Tile is the most popular choice for walls in new and remodeled baths because it’s impervious to water, extremely stain-resistant, easy to clean, and available in dozens of colors, sizes, and styles. With the right tools and materials—and the patience to lay out the tiles properly—tiling a shower or bath surround is a job that most homeowners can pull off.
For the project shown here, we enlisted the help of tile contractor Joe Ferrante, who has been laying tile for This Old House projects since 1986.
How to Install Tub Surround Tile
The first and most important step for tiling bathroom walls insists Ferrante, is to start with a clean, stable substrate. He then fills the backer board seams with thinset mortar and embeds fiberglass-mesh joint tape in the mortar. Finally, to ensure a strong, long-lasting bond for the new tiles, Ferrante goes one step further and trowels thinset mortar over the entire wall.
For this installation, Ferrante used 4¼-inch-square ceramic tiles, the most common and easiest-to-install bath tiles. However, the methods shown here work on any wall tiles, including stone and glass. Ferrante glued the tiles to the backer board with latex tile mastic, not thinset mortar. Mastic is much stickier than mortar, so you won’t have to worry about the tiles sliding down the wall.
Tiling Around a Tub Shower Overview
Understand how your bathtub is setup.
How to Tile a Tub Surround
1. Mark the Layout Lines
- To tile around a tub or shower, start by measuring the height of the back wall from the lip of the tub to the top of the area to be tiled. Divide the dimension in half and make a mark there.
- Check if you need to adjust this mark to avoid laying slivers of tile at the top and bottom. Calculate how many tiles it takes to reach from the center mark down to the tub. If you end up with less than half a tile at the tub, adjust the mark downward by the height of this partial tile so you end up with a full tile at the bottom and a larger cut tile at the top. Using a level, draw a horizontal line across the wall at this mark.
- Next, measure the width of the back wall horizontally. Divide this dimension in half and draw a plumb line down the center of the wall. If this leaves tile slivers on both sides, adjust the line right or left as necessary.
2. Trowel On the Tile Mastic
- Start at the intersection of the two layout lines and spread a thick layer of tile mastic onto one quadrant of the wall with the smooth edge of a trowel.
- Tile mastic has a working window of about 20 minutes, so apply it to an area no larger than 2 or 3 square feet.
- Use the notched edge of the trowel to rake out the mastic and make a series of deep ridges.
3. Start Installing the Tile
- Set the first tile at the intersection of the two layout lines. Press the tile tight to the wall, making sure its edges are flush with both the horizontal and vertical lines.
- Continue setting tiles in both directions along the two lines, working out toward the end wall and down to the tub in a stepped pattern.
- Set only full tiles in each course.
- Many tiles have small nubs on the edges to keep them evenly spaced at the proper width for grout. If your tiles aren't self-spacing, use plastic spacers to maintain consistent joints.
4. Cut Tile to Fit
- Where the tiles need to be cut to fit against a corner or ceiling, hold a full tile in place and mark where it overlaps the last full tile already on the wall.
- Place the tile to be trimmed on the tile cutter so the mark lines up with the cutting wheel. Slide the cutter's adjustable fence against the edge of the tile so that you can cut the remaining tiles without marking each one. With slight downward pressure, pull the cutting wheel across the face of the tile to score the glaze. Do not score the tile twice. Press down on the handle to snap the tile in two.
- Lay tiles with their cut edges against the corner or ceiling.
5. Drill for Tub or Shower Supply Pipe
- Finish setting the tiles in the other quadrants of the back wall.
- Extend the horizontal layout line to the end walls, draw the plumb lines, then set the tiles for these walls using the same procedure as above.
- At protruding fixtures, such as the tub and shower supply pipes or the mixer valves, you'll have to use tile nippers to carefully create notches in several tiles to fit them around the rough plumbing. Or, if the pipe or valve body falls within a single tile, drill a hole with a diamond-grit hole saw.
6. Nipping Tiles To Fit Around Fixtures
- Once the hole is cut out, slide the tile over the pipe (or position it next to the protruding plumbing) and press it into the mastic.
7. Apply the Grout
- Complete each end wall by installing rounded-end bullnose tile along the edges. Allow the mastic to cure overnight.
- Next, pour a quart of fortified unsanded tile grout into a bucket. Mix in just enough water or latex additive (which strengthens grout) to create a mayonnaise-like consistency.
- Place some grout on a rubber trowel and smear it diagonally across the tiled surface, forcing it deep into every joint. Apply grout to all three walls in this manner.
- Let the grout cure for 15 to 20 minutes, then wipe the tiles with a large damp sponge held flat against the wall. Rinse the sponge often in clean water.
- The next day, buff the remaining grout haze off the tiles with a clean, dry cloth.
- Finally, use siliconized acrylic caulk that matches your grout color to fill the joint between the tub and first course of tile.