Here’s the dilemma: a perfectly solid yet ugly floor that needs a makeover, but all my sweet cash is being spent on avocado toast and Netflix. Well, actually, I spend most of it on the dog, audiobooks and the upkeep of this wreck of a house, but I am sure you can relate. The look I desired, those intricate encaustic cement tiles with bold Moroccan inspired patterns, was simply out of my budget, but what I could afford was a tin of paint and a stencil. Add a little elbow grease and voilà – a wee while later, I am in love with my new floor and ready to spill the beans on how it all went down…
If you are a regular reader of chez nous, this post is the latest update on our spare room project that I started last summer, with a goal of transforming a room entirely by painting the living daylights out of it. You can see how it all started here – spoiler alert, nothing got finished by the time my ma arrived.
Painting a floor does not really differ from other types of decorating except when it comes to escalating levels of lower back pain in people approaching 30 or over and the importance of proper prep before any actual painting takes place, starting of course from choosing the right product for the type of flooring you wish to paint. Some surfaces can be a bit fiendish to refinish properly, ceramic tiles being up there, and this is what we had going on in chez nous.
I wanted to emulate the look of the century old cement tiles we have around the house and chose a simple colour palette of white and charcoal grey. My chosen motif, nice and straightforward floral-esque design, was a near perfect match to a set of authentic tiles found in our home already and the plastic stencil was delivered to us cheaply and cheerfully via Amazon.*
Please note, this is going to be one looooong read so if you’re just interested on how to use the stencil, feel free to skip the following chapter, but otherwise here are some basics on painting flooring and tiles first:
* I am not endorsing Amazon, or any other provider of back pain in form of cheap renovating goods, just so you know, but if a suit from Amazon or any other company happens to be reading this, give a girl a break and send me a gift card – I got my eyes on this great book on the history of dentistry that I really would have liked to buy, but I got paint instead. Products and companies I mention by name here are simply my personal choices and I am not getting paid to advocate any of them.
Painting a tiled floor – the basics
Now, fresh wood and unsealed concrete are incredibly forgiving subjects and can be successfully coated with just about anything, even finger paints, but any type of flooring with an existing finish such as laminate, vinyl, polished concrete, lacquered parquet, etc. will need specialist paints and thorough cleaning and/or sanding to ensure good looking and long lasting results. Tiles of all sorts, especially glazed ceramic tiles are notoriously difficult to paint successfully because the surface of the tile is too smooth for a normal product to stick onto.
My fugly floor in question had semi glossy 10 x 10 cm ceramic tiles, sporting a delightful faux stone effect, with a few red and yellow accent tiles thrown in the mix. It was beautifully levelled and expertly laid in – almost perfect in every way, thus making it a great candidate for my Franken-tile attempt. I have been painting things before I was old enough to buy my own underwear, but you really do not have to be a pro to pull this off. All you need to know is what you are dealing with and which products work best for that surface.
So far, so simple.
Before heading all gung-ho to the colour charts to choose a dreamy shade for the new floor to be, I am sorry to be a killjoy: floor paint, especially one suitable for tiled floors is extremely limited in shades and you might struggle to find that frosted tiffany blue or a millennial blush. Trade quality paints, which I would recommend for most projects like this, seem to come in just about any colour your heart desires as long as you only like black, grey, blood red (yeah, that one beats me) and cream. Brown if you are lucky. BUT hear me out, these things are designed to last, significantly longer in fact than any acrylic or vinyl based DIY floor paint. Yes, they are available in such shades as Cappuccino Kisses and Marrakesh Midnight, but they are also incredibly easily damaged by wear and tear and bond poorly with the likes of ceramic tiles. It is not a cost issue; the trade paint is often the cheaper of the two, but rather a difference in expected user experience. DIY paints, as they are designed for amateur use, need to be user friendly, easy to clean, odourless and non-toxic. All of this is great, but the technology is not here yet to replace the durability of trickier to use oil or solvent based trade paints that are designed for people who know how to use them safely and efficiently.
I would invite you to think how long you wish the new paintjob to last and how likely you are to want to make touch-ups where necessary. Trade paints are cheaper and more durable, but also trickier to use and a bitch to clean up. Top quality polymer paints designed for DIY tile upgrades cost significantly more, but come in prettier shades and tend to be water soluble, making them better to use when kids and pets are around during painting. They do, however, tend to stay nice just about a few years if used on a well trembled floor, in a humid bathroom or a steamy kitchen. The choice is yours. I would consider using a DIY product on small decorative projects and on things that are not subjected to much wear and tear.
