Installing a tile shower in your bathroom is a perfect way to customize the space to your personal tastes and upgrade the room. Unlike a store-bought shower stall kit, a tile shower can be built in any size or shape imaginable.
The beauty of tile is that it gives you virtually unlimited options when it comes to color, texture, and style. You may even find yourself more overwhelmed by the designing part rather than the actual building of your new shower.
That said, installing a durable, waterproof, and good-looking tile shower will likely take a bit more work and attention to detail than the average DIY project, so it’s a good idea to recruit an especially handy friend for help or consider hiring a professional if you don’t feel up to the task. Whether you do the job yourself or leave it to the pros, this detailed overview will set you up for success, starting with how to plan your project to how to tile a shower so the job is done right.
Before You Start: Prep Framing and Plumbing
For a tile layout to look good, the surfaces all need to be plumb, level, and square. If you’re working on an existing bathroom shower, you can straighten wall framing by attaching furring strips and shims to the surface of studs or by adding new studs next to the old ones. Add solid wood blocking in the wall or ceiling anywhere that you will need to fasten plumbing fixtures, grab bars, glass doors, or other heavy shower parts. Now is the time to add framing for shower niches, benches, or curbs.
Before starting the tile job, be sure all rough plumbing is in place, including water lines, shower valves, and drain pipes. Secure all these parts to the framing as specified by the manufacturers, and make sure each component is at the correct depth, based on the thickness of your tile substrate, mortar, and tiles. Cover shower valves and pipes to keep them clean during tile installation; some fixtures come with caps for this purpose, but you can use masking or electrical tape and plastic sheeting.
Install a Waterproof Substrate
Shower tiles must be installed over a continuous waterproof material, not unprotected drywall or plywood. One of the easiest, most reliable ways to build a sturdy, leak-proof shower tile substrate is with a complete shower waterproofing system, such as the Schluter-KERDI Shower Kit or the Johns Manville GoBoard Shower Pan Kit.
You will get the necessary sloped shower base, drain flange, waterproofing membrane, and seam tape in one complete package. Plus, there’s no guessing about the compatibility of the components or how they fit together.
These systems also offer add-on features like preformed shower niches and shower bench kits. Regardless of what system you use, most membranes, seam tapes, and substrate panels will require a layer of unmodified thinset mortar that you spread on with a trowel.
Design a Tile Layout
Figuring out exactly where each tile will go can be one of the fussiest parts of the job, but it’s an important step. A poorly planned tile layout can result in uneven seams, awkwardly sized rows, and fixtures that look off-center.
For a typical shower tile installation, the main goal is to center the field of tile on each wall (as well as the floor and ceiling, if applicable), while ensuring that the rows of tiles meet attractively at the corners and edges. Next, decide on the size of the gap between the tiles, which commonly range from 1/16 inch to 1/4 inch. Generally, the larger and more unevenly textured the tile, the bigger the gap, but it’s up to you to decide what looks right.
Once you have your tile and gap sizes figured out, measure the width and height of each wall. Repeat the process on the floor and ceiling if necessary to determine how many tiles will fit in each direction. Even if your desired layout has staggered joints on alternating rows, the number of tiles will be the same per row, but the size of the pieces you cut for the edges will be different on every other row.
Before you start, do a test run to make sure the tiles fit well:
- Place a drop cloth on the floor, and using masking tape, outline the dimensions of each shower surface on the drop cloth.
- Lay out the actual tiles on the drop cloth in formation. This way, you can see exactly how it will look once installed, and make adjustments.
- Once you have your layout figured out, make note of the height of the bottom row of wall tiles. This will determine where to start the installation process.
If you’re installing tile with complicated shapes or patterns, or using more than one type of tile, you may want to consult with the tile distributor or manufacturer or hire an interior designer.
Map Out the Tile
To ensure every tile is installed straight, make several level and plumb reference lines on each shower surface. Start by using a level to check the bottom edges of the walls where they meet the floor; if the floor isn’t perfectly level, mark on the wall where the lowest point is.
Next, draw a level line all the way around the walls representing where the bottom of the second row of tile will go—this is because you will install this second row first, and return later to cut pieces to fit in the bottom row. Measure up from where you marked the lowest point on the wall and make a mark at the height you chose earlier for the first row of tiles, and then use a level and pencil to draw a line at that height all the way around the shower.
