Saturday, September 5, 2009

Labor of Love Slate Floor

In honor of Labor Day, I thought I'd tell you about a home improvement project that was a labor of love for more reasons than one. If you've ever done any remodeling, you know it's really hard making choices. There are so many materials to choose from. When we were ready to remodel our living room some time ago we thought about putting in tile. Since we live in a very warm climate and are in and out of the house, solid surface flooring seemed like a good choice rather than carpet. We also thought it would be easier to maintain and keep clean especially since we have three cats. We must have looked at every type of tile and just couldn't make a choice.

Then I remembered years ago my brother, Larry, put a random slate floor in his home and I had always admired his choice. So we decided to look at some slate, once we did, it was too hard to pass up. I wondered if we could handle the project, but I figured if my brother could do it, so could we. Sometimes a sibling who is no longer around can still have an influence on your life. Larry passed away nine years ago at an early age. His sudden and unexpected passing was a great shock to our family at the time. Gee, now that I'm thinking about it, I guess it still is a shock. Larry was only 45 when he died from what they called sudden death, where the heart just stops for no reason. Now that some time has passed, though, I can also think about the pleasant memories of Larry, like all the times he took me fishing to his favorite fishing spots.

I've always liked natural stone; it's so beautiful with all it's variations in color and texture. I decided to purchase slate already cut into squares because labor costs would be significantly less since there would be no custom fitting of random shaped pieces and it would also be easier to lay. When I figured out the cost of slate and compared it to the cost of the tile I happened to like, it wasn't that much more expensive. I also ordered 16 inch slate tiles rather than 12 inch slate tiles. The floor has less grout lines and looks less busy with larger slate tiles. In a smaller room larger tiles might be too big. I intended to do the preliminary work that was necessary before laying the slate floor myself to cut labor installation cost.

The slate we chose is called Indian multi, which is quarried in India. We measured our living room floor and gave those measurements to the tile store and they ordered the slate for us. Normally you order 10 percent additional slate because natural stone sometimes has inclusions (imperfections) and if they are too rough you may not want to use them. If you order natural stone or tile, be sure to check the boxes to make sure there aren't any broken tiles. We had a couple and the tile store ordered some replacements for us.

The first thing to check is the level of the floor where you will put the tile. Since slate is a natural stone, if the floor isn't laid level it may crack under pressure when something heavy is placed on it. We have a concrete slab foundation but even that wasn't completely level. There is a material you can purchase that is a liquid concrete floor leveler. You pour it out and it seeks it's own level and then you lightly trowel it around and feather the edges. Then you wait for that to dry thoroughly.

There's our cat, Butter, checking our work. In the meantime you take all the slate out of the boxes and lay it out to examine it. We laid the slate out on our driveway. Set aside any tiles of slate that are too rough or have inclusions. Make sure the number of pieces of slate you have left are enough to cover the whole floor with at least five additional ones. The five additional ones are in case any break during installation. Ideally you will still have a few left over in case there is a problem years down the road and you need to remove one tile. Hopefully you'll have a couple left over so they are from the same vein of slate that was mined.

Then get out your hose and wash down the slate several times. Since the slate comes directly from the quarry and then is cut at the manufacturing plant, there is a fine dust on the slate. Get all the dust off the front and back of the slate. Then take a scrub brush and scrub each tile of slate. Let the slate dry thoroughly on both the front and back. Be careful not to drop the slate on the concrete as it is brittle and may break in half. After you wash the slate you can then see the true color of each slate tile. Next each tile of slate should be painted with a grout release liquid. Slate is porous and the grout and grout haze is easier to remove with the application of the agent. Let the slate dry after application.

Our cat, Betty, is making sure our work passes muster. Now take some of the slate inside and do a dry run in two directions on the floor to see how the slate will look in the room. Don't omit this important step. There are a few things to consider when doing the dry run. Normally you want full tiles as you enter a room, not half or smaller pieces at the entrance. You also don't want to have pieces of tile that are so small at the edge or end of a run that it's only an inch or two. That would be too hard to cut and lay, and wouldn't look pleasing to the eye. Be sure to check to see what size tile will end up at the edge of the whole room.

Many tile layers start in the middle of the room or the middle of the wall for a bathroom. The tile layer lays a chalk line in one direction and the other and lays the first four tiles in the middle at the corner of the chalk line. I've found that this isn't always the best layout. And, as it turns out, for my living room I used an alternate layout. With the dry run I figured out I would need to use a 12 inch width of slate tile on two sides of the room which would mean I couldn't use the left over piece of tile, since it would be too narrow to look good. Since I was paying for each piece of slate I wanted to minimize this waste. By laying the first tile centered in the middle of the room, and putting a four inch border around the room, I saved myself the cost of 12 additional tiles. Three, four inch sections could be cut from one tile.

