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With thanks to Kelly Smith (DIY Life's Perpetual Remodeling Syndrome expert), I'm going to do a follow-up to his excellent post on floor tile, but change directions a bit, vertically to be exact. Let's look at the procedure for installing tile on a wall; in this case it was for a dorm bathroom, with the usual sinks, showers, etc. I had already done the rough electrical and plumbing and put in the sheet rock, concrete backer board, and bead board, so now the fun began. I frankly enjoyed myself because it was a lot less physically demanding than the aforementioned projects and I got to use my brain to do the necessary layout that would ensure a nice looking result.

But first, the gallery! It will help as an initial guide and you should refer to it at the parts of the project that require a bit of thought and planning.

The materials:

  • The tiles were on sale (of course); they were very uniform and not too brittle, so they cut fairly easily. You can get good stuff from pretty much any of the home stores or a flooring outlet center. If you use tiles that are 12" square it's easy to calculate the material needed. Be sure you add about 10% (you know me too well) to accommodate cuts.
  • Mastic -- we used a type that was suitable for "dry" areas and "intermittently" wet areas (e.g. shower walls). Wouldn't use it for predominantly wet areas such as shower floors, hot tubs, etc. There is substantial controversy about mastic versus thin set; you should err on the side of caution when deciding on the type of adhesive. The vendor will be able to help you. The bucket will note the expected coverage.

Time: took me about a week, even though it was a good-sized project.

Tools: a bunch, some of which you will not use a lot, but you still gotta have 'em --

  • tile saw; best to rent one
  • utility knife
  • notched trowel to spread and then "comb" the mastic
  • putty knife to get the mastic into small spaces, apply adhesive to small tiles, and get the mastic from the bottom of the bucket
  • tile spacers ("throwing stars")
  • knee pads, unless you have 19 year old knees
  • carpenter or grease pencil to mark the tile
  • tape measure
  • electric drill
  • hole saw
  • grout float
  • grout sponge -- usually has rounded edges to help get the grout into the joints
  • bucket and water
  • mixer to mix the grout
  • grout sealer
  • tile nipper
  • soft cloth to remove the "haze" from the tile after grouting
  • rubber mallet (optional); it's only optional for use, not to be replaced with a 5 pound sledge
  • silicone caulk and caulking gun for expansion areas such as shower joints or where walls butt together.

Safety: eye and hearing protection (saw noise and the loud radio music you will inevitably listen to when all your family departs, because watching someone else install tile is not very scintillating (look it up -- it'll be your word of the day.) Clearly, be careful of the saw. Just because it doesn't have a big blade doesn't mean it can't be dangerous. You will be cutting small pieces of tile with your fingers close to the blade; to paraphrase an old chainsaw safety manual -- "if it'll cut tile, it'll cut you."

The process; now is a good time to review the gallery to assist you in getting the procedures well in hand, then:

  • lay out the tiles, with the spacers, to determine (and mark) the center line; that will in turn show you how big your end tiles will be. Sometimes you get lucky and you can, by very slightly altering the tile spacing, use full pieces --you lucky dog !
  • starting from your center line, and with the flat side of the trowel, apply your adhesive in about a 3' x 3' area, comb it with the notched side of the trowel ( turned at about a 45 degree angle) to get an even setting bed, install your spacers under the tile, and put your bottom row in place. Hint: don't stick them fully to the wall until you get your vertical spacers in place and check the level ; then stick them with a forceful push or a rubber mallet. Clean the errant mastic with a wet rag or you will have to use a knife after it dries.
  • work both ways, proceeding either along the bottom row or in the 3' x 3' areas, your choice. You can dip the ends of the throwing stars in the mastic and apply them to the vertical and horizontal edges of the "old" tile before you stick the new ones. Keep an eye on the level of the tiles.
  • When you run out of room, that is your clue to crank up the tile saw, get your measurements, cut the tiles, and stick those babies in place. Be (sometimes painfully) aware that your openings may not be square and now you get to make custom cuts; that's how it goes sometimes; in fact, many times. Don't butt end tiles against each other; leave room for grout or caulk, as appropriate.
  • For the penetrations, you get your choice of saw, hole saw, or nippers -- you'll figure it out. The more accurate your measurements, the fewer times you'll have to cut and re-cut, and re-cut ... . (Not that something like that would ever happen to me.) You can generally get "collars" to go around pipes sticking through the wall, but it's not likely they would cover a gaping opening around a pipe; anyway, you want to keep the bugs out and your visitors from laughing at your work.
  • Let the tile work set about 24 hours, then you can remove the throwing stars and do the grout work.
  • Mix the grout to about the consistency of peanut butter. Using the float at about a right angle to the tiles, work the grout diagonally across the joints, to force the material into the spaces. (Don't grout into expansion joints.) Then, again diagonally, remove the excess grout with the float. Rinse with a clean sponge in a circular motion, then sponge the tiles parallel to the joints to shape the grout. Wait 60 minutes or so, depending on site temperature and humidity, and do a final rinse with a clean sponge. At this point, you can remove the grout "haze" with a soft cloth.
  • Wait a couple days to caulk the joints -- smooth them with your finger to ensure you completely fill the opening.
  • After a few days, you can apply a grout sealer; follow the directions exactly for the best results.

OK, that's it. Your turn, and have fun.

  • Willy

    Have you ever had to tile around a wooden mold that you built yourself?

    For example, if you have a claw-foot bathtub, and you want to tile the walls, so the water doesn't run onto the floor behind the tub? Have you made a build-out that forces the water to run along the wall and then INTO the tub, and then tiled over it? I'm curious to know the difficulty level of such a project. Thanks.

  • Bill Volk

    Willy--a great question and a situation which I suspect many folks face; you sure don't want to abandon the clawfoot. I've never done anything like this, but I believe it would be easy. After applying concrete backer board to the walls, construct an inclined "ramp" at the bottom, extending over the tub (with the b/b, of course) and tile the whole business. You need to make sure the tub is fixed into place so it doesn't shift and crack the tile, but you could likely do the project in a long day. Has this been helpful?
    Thanks for the comment,

  • Bill

    Big mistake using mastic in a shower. A shower is a wet area. Period. Should have used thinset. Never use mastic in a shower.

  • Bill Volk

    The issue of thinset versus mastic was covered in paragraph four of the article.

  • Bill

    I can see studs through the joints in your CBU! Why are those joints so wide, and why aren't they taped and filled?

  • Bill Volk

    The joints were eventually filled with silicone caulk.

  • Bill

    Where is the drain in those shower stalls, and what keeps the water from leaking under the walls and curb? No shower pan?

  • Bill Volk

    The drain is covered with tape to prevent debris from getting into the drainline. Caulk was used before and after the floor tile was installed.

  • Bill

    There is no "controversy" over thinset vs. mastic for showers among professionals. Especially when it comes to a situation like this, where you apparently had a shower that was to be used by a lot of people; i.e., more use than the average shower in a home. No question that thinset should have been used here.

    The joint in the CBU should have been no more than 1/8", and filled and taped with thinset prior to tile installation.

    Caulk will not prevent those showers from leaking.

    I hope you have good insurance, because these showers will fail.

    I have used that Acrylic Mastic from Custom, and I have a couple of small tubs of it right now. I see that it does say showers, but certainly you have to use some judgement about what kind of use it's going to get. These showers are going to see a LOT of use and a lot of water, and mastic was plainly the wrong choice here.

    This is why amateurs shouldn't be doing tile work, especially in an area like a bathroom where you have issues with water.

    These showers are a disaster, plain and simple.

  • 9 Comments / 1 Pages

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