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The One Thing Every Tile Installation Needs: Movement Joints

backer rod

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If I were to ask “what is one thing that every tile installation needs?” I would get answers like “tile, mortar, trowel, patience”. Nobody would answer with “Movement Joints”. Nobody. Most people wouldn’t understand what they are. And installing them sounds like it would be technical and complicated.

 

Good news! The majority of movement joints aren’t technical or complicated. In fact you may have installed them without knowing it.

 

This post will discuss what movement joints are in the world of tile and how to install them. But first:

Frequently Asked Questions About Movement Joints

(By the way, nobody frequently asks any of these)

  1. I’m tiling a small floor. Do I need movement joints? Yes!
  2. I’m using Ditra which is an uncoupling mat. Do I need movement joints? Yes!
  3. I’m tiling over cement board. Do I need movement joints? Yes!
  4. My concrete floor doesn’t have expansion joints. Do I still need them? Yes!
  5. I’m not tiling over a concrete floor. Do I need movement joints? Yes!
  6. I’m tiling shower walls. Do I need movement joints? Yes!
  7. Is a movement joint the same as an expansion joint? No
  8. Is it the same as a control joint? No

What are movement joints?

Also known as soft joints. Simply put- a movement joint is a gap, or space, next to a tile that lets a tile floor move a bit. There’s two kinds of movement joints: perimeter and field.
perimeter field movement joints
Perimeter and field movement joints

Perimeter movement

These are the kind that every tile installation should have. When you place a tile next to a wall it should have a gap between it and the wall. That’s a perimeter joint. There should be a gap around the entire floor (or wall). Typically this gap doesn’t get filled with anything. Typically it’s covered by baseboards around the room.

If you are butting up to another hard surface- like hardwood floors- then there should be a small gap between the tile and the hardwood. This you will probably want to fill with caulking. More on that later in the post.

I know in some areas of the US that it’s a common practice to fill the perimeter gap with grout up to the wall and not have any baseboards. This is wrong and it’s not a good idea. If you fill the gap with grout then you no longer have a space for movement. You then expose your tile floor to the danger of cracks and loose tiles.

Movement in the field

 

A field joint is usually a grout joint that is left ungrouted. Usually it gets filled with a flexible caulking that matches the grout color so that you don’t even see the movement joint. This ungrouted grout joint would have to extend from wall-to-wall to be effective.

 

In the drawing above I’ve drawn in the movement joints. The green color is the perimeter movement and the orange color is the joint in the field. A common tactic is to place them in doorways (if it works out) so that they are as short as possible.

 

tile movement joint
Can you tell which one is the movement joint?

Where to place the field joints

 

Here’s the industry standards for movement joints (ej171). They need to be placed:

 

Around the perimeter:  Always
Indoors: Every 20-25 feet
Outdoors or in direct sunlight: Every 8-12 feet

 

So if you are just tiling a small bathroom floor then you just need to make sure that you leave a gap around the perimeter of no less than 1/4 inch. But if you have a floor that is say 20ft by 30 ft. then you’ll need to break up the 30 foot run into two smaller sections that will be able to move and flex.

 

Keep in mind that direct sunlight is an interior area in the sun. So a sun room needs the movement joints more frequently than a normal interior. But also if you have an area with French doors or a slider this can also be an area that is in direct sunlight.

 

How to install movement joints in tile floors

 

So we’ve covered what movement joints are, why they are important, and where to put them. So here’s how to install them in the field.

 

movement joint
A movement joint is typically an ungrouted grout joint

 

You need to leave yourself a gap that is ungrouted. This space needs to be clean down to the substrate. So you don’t want thinset or anything else in the joint.

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Next tape off both sides of the joint. You are going to be caulking this joint so it can get messy. The tape will keep the clean up simple.
backer rod
Tape off both sides of the joint and install backer rod

 

Take some backer rod and stuff it in the joint. Backer rod is a stringy foam product. Typically it’s found in the door/window/insulation section at the big box store. I use 1/4 inch which works for most tile applications but it does come in bigger thicker sizes.

Why use backer rod? Because it helps the performance of the joint. There’s a reason and science behind why the backer rod is helpful but I want to keep this simple so I’ll leave it for another post. Make sure you stuff the foam down so that it doesn’t stick up out of the joint.

 

You can use either 100% silicone or a urethane to caulk these movement joints. The urethanes are heavier duty but trying to find colors that match the grout can be difficult. For this reason, I prefer the 100% silicones that are color matched to the grout. You are supposed to use a silicone that meets Shore A hardness. Custom Building Products 100% silicone caulk meets this requirement and comes in several colors. It’s not widely available in the consumer market but can be ordered through Home Depot. However, not all manufacturer’s color matched caulks meet this requirement.

