When remodeling a bathroom, a common solution for the tub/shower is to finish it with acrylic, fiberglass, or PVC surround panels. Panels generally come in three- or five-piece kits and they come in two different installation types. Thicker, sturdier products are designed to be affixed directly to wall studs, and these are a good choice during major remodeling projects where walls are being demolished down to the studs, or in projects where the bathroom layout is being changed and reframed.
But an easy and inexpensive option for less dramatic remodeling projects is to use a kit with thin surround panels that are installed over the existing wall surfaces with adhesive. These kits designed for glue-up applications use thin, waterproof panels that gain their support from the surrounding wallboard. Installation of glue-up panels looks largely the same whether you are finishing a bathtub alcove or a standup shower.
These glue-up surrounds are the easiest to use for bathrooms with windows, or where the bathtub or shower enclosures are oddly sized. Unlike direct-to-stud surrounds, these kits are relatively easy to trim down to fit unique situations. Before buying a surround, do some checking to make sure you are selecting a model that is sized right for the tub or shower you have.
Tools and Supplies You Will Need
Prepare the Walls
Adhesive surround kits can be installed over just about any flat wall surface in good condition, including tile or drywall. But because the panels are glued, the walls need to be clean so that the adhesive will make good contact. Walls that are damaged will also need to be patched first.
After cleaning and repairing the wall surfaces, remove all the handles and trim work for the tub and shower valves. Using a utility knife and plastic putty knife, cut caulk seals around the tub or shower base and scrape away the old caulk. Chemical caulk remover can help remove any stubborn caulk residue. To properly install the new wall panels, you will need smooth, flat edges on the bathtub or shower base.
Draw a level line around the three walls at a height marking the top edge of the surround panels. This may vary depending on your kit; most use panels that rise to about 72 to 80 inches above the floor. When finished, you should have guidelines drawn on three walls.
Test-Fit the Panels
If you are lucky, the panels of the surround kit will fit the existing space perfectly, since they are typically sized to fit stock bathtub and shower bases. But it is also possible you will need to trim panels to fit, so it's critical that you test-fit the surround panels before you begin the installation.
Set the panel for the back wall (the wall opposite the faucet valves) against the wall, with the top edge flush against the level guideline drawn on the wall. Tape the panel in place with strips of masking tape.
Next, place the side panel, then the front panel on the walls, using masking tape. If faucet and shower stems are extending out of the wall, this may require that you cut the holes for the front panel at this time (see below).
Check the fit of the panels along all edges. It's not uncommon for a tub or shower base to be out of level, so if necessary, you may need to trim the bottom of the panels and make adjustments to fit.
If your kit uses corner panels, make sure to test-fit these in their proper locations. On most kits, the corner panels overlap the flat wall panels.
Cut the Panels, if Necessary
If the test-fitting process shows that cutting is necessary, using masking tape to mark cutting lines on the panels. Remove the panels, then use a jigsaw with a fine-tooth panel blade to cut down the panels to the size. When finished, smooth any rough edges with sandpaper.
Test-fit again to make sure all panels fit.
Cut Holes for the Faucet and Shower
Cutting holes for the faucet and showerhead requires careful measurement of the front wall, then transferring those measurements to the front surround panel.
On the plumbing wall, note the horizontal and vertical distances of the faucet stems and showerhead stub-out, measuring from the wall corner and from the edge of the tub or shower base. Transfer these measurements to the front surround panel.
You can use a large sheet of cardboard cut to match the front surround panel to create a template for drilling holes for the surround panel. Test-fit the cardboard template on the wall over the faucet stems and showerhead stub-out to make sure the fit is perfect, then use the template to transfer marks for cutting the holes onto the front of the surround panel.
Use a drill and hole saws to cut holes for the faucet valves and shower head on the front surround panel. The holes should be large enough for the valve stems to fit easily, but small enough that the trim plates (escutcheons) will completely cover the holes. Some pros like to cut holes with the drill set to reverse rotation because this makes for cutouts with smoother edges.
Test fit all panels one last time to make sure they fit perfectly into the alcove.
Apply Adhesive to Back Wall
Begin the installation the back wall—the one opposite the faucet valves.
Using a panel adhesive specially designed for your type of panels, apply zig-zag beads of caulk over the back wall. Then, use a notched trowel to spread the adhesive evenly over the wall surface. Make sure to keep the adhesive inside the marked lines.
Position the First Panel
Carefully position the back panel and press it against the wall so the entire panel makes contact with the adhesive. Pull the panel slightly away from the wall for about 30 seconds. This allows the solvents in the adhesive to slightly dissipate and improves adhesion.
Press the panel back firmly against the wall to adhere to it. Use a damp rag to wipe down the face of the panel and ensure that all portions of the panel are firmly bedded in the adhesive.
Some installation pros like to run a bead of silicone caulk along the edge of the tub or shower base just before pressing each panel into place on the wall. This can improve the waterproof seal along the bottom of the surround panel.
Position Remaining Panels
Repeat steps 5 and 6 for the remaining surround panels, following the particular instructions of your kit. Some 5-panel kits are designed so that the corner panels are installed last, after the flat panels are in place. In this instance, a bead of silicone is usually applied over the back edges of the corner panels before they are pressed into place. These corner panels typically overlap the edges of the flat panels.
Let the panel adhesive dry for at least 24 hours, then use a high-quality silicone kitchen/bath caulk to seal around the top of the surround panels, the seams between the panels, and the bottom edge where the panels meet the tub or shower base. Smooth out the caulk bead, and use a damp cloth to remove any residue from the surface of the panels and from the tub or shower base.
Finish the Installation
Install the shower handles, shower head, tub spout, and escutcheon plates according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Make sure that escutcheons cover the holes, then caulk around the fixtures.
Install shower rod and curtain (or the shower door). Wait another 24 hours for the caulk to fully cure before using your tub or shower.
Using glued surround panels is a very easy and inexpensive way to remodel a shower or bathtub alcove with minimal effort. It is an excellent choice when the walls need a makeover but the shower base or bathtub is in otherwise good condition.