" with a Capital-H.

My dad, was a Firefighter for thirty years, and my brother

(pictured in a headlock and covered in baking soda at right. He's the short one. Of course, now he's a Triathalon-running-biking-swimming 6'2" ninja, but at the time of this picture I could beat his *ss. Didn't last long, needless to say.)

is also a Firefighter. They are both handy. Josh and his wife also run Starry Nights Stables filled with all sorts of Handy things that they build themselves like horse runs from scratch. 

I, on the other hand, hire a guy to mow my lawn. You get the idea.

Seemed like I'd be the non-Handy Hanselman and I'd resigned myself to the situation. Recently we decided to remodel our kitchen. We'd had a bunch of tiles just fall completely off the counter, messed up cabinets, scratched walls, yada yada yada. Seemed time to do something about it.

We tend to research things a lot before we take action so we started at the library. We got books on tile, on counters, on painting, etc. We went to Lowe's and The Home Despot. I had little confidence in my ability to make this happen, but Josh and Dad said they'd be happy to help. They came up a few weekends (they live 90 minutes away) and helped tear out the old counter and level the cabinets for the new one.

When it came time to decide about the "backsplash" - the tile that's up against the wall, connected to the counter in case there's any confusion ;) - I figured I'd hire a guy. Josh and Dad had really worked hard but I didn't want them to keep driving up to help. Both assured me that I helped them in substantive ways, but for some reason occasionally running Windows Update or installing SpyBot didn't seem to be a fair exchange for tearing up a kitchen. (Yes, I know they are family and family helps folks without the need for payback, but you're missing the point. You have no focus!)

Mo said that if we did the tile ourselves that there'd be a Sense of Accomplishment.™ I figured that we could buy a Sense of Accomplishment™ while sitting on the couch. But, her wisdom prevailed and I declared that I'd be doing the tile myself. We smiled with a feeling of pending accomplishment. This will go well, right? 

Aside: Once three years ago I tried to change out the Water Filter on the Refrigerator and hooked it up backwards. The resulting explosion of carbon dust from the filter is currently hovering over Fiji moving in a South-South-Westerly direction.

Realizing that I am in fact, not Handy, I decided that I'd need to supplement my skills with Tools. This, Dear Reader, is how the Geek becomes a Do-It-Yourselfer. One word people - lasers. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Here's how Geeks do Tile.

  • CIMG5816Go to a Tile store and borrow their board of Tile. This is a big wood board covered in Tile.
  • Scan said Tile board. Scan it into PhotoShop. Create a 1:1 scale model of the Tile design and print it out on your Inkjet printer.
    • There's nothing like fake inkjet tile taped to your kitchen wall to give you a clear idea of what the final design is going to look like.
    • Aside: "Random" is hard. I ended up coming up with a pattern for this tile that would look random for a moment, then looked like a pattern later without falling into a checkerboard or moire thing. It also made efficient use of the colors of tile we had. But making it look Random was tricky.
  • Measure like ten times. Seriously. We were using 2" tile that turned out to be actually 1 7/8" so a little thought had to go into it.
  • I estimated I'd need 386 tiles. Apparently they don't sell 2" tiles all onesy-twosy like that, so don't go to a Tile Store and declare "I require 386 two-inch tiles."
  • We ended up buying 12" squares with 36 tiles each and had a few left over.
  • When the tiles show up, lay it ALL out exactly as it should be. Sticking tiles on the wall isn't the time to decide how it ought to look.
  • Get a freakin' laser. Chalk lines? Pencils? For Handy People, I say. Geeks use Lasers. I'd say it made it so much easier, but since this was the first time I'd done tile, I don't have another frame of reference. Still, pencils? Please.
  • Did I mention lay it all out ahead of time? Do that. I also put little pieces of paper every 5 tiles so I could tell where 10 inches would be.
  • Decide if you can do the whole thing without cutting a tile. One wall was 81" so I'd need to either use 40 tiles and cut one, or make up the space over the whole span. I was able to add the 1" by making the 1/8" grout an extra 1/40" wider between each tile. You really don't want to show up at the other side of the wall unprepared. :)
  • Spacers - use a metric crapload of them. I used something like 1250 little plastic spacers to make the grout lines just so. Love 'em.
  • Thinset is the cementy glue that you use to make the tile stick. Don't mix it yourself, get the premixed stuff.
  • When you put the tiles on, twist them slightly as you push to get the maximum amount of the Thinset on the back of the thing. Use the Grout Float - that I called the "pressy rubber thing" before I learned it was a Grout Float - to push against the tiles and apply even pressure over the whole field.