 

 

caulk movement joints

Apply the caulking to the joint and tool it down. You can use a specialized caulking tool or just use your finger. I wipe the excess off on a paper towel. You can now remove the tape on both sides and dispose.

 

movement joint
The tape helps in the clean up
For the final step I use a bit of denatured alcohol (found in the paint section with paint thinner, mineral spirits, etc). Just a few drops on the caulk joint will help smooth out any unevenness from removing the tape. You can also put some on a rag to clean and detail around the joint.

 

silicone movement joint
Finished!

 

You can notice just a little bit of a different sheen to it in the photo below but most people would never know unless it was pointed out to them.
For more silicone caulk installation tips see this post: 

Silicone Caulk: How to Caulk a Bathtub or a Shower

Profiles

 

If you don’t want to mess with caulking the joints they also make profiles that get installed as you set the tile. It’s a little different look- more commercial- but can look good in the right application.

 

The importance of movement joints I don’t feel is well known. However, by installing them with every floor and wall installation can help prevent hard to identify problems and issues down the road.

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26 comments

  1. So if have a 12 x 10 room with a 3 foot closet which all will be tiled, should I put in a movement joint?

    • You’ll need a perimeter joint but unless your room is outside or in direct sunlight then a movement joint wouldn’t be required.

      You can put one in the closet entry if you feel that you need one.

  2. So for a shower wall, would you just leave your corners as movement joints?

  3. Would the grout caulk that the tile stores sell work for the movement joint. I have always used that for my inside corners and where wall meets floor or countertop.

    • The written specification calls for something called “shore a hardness”. Not all silicones meet the spec. I’m fairly certain the acrylic caulks at the box stores dont qualify.

      But if it’s your own house and you want to try it then its up to you.

  4. How would you use a movement joint in this case? A 20′ x 26′ room, no doors. Laying porcelain wood plank tile in an offset pattern.

    • There’s two directions the planks can run: either the 20 foot way or the 26 foot way. If you can break up the 26 foot dimension into two sections with a continuous soft joint that would be ideal. It’s recommended to install this joint somewhere in the middle of the room rather than break it into a 24 ft and 2 foot section, for instance.

  5. We’ve just had a contractor install tile in a small entryway (4′ x 5′). Oddly, they installed baseboard first and then butted the tile right up to the baseboard (not even room for caulk). I raised the aesthetic issue as well as a concern that shrink/swell in the baseboard would cause loose tiles. I’m being told by the contract that it’s fine. ‘m far from an expert, and as an expert in other things, I know what it’s like to be questioned by people that have no clue what they’re talking about…I don’t want to be that clueless person. I’m right, aren’t I. It doesn’t matter how small the tiled area is, there should be some gap at the perimeter, which can be covered by baseboard or baseboard and shoe.

    • Yes. It should be tiled first, with a small gap around the perimeter, then baseboard over that. I know in some areas of the US they tile right up to the wall with no baseboard and no caulk but it’s still not the correct way.

      I’m not sure if that’s they way your contractor would normally do it (baseboard first)? Maybe it worked out to be full tile by installing the baseboard first? But it is proper to have a gap all the way around.

  6. What is your process for a wall to floor joint in a shower? I plan on installing the floor tile (small mosaic) first with a perimeter gap un-caulked. Then install the wall tile (3×6 subway) leaving a gap of 1/8″ (grout line width) and caulking. I think the wall tile over the floor tile will look the best and hide the movement joint the best since it is on the wall and not the floor. Thoughts?

    • I don’t think that there’s a right or a wrong on this. I usually do it the way that you’ve described though.

      Not only do I think that it looks better but it’s usually easier to cut the floor tile into the wall and hide that joint with the wall tile.

  7. I’m seeing some conflicting instructions. Reading Byrne’s Setting Tile book, and he says to create perimeter expansion joints by leaving a gap all the way down to the wood subfloor (cut the back board short as well as the tile), insert backer rod and caulk the gap. But in the same chapter talking about waterproofing wall/floor corners with liquid membrane, it’s trowel on the laticrete and embed fabric (and I’m assuming that’s over the backer board).

    I’ll be doing a small bathroom with a tub and surround so I only need the perimeter moving joints and I would like to properly waterproofed floor. The big one is the floor to tub joint. So the questions are 1) what is the proper way to create a movement joint if the corner is to be covered with liquid membrane and 2) how would you set it up at the floor to tub joint where you don’t want to bring the waterproofing above the tiles? There’s radiator pipes coming up through the floor as well.

    I would be grateful for your expertise. Thanks!

    • You’ll want to leave a gap in the corners no matter what. If you decided to waterproof the floor-to-wall joint then I personally would use something like Kerdi tape (or another brand). But if you had to do it with liquid then backer rod underneath drywall, or cement board, then liquid–>fabric–>more liquid would be the way to do it. You could indent the fabric a bit so that there’s a little too much fabric in the gap. This would give a little room for movement.

