Renewing a Shower With Epoxy Paint

Close up of shower head against blue tiles.

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A shower or tub surround that becomes dingy or scarred with age can be an expensive proposition to replace. One option is painting or resurfacing, normally the last resort if a full-scale replacement is not practical. Normally, resurfacing or painting a tub or shower is done by pros who specialize in this kind of thing, but a budget-conscious homeowner might opt to do this themselves, using a two-part tub-and-tile epoxy paint. These products, sometimes marketed as "refinishing kits" rather than "paint," are said to work on ceramic tile, porcelain, fiberglass, acrylic, cast iron, or steel surfaces.

Be aware that the effectiveness of these products is limited, and some homeowners who pursue this option come away somewhat disappointed with the results—and weary from the effort and work involved. Epoxy painting/refinishing requires extensive preparation of the surfaces in order to be effective, and the finished appearance usually falls a bit short of looking "new." But epoxy tub-and-tile paint/refinisher can be an option for a bathroom that sees infrequent use or as a stop-gap measure in a bathroom where a more full-scale remodeling is planned for the future.

Paining Is Permanent

Before going down this path, remember that painting a shower is permanent. Future renovations will likely involve full-scale removal and replacement of the shower. Epoxy paint will stick very well, and you won't be able to remove it without damaging the shower materials. If you do end up with some failures, such as cracked, bubbled, or peeling paint, you can repair those spots, but you'll have to buy an entire paint kit to do so. This is because epoxy paint, once mixed, must be used in a matter of hours. You can't keep an old can of epoxy paint in your basement and pull it out for touch-ups. 

The Paint

Tub-and-tile epoxy paint is sold in a kit (of sorts) containing two cans of paint material—part A and part B. One part is a resin, the other a hardener/catalyst. When the two parts are mixed together they undergo a chemical reaction and immediately begin to harden or cure. This chemical reaction is what makes epoxies so permanent and so strong. By contrast, conventional paints merely dry through a process of evaporation, not a chemical reaction. Not surprisingly, epoxy paints emit strong fumes and must be used with care, following the manufacturer's instructions precisely. Ventilate the work area with plenty of fresh air, using fans to pull fresh air into space and exhaust the fumes outdoors. You may be required to use respirator gear when using epoxy paints, and DO NOT ignore this recommendation.

The Process

The standard process for painting a shower includes three labor-intensive steps:

  1. Cleaning and repair. Cleaning removes all of the mildew, soap scum, and another detritus that every shower accumulates over the years. Repair includes patching damaged areas or filling holes where grout is missing (with tiled walls).
  2. Scuffing. Scuffing essentially means sanding the surfaces—lots and lots of sanding. All those smooth, shiny surfaces have to be roughed up to give the paint some "tooth" to grip to.
  3. Painting and caulking. The painting is done in two coats, using a small roller made for smooth finishes as well as foam brushes for painting edges and tight spots. Caulk goes on top of the dried paint and seals the joints between the tub and the shower walls.

The bulk of this project conceivably could be done in a day, but it is more realistic to plan for a long, ugly weekend to complete this project. The paint will probably need to cure for at least three days before the shower can be used. 

Preparation Is Critical

The key to any successful paint job is a clean, well-prepared surface. This goes double (or maybe triple) for painting a shower. If any grime or mineral deposits are left on the tub or wall surface, the paint will stick to the grime or deposits, both of which will eventually come off along with the paint. Another critical area of failure is the joint between the tub (or shower base) and the shower walls. Unless you have a one-piece tub/shower insert, there is a seam between the tub and the walls. This joint must be caulked, not grouted because the tub moves when it's filled with water grout will crack because it has no flexibility. And paint applied for a grouted joint will also crack. A critical part of the prep work involves removing all the old caulk in this joint and elsewhere. After painting, you'll seal the joint with a high-quality caulk that matches the new paint color. 

Then there's the sanding, sanding, sanding. Epoxy paint manufacturers may recommend ultra-fine sandpaper, such as 400-grit, for scuffing the shower surfaces, but in practice, this may not provide enough "tooth" for the paint to adhere to. You may want to call the manufacturer's tech support to discuss sandpaper grits. A rougher grit may be advisable, depending on the shower's surface material. Sanding is an art, especially for amateurs, and there is no preparation step more important when painting a shower with epoxy paint.