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Installing Tile on Shower Walls


Install Bathroom Tile on Cement Backer Board

© 2008 by all rights reserved; content may not be copied, rewritten, or republished without author’s written permission. Author’s Google profile

Bathroom Ceramic Tile



This article is a step by step ceramic tile installation tutorial on shower/tub walls. It includes a tool list and covers tile layout and grouting. Installing tile on shower walls is not a tough project but demands attention to detail and accuracy to end up with professional results.

If you would rather hire a contractor to tackle this job for you, I recommend having a look at Angie’s List, where thousands of consumers share their ratings on the local contractors In Your Town!

Tools and Materials for This DIY Project

Most of these tools (if you don’t have them already) are quite inexpensive. The only thing I would recommend is renting a wet saw, unless you anticipate doing a lot of this work. If so, invest in one.

  • Tape measure
  • Chalk line
  • Wet saw for tile
  • Tile hole cutting bit(s) of the dimension(s) you need (for the shower head,etc.)
  • Electric drill
  • Grouting float
  • Grouting sponge
  • Notched mortar trowel
  • Tile spacers (1/8” or 1/4”)
  • Cheesecloth
  • Tile
  • Thinset mortar
  • Grout and grout sealer
  • Mesh drywall tape
  • Cement backer board
  • Liquid waterproof membrane

Prepare the Cement Backer Board

Today, it’s recommended to use cement fiber backer board rather than greenboard. In fact, most building codes require it; always check. Hardie is a good brand, as is USG Durock, although there are other quality brands on the market. If you are doing a remodel and have existing greenboard (moisture-resistant drywall), remove it and hang backer board.

Ensure that the cement board on the walls is secured properly and that there aren’t any large indentations. Float the seams with thinset after applying fiberglass mesh drywall tape. A smooth surface minimizes the chance of any unexpected cracking later on.

Apply the waterproof membrane to the backer board so that water can’t seep through and cause damage. You can use a roller or brush and apply just as you would a coat of paint. Follow the directions on the product you are using for specific application instructions.

Make your Layout

The next step is to do your layout for the tile. In either direction you go, vertically or horizontally, you probably won’t get an even number of full tiles. The best way to determine your border tile is this - measure the wall width.

Find and mark your mid-point. This point will be either the center of the center tile or the joint line between two tiles. Investigate each scenario to determine which way makes for the larger borders. Take into account the width of your mortar joint.

This determines the starting point. Be aware that this layout applies to left to right measurements only. As far as the bottom to top (vertical) layout goes, use a full tile at the bottom. Just make certain your tub is reasonably level.

Use Your Chalk Line to Snap Control Lines

Now that your layout is made, strike your chalk lines, one for the top of the bottom course of tiles and the second one vertically for the center tile column. You can use the 3-4-5 rule to be sure you have a 90 degree angle. If you don’t, adjust the vertical line.
* Note: Your work will be easier if you use red (permanent) chalk so it won’t smudge so much when you apply thinset. Just be careful not to get it on anything you want to keep!

Set the Tile

Start toweling thinset onto the wall. Use the flat side of the tile trowel to spread about a quarter inch coat of thinset on the area where you will lay the tile. Then use the notched edge of the trowel in an angled combing motion. This will ensure that there are standing ridges throughout.

Be sure that you do not spread more thin-set than you can use in a 15 minute time span otherwise it will start to set up and reduce the effectiveness of the bond. Start setting tile where your chalk lines intersect and work outwards. Use the spacers between tiles to ensure equal space between tiles. As soon as all the field tiles in the section you are working are in, start cutting and setting the borders.

When that’s done, give it 24 hours or so to set up. Now you can begin to grout the tile.

Grouting the Shower Tiles

Now you’re ready to grout your tiles. You can mix the powdered grout (color of your preference), or buy premixed grout. Now, the idea is to use the float to force the grout into the tile joints using hand pressure.

Next, use clean water to sponge the grout off the tile surface and shape a slight indentation (called joint shaping) in the joints. This must be done before the grout sets up so you’ll find yourself grouting in sections on most jobs.

Grouting is an Easily Learned Skill

Got the hang of it yet? Grouting is a job that takes minimal practice. The good news is that you can stop and add grout if you’ve made the indentation too deep. Just keep your sponge wet and use a smooth circular motion.

Now that you’re done, just let the grout set up, buff the tiles with cheesecloth, and use your grout sealer. Since bathrooms are wet areas, I like to let the sealer dry overnight and then apply a second coat. Don’t settle on cheap sealer!

Do you have any experiences or tips on installing shower tile? Please share them in the comment section below.

Follow Kelly Smith

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