Mortar vs. Grout vs. Thinset: What Are the Differences?

Mortar vs. Grout vs. Thinset: What Are the Differences?

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If you’re new to the home renovation business, you may only know a little bit about the materials that professionals use to construct interior.

For example, you may know the basic ingredients of mortar or you may know that grout is used between the tiles in your bathroom. But then, when someone mentions thinset, you may not be so sure that you could differentiate between these three materials in a pinch.

If you’re trying to figure out the essential differences between mortar, grout, and thinset, then you’ve come to the right place. This quick guide will help you distinguish each material based upon its unique composition, as well as its applications.

With this information in mind, you’ll be able to effectively choose the right material for your upcoming renovation job

Mortar, Grout & Thinset: The Basics

Let’s start by looking at what makes each of the materials unique.

What Is Mortar?

Most DIYers are familiar with mortar, either in concept or in practice.

As such, its basic composition is well-known. In most cases, mortar is composed of cement, water, sand, and lime. Compared to other forms of paste-like binding agents, lime is this material’s most distinguishing ingredient. Also, many mortars use Portland cement in particular to achieve the desired result.

Mortar’s consistency is also noteworthy.

In particular, it is usually mixed into a state where it is thick, yet malleable (like a thick, sandy dough). This allows someone applying mortar to a surface (such as between bricks in a brick wall) to spread the material around without needing to wait long for it to dry and harden.

However, it is worth noting that bricklayers in particular typically add a binding agent to their mortar to allow for better adhesion.

What Is Grout?

Many homeowners are familiar with grout’s most common implementation, that is, between the tiles on their bathroom floor or walls. As it turns out, grout’s primary ingredients and texture make it perfect for making these smooth, symmetrical seals when finishing a tiled surface. Those primary ingredients include sand, water, and cement. So, at a basic level, grout is rather similar to mortar.

However, it differs from mortar on two important fronts.

First of all, grout typically has higher water content. In other words, more water is added during the mixing process to give grout a smoother texture. This, in turn, allows grout users to smoothly pour the substance in between the cracks of, for example, tiles. The resulting bond is still fairly strong, though it takes longer to set.

Working with Grout

Also, grout may be distinguished based upon some additives in its mixture.

For example, resins and epoxies may be added to a grout mixture to make it more “rubbery.” This results in seals between tiles that are more water-resistant. Also, colored pigments are often added to grout. This allows them to come in a variety of different colors that are not solely based on its other basic ingredients.

What Is Thinset?

ThinsetOut of the three binding agents in this article, there’s a good chance that you are entirely unfamiliar with thinset. However, you may have heard it called by other names, including thinset mortar, thinset cement, dryset mortar, or drybond mortar.

As you can imagine, these names often cause this material to be confused with basic mortar and even cement. However, its several ingredients make it distinct and practical for different uses.

In its most basic form, thinset is made up of cement, fine sand, water, and a water-retaining agent. These agents are typically an alkyl derivative of cellulose, which gives the material a unique adhesive property. In particular, this material bonds well to regular cement, thus allowing a user to apply it when adhering a material onto a standard cement surface.

Thinset usually comes or is made in two sub-types as well: modified and unmodified.

Unmodified thinset is composed of the ingredients described above. Meanwhile, a modified thinset incorporates a polymer-type ingredient that strengthens the material’s resulting bond. However, this latter type is typically more expensive and does not see a lot of DIY usage.


Mortar vs. Grout vs. Thinset: Which of the Three Should You Use?

After having a look at the ingredients in mortar, grout, and thinset, you may begin to wonder which material is best suited to your DIY needs. While it may look like they can be used interchangeably, the truth is that their material composition pre-disposes them to fairly specific uses.

Take mortar, for example. While its basic composition may be similar to cement, it should not be used as a primary building material. Instead, it is better suited to holding together dense, heavy objects such as standard bricks, cinder blocks, and stones. In fact, mortar is considered the go-to adhesive binding agent used in professional and amateur masonry work.

Meanwhile, grout sees very specific implementations that directly relate to its structure and texture. As noted above, grout lacks lime additives and includes a higher water content that allows it to “flow” into a crack or crevasse. Because of its more liquid-like state, grout is often used to fill gaps between ceramic or stone tiles. This ensures that the gap between each tile is fully and uniformly filled, which in turn ensures that the resulting surface is even and aesthetically pleasing.

Thinset probably sees the most specialized use out of these three building materials. That being said, it performs its job well when properly applied. To be specific, thinset can be used to bind stone or ceramic tiles to a substrate. In particular, this material is very effective when binding those types of tiles to a cement board. Modified thinset may also be used for other purposes, as well as in situations where the tile in question is heavy or likely to weigh on the adhesive bond over time.

Lastly, before picking one of these, you might also want to learn how grout and concrete compare.


As you can now clearly see, there are some noteworthy differences between mortar, grout, and thinset. While they all include some of the same basic ingredients, each of them also includes its own additives that make it more capable in certain situations. To that end, each material is also suited to certain tasks based upon the manner of its application.

With what you’ve learned here, you should be ready to pick out the best material for your next DIY project. Going forward, you certainly won’t confuse or misname any of these materials ever again.