A Guide How to Set Outdoor Patio Tiles

Worker Places New Tile on a Bathroom Floor

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Materials, Spreading Thinset and Setting Outdoor Patio Tiles

You’ve chosen an outdoor patio tile, prepared the concrete slab, done a proper layout, allowed for expansion joints, and purchased the right adhesive. Now that all the prep work is done, it’s time to start setting the units in place.

Things you’ll need. I keep all of these tools handy when setting outdoor patio tile: knee pads (you’ll thank me at the end of the day), trowels (margin trowels and, especially, notched trowels), buckets, spacers, a sponge, a tape measure, a pencil, and a level.

  1. Where to start. After completing your layout with a grid, you should be able to see where every outdoor patio tile goes. That means you can start anywhere. Some people start in the middle, some start in the corner farthest away from where they will be cutting tile and mixing thinset and work their way back. Wherever you start, make sure you don’t tile yourself into a corner. After the outdoor patio tiles are placed in thinset, you can’t walk on them until the next day. Make sure you have an escape route in mind before you begin. You don’t want to spend the night on your new outdoor tile patio waiting for the thinset to dry.
  2. Choose the right trowel. Outdoor patio tiles are set using notched trowels, available at most home improvement stores. Use a trowel with notches that are appropriate for the units you are setting. The larger the tile, the larger the notch you need. A 12-foot by 12-foot outdoor patio tile needs to be set with at least a 1/4-inch notch trowel.
  3. Spread thinset. Using your notched trowel, spread the thinset (i.e., the tile adhesive) over a small area, enough to cover four tiles to start with. It’s all right to cover most of the grid lines, just make sure you leave the corners where the lines intersect so you can see where to place the tiles. Using the notch side of the trowel, spread thinset so the notches are a consistent size and all running in the same direction.
  4. Place your first outdoor patio tile. Line it up on the grid lines. Apply pressure to the tile to bed it into the adhesive.
  5. Take the tile back up. I know, you just put it down, but you need to check the coverage of the thinset on the tile. If there isn’t enough coverage, the installation won’t last. Almost all of the back of the outdoor patio tile should be covered with thinset. If not, you need a trowel with a larger notch.
  6. Re-set the outdoor patio tile.
  7. Set the next outdoor patio tile. Set the next tile using your grid as a guide. If you didn’t make a grid you can use spacers, small plastic dividers used to equally space tiles from each other. With tile spacers, the joints between tiles will all be the same size, but without a grid it is easy to get off course and not run your tiles in a straight line.
  8. Continue setting your outdoor patio tiles. Continue this process until all the units are laid. You will almost certainly need to cut some of the units. For instructions, see How to Cut Tile at the bottom of this article.


    • Keep it clean. I keep a bucket of water and a sponge handy so I can clean as I go. It’s much easier than trying to clean things the next day when the thinset has started to cure. Don’t worry if you miss a few spots; it will come off the next day, but it’s much easier to clean as you go.
    • The right amount of thinset. If there is a lot of thinset coming up between the units, your notched trowel is too large. You need to find the proper balance of complete coverage without too much excess.
    • Use a level to check for straight lines. After each row of tiles, I put my level against the edge to check for straightness. The grid helps, but it is always good to double check.
    • Take your time. Don’t try to go too fast. Only cover a small area at a time with thinset.If it sits too long it will film over, not allowing a proper bond to occur. If this happens, remove and apply new thinset.
    • Stay off the outdoor patio tiles until the next day.

​How to Cut Tile

In almost every tile installation you will have to cut tiles at some point. Don’t be intimidated. With the proper tools, it is both safe and easy. There are two commonly used tools for cutting tile:

Using a wet saw. A wet saw cuts tile with a circular blade made with a diamond tip. You place the tile on a tray and slide it through the blade. It’s called a wet saw because water is used to keep the blade cool and lubricated, which produces a cleaner cut, prolongs blade life and keeps the dust down.

If you aren’t comfortable with power tools, the wet saw may be a little intimidating. Don’t worry; wet saws are perfectly safe to use to cut tile. In fact, even though the blade can cut through hard construction material, you can touch it with your finger while it is spinning and it won’t hurt you at all. Your finger is too soft for the blade to cut. You shouldn’t go out of your way to put your fingers in front of the blade. It’s not good practice for using power tools. But, if it does happen, there’s nothing to worry about. You can concentrate on making a good cut and not on keeping all your fingers.

Many large home improvement stores rent wet saws. If you are undertaking a large project that may require renting a saw for several days, it may be cheaper to buy a wet saw with which to cut tile. You can buy some saws new for under $200.

Cut tile with a tile cutter. These are great tools for cutting tiles if it is a small job. After sliding a small, sharp wheel across the unit to be cut, you push down on a handle, breaking it along the scored line. Tile cutters are great if you’re trying to cut tiles that are smaller and thinner; they also work well for most ceramics. Porcelain units can be cut with tile cutters, but they don’t always break in a straight line so there may be more waste in your project.


    • If you only have a few units to cut, mark them with a pencil and take them to a home improvement store. Many stores will cut tiles for you for a small fee.
    • While cutting tiles is relatively easy, there is room for error. Make sure you order a few extra to allow for mistakes.
    • When using a wet saw to cut tiles, I always wear eye and ear protection.

By Joe Norton