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Prep for Shower Wall Tile

Give your plain bath a stunning makeover with shower wall tile. Installing tile in a shower takes some work, but the results are worth it. For the tile to look good and last, you need a strong, waterproof foundation. These instructions will show you the steps to prep your shower for wall tile.

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Shower Wall Tile vs. Wall Tile

Prepping for shower tile is different than the prepping for tile on drywall. A shower is considered a wet application, so you need to waterproof the foundation, which you’ll learn how to do in these instructions. After the waterproofing step, the instructions are the same as if you were installing tile on drywall.

Before Work Begins

Step 1

Choose the tile for your project. Wall tile comes in a variety of materials, sizes, and colors.

Types of tile include ceramic, porcelain, glass, and stone. Glazed porcelain and glazed ceramic work well for shower walls because the water can’t penetrate the tile.

As for size, here’s a tip: Avoid large tiles in tiny showers; opt for small or medium tile sizes instead. Of course, bigger showers look great with any tile size.

When it comes to color, you have lots of choices to fit your bathroom. Don't be afraid to get creative. Mix your tile color and size for a unique look. If you need some help with tile patterns and ideas, check out some of the many books in store. Two of the most common patterns are jack-on-jack and running bond. (Patterns illustration)

Step 2

Determine how much tile you’ll need. Measure each wall area, length times height. Add up the areas and add 10 percent for extra.

When buying tile, try to find boxes with the same dye lot number. If you can’t find matching numbers, mix tiles from different boxes when you’re installing so any color difference won’t be as noticeable.

Step 3

Taking on a tile install is a big project, so it’s best to have a plan before you start. This project will take a few days to complete so you won’t be able to use your shower for a while.

Also, it’s a good idea to check any local building codes and follow the specific instructions for your tile.

Remove the Old Tile

Step 1

If you have existing wall tile you’ll need to remove it. First take off the shower fixtures. To be safe, turn off the power to the room and adjacent rooms. Also remove any nearby electrical outlets or lights on the tiled walls.

The demo is messy, so wear safety gear and open a window. Protect your floor with tarps and tape off the door with plastic if it gets really dusty.

Step 2

Use a hammer and chisel to break off the old tile. Sometimes you have to smash one tile so you can get the chisel under the others. Breaking the grout lines works well too. This step might take a little time at first, but it will move more quickly once you get the hang of it.

Step 3

While you’re doing the demo, try to save the old cement backerboard (CBU) underneath. You can install the new tile over it. Most likely the backerboard will get cracked and broken and need to be removed. Use a hammer to bust it up. For pieces attached to studs, use a reciprocating saw to cut the screws. Remove any old vapor barrier.

Step 4

Once the backerboard is down, make sure the wall studs are in good condition. Any signs of mold must be addressed. Call a professional for removal.

Step 5

At this point you can reroute any plumbing and electrical. If you’re installing a new tub or shower base, now is the time to do it. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for specifics. Once the tub is installed, some manufacturers suggest adding furring strips to the existing studs so the backerboard will install flat over the flange of the tub.

Install a Vapor Barrier

Step 1

Install a vapor barrier. Staple 4-mm or thicker plastic to the studs. The plastic must cover an area at least 6-feet from the floor and extend to the edge of the shower walls.

Step 2

Cut the plastic at the base so it still overlaps the flange.

Install Cement Backerboard

Step 1

Cement backerboard provides a strong and moisture-resistant foundation for shower tile. Do not use drywall. Installing backerbaord is similar to installing drywall. You don’t need to cover your entire bathroom in backerboard, just the wet shower area. In most cases, your cement backerboard will butt up against existing drywall. In this situation, install a backerboard that is the same thickness as your drywall for a seamless transition.

To install cement backerboard, measure the work area and cut to fit. It should cover the same area as the vapor barrier, and extend about 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch off of the base. To cut the backerboard: mark it, score it, and snap it. For curves, use a jigsaw with a bit made for concrete. Using power tools can create a lot of dust, so make the cuts outdoors while wearing safety glasses and a respirator.

Step 2

Secure the backerboard to the studs with concrete backerboard screws. Don’t use drywall screws. Hanging the sheets can be a two-person job. Use shims at the base to set the expansion gap.

Step 3

Apply cement backerboard seam tape to the joints, then coat over the tape with thinset mortar. Also tape the seams where the backerboard meets the drywall.

Apply a Waterproof Membrane

Step 1

After the thinset has cured, apply a waterproof membrane. Start with a brush over the seams and joints.

Step 2

Use a roller to apply a first coat over the entire backerboard. Let it dry, usually about 30 to 60 minutes.

Step 3

Apply a second coat. Let it dry.

Check the Tile Layout

From this point on, the tile installation is the same as if you were installing a backsplash or tile on drywall.

Step 1

Start with the horizontal layout. In a shower surround, center the tile horizontally along the length of the wall. Behind a sink, center the tile with a fixture, such as a faucet. When you determine the center, mark a vertical line on the wall.

Step 2

Now check the layout. Starting at your mark, loose lay the tile—with spacers—along the wall and check the ends. If the layout gives you skinny pieces on the ends, adjust it to get wider tiles on the sides. Typical adjustments are about 1/4 to 1/3 the width of a tile. Adjust the vertical starting line if necessary.

Step 3

Next check the vertical layout. Plan on having full tiles at the top, and cut tiles at the bottom because the shower base, floor, or countertop might not be perfectly level. Since you’ll most likely need to cut the tile at the bottom, it’s best to start the installation at the SECOND row. To mark the starting line, first use a level to find the lowest spot. Hold a full tile there with a 1/4 inch gap at the bottom and a spacer at the top. Mark this height on the wall. This will be your temporary starting line.

Step 4

To see where the top row of tiles will sit, use a jury stick. Here’s how to make one. Set a straight board on the floor, and set the tile in place along the board—use spacers and account for the 1/4 inch gap at the bottom. Next, hold it up to your temporary starting line and check the top. Remember, you want full tiles at the top. If you need to adjust, move the layout down. Cutting a little bit off the bottom row won’t be noticeable. Mark a new starting line if necessary.

Here’s a tip when installing a backsplash: Don’t worry about cut tiles under cabinets. They won’t be visible.

Once you’ve determined your starting line, extend it along the walls.

Now you’re ready for the install. Check out our Install Shower Wall Tile video.