Tiling a Mortar-Bed Counter
How one tile setter builds the classic kitchen work surface.
Synopsis: Despite the availability of cement board, a mortar bed is still the traditional substrate for tile countertops in some parts of the country. This article explains how to mix mortar to the proper consistency, apply it to the countertop, and then add the tile.
I think the best part of being a tile setter is that my work doesn’t get covered up by someone else’s labors. On the other hand, setting tile is tough, physical work — especially large floors, where my knees cry out for a desk job and my back creaks from all the bending. So it’s no wonder that I enjoy tiling countertops.
Ceramic tile offers many advantages as a finish material in the kitchen. A hot pot won’t damage a tile surface, and a properly waterproofed installation can stand up to all of the splashes and spills that cooks can dish out.
The best tile countertops are done on a thick bed of mortar called a float. The float is usually 3/4 in. to 1 in. thick, and the solid base it provides for the tile isn’t affected by moisture. I’ll be describing the most common type of counter that I do. It has V-cap face trim and a single row of tiles for the backsplash. To make cleanup easier for the cook, the sink is recessed beneath the surface of the counter and is trimmed with quarter-round tiles.
Choosing the tile
Kitchen-counter tiles should be either impervious or fully vitrified. These ratings mean that the tile will absorb almost no water, a property that increases the life expectancy of the installation.
Many tiles are designed to decorate rather than protect. You should be able to find a tile that does both. But you need to be careful even with heavy glazes…