Cutting Tile With Other Tools

CIRCULAR SAW WITH A DIAMOND BLADE When it comes to making diagonal cuts in large tiles, my wet saws often fall short. Larger-capacity wet saws are available, but they can cost $5,000 or more, and their massive size requires two people for transport and setup. Instead I clamp a straightedge to my work table and cut the tile with a small circular saw fitted with a diamond blade (20). This setup is a very low-cost alternative that’s easy to transport and carry. I use the same saw to cut through grout joints when I’m replacing individual tiles, and to make tile rip-outs easier. The smooth action of the blade is not nearly as destructive to neighboring tiles as a hammer and chisel.

ANGLE GRINDER WITH A DIAMOND BLADE Some shapes are just too impractical to cut on a conventional wet saw or a small circular saw. For very large cuts — such as the curve made on the 24-inch porcelain tile shown here — I use an angle grinder with a dry-cutting diamond blade. This is also what I use to cut through tiles and grout when I am ripping out an old installation. (I can use the grinder for cutting galvanized lath, rebar, and other materials, too, simply by switching to a wheel for cutting metal.) When using the grinder to cut a tile — especially if the cut will show — I use a four-step process. First, I rough out the desired shape until the blade is 1/8 inch to 1/4 inch from the cut line (21). Next I cut away excess material until the blade is about 1/32 inch from the line. Then I cut exactly to the line (22). For the last step I use a tile rubbing stone or a belt sander (see photo 29, page 47) to smooth the cut and make a small finishing bevel.

CUTTING HOLES IN TILE Hole saws are traditionally the best tools for cutting standard-size holes in any material, and there are many diamond-edge hole saws on the market for cutting holes in tile. The problem with the ones I’ve used is that the carbide-tip pilot bit is absolutely useless — especially when I’m trying to get a clean hole in porcelain tile. So I remove the pilot bit completely. To prevent the hole-saw bit from wandering, I make a guide from a piece of scrap plywood with holes matched to the size of the diamond bit. Some diamond-core bits are advertised as dry-cutting — but even a dry bit can also be used with water. Bathing the tile and bit in water can extend the life of most bits 300% or more. To simplify wet cutting, I use a wet saw’s catch basin. First, to avoid damaging the basin, I place a piece of scrap 3/4-inch plywood in the bottom. Then I mark the holes’ location on the face of the tile with an indelible pen. Next, I place the tile on the plywood shield and line up the plywood guide (23), making sure that the whole setup is under water. While pressing firmly down against the guide, I ease the bit into the face of the tile. One complication is that the plywood guide inhibits the free flow of clean water. Therefore, I remove the plywood guide as soon as the bit creates a continuous circular kerf in the tile (24). This kerf will guide the bit the rest of the way through the tile.

ANOTHER WAY TO CUT HOLES IN TILE As an alternative to wet-cutting holes — particularly useful when cutting holes in tiles that are already installed — I use a variable-speed router-type tool made by RotoZip (, fitted with the company’s companion dry-cutting diamond hole saw (25). Rather than use a guide, I rely on a technique popular with stone fabricators. First I mark the position of the hole, then I introduce the bit into the face of the tile while holding the tool at an angle. As the bit eats into the tile, I gradually tilt the tool upward until the axis of the bit is square to the face of the tile. Now I can ease the bit through the body of the tile.

SCORE-AND-SNAP CUTTER Power tools are not always necessary, especially when making straight cuts in porcelain tiles. Because this dense tile is difficult to cut with a traditional score-and-snap cutter, many installers switch to a wet saw. But cutting porcelain can be slow even with a specialty blade mounted on the wet saw. Plus, the material has to be completely dry before it can be installed. The extra time that this entails can really eat into an installer’s profit. With the right technique, the lowly snap cutter can produce clean cuts in porcelain tile with little or no breakage. Before scoring the tile, brush the scoring path with kerosene or very light oil (26), then score and snap. The oil lubricates the scoring wheel for a consistent and even score, so all that’s left is to wipe off the residual kerosene or oil.

SHAPING THE EDGES OF TILE Frequently, ceramic and stone tiles with bull-nosed edges aren’t available, so I have to make my own. I begin by making multiple passes with a dry-cutting grinder to rough out the desired shape (27). Then, using progressively finer grit discs, I use a wet-grinder (28) — which shoots coolant directly through the spindle — to sand and polish the edge to its finished shape.

A BELT SANDER FOR SHAPING EDGES One of the biggest time-savers in my tool kit is a bench-top belt sander fitted with a coarse-grit belt (29). I use this tool to finish any visible cut edges that won’t be concealed with overhanging trim. Smoothing tile edges can be done by hand with a rubbing stone, but that takes time and energy. A belt sander can do the work in a matter of seconds.

BEFORE YOU PACK UP YOUR SAW Cutting tile with a wet saw generates a lot of fine particles that get circulated by the coolant pump along with the water. If these particles build up over time, they can shorten the life of the pump (30), so the catch basin should be cleaned regularly. Run the pump in a bucket of clean water to rinse it out after each use (31).

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