Are you looking to start a DIY tiling project? A manual tile cutter is one of the most valuable tools at your disposal. This relatively simple tool is reasonably priced and does not require electricity or water, minimizing your utility bills. It enables you to make clean, straight, and precise cuts on your tiles. Like all tools, manual tile cutters are best suited for specific applications and materials. Find out how to choose the right model for your project and follow these step-by-step instructions to use your manual tile cutter like a professional.
Purpose and Applications
A manual tile cutter is designed to cut glazed and unglazed ceramic tiles and porcelain tiles. It is an essential piece of masonry equipment that all DIY enthusiasts should have, as well as a trowel, masonry hammer, a chisel, and a concrete mixer. However, you should not use manual tile cutters on stone tiles, such as marble, limestone, or granite. It is also unsuitable for concrete and cement tiling. Stone and cement are harder materials than ceramics or porcelain, requiring more cutting power than a manual tile cutter can provide. If you try to cut tiling made of these materials with a manual tile cutter, you risk prematurely wearing it out or breaking it and damaging your tiles. Wet tile saws are more suitable for tiles made from hard materials.
Parts of a Manual Tile Cutter
The nine essential parts of a manual tile cutter include:
- Base (most use two, but some models may feature a single guide rail)
- Guide rails
- Scoring wheel (also called cutting wheel or blade)
- Breaker (some manufacturers may refer to it as a breaking device, a toggle, a snapping foot, or a snapper)
- Ruler (also called measuring square)
- Lateral stop
How to Use a Manual Tile Cutter, Step by Step
A manual tile cutter lets you cut individual tiles, one by one, using a technique called “scoring and snapping.” The principle of this technique can be broken down into two phases:
- Scoring: Uses a scoring, grinding, or cutting tool to carve a groove or a trench into the working surface, creating a weak point in the tile that will then be exploited in the second phase.
- Snapping: Involves applying measured pressure (stressing) on the working surface, on both sides of the score, bending the tile until it snaps. Cracks form at the weakest point of a stressed surface, causing the tile to snap along the length of the score, creating a clean, straight cut.
A manual tile cutter can only cut single straight lines — no curvatures and no mixed cuts. Most allow you to cut at only two angles: straight (90º) or diagonal (45º). Some models feature an additional part called a rotating square, which allows you to adjust the cut angle anywhere between 0º and 45º. However, these specialized manual tile cutters are more advanced and require prior experience with standard models.
Making a Straight Cut
- Mark your tile using a pencil to give yourself a visual guiding line.
- Insert the tile on the tile cutter’s base, placing one side against the backstop.
- Use the handle to orient the carriage over the tile until the scoring wheel is over the edge of the tile, where you’ll begin scoring it.
- Apply an even amount of pressure down on the handle and push forwards, sliding the carriage toward the backstop. This motion causes the scoring wheel to mark the tile, and you’ll hear a tile scratching or cutting sound. If you’ve done it correctly, the score should be completely straight.
- Pull the handle up until the breaker (the flat toggle-shaped part) rotates and faces the tile.
- Pull the carriage back (away from the backstop) approximately one inch.
- Push the handle back down, applying pressure on the tile using the breaker until you hear a snapping sound.
If you’ve followed the steps above correctly, your tile should now be cleanly cut into two halves. Remove the cut tile from the base, and move to the next until you’ve cut or reshaped all tiles.
Making a Diagonal Cut
Diagonally cutting a tile requires you to follow the same overall process, with only one significant difference: the tile’s orientation on the base. Instead of resting the side of your tile against your backstop, you need to align two opposite corners with the center of the base, inserting one into the diagonally shaped guide found in the center of the backstop plate. This guide helps keep your tile in place and oriented at the correct angle. Once the tile is in place, proceed with the scoring and snapping process as you would for making a straight cut.
Smoothing Out the Rough Edges
Even if you cut your tiles cleanly, you may find that the edges of your cut tile pieces are a little rough or sharp to the touch. Although this is a normal part of the cutting process, you may need to smooth the edges out to make them less dangerous to touch and more aesthetically pleasing.
Two simple tools can help you complete your manual tile cutting kit: sandpaper (one medium, 80- or 100-grit, and one fine, 200-grit or 220-grit) and a tile file.
- Sanding: After putting on eye protection, start with medium sandpaper, rubbing the surface against the rough tile edges until the sharpest edges have been smoothed out. Then, switch to fine sandpaper, smoothing the edges even more until they no longer feel rough to the touch.
- Filing: Using a tile file is even easier; simply place your tile on a flat surface, resting it on the non-cut edge, with the cut, rough edge facing the ceiling. Hold the tile with your non-dominant hand, and hold the tile file flat in your dominant hand, rubbing the surface on the rough edge until you’ve smoothed it out.
Keep in mind that both sandpaper and tile files wear out with use, especially if you need to smooth out a lot of tiles or if you work on tiling projects frequently. Keep spare sandpaper and tile files alongside your manual tile cutter in case they grow dull.
