How To Lay Outdoor Tiles on Dirt, 10 Things You Should Know

Are you thinking of adding tiles to a patio area but don’t want to hire the services of a professional or use a complex laying method like creating a concrete base? Consider laying the tiles on dirt.

You can lay tiles on dirt by removing the topsoil of the patio area you want to tile and creating a sharp sand base. After that, proceed to lay the tiles equidistant from each other, then fill the spaces between them with fine sand. Finally, spray the tiled area to firm the tiles.

A dirt base is easy to prepare, and the tiles can be fixed and refixed without too much trouble or mess. If this sounds like a plan, read on to find the practical details for making it a reality.

Why Dirt Makes an Ideal Base for Outdoor Tiles

Cement, gravel, and dirt are all viable base options for laying outdoor tiles. Each has its strengths and drawbacks. 

When using dirt, some drawbacks associated with other materials like cement can be turned into advantages, rendering it an ideal base for outdoor tiles.

Here are some reasons why dirt makes an ideal base for outdoor tiles:

  • Dirt is easier to work into a compact base. You need to prepare the soil where you intend to lay the base for outdoor tiles. This involves working and reworking it until it is compacted. Doing so is easier with dirt than with materials like cement.
  • Using dirt is neater. Dirt can easily be swept off the tiles’ surface. With cement, instead, applying the base can be difficult and messy. It’s even more difficult to clean when the cement lands and dries on the tile surface.
  • Laying tiles on dirt is easier to correct. Because it is loose and flexible, you can easily remove tiles already laid to adjust spacing or modify a tile-laying pattern. With cement, laid tiles will be hard to remove, and you have to rework the base to fit it again.
  • Laying tiles on dirt does not necessarily require the services of a professional. Anyone can easily work the soil on their patio and turn it into a compact base for outdoor tiles. Also, DIYers don’t need professional skills to lay a tile on dirt or rework it if it’s placed incorrectly.
  • Dirt is well-draining. Tiles laid on cement rely on evaporation or a slanting spot to drain water. Instead, a dirt tile base and the space between tiles allow good water drainage. Proper drainage protects tiles from warping or repositioning.

The Best Type of Dirt for Laying Outdoor Tiles

The type of dirt used as a base for laying outdoor tiles can vary from sand to gravel to clay, loam, or sandy soil.

Among these, sand, especially sharp sand, is considered the best top layer for dirt before laying outdoor tiles. Here’s why:

  • Sharp sand provides a firm and closely packable base for porcelain tiles. 
  • The flexibility of sand makes tile laying and readjusting easy.

Usually, polymeric sand that is fine and kiln-dried is used to fill the spaces between tiles. Fine sand is good at moisture drainage in wet weather. 

The Best Outdoor Tiles To Lay on Dirt

The malleable nature of dirt allows easy fixing and adjustment of tiles. However, this flexibility also means tiles can easily move if subjected to harsh weather conditions or heavy foot traffic. As such, ensure you choose the best quality tiles when laying them outdoors on dirt. 

Experts agree that porcelain tiles are an excellent choice for outdoor space. Although they are made from clay like ceramic tiles, porcelain tiles are created with finer, highly-refined clay. They are also subjected to long hours of high temperatures in the kiln. 

Both aspects make porcelain tiles denser, harder, heavier, and more durable. For the same reason, they can withstand adverse weather conditions and heavy foot traffic. 

Pressed finer clay and high-temperature drying also make porcelain tiles impermeable. According to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), porcelain tiles are ceramic tiles with ≤0.5% moisture absorption. 

The impervious quality of porcelain tiles makes them a good fit for outdoor spaces because they won’t absorb water from rain or frost. This saves them from cracking or warping. Similarly, porcelain tile density makes them sit firmly in the dirt.

But porcelain tiles are also created with different thicknesses depending on whether they are used for interior walls and floors or outdoor flooring. As such, when choosing porcelain outdoor tiles to lay on the dirt, ensure they are rated for the purpose. Going by the PEI rating, outdoor porcelain tiles should have a PEI rating of 4 or 5:

  • Porcelain tiles with a PEI rating of 4 can be subjected to regular foot traffic.
  • Porcelain tiles with a PEI rating of 5 will resist heavy foot traffic, moisture, and harsh dirt. 

Other reasons you should consider porcelain tiles for outdoor space include:

  • They are made to conform to non-slip standards.
  • They don’t stain easily and are easy to clean.

On the flip side, however, you’ll pay more for porcelain outdoor tiles than those made with ceramic or concrete. Besides, they are heavier and harder to cut, usually 20 mm (0.8 in) thick for outdoor quality tiles. That means you require a bit more effort and strength when laying them.

How To Lay Outdoor Tiles on Dirt: Step-by-Step

Now that you know dirt is a viable base for laying outdoor tiles and have an idea of what type of tiles to go for, you only need the practical steps to lay outdoor tiles on dirt.

The step-by-step guide to laying outdoor tiles on dirt:

● Gather the Required Materials and Tools

Here’s a list of the materials and tools you need:

  • Outdoor porcelain tiles
  • Sharp and fine sand
  • A wheelbarrow or sand bucket, depending on how much sand you need to move
  • A spade
  • A rake
  • A garden roller
  • A screed bar (for leveling)
  • A spirit (bubble) level
  • A rubber mallet
  • A string line
  • A soft brush

● Prepare the Base for Laying Outdoor Tiles

By the time you decide to lay tiles outdoors, you’ve probably also decided on the location. Ensure the outdoor space where you are laying the tiles on dirt is level and has good drainage. A poor-draining location will cause the tiles to move over time.

To prepare the base for laying outdoor tiles:

  • Prepare step 1. Remove vegetation: Clear any vegetation and remove the topsoil to deter remnant grass roots from growing and create some depth of around 2 in (5 cm) for the sand.
  • Prepare step 2. Rake and compact: Rake the soil and pass the garden roller to compact it.
  • Prepare step 3. Restraint blocks: Plant restraint blocks around the edges of the area you want to tile. Doing this will create a frame around it and separate it from the rest of the garden or patio.

● Step 1: Add Sharp Sand for the Base

Use the spade to add the soil to the prepared area. Ensure you leave enough space to accommodate the depth of the tiles so that they sit level with the rest of the garden or patio. 

Once the space you are tiling is covered with sand, level it with the screed bar. Then, pass the garden roller again to compact the sand base. Use the bubble level to ensure the space is all level.

● Step 2: Lay the Tiles

Begin to lay the tiles on the sand base. Leave at least a 1.5 cm (0.6 in) space between the tiles. Don’t step or kneel on the tiles while laying them.

When all the tiles are laid, use the rubber mallet to push them slightly into the sand. You can spread the string line across the tiled surface to ensure you are pushing them into the sand equally.

● Step 3: Fill the Spaces With the Fine Sand

Once all the tiles are laid firmly into the sand, fill the spaces between the tiles with polymeric sand. Then, use the soft brush to sweep the extra sand from the tiles into the gaps. Any sand that does not go into the gaps should be collected. 

● Step 4: Spray the Tiled Area With a Hose

Use a low-pressure hose to wet the tiled area. This will firm the sand between and beneath the tiles and make them bond with the sand. 

Leave the tiled space unused for a week, then add more fine sand into any sunk spaces. When done, spray the tiling once more with water. 

And there it is! Your tiled patio is now ready for use.

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