Bathtub Liners: Middle Ground Between Refinishing and Replacement?

Alcove Bathtub
Alcove Bathtub. Getty / Neo Vision

When your bathtub or shower surfaces go bad, all-out replacement appears to be your only hope.  And while nothing can compare to the quality of full replacement, there are intermediate solutions that are less expensive, faster, and cleaner that may satisfy your needs.

Acrylic liners for bathtubs and showers promise just such a solution to a decrepit tub or shower.  However, as with any other cover-up, this fix comes at a price.

What Are Liners?

Bathtub liners and bathtub refinishing are two methods of covering up your bathtub, shower pan, and walls.  

Liners are solid pieces that are installed over your existing tub or shower; nothing is removed.  By contrast, refinishing is sprayed on epoxy paint.

Liner Construction

Liners are made of acrylic, the same material that composes new, pre-fabricated bath and shower stalls.  While the acrylic is heavy gauge, it is not as thick as acrylic used for bathtubs and shower stalls.

Separate Sections:  Base and Walls

Liners come in two sections:  bottom and top.

  • Bottom:  For bathtubs, a unit that looks exactly like your original tub forms the bottom.  For showers, this bottom unit looks like your shower pan.  In each case, these units are single, unified, seamless pieces, which makes them waterproof.  The only entry points for water, then, would be around the drain and at the top of the liner.
  • Top:  For both tubs and showers, a second section of wall panels called the surround extends above the level of the tub liner or shower pan.

Because of this dual-piece method, you can conceivably install only the bottom section, leaving your walls untouched.  However, some liner installers say that they will only install bases in concert with walls.

 

The stated reason is that the junction between the top of the liner and your existing wall is a prime area for water infiltration.  By including wall panels, the installer can ensure a watertight fit.

Cost

Tub and shower liners may cost more than you imagine.  If you are not vigilant about finding competitive prices, you may end up paying as much for a liner as you would for full-out replacement.

Tub/shower liner companies typically do not offer up cost estimates without seeing the project.  Anecdotal cost estimates are in the chart below.  

CostJob
$3,70060 inch tub liner with 3 sheets of tile-looking wall from tub to ceiling. Shower door an additional $450.00.  Source:  This Old House
$1,100 to $1,400Bathtub liner.  Source:  Cleveland.com
$2,700 bath only. $3,800 including walls.Re-Bath franchise in Kentucky.  Source:  This Old House
$1,400 to $1,750Acrylic bathtub liner, all labor, and supplies included.  Source:  HomeWyse
$3,000Full tub and wall system.  Source:  Custom Bath Liners

Installation:  Professional vs. DIY?

Do it yourself bathtub liner installation is not possible, at least at this time.

When bathtub reliner companies take on your job, they order specific sizes.  In some cases these liners are custom-made.

So, the cost would be prohibitive for Lowe's or Home Depot to stock and shelf all different sizes and contours of tub liners.

Bath Renovation HQ, a liner company located in Bowie, MD, estimates that they use about 200 tub molds, and these 200 molds account for about 99% of the tubs lined by them.

One exception is the tub and shower surround.  You can buy tub surround kits (also known as shower wall kits) online or at the home improvement stores and self-install them.

While these do not cover the tub basin or shower pan, they do cover the walls. 

Bad tilework or existing surrounds can be covered up in hours with tub surround kits. They are not cheap, though. A 5-wall surround kit that mimics the molded look of tile will cost between $500 and $1,000.

Buy From Amazon - Swanstone Veritek Tub Wall Kit

National and Regional Tub/Shower Liner Franchises

Far fewer companies offer tub and shower liners than refinishing.  There is only a small handful of national companies that do this work:

Pros

  1. Cover-Up, Not a Solution:  Liners cover up underlying problems instead of fixing them. The moisture in bathrooms can create mold and even eat away at structural elements which need to be replaced.
  2. Trapped Water:  Bathtub refinishing companies like to make much of the possibility that water can get trapped between liner and tub, creating mold and mildew.
  3. Hollow Feeling:  Liners may feel "spongy" or less than stable under foot.
  4. Expensive:  Liners occupy a middle pricing territory between refinishing and complete replacement.  Still, some homeowners feel that the cost of liners exceeds their benefits.
  5. Reduced Dimensions:  Because you are adding material, your bathtub will become smaller.

Cons

  1. Quick Fix:  Tub and shower liners are a faster fix than completely demolishing and replacing your bathroom.  Expect a finished product within two days.
  2. Covers Up Bad Walls:  One clear advantage of liners over refinishing is that liners extend above the bathing area and up the walls.  
  3. No Demolition:  Demolition is necessary for a full bathroom remodel. The tub and shower have to be ripped out, and surrounding materials will get damaged and must be replaced. Liners do not require demolition.
  4. Fewer Fumes:  Tub and shower refinishing essentially turn your bathroom into the paint stall of an auto body shop.  Liner installation does come with some off-gassing from the adhesive used to attach the liner to the tub or shower, but these fumes are less than the mist created by spray-finishing.