Building a Ceramic Surround for a Shower or Bathtub

white ceramic tile surround around a bathtub and shower
  • 40 hours
  • Advanced
  • 1,500
What You'll Need
Tape measure
Pencil or marker
Framing square
Combination square
Level
Chalk line
Wood battens
Tile cutter
Tile nippers
Caulking gun
Hammer
Rubber mallet
Floor scraper
Notched trowel
Flat screwdriver
Putty knife
Utility knife
Large sponge
Water bucket
Backer boards
Tiles
Spacers
Grout mixing tray
Grout
Mastic
Grout sealer
Grout fortifier
Caulk
What You'll Need
Tape measure
Pencil or marker
Framing square
Combination square
Level
Chalk line
Wood battens
Tile cutter
Tile nippers
Caulking gun
Hammer
Rubber mallet
Floor scraper
Notched trowel
Flat screwdriver
Putty knife
Utility knife
Large sponge
Water bucket
Backer boards
Tiles
Spacers
Grout mixing tray
Grout
Mastic
Grout sealer
Grout fortifier
Caulk

Installing a classic ceramic surround for a bathtub or shower is a major project. Before you dive into tiling a shower or bathtub walls, make sure you get a full picture of the supplies and tools you'll need and the time it will take. That way, once you roll up your sleeves and go to work, you'll know you have everything you'll be working with. Here's everything that goes into adding this feature to your bathroom renovation.

Step 1 - Plan Your Bath and Shower Surround

The success of your achievement will largely depend on the effort and research invested at the planning level. Look around your bathroom and decide exactly how many and how much of each wall you will be tiling.

Trace your bathroom layout on paper with plenty of notes (using graph paper to draw to scale makes it much more visually plausible). If you're too busy to do it all in one session, sketch out your plan on a part-time basis (evenings and weekends) and give yourself plenty of time to complete this phase. Rushing the design stage is an invitation for construction headaches later.

1.1 - Wall Requirements

You probably won't need to replace the sheeting on the walls you won't be tiling. Of the surfaces that need to be tiled, look at the backer sheets presently covering them to see what material they’re made from and exactly what shape they’re in.

If they’re not cement boards, these sheets should be replaced with the special mineral-based pre-fabricated “Cementitious Backer Units” (CBU), usually 1/4-inch or 1/2-inch thick and built with increased strength and porous conditioned for better adhesion of thin-set, grout, and mortar. Since these Cement Backer Units lack organic matter in their makeup, they offer much-improved resistance to mold, rot, shrinkage, or decomposition over “greenboard.”

Cement backer boards can be nailed or screwed into studs, cinderblock, or concrete and are easily cut with a hand saw, a circular saw, or other regular tools. They are available in sizes such as 3-feet by 5-feet, so plan carefully to determine exactly how many you’ll need. You might choose not to go all the way up the wall with the tiles, in which case you have to make sure that there will be at least one row of tiles above the showerhead.

Use a level to establish an accurate level line all the way around the different wall surfaces to be tiled. Determine the height of the backer board by measuring carefully so that when the tiles are installed up the wall, the spacing will be exact enough to eliminate any need to cut the tile along the top row.

1.2 - Tile Planning

Figure out how many tiles you’ll need by calculating the total square footage of the walls to be covered and adding 10% for cuts and damages. If your planned layout includes different tiles to create designs, you’ll need extra care to get the right quantities of each. If the design pattern includes tiles in a diamond or other unusual shape, you’ll have to add extra for even more waste.

If you can, buy all your tiles from the same shipment and the same production batch from the manufacturer to make sure all the tiles are the same color. Although some discrepancies can be attractive, that's strictly a personal design choice. Even when the tiles all come from the same batch, though, it sometimes is a good idea to pull tiles out of different boxes as you work, so any slight differences in shade are integrated into the overall look of the job.

1.3 - Other Materials

You will also need to plan for enough bullnose tiles, quarter-round tile for the edges, and edge trimmings wherever needed.

Your supplier should be able to give you a good idea of how much thinset you’ll need for the entire job. Thinset should be chosen over mastic as an adhesive for tiling showers and bathtubs, since it performs much better in very wet areas, even areas that will be completely submerged in water. In contrast, mastic can be used in dry or damp areas only.

