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Installing Tile on Shower Walls

Installing Ceramic or Glass Tile on Shower Walls

© 2008 by Kelly R. Smith

Photo of Kelly R. Smith

Bathroom Ceramic Tile

Bathroom ceramic tile pattern

This article was updated on 06/11/21.

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This article is a step by step ceramic or glass tile installation tutorial on shower/tub walls. There are many appropriate types of wall tile but these are the most common. I include a tool list and cover tile layout and grouting. Installing tile on shower walls is not a overly-difficult DIY project but it demands close attention to detail, taking your time, and accuracy in order to ensure that you end up with professional results.

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 corded or cordless drill
  • Grouting float
  • Grouting sponge
  • Notched mortar trowel
  • Tile spacers (1/8” or 1/4”)
  • Cheesecloth
  • Glass or ceramic tile
  • Thinset mortar
  • Grout and grout sealer
  • Mesh drywall tape
  • Cement backer board
  • Screws for the backer board
  • Liquid waterproof membrane

Prepare the Cement Backer Board

Today, it’s recommended to use cement fiber backer board rather than water-resistant greenboard. In fact, most city building codes require it; always be sure to check before you begin. 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 from water-prone areas and hang backer board.

When applying the cement board to the studs, it is best to use screws specifically designed for this purpose rather than regular drywall screws. Durock makes and markets them under the name “Rock-On.” Clever, right?

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. White is important if you are installing glass tile.

A roll of waterproof membrane material

Make your Layout

The next step is to do your layout for the tile, but this is dependent on the style and size of your tiles and the pattern you will use. Broadly speaking, tiles are usually installed with all joints lining up (common with square tile) or staggered joints (common with rectangular or subway tiles). In either direction you go, vertically or horizontally, you probably won’t get an even number of full tiles. For this reason, a common rule of thumb is to buy 10% extra tile to account for scrap.

Bathroom Glass Tile with Accent
Bathroom glass tile with accent

If you want equal borders the best way to determine your border tile is this - first 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. Of course, every situation is different. In the picture above of a bathroom I recently did, I had vertical border tiles, so I installed them and started the bottom horizontal course with a full tile and the second with a half.

Investigate each scenario to determine which way makes for the larger borders. Take into account the width of your mortar joint. It is all personal preference but a rule-of-thumb is to use thinner tile spacers for walls (1/8”) and wider ones for floors (3/8” or so). It just looks better, most people agree.

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 troweling thinset onto the wall. Use the flat side of the tile trowel to spread about a thin layer of thinset on the area where you will lay the tile. Then use the notched edge of the trowel in a horizontal or vertical 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.

Of course, in the situation of the above photo (tub/shower area) it made more sense to install the outside vertical borders and then work in towards the corners. By the way, when setting tiles in a tub area, do not rest the bottom course on the tub. Instead, put spacers in there to allow for any possible expansion or contraction. You will pull them later and finish with flexible caulk.

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. Premixed costs much more so powdered is better for big jobs. 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. Change the water in your bucket frequently and get as much grout off the tile surface as possible.

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 tile on shower walls? Please share them in the comment section below.

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About the Author:

Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation, financial, and energy-trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at Considered Opinions Blog where he muses on many different topics.

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