Tile Setting History

Tile and tiling advice, along with tile installation help, at the John Bridge Tile Forums

• Ceramic Tile Setting: A History of the Craft

- John P. Bridge (august 2005)

In Tile Your World: John Bridge’s New Tile Setting Book (Mistflwer Press, 2003), I wrote “The History of Tile Setting According to John,” in which I went back to the era of the Cave Men. I’ll start at a much later date here, the nineteen-forties. But tile setting does go back many thousands of years.

My aim here, though, is to acquaint you with the basic processes that go into residential tile installation so that you’ll be better equipped to judge and hire a competent tile mechanic to do your tile work for you. If you intend doing the work yourself you should buy Tile Your World, either at Amazon.com or at the Tile Your World Store (for a signed copy).

• Use of Portland Cement

Tile setters in the nineteen-forties operated in much the same way that tile setters of a century prior had operated. The basic materials of the craft were portland cement and sand. Cement and sand were used to make the mortar that would form the “screeds” and mud beds that tiles would be set upon. Cement (in a slurry form) was also the adhesive used to hold the tiles in place. There were no “thin set” products. In fact, there was no thin set method in place for setting tiles. Everything was done over a “mud bed.” At some point in time the practitioners of the tile setting craft began calling themselves “mud men,” and that tradition carries through to today. The few remaining tile mechanics who toil in the old ways still call themselves mud men — and now we’ve added a few mud women.

There were only two colors of grout, because there were only two colors of cement (gray and white), and no one thought it necessary to tint them. I mean, what for? If you didn’t have a lot of choices to make, you couldn’t get yourself in trouble, right?

To compensate for the limited grout choices, there was no shortage of bright colors in the tile department — at least in wall tiles. Many of us can remember maroon tiles with black trims, yellow tiles with maroon trims, green tiles and blue tiles with trims of other colors, and so on. In fact, some of us still live with those old installations, and some of us are still trying to figure out how to rip them out and change them to something a little less, uh, dated. One thing is for sure. Tile work done in the forties, fifties and early sixties was meant to last.

• The Advent of Sheetrock

Tile setting practices continued evolving in the late forties with the invention of “plaster board,” the gypsum product that is now called “drywall” or “sheetrock.” In Canada it’s often called “gyp-rock.” Builders immediately began developing ways of cutting down on the labor intensity of tile setting. After all, if plasterers and their accompanying high wages could be eliminated, what about tile setters (who generally made even more)? By the early fifties, builders were gluing ceramic tiles to sheetrock with “mastic,” which is an organic glue invented for that purpose. And it wasn’t long before someone got the bright idea that tub surrounds could be done with mastic directly over sheetrock. At that point, full stall showers were still done exclusively with cement mortar, though.

“Greenboard,” or moisture-resistant sheetrock, came out in the sixties. It was originally developed for use in commercial construction — in rooms where abnormally high moisture might linger in the air — commercial restrooms, for example. Well, it wasn’t long before home-builders converted “moisture-resistant” to water-resistant and finally to waterproof. Once they had accomplished that feat, there was nothing stopping them from using it as a backer in ceramic tile showers. It was waterproof, wasn’t it? The gypsum wallboard industry winked when all of this took place. Why shoot yourself out of the box? The “sheetrock shower” had been born, and most of the old mud men went down the road. The younger tile setters, although they still learned how to do mud work, spent much of their time gluing ceramic tiles to sheetrock.

• Plywood Replaces “Shiplap”

Modern plywood came into being at about the same time as sheetrock, and this development bore strongly on the tile industry. It led ultimately to the use of thin set methods of installing tile floors over wood substrates, something that had never worked when only dimension lumber was available for subflooring. Plywood is much better for use as sheathing than the older “shiplap” that was nailed across floor joists in a diagonal fashion.

But gluing ceramic tiles directly to plywood subflooring didn’t work well, and after a few years the method was all but discontinued. Industry people didn’t give up on the idea, though. Around 1970 cement backer board was invented, and this new product enabled the installation of tile over plywood substrates once again. There were still mud men on the scene, but their ranks were dwindling.

• “Sheetrock Showers” are a Done Deal

By the eighties the installation of ceramic tiles directly over sheetrock and plywood was in full swing. I arrived in Houston in 1982 needing work desperately, having just gone broke in the restaurant business in Indiana. I went to work for a tile installation company that was responsible for better than 60 new-housing developments. Each week they would lose a few jobs because they couldn’t get to them, but they would be promptly replaced with new developments whose owners needed people to do their work. Needless to say, there was no incentive for quality workmanship. I didn’t like it, but as I said, I needed work badly (I was a single dad with three kids), and I knuckled under. So did others.

By that time, “sheetrock showers” were more or less sanctioned by the tile and plumbing industries which have always been driven by manufacturers. I moved away from the practice of installing tiles to sheetrock in wet areas in less than a year and went back on my own doing mud work and setting floor tiles over concrete slabs. I’m embarrassed to say that in later years I probably tore out a few of the sheetrock showers I did and replaced them with well-built mud ones.

By 1991 I had become so disgusted with “sheetrock showers” that I was constantly griping about the practice. My wife, after listening to me complain for several months, finally said, “Why don’t you write a book?” Ceramic Tile Setting (McGraw-Hill, 1992) resulted.

• Sheetrock in Wet Areas Disavowed

In 1999 the ceramic tile industry finally disavowed the use of sheetrock in wet area tile installations, and in 2005 the folks who edit the International Plumbing Code did the same. At last, sheetrock showers are no longer sanctioned by anyone in the building professions. I must tell you, though, that the standards that govern the tile industry are voluntary. There is no force of law until they are adopted by local authorities in the form of local building codes. It can take a long time for local building authorities to pick up on developments within the building trades.

• Good News

But things are looking up, and you should not be disheartened. You certainly should not give up on the ceramic tile industry, because things are on the upswing. Mud work as we once knew it will never return. It’s too labor-intensive and also too heavy for modern “light construction” trends. But many newer methods are promising, and some of them have been proven. It is still possible to build showers that are strong and serviceable, and ceramic tile remains the top choice in shower construction bar none. There is nothing as durable and as aesthetically pleasing as ceramic tile.

Among the newer methods of shower building are the cement backer board system and the membrane method. Backer board showers that are properly constructed will last indefinitely if properly maintained. Membrane showers, such as those constructed with Schluter “Kerdi“, are completely waterproof and for the most part mold-free.

• More Good News

There is a new breed of tile setters on the move, highly trained professionals who can and will install your tile with longevity in mind, even though not many employ the mud method anymore. Ceramic tile floors installed over cement backer board can last forever (or at least for the life of the house), and there are membranes that can afford the same long-lasting results. The people who employ these methods are conscientious and driven by a desire to create quality work.

The Internet has had much to do with the change in our industry, and I like to think the John Bridge Forums have contributed in that regard. There are thousands of tile installers out there, both male and female, who are technically and aesthetically qualified to put in your ceramic tile shower or floor. A good place to start looking for one of these special people is on the Forums.

Unfortunately, there are also thousands of “hacks” in the business, so you’ll have to be careful who you choose. You should do your homework before you think about beginning the selection process. Know a little about our business and our methods before you commit yourself to a project that can easily run into the thousands of dollars. You can start your education (or continue it) right here on this site and on the related sites that you will encounter during the process.

2005 Forum Member Gathering

2005 Forum Member Gathering

Members of the John Bridge Forums gathered in Seattle in 2005. Everyone present is either in the tile business in some way or married into it. Two of the women are licensed tile contractors. Yours truly is in back at far right.

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