Take a straight wooden board and cut a piece to go on each wall a couple inches shorter than the wall is wide. Screw boards to the walls so their top edges are aligned with the level line you previously made around the shower. These will act as supports to keep tiles straight and level during installation.
Draw several more level lines around the entire shower at different heights all the way to the top of the walls; you will use these to measure down to the top of each consecutive course of tile to make sure your rows are straight, level, and evenly spaced.
Now mark the center of each wall, and use a level and pencil to draw a vertical plumb line at each mark. This will keep the tile layout centered between the adjacent surfaces.
Cut the Tile
If you’re installing smooth ceramic tiles, make straight cuts with a manual tile cutter. But if your tiles are thick, rough-textured, or made of stone or porcelain, opt for a wet saw with a diamond-abrasive blade, which you can rent by the day (for what it would cost to buy a manual cutter).
To perform irregular cuts, there are several tool options. For circular holes, use a drill with a diamond hole saw. A diamond-cutting disk on an angle grinder is ideal for cutting notches, curves, and inside corners. Meanwhile, a tile nipper can make very small cuts of any shape. After cutting tiles, clean any rough edges with an abrasive rubbing stone. Whatever cutting tools you use, be sure to wear safety glasses and a dust mask as protection.
Mix the Mortar
For mortar to work properly, you have to get the consistency right. The packaging instructions will specify how much water to add and how long to mix them together. Typically, a 50-pound bag of thinset mortar takes 5 to 6 quarts of water, but you will want to mix it in smaller batches as you work. Use a 5-gallon bucket and a scale to weigh small amounts of dry mortar and a measuring cup to add water in the ratio specified by the manufacturer.
Stir water and mortar together with a paddle mixer on a heavy-duty drill for the manufacturer-specified amount of time—usually around 3 to 5 minutes. Your goal is to have it evenly mixed, and wet enough to spread easily but dry enough that it sticks to a trowel when turned upside down. Add more water or mortar as needed to get this desired consistency.
After it’s fully mixed, let the mortar sit for about 5 minutes while important chemical reactions happen—and then mix again for another minute. (Check bag instructions for precise times.)
Steps for Installing the Tiles
Step 1: Get materials ready
Before placing the first tile, be sure to have all the tiles, tools, materials, and the first batch of mixed mortar ready. It’s common to start in the middle of the back wall and work up and out. In the center of the wall, just above the guide board you previously fastened to it, use a notched trowel to spread enough mortar to set a few tiles. Spread mortar evenly in a straight line; this ensures that there is space for the ridges to spread out consistently and contact the entire back of each tile when setting the tiles.
Step 2: Center the tile
Next, rest the bottom edge of one tile on top of the board and measure to make sure it’s centered—or just to one side of the center plumb line if a grout joint will fall in the center—before pressing it into the mortar.
Use one or two tile spacers between the tiles on all edges to keep them evenly spaced and work up and out until you reach the edges of the wall, applying more mortar, tile, and plastic spacers as you go. If the tile at the end of a row requires cutting, do that first and install it before moving to the next row above.
Note: The mortar must remain wet while setting tiles; if it skins over or becomes firm before your bucket is empty, stop using that batch and mix a smaller batch next time.
Step 3: Work back and forth
It’s a good idea to work back and forth among all the walls rather than completing a full wall before moving onto the next so that the rows on adjacent walls all line up with each other. And be sure to use the tile spacers to create a gap in the corners where the walls meet.
If any tiles are sunken in more than the ones next to them, you can press individual tiles in a little harder, or pull them off the wall and add a little more mortar behind them.
Step 4: Measure adjacent tiles to find your cut lines
When you come to a place that requires tiles with intricate cuts, such as around a shower valve or next to a wall niche, measure from the adjacent tiles to find your cut lines, or use scissors and a piece of paper to make a template. Then use the appropriate tool to make cuts, taking off slightly less than you think just in case.
Step 5: Continue the process
Continue the process until all walls are covered. Then move onto the ceiling (if getting tiled), and finish with the floor. If there is any mortar oozing between tiles, use a putty knife to carefully remove as much as possible without disturbing tiles, before it starts to harden. Allow tiles to set for 24 hours.