Tips and Tricks for Beginners
Before operating a manual tile cutter, always wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). The three essential pieces of protective gear for all tilers are gloves, eye protection, and knee pads:
- Gloves: When using tile cutting tools of any kind, even non-electric tools such as manual tile cutters, your hands are exposed to sharp blades and cutting devices. Use work gloves made of cut-resistant materials, such as a high-gauge polyester blend to protect your hands and a latex palm for added dexterity.
- Eye protection: Although the risks of ceramic shrapnel projections are much lower when cutting tiles manually than with a saw, it can still happen with imperfectly cut tiles. Use a pair of transparent, impact-resistant safety goggles to protect your eyes.
- Knee pads: Most tilers use manual tile cutters on the floor, which means you will be kneeling a lot. Protecting your knees with a pair of tiling knee pads prevents not only acute knee pain but also long-term health issues, such as prepatellar bursitis (also known as carpet layer’s knee).
Don’t start your flooring project right away if you have never used a manual tile cutter before. It is critical to get good practice with it before you begin cutting tiles for your new floor. The best way to train yourself in using a manual tile cutter is to do practice cuts with inexpensive or scrap ceramic tiling. There are two skills to practice: aligning your tile correctly and mastering the consistent motion needed to score the tile with a straight, uniform cut. Buy plenty of inexpensive practice tiles until you learn the correct motions and the right amounts of pressure. Imprecise scoring or excessively stressing the tile during the scoring or the snapping processes often damages the tile, requiring you to throw out the broken pieces and start over with a new tile.
How to Choose the Right Manual Tile Cutter
Choosing a suitable model for your tiling project depends on multiple factors, such as the size of your tiles or your project’s scope and requirements.
Most manual tile cutters are suitable for standard, medium-sized tiles, with side lengths ranging between 6" and 12". You cannot safely cut small tiles (with sides of 4" or less) with a manual tile cutter. If you need to work on small tiles, you should use dedicated small tile tools, such as tile nippers. However, if you’re working with Large Format Tiles (LFTs) with sides larger than 12", such as industrial floor tiling, you may need an extra-large tile cutter.
If you plan to make diagonal cuts, the diagonal length is longer than the side length of both square and rectangular tiles, so you need a tile cutter to accommodate the tile’s diagonal length. The exact formula depends on the tile’s format (square or rectangular) and dimensions.
- Square tiles: The diagonal length of a square tile equals X multiplied by the square root of 2, where X is the side length of the tile. For example, on a 12"x12" tile, the diagonal is 16.97". So, your tile cutter should be able to travel at least 17".
- Rectangular tiles: Assuming L is the tile’s length, and W is the tile’s width, the diagonal length of a rectangular tile equals the square root of W squared plus L squared. For example, on a 16"x24" tile, the diagonal length is 28.84". This requires a tile cutter that can travel at least 29".
Push cutters vs. pull cutters
Traditional manual tile cutters are often called push cutters, referring to the pushing motion you perform with the handle when scoring a tile. Some tile cutter models require you to make the inverse motion (pulling instead of pushing); these models are called pull cutters. Push cutters and pull cutters can score and snap tiles with about the same effectiveness. Neither is better than the other for tile cutting. However, each has its pros and cons. Depending on your experience level and personal preferences, one of these options may be more attractive to you than the other.
- Push tile cutters
The main advantage of a push cutter is ergonomics. Moving the handle and making a pushing motion to score the tile is more natural and fluid. Beginners may prefer push tile cutters because these ergonomic advantages give them more control over the amount of pressure they can apply.
Extra-large models for working on Large Format Tiles tend to be push tile cutters because the handle becomes an extension of your arm, letting you score the tile in a single movement without needing to stop, re-adjust, and resume the cut. The main drawback of a push cutter is the distance between the user and the ruler, making it a little more challenging to perform high-precision cuts.
- Pull tile cutters
Pull tiles cutters allow for more cutting precision, as the measurement square is closer to the user. The pulling motion also allows you to see the scoring groove without the handle and carrier obscuring it, letting you see any imperfections immediately. A pull cutter also enables the user to brace it against their knee, gaining extra stability and preventing it from slipping. However, what pull tile cutters gain in precision, they lose out in ergonomics and comfort. Prolonged use of a pull cutter may cause wrist soreness, potentially making it more tiring to use over long projects.
Tile cutter scoring wheels are typically interchangeable, letting you replace them as needed. Nearly every modern scoring wheel is made of tungsten carbide with a titanium coating, making them highly durable and long-lasting. However, they still wear out over time, requiring you to replace them as needed. You must also pay attention to the wheel’s diameter, as some wheels are better suited for some tile materials than others. Scoring wheel sizes range from 6mm to 22mm. Each is suitable for a range of tile materials:
- 6mm: Ceramic wall tiles, glazed tiles
- 8mm: Porcelain tiles, ceramic floor tiles
- 10mm: Ceramic stoneware tiles, shallow textured porcelain tiles
- 18mm: Rough ceramic tiles, textured or structured porcelain tiles
- 22mm: Heavy textured or structured porcelain tiles
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