Unlike when painting a wall or a piece of unfinished wood, prepping a floor is paramount. I cannot stress this enough. The glazed surface of a bog standard ceramic tile is dead smooth and absorbs nothing, thus helping the paint naught when it tries to bond i.e. stick onto the surface. Any impurities such as residue from cleaning products or even oil from your fingertips makes bonding of the paint even harder, resulting in chipping and flaking of the paint later down the line. This is why you should use a heavy duty degreaser such as sugar soap to clean the paintable surface as thoroughly as possible. This stuff needs to be rinsed off with water as in turn the residue from sugar soap also harms your paint job. Always wear thick gloves and make sure none gets on your skin or eyes! This may sound overdramatic, especially coming from someone like me who usually flips health and safety the finger, but you tend to burn off the skin on your fingertips only once before learning to double-glove.
Once your tiles are perfectly dry again, you are pretty much ready to rock and roll. I did a bit of strategic masking taping before painting, just to make sure I didn’t mess up any newly painted walls, but this step is optional and depends on the steadiness of your hand. I used a regular old angled brush to go over the edges and a small foam roller for the rest, applying two coats and letting the floor dry overnight between them. This was enough to provide an even coverage for me, but depending on the colour of your old floor, more might be needed. Check the drying time and how to best clean your equipment from the paint tin as this can vary from product to product. My chosen paint, Layland’s floor and tile paint from their trade range, needed to be cleaned off with white spirit and took just over 6 hours to be touch dry. I found it pleasant to use; it adhered very well to my ceramic tiles and dried nice and quick. For an oil based product, it was relatively odourless, but to avoid any headaches, you might want to make sure your working environment is well ventilated.
It was the height of summer when I started and it was lovely to work with the windows open, with the warm wind in my back… until next morning when upon my return I noticed an army of little beetles that had flown in, attracted by the brilliant white paint and stuck. Oh dear me. I am pretty sure the second coat took care of most insect residue I was unable to nip out.
If you only wanted to paint your floor in one colour this is you done my friend – congratulations! A little bit of extra durability can always be added later by painting on an additional layer of clear sealant, available in most home improvement stores. Just be patient enough to let your floor cure thoroughly first. Having finished painting my tiles white, this was merely the half-way point and I was itching to get stencilling!
DIY patterned tiles with a stencil – more trouble than it’s worth?
Once my base colour was all nice and dry it was time to start stencilling in the Moroccan inspired pattern. I had bought my stencil online sometime prior, having made sure the size of the pattern corresponded with the size of my tiles, 10 x 10 centimetres per tile. This type of pattern repeat is usually formed rotating four tiles, each containing a quarter or a motif, but the stencil I ordered was for one complete repeat, in effect taking the space of 4 full tiles on each imprint, so 20 x 20 centimetres in total. The kit I ordered also had a quarter stencil to use in tight corners and such, but I found I could easily manage without this as the thin plastic stencil was very easily manipulated around tight spaces.
As I was painting on actual tiles with grout lines, positioning each imprint was very easy. The stencil did come with a guide, but I blocked it off with paint, having found out it did not correspond with the width of my grout lines that were smaller than the modern standard. The grey paint (Leyland Trade Floors and Tiles) was oil based and taking hours to fully dry, meaning I had to avoid placing the stencil on top of what I had created that day. So in essence I was able to stencil in every other motif in one painting session, leaving my work to dry and return to fill in the gaps the next day. I obviously cocked this bit up once or twice, forgetting to leave full four tiles between motifs and needed to erase what I had achieved before starting again. This was especially irritating in a case where I had missed one set of tiles before diligently filling in several rows of perfectly neat patterns that would not correspond with what I had already started.
Oh dear-y me… Look twice, paint once or how was it.
Where I did find positioning of the stencil really straight forward, the actual forming of an impression took more practice. Do not believe anyone who tells you it is easy. They are filthy liars, as getting a neat print each time was messy, time consuming and really incredibly frustrating to the point of wanting to give up, curl up in a ball and rock myself to oblivion.
And let me remind you, I am supposed to be a professional painter.
