Tips for Installing Penny Tile: Advice from a Perfectionist

I recently shared tiling progress in the kids’ bathroom on Instagram and immediately received a dozen half-concerned, half-amazed messages, “You’re doing it yourself?!”

Why, yes… Yes, I am!

I’ve been installing tile since our very first fix-and-flip project, the Strelkov Bungalow, which we bought back in 2015. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Tiling is not difficult. Time consuming? Yes… Challenging for someone with OCD tendencies? For sure… But difficult? Not at all! With a little bit of know-how and a whole lot of patience, anyone can do it. Plus, like most things in life, the more you practice, the better (and faster) you’ll become.

After I finish the kids’ bathroom, next on my tiling to-do list is installing penny tile in the powder room! I’ll be honest, penny tile is quite possibly one of the most challenging to install – but not to worry! I tiled the entire counter-to-ceiling backsplash at the Edgmon Ranch kitchen – and survived to tell the tale, ha! So the powder room is going to be a piece of cake. 

By the way, below is a sneak peek of said powder powder room!

Tips for Installing Penny Tile: Advice from a Perfectionist

The Advantages of Penny Tile

You may be wondering why you’d choose penny tile despite all the extra effort it requires… Let’s go over a couple advantages of penny tile:

1. For starters, penny tile is beautiful! When done right, it adds so much personality and texture to a space. The style is quite versatile, too. For example, pairing white penny tile with black grout looks classic, reminiscent of old-world, Parisian cafes that have stood the test of time.

A tone-on-tone look, on the other hand, has a more contemporary feel. That’s the aesthetic I chose for the Edgmon Ranch kitchen backsplash

2. If you’re tiling high-traffic or wet areas, penny tile is a great option due to its textured, non-slip surface. It’s perfect for places like showers, bathrooms, laundry rooms and mudrooms. 

Tips for Installing Penny Tile: Advice from a Perfectionist

3. Another unique advantage of penny tile: It’s flexible enough to wrap around edges – which is what we did in our master bathroom shower at the Strelkov Bungalow, seen below. No other tile option has that capability – or rather, flexibility – so in that aspect penny tile offers a really unique look. 

4. Don’t forget about its affordability! White porcelain penny tile can cost as little as $4 per square foot in most big-box home improvement stores.

Now, let’s talk about a couple tips and tricks I’ve learned for installing penny tile. Please note, this isn’t an all-encompassing tile installation guide. If you’re looking for that, I’ve got tutorials for tiling the following:

Today’s post is more for those with some tiling experience under their belt, but who may be tackling penny tile for the first time. 

Now’s a good time to mention that if you take away only one thing from this post, let it be this: If I can install penny tile, so can you! Don’t let the meticulous nature of penny tile discourage you! 

Tips for Installing Penny Tile: Advice from a Perfectionist

1. Let’s talk about those dreaded seams.

If you don’t know what I’m referring to, just Google “bad penny tile installation,” and look at the images.

Seams refer to the lines where one sheet of tile ends and another begins. The biggest challenge of installing penny tile – and why certain contractors outright refuse to do it – is that it’s very difficult to minimize those obvious seams between sheets of tile. It’s one of the biggest reasons why laying penny tile is so time-consuming: Installation requires meticulous attention to detail.

Here’s a tip for minimizing seams: As you install the sheets, tweak individual tiles if they’re not aligning properly with the edge of the sheets you already installed. Every couple of minutes, take a step back and make sure those seams are not obvious.

I’ve also tried staggering the sheets – a tip I learned from a fellow DIY blogger – but ultimately I learned that doing so was just as time-consuming, if not more so, with just about the same results. 

2. Use the correctly sized notched trowel.

Another challenge of this type of tile is that because of its small size, there’s more opportunities for mistakes. One of those common mistakes is applying too much mortar.

Mortar has to be spread thin enough that it doesn’t come up between the individual tiles once each sheet is installed. I ran into this issue over and over when tiling the Edgmon Ranch kitchen backsplash, because my trowel was the wrong size. So, with every sheet of tile I installed, the mortar would ooze up into the joints between the individual tiles. I then had to go back and use a small tool like a screwdriver to carefully scoop out the excess mortar from between each individual tile. It was not fun, to say the least. 

To avoid that entire mess, a notched trowel with smaller ridges is recommended. A 1|8 or 3|16 v-notch trowel is best. 

3. Pre-cut individual tiles in various sizes before installation.

If you want to ever-so-slightly speed up the installation, I highly recommend pre-cutting individual tiles and separating them into some sort of containers according to their size, i.e. full tiles, half-tiles, quarter-tiles, and 3/4th tiles.

As you get to the edge of the wall during installation, you can quickly grab the size of individual tile you need without having to stop mid-installation to cut tiles. 

4. Speaking of cutting penny tiles: There’s a trick to that, too.

The great thing about cutting penny tile is that it doesn’t require a diamond blade tile saw. So, if power tools scare you but you want to install tile, penny tile is a great option.