The spacers, shaped like an “+” sign, are available for different joint widths, so you need to decide beforehand how far apart you want your tiles to be placed. Once your tiles are in place with the spacers keeping them apart, every spacer must be removed even if they’re stuck. Use a chisel to do so if needed before you apply the grout, as any remaining spacers will damage the structural integrity of the grout.

hand installing cross shaped tile spacers

For standard 4 1/8-inch tiles where the joints are very narrow, use non-sanded grout. For any other grout joints with other types of tiles, use a sanded grout, which holds up better when the grout lines are wider.

The width of the gap between the tiles will pretty much also determine how much grout will be required to seal those gaps. Here again, you might need the assistance of your sales clerk.

After this, you will also have to choose your grout color to get the effect you want. If you should choose a color for something presenting a different look, just make sure that it won't stain the particular tiles you've selected. Another practical consideration in choosing a color when tiling in a kitchen might be that a dark grout does not show dirt as easily as a white grout.

Finally, an Acrylic Fortifier can be added to the tile grout and the thinset and greatly improve its water resistance and improve the bond strength.

Step 2 - Get the Room Ready

Before you start remodeling your bathroom, take out anything that is not permanently attached to any walls and floors, so you have the maximum space to work in. Line the tub or shower with cardboard so as not to scratch or chip them. Remove the baseboards and door and window trims.

Remove any plumbing and other related hardware such as showerheads and faucet knobs that could get in the way of the tiles. If the walls to be tiled are wallpapered, it needs to be scraped off as it will not offer a proper and reliable adhering surface.

If you’re planning a long-lasting project result, any walls around the shower stall or bathtub should be covered with a layer of Cement Backer Board. If anything else is there, you’ll do yourself a favor to strip the wall down to the framing and install CBU instead.

If you are working around a tub or shower pan that is not level and cannot be adjusted, cut your backer board so that the cut edge is along the lip of the tub or shower pan and is at the same angle as the tub. If your tub can be adjusted to be level, do it before you put up the backer board.

hands installing large tiles on grout cement

Step 3 - Install the Cement Backer Board

Start installing the Cement Backerboard on the back wall since it requires the largest sections and fewer cuts. Find and mark the location of the studs at the top and bottom of the wall. Later, when putting the Cement backer board up, you can snap a chalk line from point to point and know exactly where to nail or screw.

The Cement Backerboard should be screwed or nailed to studs that are a maximum of 16 inches on center with the textured side out, but NEVER on top of plasterboard or greenboard—fasten directly to the studs.

The holes for the faucets and showerhead should be measured accurately and cut using a saber saw hole saw attachment for a drill.

If you are using a floor and wall tile adhesive, install the backer board with the smooth side out. If you're working with epoxy or acrylic mortar, make sure you wear an approved charcoal respirator for the toxic fumes and that the area is well ventilated.

Step 4 - Tracing your Layout's Guide Lines on the Walls

It is critical that you trace some lines running horizontally and vertically on the wall to create a layout of lines from which you can guide yourself. This will help you install your tiles in a straight, symmetrical structure. All working lines should be bold and easy to see. The horizontal line should be laid out first, followed by the vertical lines. There are two ways this is done. The choice depending on if the bathtub or shower tray is set up on level or not.

4.1 - For a Level Tub or Shower Pan

If the tub or the shower pan is level within 1/8-inch, you'll need to measure and trace a horizontal line from the high point of the tub since that small difference will be easy to disguise with the grout. At the high point of the tub, make a mark on the wall at 1/8 inch plus the width of a tile above the tub's surface or the shower pan. If you're using standard square tiles, make a straight line using a level and a straight edge along the back wall and right around onto the two end walls.

4.2 - Tub or Shower Tray Not Level

If the tub is not level, you'll need to start the horizontal line from the lower point or corner. This will make you have to trim some of the tiles to fit and avoid creating a wider and ugly gap under the bottom row of tiles. So starting from the lower corner, trace a level line along the back wall right up to the other corner wall.

Again, this line should be 1/8 inch plus the width of a tile up from the tub's surface or the shower tray, but you'll notice it getting closer and closer to the surface as you get closer to the adjacent wall. Trace a leveled line just like for a level tub, then run a batten directly under the line and fasten in place to use as a guide where the second row of tiles (which will be the first row to install) can sit during their installation.