Step 6: Get ready to grout
Carefully remove tile spacers (or remove the leveling parts if you used self-leveling spacers, which have parts that remain in the wall). Then use a grout saw or putty knife to scrape out residual mortar in gaps, especially near the surface where it could be visible once joints are filled with grout. Vacuum dust and debris and clean all surfaces and gaps with water and a sponge.
If your tiles are made of porous stone or another material that grout may stain, apply an appropriate tile sealer to the entire surface and let dry.
Step 7: Apply grout
Grout comes in several varieties–including cement, epoxy, and water-based urethane—in addition to different colors and textures. Traditional cement-based grout is the most forgiving as far as set time and installation techniques go, but epoxy and polyurethane grouts can be more stain-resistant, waterproof, and durable. Talk to your tile dealer if you need help choosing the right one, and follow mixing instructions carefully.
Regardless of the type, apply grout across tiles and push it into the gaps with a hard rubber float (like a square trowel, but made of rubber). Spread grout on heavy, holding the float at a 45-degree angle to the surface to force it into the gaps. Remove excess by dragging the float diagonally across the surface at a 90-degree angle to the face of the tiles, being careful not to scrape any out of the gaps.
Keep working from one surface edge to the other, until all surfaces are completed. Fill any voids as you go until the grout fills all gaps and is at a uniform depth just shy of the faces of the tiles. Keep in mind: Do not grout where walls, floors, or ceilings meet in the corners. Instead fill those transitions with flexible caulk, which allows for movement, after grouting is complete.
Step 8: Clean excess grout
Every type of grout requires plenty of clean water, sponges, and microfiber towels for cleanup, but the techniques and timing vary by material. With most cement-based and epoxy grouts, clean the entire surface with a slightly damp sponge about 15 or 20 minutes after the grout is applied, when it starts to firm up. Meanwhile premixed urethane grout will stick to the surface of tile quickly, so it needs to be alternately grouted and cleaned in small sections at a time.
The goal for the initial cleaning on any grout job is to smooth out the surface and remove leftover material without pulling any grout out of the joints. Rinse sponges often in a bucket of clean water, changing the water once it gets hazy. When a sponge starts to get really dirty or sticky, replace it.
After a few hours, clean the grout a second time to remove any haze left on the tiles. (Refer to product instructions for timing and techniques.) If there is still some residue left on the tiles, and wiping doesn’t work, try a cleaning product specially made for removing grout haze.
While epoxy and urethane grouts don’t require extra protection, it’s a good idea to apply a grout sealer to fully cured cement grout to prevent staining and mold growth.
Step 9: Caulk edges
Seal the gaps where walls, ceiling, and floor meet with caulk. Grout manufacturers make siliconized acrylic caulk in colors and textures to match their grouts, so buy the two products together for a consistent look.
Make sure all shower surfaces are clean and dry before applying caulk. If gaps are especially deep or wide, you may need to fill the bottom of the gap with an appropriate-sized foam backer rod.
When you’re ready to start, carefully cut the tip of the caulk tube at a slight angle and to the width of the gap you’re filling. Load the tube into a caulking gun. Apply a bead that just fills each gap, then dip one finger in water and smooth out the bead. If you make a mess, wipe the caulk off with a damp rag and try again.
Once gaps are all filled with caulk and you’re happy with how everything looks, the shower tiling job is complete. All you need to do is wait 24 hours for the caulk to set. Then you can install the shower head and any other necessary parts, and enjoy your new custom shower.
What You’ll Need for This Project
Because there are so many different options for a tile shower installation, make sure all your materials are compatible, including the tools. For instance, the size of your tile will dictate the trowel size you need. In addition, tile materials, such as ceramic, porcelain, or natural stone, can require different mortar types and cutting tools. Once you choose the tile you want, read the manufacturer’s installation guidelines, and ask your tile distributor to help you select materials.
- Dust Mask
- Eye protection
- Bucket of water
- Microfiber rags
- Dust broom
- Buckets for mixing mortar and grout
- Waterproof shower kit or combination of substrate and waterproofing materials (ex. cement backer boards, seam tapes, sealants, membranes, etc.)
- Thinset mortar
- Tile sealer (if needed for porous or textured tiles)
- Tile spacers (with the matching tool if needed)
- Grout sealer (if using cement grout)
- Color-matched caulk
- Foam backer rod (for deep caulk joints, if needed)