How to Paint a Shower

Showerhead
Jan Hakan Dahlstrom / Getty Images

If you're serious about the idea of painting a ceramic tile or fiberglass shower, you have two basic options: have it professionally painted or paint it yourself with a tub and tile epoxy paint. Since you're reading this article, chances are you're leaning toward the DIY option. We just wanted to be sure you know there are pros who do this (using spray equipment) in case you get cold feet. We'd also like to express the opinion that painting a shower should be done only as a last resort, when the only other option in your mind is replacing the shower, and you're not ready to do that.

So, now that we're all on the same paint chip, let's take a closer look at the project. 

No Turning Back

Just one more more quick caveat: Painting a shower is permanent. Even if some of the paint fails in places, most of it will stick quite well and will be impossible to remove 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 be aware that you 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 it in your basement and pull it out for touchups. 

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 is a resin, the other a hardener. When the two parts are mixed together they undergo a chemical reaction and begin to harden, or cure.

This chemical reaction is what makes epoxies so sticky and so strong. By contrast, conventional paints merely dry through a process of evaporation, not chemical reaction. Not surprisingly, epoxy paints emit strong fumes and must be used with care. Ventilate the work area with plenty of fresh air, using fans to pull fresh air into the space and exhaust the fumes outdoors.

Using fans without fresh air movement doesn't provide ventilation. 

The Process

The standard process for painting a shower includes three labor-intensive steps: 1) cleaning and repair, 2) scuffing, and 3) painting and caulking. Cleaning removes all of the mildew, soap scum, and other crud that every shower accumulates over the years. Repair includes patching damaged areas or filling holes where grout is missing (with tiled walls). Scuffing is sanding, lots of sanding. All those smooth, shiny surfaces have to be roughed up to give the paint some "tooth" to grip to. 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 joint between the tub and the shower walls. The bulk of this project conceivably could be done in a day, but a long, ugly weekend is more realistic. The paint may need to cure for at least three days before the shower can be used. 

The All-Important Prep Work

The key to any successful paint job is a clean, well-prepared surface.

This goes double 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. 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 and will crack the grout. It will also crack your new paint. Part of the prep work is removing all the old caulk in this joint and elsewhere. After painting, seal the joint with a high-quality caulk that matches the new paint color. 

Then there's the sanding. Paint manufacturers may recommend ultra-fine sandpaper, such as 400-grit, for scuffing the shower surfaces. We recommend calling the manufacturer's tech support to discuss sandpaper grits. Ultra-fine sandpaper may not be enough, especially in the hands of an amateur sander (yes, there is some skill involved in sanding). A higher grit may be advisable, depending on the shower's surface material.