I'm very happy to announce we now have a Sense of Accomplishment™ and that I have joined the ranks of Handy Hanselmen who are Do-It-Yourselfers.

P.S. I promise I won't even think about the opportunity cost of this whole operation.

P.P.S. OK, maybe a little.

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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September 30, 2006 13:55
Looks great! I've decided that I'm only handy in the presence of others who are handy. Whenever I work on things by myself, there's always a missing part, a bad circuit, or a wall stud that appears to be made of solid steel. Whenever I work in the presence of someone like my father in law (who's got 20+ years of professional home remodeling under his belt, stuff like that never happens. He helped us tile our kitchen floor and every single tile - over 100 13" tiles - dropped into place without needing to be cut. If I'd done it without the "magical handiness field of influence" effect, the exact same tiles would have caught on fire.

I used to love to build stuff, but all this working with computers has permanently spoiled me. Until I can "Google search / copy / paste" a kitchen floor, that is.

But your kitchen's looking great. Congrats.
September 30, 2006 16:41
Looks good, but life would have much much much simpler had you not split out all the tiles from the 12x12 sheets. Much less dealing with the spacers since the tiles are properly spaced. Of course then you are stuck with the pattern as presented by the manufacturer...
September 30, 2006 18:09
good post. it feels good to see my own thought processes, being used by another geek. feel better friend, knowing you are not alone.
September 30, 2006 18:12
See, I'm a software guy. That's a hardware problem. ;)
September 30, 2006 18:18
I feel your pain. I'm the non-handy one in a family of carpenters, electricians, and other such skilled workers. Meanwhile, I can barely attach childproof latches to my cabinets. When we built our new house, we wanted all wood floors and ceramic tile and decided to save money by doing it ourselves. My father and I plugged away at it for almost two weeks, it turned out pretty good but... NEVER AGAIN. There's something to be said for paying a professional heh.
September 30, 2006 21:28
Nicely done Scott. Luckily (or not depending on your perspective) I am actually pretty darn 'handy' around the house. I've built too many things to count (8x12 shed, fencing, dog kennel, tool bench, etc.) and have saved a ton of money doing it myself.

Regarding tile, I came home from work one day years ago to find that my wife had completely ripped up half of our carpet in the living room and hallway. As I stood there dumbfounded she proudly announced that she was going to tile part of the floor. Six weeks later we had a beautiful tile design as the entryway to our house. Alls well that ends well. :)
September 30, 2006 21:48
Dude, I knew you could do it! :)
September 30, 2006 22:28
Jerry, ya, I realize I had to break the tile pattern apart, but they came from the manufacturer as a big 12" field of one color.
September 30, 2006 22:45
You're a brave guy Scott - tackling tile! At least it was in a sheet, trying to tile a floor or shower usually takes 3 times the prep. I found that if you grid out an Excel spreadsheet so the cells represent 1" squares, and you then pull out some trig from high school days it's a little easier. The problem, as you mention, is that walls are never square or plumb so even lasers won't help.

Really makes you appreciate contractors don't it? You gonna try your hand at plumbing too? Ahh the smell of burning flux...

Also - tile is measured allowing for one grout seam. So the missing 1/8" is to account for the grout :).
September 30, 2006 22:53
My wife and I had the same strange need for a Sense of Accomplishment™ but decided we should tackle a privacy fence. Then of course the fence became the most complicated and intricate fence possible.

I swear we had more lasers going in the backyard then a Pink Floyd presentation at a planetarium which went great with all the smoke coming from the saw as we cut the pressure treated 4 x 4s.

Fortunately our neighbours were on vacation and didn't witness the spectacle. We do look at the fence with an added appreciation of having done it ourselves, hopefully you feel the same about your tile which looks great by the way.
October 01, 2006 2:17
Ah man, after reading the first section I was ready to forward this to my wife to point out that I'm not the only one who wants to outsource purchasing a Sense Of Accomplishment TM. We have a few projects that are half-finished around the house because I simply hate it. Don't know why, but I do. I'd rather mow the lawn, but we don't have one.
October 01, 2006 4:40
Rob, it actually WASN'T in a came in a solid color sheet, but I wanted a pattern, so I cut them all out into individual tiles. Took hours. Good info about the Grout! That made the math easier.

October 01, 2006 5:07
Hey, nice job. I haven't ventured into the realm of tile yet, but my wife keeps mentioning the possibility.

If you'll indulge me, I'd like to share something: I was a geeky kid. My dad tried to get me involved in being handy and mechanical (as in, cars), but I was too busy with geeky stuff - code, sci fi, video games, and music - Yes, I was also a "band" geek.

