How to Tile a Shower

Workman Tiling a Shower
Workman Tiling a Shower. Getty / Jodi Jacobson

1. Keep Your Shower Pan In Place If Possible

When you tile a shower yourself, while keeping the shower pan in place, you keep it a fairly straight-forward project.  

Building up a shower pan by scratch with tile and mortar, or even with a ready-made fiberglass pan, adds a few kinks to the project due to the inherent nature of pans to leak.  Yes, shower walls need to be waterproof, too, but they experience like the pooling up of water in the pan.

2. Strip Your Current Shower Stall To Studs

This means everything except for floor pan: walls, ceiling, hardware. If you're having trouble contemplating the sheer ugliness of demolition, this is your second chance to hire a remodeling contractor.

The sunny side of this ugly project is that you are not selectively demolishing tile while trying to preserve existing cement board.  While messier, this approach is far easier.

3. Keep That Greenboard Out of the Shower Stall; Instead, Install Cement Backer Board

Greenboard, a type of drywall-on-steroids, is moisture resistant but not moisture-proof.  Big difference.  Using geenboard in shower stalls is a vestige of the past.  Greenboard is for the outlying areas, not for the shower itself.

Install cement backer board over 4 mil plastic stapled to studs. Common types available are Wonderboard or Hardibacker (James Hardie Industries).

4.  Get That First First Row of Tiles Leveled and Marked

Using a level, mark the location of your first row of tiles with a contractor's pencil--the bottom row.

Avoid having the bottom edge of the tiles hit the bottom of the cement board. Instead, make sure there is an overlap of about a half-inch.

5. Mortar Bottom Row With the Expensive--Yes, Expensive--Thinset Mortar

Apply thin set mortar to bottom row area. When purchasing thin set mortar, my advice is to buy the more expensive premixed mortar (in buckets), instead of the less expensive but more difficult powdered mortar.

 

Powdered thin set mortar at Home Depot, 50 pounds, is about $15.  One mere gallon of a pre-mixed thin set is $23--astronomically more expensive than the dry mix.  Buying dry makes sense for pro tilers who do lots of showers.  For you, the tiler of one shower, that extra cost is well worth it.

6. If That Bottom Row Is Not Sticking Without Aid, You Are Doing It Wrong.

Use your notched trowel to lay down a thin coat of mortar. Firmly press in your first row of tiles. Tile should stick without any other aid. Let this row set for at least half a day, because all other rows depend on this row.

7. Use Spacers As You Continue Rows of Tile Upward

Install upper rows, keeping them spaced away on all four sides with tile spacers (inexpensive plastic "crosses" available at your hardware store). Keep in mind proper tile spacing technique. Continue to top.

Unless you are lucky enough for the upper-most row to be an exact fit (highly unlikely), you will need to cut to size with your wet tile saw or snap cutter

8. Grout, The Tile, Following Immediately With a Wet Sponge

Let tile set for 48 hours. Use your rubber float to press grout into the open seams. Choose a type of grout whose color complements your tile.

Continue to press wet grout into the seams, scraping away the excess.

Follow with a wet sponge to further smooth the grout into the tiles. If you apply too much pressure or wipe parallel to the seams, you should remove excess grout from between the tiles.

9. The Only Way To Remove Grout Haze Is With Haze Remover

Repeat process until haze is nearly removed (haze cleaners are available to remove grout haze further). Finally, seal seams with special grout sealer. Failure to seal seams means that water can work into the seams and behind the tile, eventually destroying your careful work.

Tools and Materials You Will Need