How to Cut Porcelain


Porcelain can be fragile, but with the right saw, you’ll be able to cut it neatly.
Porcelain can be fragile, but with the right saw, you’ll be able to cut it neatly.
­iStockphoto.com/Dean Turner

­Porcelain tile is a resilient and beautiful addition to your home. It is sanitary, watertight and easy to clean. It can also be bright and colorful. It's a great combination of traditional and modern.

But it's also porcelain -- a ceramic that can be fragile under certain circumstances -- so the prospect of cutting it into pieces makes some do-it-yourselfers a bit skittish. However, unless you magically happened to build your home to such proportions as to require no cutting of tile to fit into corners, along draining boards or around outlets and pipes, you're probably going to have to cut some porcelain.

­You should start by learning everything you can about the porcelain you plan to use. Is it glazed or unglazed? There are different degrees of hardness -- and different break strengths -- to take into consideration. The more you know about your tile, the better you can choose the right tools to cut it.

One idea to abandon right now: cutting porcelain the way you would cut anything else. Your standard rotor tool won't do it. You might be able to use a jigsaw, but you'll burn through a few blades. The good news is that one well-chosen tile cutter could last you for the remainder of all your home improvement projects, ever.

In this article, we'll look at the tools, practices and concerns you should know about before starting your porcelain project. Let's start with the tools.

Tools Needed to Cut Porcelain

A wet saw is the industry standard for cutting tile. It has a diamond edge -- so, as you can imagine, it's pretty hard. There are a few tradeoffs: Wet saws aren't cheap, they can be slow and you can't put adhesive on the tile until it has dried. You will, however, also be able to use it to cut granite, should your future home improvement projects involve that.

A wet saw does use water, as its name implies; there's a shallow well of water beneath the blade, and the bottom edge of the blade passes through the water as it rotates. That keeps the blade cool and reduces the amount of dust your cutting project kicks up. Its blade is a stationary rotor, something like the blade of a table saw. You simply guide the tile toward the blade. If you don't want to invest in a wet saw, you can always rent one.

Most score-and-snap tile cutters follow the same basic principle: You fit the tile into a cutting bed (sometimes with guides that help keep your cut straight), and then push or pull a rotating blade across the tile's glaze, to score it. After scoring the tile, you break it with a gentle tap. The tile bed is padded to help the tile break evenly and to ensure the tile doesn't move while you score it. Some cutters have a lever that helps you get consistent, even pressure for the break. With other cutters, you're on your own.

You might be able to use a jigsaw with a carbide-grit blade, but keep in mind that porcelain is really strong stuff. If you use a jigsaw, you'll probably have to replace the blade several times in the course of the project.

You'll also need:

  • A grease pencil or permanent marker to mark your planned cuts on the tile
  • A tape measure
  • A ruler or straightedge
  • Safety goggles
  • An apron (a wet saw can splash you)
  • Light oil, if you're using a score-and-snap cutter

Finally, if you're using the wet saw to make diagonal cuts (and if you want to make diagonal cuts, you should be using a wet saw), you'll need a triangular attachment for the saw.

On the next pages, we'll look at the best ways to cut porcelain, and how to avoid cutting yourself in the process.

Best Practices of Cutting Porcelain

If this is your first time, you might want to be on the safe side: Buy a little more tile than you think you'll need. (If you don't wind up using it, you can frame the extra tiles with wood and turn them into coasters or trivets that match the decor.)

First, let's look at the best method of score-and-snap tile cutting, the easiest and fastest way to handle straight cuts. Mark the cut on the tile, of course. Then place it in the cutter, and -- depending on the model -- push or pull the blade over the tile.

People run into problems with tile cutters when the cuts become erratic, leading to uneven edges and chipped tile. You can prevent this in a few ways. First, check the alignment of the cutter periodically. Second, use a paintbrush to run a line of light oil along your planned cut -- that will help the blade score the tile smoothly [source: Byrne]. Just remember that the oil can keep your adhesive from sticking, so wipe off all the tiles before setting them.

To make L-cuts or diagonals, you'll need to use a wet saw. Mark the planned cut on the tile carefully with a ruler and a grease pencil. The saw has a guide called a rip fence, which helps you measure and straighten your cut. See the scales at each end? Use them to help you align the tile.

Now that you've aligned the tile with the rip fence, turn on the saw. Guide the tile gently and carefully toward the blade. Don't push hard, and don't keep moving the tile once the blade has cleared it. After you've made the cut, turn off the saw and take the tile out.

Take a look at the cut you've made. Is it clean? Great. If there are chips, you can smooth the cut out with a second pass from the saw.

One DIY expert notes that you may see some light scorch marks on the cut edge of the tile. (Even a wet saw creates a lot of friction when it passes through porcelain.) Fortunately, grout usually covers that sort of scar [source: Staggs].

As you might imagine, if a blade can leave burn marks even when it's passing through a cooling pan of water, it's traveling pretty fast, and that can be dangerous. Don't even think of starting your project before you've read the next page, where we look at safety tips for cutting porcelain.

Safety Concerns When Cutting Porcelain

Any blade that can cut porcelain has the potential to cut you. Don't ever give a tile-cutting project less than your full attention.

With rotor tools, a rapidly spinning blade bites into whatever you're cutting. It doesn't just slice -- it tears. That's what creates the cloud of dust and particles around the tool. You must protect your eyes --all the time, every time -- when using a rotor tool. If you don't think it's a problem, imagine getting something in your eye and then having to grope around blindly to shut off a very sharp electronic blade.

Rotor tools also create a lot of friction when they cut, and that friction produces heat. Be careful handling and changing blades. You might want to keep a pair of heavy gloves handy to prevent nicks and burns.

One hazard of renting a wet saw is the unfamiliarity of the tool. You don't want to be hesitant or uncertain when you're dealing with a big rotor tool; uncertainty can show in the cuts, for one thing, but if a problem occurs you want to know -- immediately and automatically -- how to shut off the saw. Take the time to get to know your rental. And don't make it tougher on yourself; don't practice on your expensive, custom-matched tiles. Ask your tile supplier if they have a few remnants, discontinued tiles or other pieces you can practice on.

You may need to make adjustments in the way you're cutting -- perhaps moving the guides on the wet saw. Unplug the saw before you do that. No one plans to turn on the tool accidentally; that's why it's called it an accident.

The sharpness of a wet saw reduces one safety hazard: eye damage. Because a wet saw is so sharp, and the water keeps it from creating a dust cloud, you're not as likely to get something in your eye. But that word is "reduce," not "eliminate." Keep the goggles on.

Properly cut and installed, porcelain tile is a lasting investment in the beauty, functionality and value of your home. Cutting it may be a challenge, but it's one worth attempting.

To learn more, visit the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

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