Then I went to college. I was 17, still a geeky kid, but somewhere in there I started seeing some girl (who I now call "wife") and I had even less time for dad. My sophomore year, my dad died. I was 18. And I began to realize that, while I found my identity in my geekiness, I had really screwed up and blown countless opportunities to spend time with my dad learning these things.

The saving grace in this story is my wife's dad and brothers. Thanks to them, I had plenty of opportunity to learn the stuff I should have taken the time to learn from my own dad. Together we finished my basement, worked on my truck, built swings for my son, and a bunch of other stuff. When my father-in-law died last year, I found I was really grateful that I hadn't missed that second chance.

And now my wife is the envy of all her friends due to her handy husband, and I have something besides geekiness to pass to my son and other due-November-3rd as-yet-unidetified-gender kid-in-utero.

Not totally germane to your post, Scott, but an anecdote I thought I'd pass along. Geek-to-geek. :)
October 02, 2006 0:27
As a developer in the middle of a complete bathroom remodel (including tile wall and floor), I'm feelin' this post. A few additional tips:
-Excel is great for calculating how many x-inch tiles can fit in y-feet, given z-inch spacing.
-The spacers come in different sizes (which I figured out after getting a few tiles up and set).
-Lasers (the self-leveling kind) do work great, but only when your house is level. No sense making tile perfectly level if the tub (or counter) underneath it slopes...

October 02, 2006 1:23
Hey Scott, nice work, well done! I especially like the colors of the tiles.

As for "Measure like ten times": In Germany we say "Wer viel misst, misst viel Mist" which roughly translates to "Who measures much, measures nonsense".
October 02, 2006 6:18
I guess I must be more of an extreme programmer. When I titled my bathroom I opted to buy title that had more of a natural look with irregular edges. It disguised all my mistakes and allowed me to cheat by just guesstimating a lot of layout. You are right about opportunity cost. I would never do it again. It's cheaper for me to hire a pro. Plus I have to protect my delicate fingers for 8 hours a day of programming.
October 02, 2006 7:39
Scott I knew you could! Nice work... I hire my tile out though! I can't wait to show you the deck and fence I had someone do for us.

Do you ever wonder what you'd be doing say if it was 1959 instead of now? No laptops...High Speed.. tile mason? I think you'd look good in Carharts.

October 02, 2006 7:40
how the hell do you get your sweet pic on the reply?
October 02, 2006 18:24
One un-handy person to another: Take those extra tiles that you have left over, and stick them in the attic (or some other safe place). If, say a couple of years from now, you have to replace a tile, you might have trouble finding exactly the same tiles that you have now at the tile store -- it's good to have spares!
October 02, 2006 18:26
Scott, welcome to the ranks of DIY folk! And what a project to tackle as the first one! I have been doing my own house for the last 3 years. The only things I haven't done myself are the sprinklers, granite counter tops, Pergo (tm) flooring, the deck, and a new water heater.

I'm just about done with my master bath floor. It took me 4 months to figure out how to do the grout in a 1/4" gap only to find out I was using the wrong type! Anything over 1/16" tile spacing should use SANDED grout. When I read a bit about it on the internet I found one of the reasons why: it makes it stronger. Go figure.

Great job though and a great write up for those "geeks" that are too afraid to try this. (As far as fingers hurting, it's only temporary and it reminds you the next day what great work you are doing on your home. The back hurting is another issue all together...) It really isn't as difficult as it seems. And yes, lasers are helpful even on an uneven surface. You at least get to see the straight line and can then compensate for it accordingly (granite counter tops require no more than a 1/16 inch deviance from level. When your wall has a hump in it, the laser can find it).

It's funny though... You may not think you are handy with a power saw, but you sure are handy with the more intricate things such as the Coding4Fun stuff! All you need to do now is find that one thing that you can do for you dad and brother in that form then you won't feel so guilty about them coming up to help you. Besides, it is a family love...

What's the next project? I did kitchen and bath cabinet refacing... That one is kinda cool.
October 02, 2006 23:42
Way cool. When you are ready to build your own house, come talk to me. :)
October 03, 2006 10:26
Aha! I hoped I wasn't alone writing code to produce a random pattern for my tiles!

When we did our kitchen I wrote a little app to render a different random pattern every time I hit the spacebar.

"ooh! That's pretty random looking!" [Tile for a week]
October 04, 2006 5:46
Well done Scott...........knew you had it in you.

Seriously, do you actually hire someone to cut your grass? ;-)
October 07, 2006 5:08
Nice job, I too am a C# .NET Dev / DIY guy... the key thing to note for anyone wanting to do DIY type projects is to
have patience.

Also... Rad picture of you and your brother.


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.