How to Tile a Shower

Shower Tile

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Overview
  • Working Time: 3 - 4 days
  • Total Time: 5 days - 1 wk
  • Skill Level: Advanced
  • Estimated Cost: $500 to $1,000

Tiling a shower personalizes your bathroom. All aspects of the tiled shower are your choice: tile type, size, tiled vs. premade shower pan, and even extras like cubbies, shelves, and seats. When your tiled shower is done, it will be a truly unique creation that reflects you.

When you tile your own shower, you save considerable money over hiring professional tile workers. Tiling a wet area is a highly satisfying do-it-yourself project that rewards patience and attention to detail.

When to Tile a Shower

A cracked tile or two can be replaced. Poor or discolored grout alone usually isn't cause to retile the shower, as grout can be tinted, repaired, or replaced. But when much of the existing shower tile is cracked, missing, or leaking water, it may be time to tile your shower walls and floors.

During a bathroom remodel, tiling the shower usually happens after the room has been stripped or demolished, basic plumbing and electrical services have been installed, and walls framed. After the shower has been tiled, the bathroom floor and cabinets are installed and the walls are painted.

Before You Begin

Tiling a shower is a major undertaking for most do-it-yourselfers. So, consider your shower tiling project within the context of your bathroom as a whole.

Tip

Do you also want tile on the bathroom floor and walls? Bathroom floor tile and wall tile are separate projects from tiling the shower, as they often use different tile materials and have different waterproofing needs. Even so, it's helpful to incorporate them in these early planning stages so you can coordinate styles.

Timing

Budget enough time so that you can work at a slow but steady pace. Rushing tile work isn't advisable because it's so difficult to back the errors out. You also cannot speed up tile work because you need to build in sufficient waiting time for tile grout and mortar to fully dry.

Bathing Facilities

Have alternative bathing facilities lined up before you start tiling. The shower will be out of commission for at least one week—likely longer.

Staging Area for Materials

If you have available space outside of the bathroom, use it to store building materials. Creating a staging area outside of the bathroom is important because you will need the bathroom floor to lay out the tile before applying it to the shower.

Open the tile boxes immediately to check for damage, then close them back up for protection. Store backer board and plywood on edge. Water from the wet tile saw can damage floors, so locate the saw outdoors or in a garage, if possible.

Tile Alternatives

Tiling a shower isn't a quick, easy fix. If you just need a basic, serviceable shower, pre-fabricated shower units made of acrylic or fiberglass install quickly, are usually reasonably priced, and have no installation waiting periods. Pre-fab units work well if you don't mind sticking with predetermined sizes and styles.

Type of Tile to Use for Showers

Shower tile should meet or exceed waterproofing specifications for both the walls and the floor. For the floor, the tile should provide enough grip to stand on when showering.

Shower Wall Tile

Any tile expressly labeled as being porcelain tile can be used for shower walls. Porcelain tile has a water absorption rate of 0.5 percent or lower—essentially, it is waterproof.

You can identify porcelain tile by the Porcelain Tile Certification Agency (PTCA) trademark on boxes and product literature. On its website, the PTCA maintains a list of Certified Product Lines.

Porcelain isn't the only type of tile you can use in a shower. Most glazed ceramic tile can be used on shower walls. Glass tile isn't ceramic or porcelain, yet it's an excellent shower tile for its brilliant color register, near-zero water absorption rate, and easy cleanability.

Tip

Tile water absorption rates, DCOF slip resistance, break strength, and PEI abrasion resistance ratings are listed by tile manufacturers on the specification sheet. You'll find these sheets on manufacturer or retailer sites or on product literature. Some manufacturers' sites help you filter out tiles that do not meet specifications for shower walls and floors.

Shower Floor Tile

With water and soap underfoot, shower floor tile can get slippery and dangerous. So, you want your shower floor tile to provide enough grip for bare feet.

The coefficient of friction, or COF, is a standard for rating how slippery any item is. In the tile industry, this is usually called the DCOF wet target or value.

Shower floor tile should have a DCOF value of equal to or greater than 0.42. This is the standard for interior level tiles that are expected to be walked upon when wet. Higher numbers mean greater slip resistance.

Different factors can affect slip resistance. For example, some mosaic tiles may have poor slip resistance, but the great number of wide grout lines provides friction for bare feet.

Building or Adding a Shower Pan

While this project assumes that a fully plumbed, operable shower pan is in place, you may want a new shower pan. You can either build a shower pan from scratch with tile and mortar or you can use a pre-built shower pan.

  • Tiled Shower Pan: You can build a shower pan with shower floor tile, layering a base of mortar to create a slope that moves water toward a central drain. While this method affords you the most creative freedom and has a sleeker look, there's also a greater chance of water leakage.
  • Pre-Built Shower Pan: Even if you want to use tile on your shower walls, you can still pair the tile with a pre-built, single-piece fiberglass or acrylic shower pan. The look is plain and functional but the chance of water leakage is greatly reduced. Plus, it's easier and faster to install. For many do-it-yourselfers, combining tile walls with a pre-built shower pan is the best of both worlds.