The bottom row will be installed afterward once they are custom cut to fit.

The straight wooden batten nailed or screwed to the wall provides an exact level edge to begin laying the tile. It can be removed once that second row is completed so that the row underneath can be done, custom cutting each tile to fit and be set in place.

4.3 - Lay Out the Vertical Working Line

To get the best results of your tile job, lay the tiles out by adjusting them so that both the end tiles at each corner of the wall are the same width and never less than a half tile in width. To accomplish this, you must first locate the center of the wall's width and trace a vertical working line at that location, all the way up the wall, using a level and a straight edge or a chalk line.

You can then move on to determining the exact layout of your tiles to have them in perfect symmetry at both corners by measuring the distance from the corner of the wall to the vertical working line and divide that measurement by the width of one tile. The result (or quotient) will give you the number of tiles required to cover half the wall and could also possibly leave you with a remaining piece to finish covering right up to the adjacent wall, in the corner.

If the result is such that a full tile length reaches the corner or if there's a remainder equal to or greater than a half tile, line "A" will be the starting vertical line from which the first tile will be lined up.

If it turns out that the corner tile is less than half the width of a tile, move the vertical working line exactly one-half the width of a tile to the left or right of line "A" and trace your true vertical working line "B" which will be the actual starting point of the first tile's positioning thus readjusting the layout of your tile to avoid getting narrow tiles in the corners which are hard to cut, hard to install, and aesthetically unattractive.

Lining up the edge of the first tile on the proper vertical working line, the rest of the row of tiles can be installed consecutively up to the corner, then returning to the working line, the other half can be completed in the same manner before proceeding to the next row up.

4.3 - Planning the End Walls

The vertical layout lines for the end walls are usually laid out after the back wall has been completely tiled. The end wall surface to be covered being between the corner and an edge trim or a glass wall or door assembly, determine the placement of the edge trim first if needed, and proceed as with the back wall to establish the location of the vertical working line, the only difference being with the use of edge trim, the tile against the trim can be a full tile providing that the corner tile at the other end is at least a half tile long or more.

Ideally, all cut tiles should be placed in the corner, and if at all possible, a full tile should sit against the trim so there are no chips apparent.

Even if they are to be installed last, you should at this point determine where you are going to put the soap dish or any other special accessory tiles or towel rods and mark their locations wherever the best location and positioning into the wall to minimize or even eliminate the need to cut any tiles that will go around it.

Step 5 - Installing the Tiles

Tile setting is a job that will expose you to a lot of dust generated from mixing grout, the tile chips from cutting, trimming, chiseling, or any other related activities that could irritate or even damage your eyes. Always wear a particle mask, safety glasses, and ear protection when using power tools to cut tiles.

5.1 - Spreading the Adhesive

For tiling a shower or bathtub walls, it’s important that a thinset will be required for its waterproof qualities that will hold up well under moist conditions.

Before spreading the thinset on the wall, carefully read the manufacturer's instructions for drying time so you don't spread any more than you can work with before it starts drying; usually, you want to spread enough thinset for 30-40 minutes of work.

Spread the adhesives on the wall using a flat trowel, then use a notched trowel at a 45° angle to create wide grooves into the thinset. Don’t forget to leave blank spaces for the installation of any accessories you want to install.

5.2 - Laying the Tile

Set the first tile along one side of the vertical and horizontal working lines. Use a gentle twisting motion, but don't slide it into place as you could move a lot of the adhesive to one side. If you are working with a batten, make sure that the tiles are firmly seated on it.

Without the batten, make sure to line the top edge of the tile along the horizontal line. Use shims under the tiles along the tub's lip to hold the tile up accurately along the line. Lay the tiles row by row, always keeping a watchful eye for correct alignment along the working lines. Tap them with a rubber mallet and a block of padded wood as you go.

5.3 - Spacing the Tile

For spacing, most standard 4 1/8-inch square tiles have small lugs on the sides which act as spacers and then are later covered by the grout. If your tiles do not, you can use finish nails for small grout lines, and for larger grout lines, use small molded spacers made for this purpose.

5.4 - Straight Cutting the Tiles

As you tile the wall and floor of your shower going into the corners, you'll need to be cutting tile as you go. Measure accurately with a tape measure. Most tile dealers can lend you a simple tile cutter. You can also rent a wet saw from your local equipment rental center.

high capacity wet saw for cutting tile

Check out wet saws on Amazon.

