Features

5 Steps to Grout Greatness

Finish gorgeous tile installations with perfect grouting
By Ellen Sturm Niz
June 01, 2010

It may be one of the smallest elements in a kitchen or bath design, but grout can make a big difference in the overall appearance of the space. “Grout really tops off your installation,” said Joshua Levinson, president of Artistic Tile wholesale. “In a lot of respects, it’s a great equalizer, covering up imperfections and inconsistencies. When joints are filled and packed properly with grout, it can even out lippage and variations in the height of materials.”

So how can you make grout do its best work? Follow Levinson’s advice for grout selection and installation and your tile projects will reach perfection.

1. Choose the right type of grout.
“Grouts typically are cement-based products and are available as sanded or unsanded,” said Levinson. Sanded grout is specified for joint sizes of 1/8 inch or more, while non-sanded grout is best for joints of less than 1/8 inch. “Sand is there to provide additional body to the grout in a large joint to prevent shrinking, sagging and cracking,” he said.

If the joint size requires sanded grout, pay attention to the possibility of scratching glass or polished stones, warned Levinson. “Sand is quartz- and silica-based and often higher on the Mohs Scale than many limestones and marbles, so scratching is a consideration in design and installation,” he said. The joint size between surfaces that could be scratched should be designed to be less than 1/8 inch so unsanded grout may be used.

While historically grout would be mixed on site, adding in the amount of sand and color needed, today, grout is usually supplied in pre-mixed bags. Latex additives can be mixed in with the grout to reduce absorbency, thereby increasing stain resistance and improving color retention. Some grout manufacturers include latex additives in their pre-mixed grout, while others require they be added separately. Some manufacturers also add anti-fungal and mildew-resistance additives. After installation, silicone sealers also can be applied to grout to prevent staining.

Epoxy grout is an alternative to cement. Made with epoxy resins and a hardener mixed just prior to installation, this waterless grout is extremely stain and mildew resistant and does not require additional sealers. While epoxy grouts can be more difficult to work with, harsh when contacting the skin and harder to clean up, recent improvements have addressed these issues. “Epoxy grouts have certain limitations, typically including the inability to be used with glass tile, as they restrict movement to a large degree,” said Levinson. “Epoxy grouts are typically chosen when stain resistance is desired.

The newest option is StarQuartz urethane grout, which is touted as having the benefits of epoxy with an installation as easy as cement. “It is more stain resistant and requires no sealer,” said Levinson. “Until the most recent formulation, StarQuartz had challenges in wet installations.“

Grout-free installation is only an option with products that have a very tight joint in dry areas, such as a mosaic fireplace. “I don’t recommend it in wet areas,” said Levinson. “Without the grout, the joint is just opening to the substrate.”

unsanded groutUnsanded grout is best to fill the small joints between a tight mosaic tile design

2. Select the best grout color.
Grout comes in a range of colors to coordinate with tile designs. “Color selection is extremely important,” said Levinson. “Contrasting grout and tile colors accent a pattern, while matching grout and tile colors give a monolithic appearance and potentially make joints less visible.” According to Levinson, grout color can make or break a design. “For a modular pattern, for example, if you pick a color that matches the field you’re using, it defeats the purpose of your design because you want to show the different sizes,” he explained.

Grout color selection is also important in terms of its longevity. “A white-colored grout in a high-traffic area, ultimately it’s going to stain and be dirty,” said Levinson. “Even if you clean it right, it will darken.” Therefore it might be best to choose a darker cementitious grout, or an epoxy or urethane grout, that will stay truer to its color over time.

While each manufacturer offers its own palette of colors, custom color selection is not yet an option. “You could mix two grouts for a custom color for a certain effect,” he said, “but make sure it’s mixed properly and that you mix enough for the whole batch. You don’t want the color to vary.” Even when using one color grout, Levinson suggested getting enough of one lot to do the entire job to avoid color variations.

right color grout for tileThe right grout color can make seams virtually disappear

3. Mix and install grout properly.
Once the grout type and color are selected, it’s time for installation. Grouts require a specific ratio of wet to dry, so carefully follow manufacturer mixing instructions. “Overhydrating will lead to shrinking and cracking as the grout cures,” said Levinson. “If you underhydrate you’ll get powdering and less strength.” He also recommended hand mixing at a slow speed so as not to break the product down.

Before applying the grout, make sure joints are cleaned. “Typically they should be vacuumed so there is no sawdust, staples or dirt n the joint,” said Levinson. Don’t forget to check the weather report, as well. “The right temperature to apply grout is typically between 50 to 90 degrees,” said Levinson. “Too hot or cold can lead to problems.”

The tile joints should be packed, not just filled, with grout. “Grouting should be hard work,” said Levinson. “The installer should be forcing it in. If he’s talking on the phone while doing it, he’s not working hard enough.” Properly packing the joints will reduce voids, which can lead to cracking under heavy loads, such as wheeled cart traffic of high-heeled show point loads. “Work in an organized fashion, grouting a small area and cleaning as you go,” recommended Levinson. “Don’t leave residue on the surface that’s hard to clean up.”

properly packed tile jointsProperly packing joints between a mosaic-tile design can even out lippage and material heights

4. Finish the job.
After grout is applied, an installer may choose to strike the joints. “Striking the joints with a metal apparatus will consolidate the surface and reduce porosity,” said Levinson.

Then grout may be sealed. “Depending on the location, sealant is not always necessary,” said Levinson, “but it is an insurance policy—a window to perform stain clean-up.”

Once the entire installation is complete, heed the manufacturer’s cure time. “Don’t walk on it before it says,” said Levinson. “Well-mixed, properly cured grout is very strong, very hard, so don’t interfere with the process.”

5. Maintain the results.
While the right grout type, color and installation can greatly increase performance, proper maintenance of grout must continue to optimize results. “When mopping a tile floor, sweep or vacuum first to remove loose materials and use a damp mop only,” recommended Levinson. “If a mop is too wet, you can have water settling into the joints. And as soon as the water gets dirty, change it!”

Photos courtesy of Artistic Tile.
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