Cutting penny tile requires tile nippers, which basically look and function sort of like wire cutters. They’re sold at any home improvement store for about $8-15. You’ll need to snap each individual penny tile, so there’s definitely a time investment. Cutting penny tile also requires arm strength, as you have to push quite hard to cut the ceramic or porcelain material. For reference, I’d say I have decent arm strength, but I typically have to use both hands when squeezing the tile nippers. Don’t be surprised if your hands – and more specifically, your thumbs – are sore afterwards.

But that’s not even the worst of it. If you don’t place the tile nippers on the tile in the correct manner, you will break the tile – over and over and over again. It’s can get quite frustrating!

I’ve found that leaving the tile attached to the mesh backing actually helped prevent a lot of the breaks. Plus, it keeps the cut tile from flying in two different directions when it’s snapped in half. You can take it a step further, even, and stick a strip of painters’ tape atop the tile you plan to cut. That added layer of protection seems to help keep the tile in tact as it’s being cut.

5. Install the tile in small sections.

To avoid the issue of mortar drying out, I recommend applying just enough mortar to the wall for only three to four sheets of tile. If you apply any more, you run the risk of mortar drying out before you’re able to attach the tile.

As I’m sure you’ve already caught on, installing this type of tile can be quite time-consuming and meticulous, what with the faffing individual pieces and maintaining those seams and all that. So, my advice is to work in small sections to ensure that you’re paying attention to the details and not rushing along.

6. Set aside enough time for grouting.

Grouting penny tile is extremely time-consuming. Think about it, each 12×12” sheet of penny tile has 240 individual tiles, and you have to make sure each of the joints between those 240 tiles are properly filled with grout. Say you’re installing the penny tile on the floor of a 30-square-foot powder room… That totals to approximately 7,200 individual penny tiles! Just imagine all those joints…

Grouting in general is a multi-step process. Penny tile makes it even more so. In fact, I’m willing to bet you’ll spend much longer grouting than you did installing the penny tile. So, definitely keep that in mind as you plan your installation. 

Tips for Installing Penny Tile: Advice from a Perfectionist

7. Tone-on-tone grout color can minimize mistakes.

Choosing grout is a topic in and of itself. But as far as penny tile goes, one thing is for sure: Choosing grout color that is similar to the tile color helps minimize seams, uneven half-pennies, among other installation mistakes. So, if you’re installing white penny tile, I highly recommend a light grout color. 

Of course, not every application is suited for light grout. Bathroom floors are a perfect example. But going with a light gray, beige, or taupe color will still do a better job of hiding those imperfections that are most common with penny tile installations. If you’re worried about the grout staining – whether in the bathroom or the kitchen – make sure to seal it after installing. 

That is all the advice I’ve got for today, folks. If you have experience installing penny tile and wish to add any other tips to the list, chime in at the comments below!

Did you find these tips helpful? Are you ready to tackle that tile installation? Tag me on Instagram if you share your project; I’d love to see it!

If this post left you questioning whether penny tile is worth the extra work, I want to encourage you not to change course! The end results will be worth all the effort – you’ll see! 

Penny Tile Options Under $10 per Square Foot

Looking for more inspiration? Check out the following:

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  1. I’m installing penny tile now, this article was helpful, thank you!
    The big pro tip I got, was to leave the penny tile in the packaging when you run it on the tile saw. This is incredibly helpful for keeping the tile cuts crisp and vertical. The plastic wrap and the cardboard keep it from squirming on you.
    One question I had around grouting was to ask if you should plan for more grout because the tile is round… leaving bigger areas to fill then square tile?

    • Hi Chris! Sorry I’m just now seeing your comment! I usually always check the grout package, it tells you the amount of grout you’ll need based on the size of your tile and grout lines. Hope that helps! I will say it’s best to buy grout from the same batch to avoid any slight color differences, so we always buy a bit extra just in case. You can always return the extra unopened packages!

  2. Unfortunately I was the “victim” of a bad penny tile install job. There was no ill intent here. The tile guys just didn’t know how to install it and didn’t speak up. I didn’t know myself either that this is a different animal. Major inconsistency in grout lines. My bathroom really could have looked amazing. I would like to get it redone and looking for an expert in penny tile installation in Phoenix, Arizona. Would you have any referrals?

    • I’m sorry you had such a terrible experience, Josette. My biggest advice is to ask for referrals and a work portfolio, so you can see what sort of projects the subcontractor has done before and his or her level of expertise. Unfortunately I have no contacts in Arizona.

  3. Hi, this is a helpful post. Glad to hear the penny tile is worth the trouble of the install. Do you recommend sanded or unsanded grout?

    • I’m glad to hear that, Mary! I personally use unsanded because of the thin grout lines – but some contractors use sanded regardless of grout lines because they say sanded is stronger. Technically, unsanded grout is meant for grout lines that are 1|8″ or smaller, and penny tile is usually that.

      I have several detailed tutorials on installing tile on the blog, including showers, floors and backsplash. Just search for “tile” in the search box!

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