In theory, using a stencil is silly simple – try it out on paper and you’ll see. Even a toddler can do it. Paper is porous and take in a generous amount of any paint before making a mess. Some other materials too, such as concrete or wood and plaster in particular make excellent bases for stencilled patterns. Ceramic tile, however, does not. It is glossy and slippy and does not absorb any of the paint, making the process of lifting the stencil up incredibly precarious. Too little paint and the stencil won’t slide, but you miss out on the coverage. Too much and you end up filling in all of those lovely details of your pattern. Just forget about using a roller, too. That would have been too nice and easy wouldn’t it! I made my imprints using an improvised stamp made from a stick and two household sponges taped at the end of it.
AND hear this, you also need to keep cleaning the back of the stencil if you wish to avoid fouling the next motif. Pain. In. The. Neck.
Admittedly, working with oil paint made things worse, but on the flip side, I would rather stick pins in my eyes than go through this amount of effort to have it all rub off within months having used a less durable product. So if you still want to get your ceramic tiles stencilled, I would recommend keeping a pile of newspapers at hand when you need to flip the stencil over to clean it (after every second impression was my average) and do remove the excess paint with makeup removal wipes. This is the best way I manage the mess when oil painting. Rinsing my tools with white spirit is bad enough and I do not want that stuff on my hands any more than I have to. The cheapest wipes are about a pound per pack in Boots and if that is not a good price for your sanity and comfort, I do not know what is. No more bleeding cuticles, thank you very much.
Regarding the style I was going for, I did not want my floor to look like brand new vinyl so I tried varying the amount of paint in each stamp to give an impression of handmade cement tiles and I thought the effect worked pretty well. By mixing it up a bit, I made everything more relaxed for myself as tiny mistakes or slips were not going to be as noticeable. When a proper slip or a spill would occur, I simply wiped off the fouled section with white spirit and start again once the surface was dry.
The natural grid of the tiles helped me get the pattern in order most of the way, but as I was getting closer towards the corners of my room, I noticed it was far from square and I had to re-think how to finish. My husband and I had wanted to leave around a tile’s width of white, a sort of a border if you will, running around the edges of the room, but this was going to be impossible, especially if using full tiles and full motifs only. At this time I was seriously contemplating on drinking bleach rather than finishing this project and a holiday we had planned in August could not come any sooner. Having returned to chez nous after a few months with our respect families in Finland and UK, I was mentally in the right place to continue. James and I solved the issue of uneven walls by ignoring the actual grout lines and making a new guide using strategically placed masking tape. Having tapered the pattern all the way into this new border mimicking the natural curvature of the walls, the un-square-ness of the room actually seemed much less noticeable.
Oh boy. I nearly cried as I was stamping out the final impression – I was ecstatic to be done at last! The floor looked great. I felt great. And everything was great.
Even Rusty the dog seemed to think it was pretty great, not least as the room had been out of bounds for him for months.
You must be dying to know was it all worth it just to save on a few Bob. The answer is a whole hearted and absolute NO WAY IN FLAMING HELL. Although I was taking the piss with the avocado toasts and ridiculous cost of genuine cement tiles, I have been deceitful to a point: this project was never just about money or the lack of it. We have a stack of amazingly beautiful, turn of the century, French made cement tiles sitting in our cellar as we speak. I even made a wee blog post about sourcing them a while back now… I simply could not see the point of demolishing a floor for looks alone. I do believe in period materials when it comes to restoring old houses, and yes, I believe everyone has the right to renovate their properties as they choose, but it sits poorly with my personal views on sustainability and consumption to replace something that is not essentially in need of being replaced. By painting a floor that was bothering me, I was able to keep it for longer without creating waste out of something that was not yet at the end of its useable life.
And about these stunning tiles we have waiting on the side lines…? Those will have a part to play elsewhere in this house, don’t you worry, eventually stepping in to replace a cracked concrete floor of our balcony.
Yes, I could have just as well covered up this ugly floor with a vinyl replica of the same pattern, widely available at any home improvement store or online, but then I would have this whole sustainability thing bothering me again. Also, I really do not like vinyl. It was also wildly exciting to see if I could actually paint a tiled floor successfully and I think the results speak for themselves. I am curious to know how long it will stay nice as well. We do have a sizeable Alsatian dog in the house and that section of floor gets a fair bit of traffic, but I will keep you guys posted.
In the meantime, if you got any questions on painting or stencils or avocado toast, I’d love to be able to help – just drop me a message below. This is what blogging is all about.
Until next time, à bientôt!