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Lay an elegant slate foyer floor

Dear Ms. Builder: We are not rolling in money, but we would like to jazz up the foyer area at our front door. The floor is badly worn now. Is slate a good choice and is it something we can install ourselves? - Mark S.

Dear Mark: Slate is an excellent flooring material for your foyer. With the proper selection of color, texture and shapes, it can make dramatic entrance to your home. I can guarantee that many guests will comment on it. The price is no higher than other good-quality floor tile materials.

On the more practical side, slate is a very durable, slip-resistant and stain-resistant flooring material. This makes it great around children. I suggest using a synthetic sealer on it instead of wax for the best stain-resistance and long-lasting color. Although slate, because of its surface texture, requires more careful installation, it is certainly a job that conscientious do-it-yourselfers can accomplish. Since the shapes of all the pieces are not identical like tile, any slight errors in positioning the slate pieces are not as apparent.

Before going any further, make sure that the floor is strong and stable. A weak floor that flexes may cause the slate itself to crack and it will definitely cause the grout to crumble.

You must plan the general appearance that you desire and then select the slate. The three main selection criteria are color, surface texture and shape. There is a huge range of colors from almost black to reds and greens and mixtures of all three in a single piece.

There are also three common slate textures used for floors. I most often use slate with a natural cleft surface. This is slightly rough for slip-resistance, but it is still easy to clean. Other optional finishes are honed or sanded and these provide a smoother look and feel.

For the most unique appearance, let your creative juices flow and use various sized pieces for the floor. You can buy the various sizes, often rectangular, made to form a random interlocking pattern. I prefer to use one-quarter-inch thick slate, although thicker is available.

Now for the installation. If you are installing slate over a wood subfloor, even if it is stable, install cementitious boards on top of the floor. You should use a layer of thinset mortar between the floor and the cementitious board and carefully follow the manufacturer's nail pattern recommendations.

Since this is your first time laying a slate floor and the area is not large, lay all the pieces down and position them first. You will have to cut some and this requires a hacksaw or a wet diamond saw. You cannot score and snap slate like you can with tile.

Once you have everything cut to size and fit, remove them and keep them in order. Use thinset mortar and replace the tiles on the floor. Having a helper to hand you the tiles is a real time saver. Thoroughly clean any thinset off of the slate surface.

Now comes the tricky part - grouting the slate. The rough surface of the slate makes it more difficult to clean it off than when laying smoother tile. You will have to rub and rub some more to remove all the excess mortar.

I always try to keep my sponge on the dry side when grouting slate. Since you have to rub over it so often, a normally-wet sponge would excessively dilute the grout and weaken it. It can also discolor dark grout.

If you need slate cleaners and sealers, here are a few sources - Aqua Mix (310) 946-6877, HMK Stone Care (800) 424-2465, Glaze N Seal (800) 486-1414, and Miracle Sealants (800) 350-1901.

Tools and materials required - hack saw, trowel, several water pails, grouting sponges, hammer, nails, slate, thinset, grout, file, long straight edge

Send your questions to Ms. Builder, 6906 Royalgreen Dr., Cincinnati, OH 45244 or visit www.dulley.com/msbuilder.