I had the smaller border pieces laid by centering them on the grout line of the larger tile and the corners were mitered. If you have ever done any quilting, you'll recognize this border as being similar to a quilt border. Sometimes sewing experience can be applied to home improvement projects. At the time the tile layer thought I was crazy and causing extra work, but when the floor was finished he agreed it looked good that way. The border ties the whole room together and doesn't look out of place at all. When you're doing your dry run layout remember to include the grout width in your calculations. For slate the grout width I used was 1/2 inch. This sounds large but sometimes natural stone tiles have a variance and you need to allow for some give and take. Once you figure out your layout, you can snap your chalk lines on the floor as a guide to laying the slate tiles.

Next I laid all the slate tiles out on the driveway and put them in the preference I wanted them laid to ensure random colors. Lots of tile layers will just grab the tiles from a couple of different boxes to randomize the installation, but I found with the slate there were many more gray tiles and I didn't want a bunch of dark gray slate tiles all together. Some of the tiles were orange, gold, beige, gray, dark gray, metallic, blue gray, etc.

Slate needs a nice thick bed of thin set since even with cut slate tiles there is variation in the depth of the slate. Mix the thin set according to the manufacturers directions. I do not recommend using premixed thin set and definitely do not use mastic. Ask the tile store what size notched trowel to use for laying slate. Once you begin laying the slate tile, be sure to check the level of the slate as you lay each one. If one slate tile is too low, immediately pull it up and back butter (add some more thin set to the back of the tile)the tile with more thin set to bring up the level. You don't want to be stubbing your toe on an uneven surface.

Once you get the slate laid, let it set up for a couple of days and then put in the grout. Since slate is porous it may absorb some of the color of the grout. This is where the grout release you put on the slate earlier comes in handy. While putting in the grout, try to keep as much off the slate tile as possible as this minimizes clean up later. When the grout is set up to touch clean off most of the grout by wiping with a tile sponge perpendicular to the grout line.

Now let the grout dry completely for a couple of days. Now it's time to get the slated cleaned up. Take a tile sponge and a bucket of water and start cleaning the slate off, rinsing your sponge very often. You'll also have to refresh your bucket of water with clean water very often. This part is real tedious and it will take many buckets of water to wash and re wash the slate to remove the dusky appearance or what they call the grout haze. Be sure to clean the slate really well so the color of the slate will show. You don't want any of grout haze left on the slate. If there are crevices in the slate where grout adhered you may have to use a fingernail brush to clean the grout out. Then let the slate dry thoroughly for a few days and you are ready to apply your sealer. I chose to use only one coat of sealer. If two coats are used the slate will be shinier. The sealer does darken the slate a bit, but it also protects the slate and grout from any future spills.

Since we're moving, we're having a yard sale this weekend, trying to reduce the amount of items we have to pack and move. Have a great holiday weekend.


  1. Girl, no wonder your back hurts! What a lot of work, but beautiful results. When I did set design I painted floors to look like that, much easier:)

  2. I should think it is hard for you to move--leaving your lovely home and wonderful slate floor and the wonderful yard with its trees and plants. Hope the moving-to place is exciting so that the moving-from is not too sad!
    PS Your step by step directions did not make me want to put down slate floors!

  3. Linda the people buying your house are so lucky!

  4. Hi Tracey, thanks, yeah, if only I knew then what I know now, but too late to go back, I can only go forward. I did all the preliminary work, but I hired a guy to actually lay the slate and Gary washed the haze off of it. I don't know about the painting, it's the bending over that gets me now - so interesting you painted floors to look like slate, what a talent you have.

    Hi Gay, thanks, I'm actually not feeling too bad because I won't have to keep up with the work and I can have more time for clay - I feel lucky in that respect because I found clay and that's all I can think of now a days. Maybe once we leave I'll feel a little sad - we've had five houses since we've been married and each one has pleasant memories and then we remember why we moved and it's ok. You are a smart person not to want to lay slate, it is a lot of labor for sure.

    Hi Meredith, thanks, I hope they appreciate it. The housing market will probably skyrocket again and they'll make a bundle without lifiting a finger. Ha! Oh well, I am looking forward to my new studio and traveling across the country for a little while for a much needed vacation for me and especially for Gary.

  5. Linda, Don;t worry if the Market Climbs it will be SLOW and STEADY for a long while. No speedy recovers here. WOW you are amazing at your talents! By the way, aaa yeah slat...muuumm not for me thanks!

  6. Hi Mary, I think you are correct, we aren't out of the woods yet with the economy, not with the unemployment like it is & folks have used all their savings just to pay the bills & stay afloat. Yeah thanks, slate is a lot of work, but it lasts forever too. It'd probably be there even after the house fell down.

  7. what do you not know how to do? this is so interesting... good luck with packing, etc...come to NC!

  8. Hi Amy, there was a time Gary threatened to forbit me from looking at the home & garden channel on TV and of course I read a lot. Middle of October we are heading out - can't wait, we are going to try to visit everyone along the way, more about that later.


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