Cost of Tiling a Basic Shower

The tile purchase comprises most of the cost of tiling the shower. Tile prices greatly vary, ranging from $1 per square foot for basic, glossy white subway tile to $50 to $75 per square foot for designer artisan tile.

In general, estimate on about $5 to $10 per square foot for tile. Setting materials will cost another $4 to $6 per square foot.

Because shower projects often uncover water damage to the underlying structure, figure in another $200 to $600 for any necessary do-it-yourself repairs.

Safety Considerations

  • Turn off all electrical circuits that service wires running through walls adjacent to the shower.
  • When using the wet tile saw, make sure that the water is fully bathing the cutting area before you begin cutting.
  • Water not only holds down dust, it also partially helps to prevent tile chips from shooting back at you.
  • Use eye, hearing, and breathing protection when cutting tile or when demolishing the existing shower.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Wet tile saw
  • Cordless drill
  • 1/4-inch notched trowel
  • Laser level or bubble level
  • Tape measure
  • Rubber grout float
  • Grout bag
  • Chalk snap line
  • Pry bar
  • Hammer
  • Eye, breathing, and hearing protection
  • Utility knife
  • Hole saw
  • Jig saw
  • Clean sponges
  • Clean buckets

Materials

  • Shower wall and floor tile
  • Edge tile
  • Accent tiles or listellos
  • Cement backer board
  • Tile spacers
  • Thinset
  • Floor protection materials
  • Plastic shims
  • Cement board tape
  • Liquid waterproof tile membrane
  • Paint roller frame and roller covers
  • Grout haze cleaner
  • Grout sealant

Instructions

  1. Plan Tile Layout

    Tile shape, size, and type can help to determine the tile layout. Choose a tile pattern such as grid, brickwork (staggered), or diamond (diagonal). Subway tile is usually laid in a brickwork pattern for a traditional effect or in a grid-like pattern for a more contemporary look.

    Large fields of small tile are more visually appealing when a border of accent tiles or listellos is laid horizontally, ranging anywhere from waist-level to eye-level (or 55 to 65 inches high).

    What Is a Listello?

    A listello is a decorative border or accent tile, often with a raised texture.

    Large format tile (around 18 inches by 36 inches) and ultra-large format tile (around 24 inches by 48 inches) look best when laid in a grid pattern. For a shower wall that's 4 feet wide by 7 to 9 feet tall, just four super-large format tiles are enough to cover the entire wall.

  2. Protect Floors

    If the bathroom floor is still in the subfloor phase, it does not need to be protected. If a floor covering has already been installed, protect the bathroom floor by taping down plastic or cardboard or by laying down thin plywood boards. Protect the entire surface, including the floor of the shower. For hauling out demolition debris, continue a pathway of cardboard protection board or plywood to the exterior.

  3. Remove Shower Tile or Surround

    With the prybar and hammer, chip away any old tile. Work from the top down. Remove screws and nails along the way. Let only a few tiles collect in the shower pan before dropping them in a bin, as loose tile can be slippery to stand on.

    One-piece synthetic plastic shower enclosures can be cut apart with a reciprocating saw. Multi-piece enclosures can be disassembled.

    Tip

    If cement backer board is under the tile or surround and it's in substantially good condition, keep it to use for your tiling project. Removing tile often ruins cement board in the process, but some good sections may remain. Direct-to-stud enclosures will have no cement board or drywall behind them.

  4. Fix Shower Wall Structure

    The structure that frames the shower enclosure must be solid, dry, and free of mold and mildew. With older homes, wood studs may have deteriorated to the point where they need to be replaced. Some homes, too, may have drywall or greenboard behind the tile or plastic surround. Remove these materials, as they will be replaced by cement backer board. Remove moldy fiberglass insulation and, if possible, replace it with spray-on foam insulation.

  5. Add Seats, Shelves, Niches, and Cubbies

    Built-in shower seats and inset shelves, niches, and cubbies add utility and keep the clean lines in your tiled shower. You can either build these accessories from scratch or with pre-built items made for this purpose.

    • From Scratch: To build insets and seats, create the item with two-by-fours and then face it with 1/2-inch cement backer board. Cover joints with fiber-based tape and apply a layer of thinset. Then, apply waterproof membrane and tile these items along with the rest of the shower.
    • Pre-built Items: Shelves, cubbies, and seats built of polystyrene or other waterproof materials can be purchased instead of building from scratch. These shower accessories are pre-sloped and ready for tile, with no need for cement board, taping, or liquid waterproof membrane. While more expensive than building from scratch, pre-built shower tile items save time.
  6. Measure and Mark Shower Area

    For each wall, use the tape measure to determine the horizontal center. Mark the location. With the laser level or bubble level, strike a plumb vertical line off of each mark and then snap a chalk line.

