Buckling floor tiles

Scott Gibson, Contributing Editor

I live in a 100-plus year-old house in the Chestnut Hill area of Philadelphia. It once had a shed at the back which a previous owner incorporated into the kitchen. When I renovated the kitchen I installed a tile called Madera over the linoleum. That's when the trouble started. Where the old shed floor meets the kitchen, the tiles have buckled -- by as much as two inches in some places. Repeated visits by contractors haven't solved the problem. I believe the old shed flooring is cement and the flooring under the original kitchen is wood. No one knows what to do and I don't want to keep throwing money out the window.

It sounds like your contractors are working diligently on the symptom, not the underlying problem. You're got a right to be wary. Until someone takes the time to find out why your floor tiles won't stay flat, throwing money out the window is exactly what you're doing.

Trouble where wood and concrete meet

Buckling floor tiles mean the subfloor beneath them is shifting. No amount of glue or grout will keep the flooring flat and stable when the surface below won't stay put.

The fact that the buckling is taking place at the intersection between shed and kitchen floors is a good indication that these two surfaces are moving independently. Or one surface is moving while the other is not.

In any case, my guess is that the linoleum originally on the floor was more forgiving than rigid tile. When the Madera tile was installed and grouted, problems with floor movement became obvious.

Do some sleuthing to find out what's moving

If there's a basement or crawlspace beneath the kitchen, go down and take a look. It could be that the floor framing or the subflooring is decayed or was under-built in the first place.

After 100 or more years simple repairs may be in order.

If the wood floor framing looks sound, and the floor doesn't bounce, my bet would be the concrete floor under the rest of the kitchen is unstable. After all, it was once just a shed floor. If it moved around a bit from season to season who really cared? The squirrels wouldn't complain.

Isolate the floor tiles from movement

New products on the market help prevent any movement in the subfloor from telegraphing through to tile and grout. Ditra-Mat, made by Schluter Systems, is one of them. NobleSeal CIS (for "crack isolation system") is another.

Whether even these high-tech materials would be enough to tame your floor is a question for a qualified pro. But to me (I know, from a safe distance hundreds of miles away), a ridge two inches high in the middle or your kitchen floor sounds more ominous.

If basement sleuthing doesn't provide an answer you may need to tear up the existing floor, at least in the area where tiles have buckled, and dig out the problem.

Sorry, I know that sounds like a lot of work. And money. It may not even be worth it. But the unpleasant truth is that until the root cause of the problem is unmasked there's no hope of a lasting fix.

Before leaping into yet another fruitless repair, ask a good builder to inspect the floor carefully. Be prepared to do more than buy another bag of grout.

Don't give up on Madera tile

This is one of the many styles of Madera tile available at Owen Carpet.

Madera tile is a wood composite that's installed like ceramic tile but is warmer under foot. It's made from recycled wood.

It seems like the epitome of "green" building, so it's too bad that it's no longer made. But it's still available. A company called Owen Carpet in Dalton, Georgia, advertises Madera tile for $1.99 per square foot. If you're interested, call them at 800-626-6936 or go on-line to www.owencarpet.com where you can see samples.

About the Author
An accomplished woodworker and carpenter, Scott Gibson is the former editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, and a former editor at Today's Homeowner and Fine Homebuilding magazines. He also is former managing editor of the Kennebec Journal, a daily newspaper in Maine.

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