      For the tub joint, I would just use backer rod and silicone/urethane. Do it after the floor is waterproofed.

  8. We’ve got a hot water radiator inside a metal enclosure that’s built into the wall. The drywall is jointed to it. The enclosure edge is 5 inches from the tub so I was going to put cement board over that extra 5″ and tile up to the enclosure. But this would mean there would be both cement board and gypsum up against the hot radiator enclosure. Is this likely to cause extra flexing and cracking at the CBU/gypsum joint?

    • I wouldn’t think so if it’s just a matter of it being warmer than other areas. Although if the thinset used to mud the seam dries too quickly that would cause the mortar to be weaker than normal.

  9. I’m a little late to the movement joint post but…..
    I’ll be installing 12 x 24 ceramic in a 24′ x 11.5′ mostly open kitchen. One side of the 24′ length will continue straight down a 12′ long, 3.5′ wide hallway which will total 36′ in length. My guess here is that I should add a movement joint about where that hallway starts. The tile will be running in a 1/3 overlap the long way so any movement joint added will not be straight across but rather stair stepped.
    Do you see any problem doing it that way if I make sure that joint goes both across and up/down the side of the tile to make a continuous movement joint?
    Should a movement joint be included in the cement backerboard underlayment as well?

    Thank you,
    Mike

    • So the movement joint should only be in the tile part of the floor and shouldn’t extend down to the backer board.

      But a stair-stepped movement joint doesn’t perform as well as a straight across joint. So while I don’t want to recommend that you do it that way it doesn’t mean that failure is guaranteed either. So you’ll have to weigh the circumstances. If you are doing it yourself and it’s your own floor you may decide to take the chance.

  10. Thanks for the quick reply and the assistance.

    It’s not my house otherwise I’d experiment.
    I’m going to chance it and leave out the joint since at present, there’s no way to do a straight across unless I add some sort of design element, (which is not planned for at the moment), or cut across some tile.

    Thanks again,
    Mike

    • It’s my opinion that a zig-zagged movement joint will perform better than not having one at all. But I don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking it’s as good as a straight across joint.

      All the best.

  11. Mike,

    Well, the nightmare has occurred in my 1445 sf house. Virtually our entire house is covered in the same ceramic tile that is no longer available. Several months ago, we began hearing “crunching” sounds in a few of the tiles. Then, several days ago on consecutive days in 2 different areas, tiles tented accompanied by a loud noise. I dug the grout out and removed the tented tiles. Approximately 40% of the entire area has some loose tiles, the other 60% has no loose tiles. The thought of replacing all these tiles in terms of mess and cost is overwhelming. Here is my question. Does it make sense to try and put several field joints in both the damaged area and the good area? It would be impossible to put perimeter joints in terms of the time it would take to dig out the old grout around the edges of the entire house. But adding field joints would be very doable, I just don’t know how effective it would be. I would also remove and reset the loose tiles. It would seem like I have nothing to lose other than the time to dig out a fairly limited amount of grout and replace it with the field joints like you instruct.

    • Having room for expansion is better than not having room. So if you want to put the effort in then I certainly don’t think it will hurt anything.

      But I’m sceptical of how much good it will do. I have a hunch that once you get into it that a temporary fix just won’t be a very practical solution.

      But I hope for the best and yours is an unfortunate situation indeed.

  12. Our shitty contractor didn’t leave a joint between the tile backsplash and the countertop or between the tiles and the walls. Should we insist on a redo??

    • I think having a gap between the tile and walls is a good thing. With a countertop, the worry isn’t so much that the countertop will force itself upwards and crack the tiles. It’s more about the countertop flexing differently than the tile backsplash.

      Both areas should be caulked because both are prone to crack- especially the countertop joint.

  13. Hi Tile Guy

    Have you heard of the ‘slipper joint method’ of floor tiling? We recently extended our dining room and added a rumpus room (both odd shaped extensions) lifted our old floor tiles, and now hope to engage a tiler who can tile our floors using this (or a better/similar) method. We have been advised (by a local tile company) that this method will (hopefully) allow for movement between old and new concrete slabs WITHOUT the need for unsightly ‘expansion joints’. The tile company said this method has been used in Britain and European for many years, but not used in Australia until very recently, so it is still largely ‘untested’.

    Any reassurance and advice you can offer, will be greatly appreciated.

    • I’m not clear on what a slipper joint is but it’s very likely just a “translation” thing (I know, it’s all English but there are differences in the lingo). It might just be that they use silicone sealant as opposed to metal expansion joints.

      Otherwise, I’m not really sure what is involved with it.

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