Tile Cutting Guide - how to cut ceramic tile by hand

The first technique the prospective tiler has to learn is how to cut the things, but of course the term is a total misnomer. What he or she really needs to learn is how to break a tile – cleanly, efficiently and safely. Here is how to do it.

Please check out my article on the necessary tools for any tiling job and make sure you've planned your project fully.

Cutting Glazed tile

Usually glazed tile is easiest to cut. Scoring a line to weaken the tile is made easier by the layer of glazing in the surface, although if the body is highly vitrified or you are using tougher, porcelain tiles then the advantage is lost.

Cutting Unglazed tile

Manufacturing processes used to make these a nightmare to cut. Imperfections and inconsistencies in the tile meant that straight scoring and clean breaks were difficult, not to mention tough on the hands. These days, modern manufacturing processes have led to improvements, but without some heavy cutting equipment you do not want to cut many of these.

First things first

Always wear protective leather gloves and safety goggles when cutting tile. The edges of the tiles may be razor sharp, and shards from the tile could do irreparable damage to an eye.

Straight cutting with a tile scriber

First, mark the tile with a pencil or water-based felt-tip pen (first checking that it’s not going to stain the tile). Make a template from cardboard first if you think it might be necessary.

The trick with scribing is to make one firm, relatively quick movement. Making several attempts makes an uneven break far more likely.

Next, using another tile or metal rule, use your tile scriber to score a clean line in the glaze. Then, place a support under one side the line you have just scored (such as your metal ruler.) Push firmly and evenly on each side of the tile and it should break evenly. Feels good, huh?

Straight Cutting with a Tile Cutter

The principle is the same for straight cutting with a handheld tile cutter. The cutter will include a cutting wheel made with a small diamond, or from tungsten carbide. First, use this to score a line across the glaze of the tile in exactly the same way as before.

Next, place the tile cutter level with the line you have scribed so that the tile is placed between the top jaw with the two even flanges and the lower jaw with the single bar. Squeezing the handles of the cutter will apply even pressure to each side of the tile (one of its advantages) and help to ensure a clean break. You will not need to apply much pressure.

Sawing Ceramic Tile

Hand sawing is time consuming but can achieve great results. Neat curves are possible with this method, for example. Don’t use too much force or you risk breaking particularly lightweight tiles. You help to avoid this you can place some MDF or light wood under the tile to give it support. Cut through both the wood and the tile to reduce the risk of breakages.

Complex Cuts with Tile Nippers

Compared with the almost instant gratification of straight cutting, using tile nippers for difficult cuts is torturously slow and can be difficult. There are times, however, when you have no choice. (When notching a tile – something you are likely to need to do a lot of – notching is your most likely option, unless you have an electric saw.)

Scribe the tile first, as this will help you to achieve a neat cut. Next, hold the tile face up in your left hand (vice versa if you are left-handed) and place the tile in between the jaws of your nipper. Only plan to nip a small amount at a time until you really feel you have mastered the technique.

Place the tile in between the jaws and squeeze the handles firmly, twisting your wrist a little to remove a little piece of tile each time. The larger the piece you try to remove, the more likely you’ll break the entire tile and have to start again.

Straight cutting and notching

A common and simple technique for fitting tiles around pipes and so forth is to first break the tile using the standard straight cutting method, and then notching semi-circles (for example) into each half of the split tile. Obviously, you should mark the tile before splitting it!

That just about covers the basic tile cutting techniques using hand tools. If you remain patient and avoid cutting corners (no pun intended) then you shouldn’t have any problems.

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Comments 1 comment

karl marx 5 years ago

surely one of us could invent an easy non-tool tile cutting method ; my immediate thought-all tiles to be divided on the back as with a block of chocolate which could be snapped off as required need then only a tidy up of the edges with abrasive paper ????fraternal greetings to all

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