    Do the same vertically. With the tape measure, measure the height of each shower wall to be tiled. Find the halfway point, mark with the pencil, then add level lines, using the laser level or bubble level.

  7. Measure and Cut Backer Board

    With the old tile or surround removed, add cement backer board directly to the studs. Using the tape measure, measure the area to be covered. Cut the backer board to size by scoring it with a utility knife, then bending it backward and lightly cutting the back.

    Cut holes for the plumbing fixtures and showerhead with a hole saw fitted to the drill. For curves, cut the backer board with the jigsaw.

    Warning

    When cutting cement backer board with an electric tool, move to the outdoors to keep silica dust out of your house. Half-inch cement board needs to be cut while a saw, while 1/4-inch board can be scored and snapped.

  8. Install Backer Board

    With the drill and concrete screws, secure the backer board to the studs. Use 1/2-inch-thick cement board to match the thickness of the bathroom's surrounding walls. Alternatively, you can use two layers of 1/4-inch cement board.

  9. Add Cement Board Tape

    Add the cement board tape to every seam between cement boards. With the flat (not notched) side of the trowel, embed thinset mortar into the tape and smooth it down.

  10. Apply Waterproofing Membrane

    With the paint roller, roll the waterproof tile membrane onto the cement backer board. Pay special attention to the joints. Drying time is about 1 to 2 hours, but can take as long as 12 hours, depending on conditions. Apply a second coat.

    What Is Waterproofing Membrane?

    A waterproofing membrane is a liquid, elastomeric material that goes on wet but cures solid to fill cracks and to form a tight waterproof liner for showers. Solid plastic membranes under brand names such as Schluter Kerdi are also effective at waterproofing showers, but they cost far more than liquid membranes.

  11. Lay Tile on Floor

    Lay the tile for each wall on the floor in the eventual wall pattern, including the plastic tile spacers. Most tile applications require that the tile be cut to fit vertically and horizontally. Orient the tiles so that they start at the center strike points and move symmetrically outward. The idea is that when a tile needs to be cut, it's best to split the difference between two tiles.

    For example:

    The shower wall is 42 inches wide. This width can be covered by four 12-inch by 12-inch tiles, though 6 inches needs to be cut. Rather than cutting the fourth tile in half (6 inches), cut two of the tiles to a 3-inch width each. The narrow tiles will be laid at each far end to create symmetry.

  12. Create a Story Pole

    Use a scrap piece of one-by-two or other lightweight board that is at least 8 feet long. Lay it up against the side of your tile laid out on the floor and mark each grout point on the story pole.

    What Is a Story Pole?

    A story pole is a temporary layout tool. Based on project measurements, the story pole identifies locations on the work area and standardizes them. This allows the user to avoid continually measuring with a tape measure. Since the story pole is specific to a project, it is often discarded after use.

  13. Set Second Tile Row Start Point

    Reserve the first row above the edge of the shower pan and keep it untiled for now. It's usually desirable to have full-size tiles at the topmost point—whether it be a ceiling or edge tile—because this is a visible section. This means that the bottom (or first) row of tile will need to be less than full-size.

    Run scrap one-by-two boards horizontally above this empty first row, plus a seam above and 1/4 inch below. Tack this board in place with screws.

  14. Spread Thinset

    Mix up the thinset mortar until it has a peanut butter-like consistency. Spread the thinset on the cement board with the notched side of the trowel. Start low in the shower and work upward. Instead of applying the thinset to the entire shower, work in small areas. Large sections will dry before you can apply the tile.

    What Is a Notched Trowel?

    A notched trowel has two straight sides and two sides that are notched in either crenelated or V-shapes. When the user drags the trowel through the thinset at an angle, the notches meter out the correct amount of thinset.

  15. Apply Tiles

    Press the tiles into the thinset by gently wiggling the tile side to side. Avoid pressing too hard. Work upward, adding spacers to create seams between the tiles. Add a row of accent tiles or listellos, if desired.

    Tip

    After applying the first tile, remove it. Look at the back of the tile and the cement board to assess coverage. If you're not seeing a sufficient amount of thinset, consider using a 1/2-inch notched trowel.

  16. Finish First Row

    Remove the second-row starter board. Tile the first row, cutting as needed to fit.

  17. Add Edge Tile

    Install the edge tiles such as a bullnose along all visible edges of field tile. Apply with thinset dispensed from a grout bag.

  18. Grout Tile

    After the thinset has dried, grout the tile. Run grout across the face of the tile with the rubber grout float. Use the edge of the float. Pull the grout diagonally across the tile, filling all gaps. After the grout has dried, apply grout sealant.

  19. Clean Grout Haze

    After the grout has dried, clean the grout haze from the tile with grout haze cleaner. Mix with water in buckets and wipe down with sponges.

When to Call a Professional

Tiling a shower is a precise craft, since large quantities of water must be managed, with no room for error. Building a perfectly dry tiled shower is critical. If you feel that you don't have the time, patience, or skills to see this project through to successful completion, call in the pros.