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Our First Bathroom; Tiling Fibre Cement Boards

Lockdown has meant that we can work on finishing the South container for Louis and Gwen. And that means working on their private bathroom! it has been awesome watching the bathroom progress as each day passes. But it also meant that we had to work out the best way for tiling fibre cement boards. There is a correct way and then there’s our lockdown way…

The Correct Way to Tile Fibre Cement Boards

Many people know how to tile. Most people in South Africa have worked with brick walls and know exactly what to do in those circumstances. But what do you do when your house is not built with bricks? In this case, the bathroom is at the end of a shipping container, in a space clad with fibre cement boards. (We used fibre cement boards in the bathroom, rather than the reclaimed OSB, because it can better withstand the moisture found in a bathroom environment).

In a perfect world, the best product to use to stick tiles to a surface such as fibre cement board, is TAL Flex tile adhesive. But we had two problems: 1) it’s quite pricey and 2) you can’t buy it during lockdown. So, we used a different method.

How We Tiled Our First Bathroom

painting fibre cement boards with key-it

Once your bathroom is clad, with all the pipes fitted, make a thick slurry mixture using cement and Tylon Key-It. Paint the boards with this mixture. It’s not the easiest job; it is messy, and the Key-It smells awful. But once it is dry, you’ll be able to tile your bathroom as if it were any brick structure. The other advantage is that the Key-It has water resistant properties, further protecting your bathroom from moisture.

We painted the walls and the floors in preparation for tiles, as per the photos above. The Key-It/cement mixture dries an ominous dark grey.

Key-It can also be mixed with grout to further waterproof a bathroom. It is especially useful in areas such as a shower.

Cutting Tiles

This bathroom is tiled using large tiles, measuring about 800mm long. Most tile cutters cannot manage tiles of that size, so alternate means of cutting might have to be used. If you find yourself in the same predicament, you can use a grinder (noisy and dusty), or score and break as required. You might need to experiment a bit to find what works best for your particular tiles using the tools you have on hand.

experimenting with cutting tiles

In the photo above, we are experimenting by scoring the tile with a glass cutting drill-bit, as we weren’t entirely happy with the other tile cutting tool that we had. In the second photo, we are attempting to crack the tile along the score line.

But what do you do if you need a hole in the tile where a pipe is coming through?

We used a drill press with a diamond core hole saw and slowly drilled through the tile. We used lots of water to keep the tile cool to reduce the chances of it cracking.

hole saw through tile

You need lots of patience for this! It took three of us to cut these holes because we did not want the tile to accidentally break which would have meant starting again. Louis held the tile still and steady, Kevin operated the drill press and I kept the area wet.

Smart Tiling Tips

I am sure that you have noticed that some tiling jobs just look better than others. What’s the secret? Here are some top tips for you to use on your own projects:

  • Choose your focal point as the line of symmetry around which to lay your tiles. In a bathroom, this would be the basin. Make sure your tiles line up on the centre point of where the basin will be.
  • Do a dry run with the tiles (ie, just lay them out and see where your cuts are going to be). This way you don’t end up by a door where you have to cut a 10mm sliver all along the wall, door, or somewhere else.
  • Use a straight edge and a level to determine the highest spot on a floor or a wall and start on the high spot if possible, and tile from there. This way you don’t end up with a bubble in the floor or the wall
  • Make sure of the spacing between your tiles. Some tiles are of a lower quality and will need bigger spaces to hide size discrepancies.
  • If you have to tile with very thick cement due to a dip in the wall or floor, mix in some sand and cement with your tile cement. The sand and cement mixture ratio will be one cement to two sand; and mix this ratio 50% tile glue, 50% tile cement. “Butter” the tile with plain tile cement and the surface with plain tile cement (thin) and then put the thick mixture between it. This helps the cement dry faster so that the tile does not sag so easily.
  • Use your level! Don’t be afraid to double check yourself a couple of tiles back.
  • Whatever you do, don’t start at the door and work into the room (when tiling a floor).

Before you know it, your tiling project will be complete (unlike the photo below)

tiling fibre cement board

One last word from Kevin: Be warned! Tiling is slow, hard, back-breaking work; especially if you want it to look good. If you can, rather get a professional in.

Oh, and watch this space! We’ll be sharing pictures of the completed bathroom as soon as we have all the fittings in.

6 thoughts on “Our First Bathroom; Tiling Fibre Cement Boards

  1. Very interesting, Ash. I’ve been through the process of tiling two showers and I’m way ahead of you regarding getting it RIGHT! I’ve never heard of a diamond drill for making holes for the plumbing. The conventional way is/was to cut the tile in half, then, using pliers, chip small pieces out little by little to create a scallop for half of the pipe and then do the other half. Chipping tiny bits out is a pain so what I did was to use a ‘mounted point’, ie, a small grinding wheel on a mandrel that goes into a drill. Grind out the chipped scooped out part and keep checking such that the surface is smooth and fits around the pipe exactly. Then do the other side the same and stick the two halves onto the wall, mating the cuts of the tile and it ends up so that one has to look very carefully to see the split line. It works. Tiling is indeed back breaking and time consuming and tedious, but, there’s no other way if you want it to look good. Getting the tiles flush with each other is very important or you end up with steps so with each tile in position place a straightedge across the other tiles and press the new tile in so that they are all flush . Also tile spacers keep the grouting spacing just right.

    Another trick is to not use tile adhesive at all, the way it was done 50 years ago; just mix 50-50 sand and cement and put a great wodge of cement mix onto the back of the tile and tap it into position with the handle of the trowel. People usually get a look of horror when told about this and even the tile suppliers will tell you that it’s impossible and if done that way there’s no guarantee on the tiles because cement and sand has no ‘give’. This is utter nonsense because it was done like that for many, many years. Indeed, our house, about 70 years old, has the bathroom tiling done in that exact way and the tiles aren’t about to fall off. You can’t put the cement/sand on thinly as with genuine tile adhesive and you need at least 12mm of the mixture. But it does work. Even in World War II times they didn’t even use cement because in those days lime was used instead. So our house has lime and sand and I say again, it’s not about to fall down.

    I don’t actually advocate doing it that way because all the newer products are marvelous but it can get you out of a jam. Example, I bricked up a doorway so as to make the separate toilet into and en suite shower/toilet/wash hand basin. I didn’t feel it was necessary to plaster the wall where the tiling would go so the thick cement plan saved me from having to plaster first. After all, why go to the trouble of plastering where no one is going to see it under the tiles anyway?

    But good work to you and Kevin and others that are helping. I suppose the coronavirus does have some small upsides in spite of the horrors of it all. I have been able to get on with all kinds of things that I’ve been putting off…..a good thing but today’s project is to clean out the garage, and to be frank I would rather wash bedpans!

    Keep up the good work!


    1. There are definitely many ways to skin a cat! Very interesting about how things were done in the past. 🤔😁

      1. Good advice i have spend too much of money on buying tile cements because of unlevel surface i thanx a lot now, I’m going to save alot of money.

  2. I’ve just given my age away, 67 now……Now where did I leave my glasses? There are three ways of knowing when you’re getting old; the first is forgetfulness but I can’t remember what the other two are………

  3. A tile is a tricky beast, to be sure. Very skilfully done! You must be exhausted now.

    1. The show must go on! 😁

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