The first step to preparing to tile a counter, is to remove any preexisting tile. You can lay tile directly over a laminate countertop, but you must first rough it up using a heavy grade of sandpaper, so that the mastic (adhesive) will be able to adhere to the surface.
Smooth tile makes a great countertop as it’s easy to lean and relatively inexpensive. Textured tiles may look great, but they tend to trap dirt and food particles and often require specialized cleansers.
Before purchasing your tiles, measure to find the rough area of the countertop. Even when you are confident of your measurements, be sure to buy an extra 20 or more tiles and then hang onto your receipts. It’s easier to return tiles after a job is completed than it is to find out you are missing one or two when the job is nearly done. Also, despite the most careful cutting, you will typically make several errors or simply break tiles, causing you to need more than your original estimate. Be sure to get “bullnose” tile for any backsplash you may have and long horizontal tiles to “cap” the edge of your counter. You will also need a bucket or two of mastic adhesive, a rubber tipped float, a grooved trowel, a box of grout (I used non-sanded as my lines were small) in a color close to your tile, a sponge, and a bucket.
Before you begin, remove the sink and push back any appliances that will get in the way of your tiling job. To get a good idea of how the tile will look on the countertop, simply begin laying tile down. If you are using a tile with a slightly beveled edge (as was the smooth surface 4×4 tile I used) then you can lay them right next to each other. The beveling will allow for the tiles to have an even application of grout. Start from the edges of the sink “hole” and from the outside of the countertop in as this is where people will look most closely, and then move outward toward the wall. This should help you decide how many whole tiles you will require and approximately how many you will need to cut. Remove the tiles to be cut and set these aside. You are ready to begin laying the whole tiles. Start by spreading a thin layer of mastic from the edges of the sink outward. Work in no more than 12 inch square portions at a time and you won’t run into the problem of the mastic setting before you are ready to lay your tile. Carefully begin laying your tile from the edges of the countertop back toward the wall, using the side of the sink to orient your work. When you can’t lay another whole tile (one that doesn’t require cutting) start a new row. Continue until you get to the wall and need to cut tile so that they will fit. Use the square of each tile against the next to ensure that your rows and columns are in alignment. When you have laid all the flat tiles, on the countertop itself, repeat the procedure by laying the bullnose tiles for the backsplash, if you have one. For the edge of the countertop that faces you, use long horizontal tiles that have a curve at the top to neatly meet the top of the counter.
To cut your tile, use a pencil or marker and draw a mark on the tile itself to indicate where the cut will be needed. Sometimes you will have to make a trial cut or two until you see that you have made the correct measurement for the space needed. The tile cutter will have a vertical guide against which you place the tile to ensure that your cut is straight.
Finish cutting your tile and laying each piece on the mastic until you have neatly covered the countertop area. If you have slight gaps in places, don’t worry, because the grout will hide small errors. You will need to wait 24 hours after applying the mastic before you can apply the grout.
When you are ready, mix your grout, according to directions, to a consistency between that of toothpaste and peanut butter. Application of grout is very forgiving and excess comes off very cleanly from a smooth tile. Using your rubber edged float, begin spreading the grout over the tile, maintaining even pressure and ensuring that each space is filled. If you push slightly as you are applying the tile, you will notice the grout filling the gaps, but not sticking to the tile. When you have finished applying the grout, take a damp sponge and simply pass it over the tile until the grout is removed from the tile surface. Don’t worry if you see a haze on the tile as this will easily rub off with a dry towel when the grout is set between the tiles.
Your countertop should be “set” in about 24 hours. You can replace the sink and move back any appliances that have been moved away from the countertop. At this time, be sure to seal the grout with a grout sealer product (sold by the tiles at your hardware store) and to use a silicone caulk to seal around the edges of the sink.