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Tiling a Tub Surround

In a tub that also contains a shower, plan to install tile from the top of the tub to about 6 inches above the shower head. If the tub doesn’t have a shower, tile at least one foot above the tub (more if you anticipate a lot of splashing). If you want to tile the ceiling as well, use a fast-setting adhesive; it will hold the tiles in place without support. (Install ceiling tile so that it doesn’t have to line up with the wall tiles—say, diagonally-—-because getting it to fit will be very difficult. If an end wall continues out past the tub, continue the tiles at least one full vertical row beyond the tub, and run it down to the floor. Use bullnose cap tiles for the edges.

Set the tile on a backerboard substrate. The backerboard itself should be installed over a waterproofing membrane of 15-lb. felt paper or 4-mil polyethylene. Overlay the edges of the membrane and seal the seams of the backerboard with fiberglass mesh tape bedded in adhesive. If you have a window with wood casing and jambs, consider tearing it out or cutting back the casing and tiling the recess. You can eliminate the problems of a wood window altogether by installing glass block.

Tools: Drill, hole saw, scraping tool, wall patching tools, level, a straight board, notched trowel, snap cutter, nibbler, hacksaw with rod saw, grouting float.

1. Remove the hardware. You don’t want to cut tiles to fit precisely around hardware. Pry the shower-arm escutcheon away from the wall, and perhaps remove the shower arm as well. Remove the tub spout; most can be unscrewed by sticking the handle of a screwdriver or hammer in the spout and turning counterclockwise. Remove the faucet handles and escutcheons.

2. Prepare and lay out. The walls must be solid, and at least close to plumb and square . If necessary, remove the existing substrate and install a waterproofing membrane and backerboard. Be sure that the new surface is flush with any adjoining surface. Establish a vertical reference line by laying the tiles in a row on the tub and making sure you will either have the same size tile on each end, or that you will not have any very narrow pieces. If the end walls are out of square with the rear wall, factor in how the pieces will change size as you move upward. Measuring from the low point of the tub if it is not level, establish a horizontal reference line and tack a very straight batten board along its length.

Caution! Protect Your Tub and Drain - This kind of job creates abrasive debris. Sharp chips from cut tile, as well as grit from backerboard and dripping adhesive, will fall into the tub. Without protection, the tub will be scratched and the drain will clog. Refinished tubs or drains that already run slowly are particularly vulnerable. To provide minimal protection for the tub, throw down a dropcloth. A better solution is to buy a special tub cover, or to tape red rosin paper (the pink protective paper that contractors use) to cover the tub. To prevent clogs, stick a rag firmly in the drain hole.

3. Cut the tile. Use a snap cutter for the straight cuts. Hold the tile in place and mark it for cutting. Align it on the cutter, score the surface by pushing down while sliding the cutter once across the tile, then push down on the handle. For a series of cuts of the same size, use the adjustable guide. Smooth the ragged cut edges with a rubbing stone or file.

4. Set the tile. Apply adhesive with a notched trowel, taking care not to cover your layout lines. Set the tiles, giving each a little twist and pushing to make sure it sticks. Start with the row sitting on the batten. Most wall tiles are selfspacing. Once you have several rows installed, remove the batten and install the bottom row.

5. Cut tile around pipes. Cuts around pipes usually do not have to be precise because the opening is covered with an escutcheon. Use a nibbler to eat away at a curved cut, or a hacksaw equipped with a rod-saw blade. To cut a hole, use a tile-cutting hole saw Or, set the tile on a piece of scrap wood, drill a series of closely spaced holes with a masonry bit, and tap out the hole.

6. Install end and corner tiles. Cut the curved piece at the corner of the tub with a hacksaw fitted with a rod-saw blade; it may take several attempts to get it just right. Use radius bullnose tiles everywhere there is an exposed edge. (Do not use a field tile edged with grout—it will look very sloppy.)

7. Tile to the desired height. When you reach your top row, wipe away excess adhesive from the wall as you install bullnose caps. Use outside corner pieces (“down angles”), which have two cap edges, at all outside corners.

8. Attach ceramic accessories. Apply adhesive and use masking tape to hold soap dishes and other accessories in place until they are set. Take the tape off after a day or two and apply grout, but wait a week or so before using.

9. Grout, caulk, and seal. Mix the grout with latex additive, and push it into the joints with a grouting float held nearly flat. Tip the float up and wipe away the excess. Carefully wipe the surface to produce consistent grout lines. Use a toothbrush handle or other tool to shape the joints. Caulk the corners and edges. Wipe and dry-buff the haze.

10. Reattach the hardware. Reattach the plumbing hardware. If you need to install a shower arm, use a thin tool handle to tighten it. If the new tile has caused valves or nipples to be recessed too far and you can’t install a faucet or spout, visit a plumbing supplier and pick up suitable extensions. Once the grout has cured, apply sealer.

Plumbing access panels are usually located in an adjoining room, but yours might be in the bathroom. The panel may have been installed when the bathroom was built, or it might have been built out of necessity when a plumber needed to gain access to the pipes and valves supplying the tub. Don’t just tile over the panel; a plumber may need to get in there again someday. The easiest solution is to cover the panel with a piece of plastic, well-painted plywood, or a plastic access panel made for the purpose (available at home centers). Or, make a tiled access panel. Cut a piece of plywood sized to hold full tiles. Install tiles on it so they will align with the surrounding tiles, and trim the edges with painted wood molding; drive screws through the molding to hold the panel in place. Or skip the molding, and attach with magnetic cabinet door catches.

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