When cutting with a manual tile cutter, score the tile only once. Multiple scores will dull the blade and create jagged edges on the tile. Place the breaking wings, located at the bottom of the handle, about 0.5-inches from either edge of the tile, and slowly but firmly press down on the handle until the wings break the tile. Smooth any rough edges with a tile sander.

5.5 - Cutting the Tiles into Specific Shapes

Whenever you are cutting any tiles, you have to make sure the cutouts allow for the 1/8-inch grout line when getting your measurements. Cut the tiles to fit around pipes and faucets after all the field tiles are laid. Here are a few different ways to make more complicated cuts.

Use tile nippers to cut the tiles to irregular shapes. Scoring cutoff line with a micro cutter helps. You might need to cut a tile in 2 so that the tile wraps around the plumbing. With a wet tile saw rented from your local equipment rental center, you can cut the tile with a series of cuts and then go over it with the blade to smooth it out.

If you are making many complicated cuts, it may be worth it to rent a diamond cut-off wheel like this at an equipment rental center or your tile dealer. You can also use a saber saw with a carbide blade or, for small holes for plumbing pipes, you can use a tile cuffing attachment for your drill.

Step 6 - Tile Wall Perimeter Treatments

The overall or parts of the tiled perimeter may need to be finished with Bullnose tiles, quarter-round edge trims, and corner pieces. Simply butter the adhesive on the back of the tile and stick it onto the wall in the correct position.

Step 7 - Final Adjustments

Once you've laid the tiles and are waiting for the adhesive to set, make any adjustments needed for correct alignment. Check to see if the tiles are fully set by trying to pull up a tile. Clean any adhesive that got left behind on the face of the tile and allow the adhesive to dry for 24 to 48 hours, depending on the adhesive you used. While the adhesive is drying, remove any spacers that you used.

Step 8 - Grouting the Joints

When preparing and mixing the grout, the consistency of the grout should resemble smooth peanut butter. It should be malleable but not drip from the trowel when lifted. An Acrylic Fortifier can be added to the tile grout for better water resistance and strength in a proportion of 50/50 with the same consistency. It can then be easily applied with a rubber-faced float or a squeegee, although you can also do it with your finger and a large sponge. An old toothbrush is handy too to help work the grout into the joints.

To prevent some cement-based grouts from drying prematurely, you should wash white-bodied and soft red-bodied tiles before grouting. These types of tiles tend to be a lot more porous and can draw liquid from the grout drying it prematurely and weakening the bond.

Apply grout to the tile's surface, forcing it into the joints, filling the joints completely so there are no bubbles or gaps. Scrape the excess grout off by wiping diagonally across the tiles with your float or squeegee.

With a cleaned-out sponge, washed out in clear water and wipe away any remaining grout. Wipe the grout away as you go. Grout, an area, then wipe it down. Don't wait until you've grouted the entire area. Continue to rinse and wring out the sponge until the joints are smooth and level with the tiles.

Let the tiles dry out. After about 30 minutes, a hazy grout film will appear. Wipe that away with a soft cloth. You can use the end of a toothbrush handle to tool the joints and clean the intersections.

gloved hand cleaning bathroom tile grout with a toothbrush

Step 9 - Install the Accessories

After you have laid your field tiles and the adhesive has dried, you can go ahead and install the soap dish and the towel rack.

Often, there are small holes on the backside of the ceramic soap dish and towel rod accessories. These holes should not be covered up in the course of buttering the adhesive on the back as condensation can build up inside of them and cause them to drop off the wall.

Step 10 - Seal the Grout

Grout is used to fill in the joints between tiles but may not keep all the water from seeping through. Therefore, you should apply a layer of caulk anywhere two construction materials meet, keeping any water at bay. You should wait and let the grout dry and cure at least three days or more before applying the sealer, so read the manufacturer's label on the grout and the sealer to be sure of the correct timing.

For inside corners, use silicone-based caulking that will hold up well and run a bead of caulk around the edge of the tub where it meets the tiles and also around the base at the floor level. You should also caulk around the plumbing pipes and behind the rims of the soap dish, and any towel rods.