How to Tile a Bathtub Surround

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Do-it-yourselfers can build a durable, attractive tile bathtub surround
Do-it-yourselfers can build a durable, attractive tile bathtub surround (Image: shower handle image by Leticia Wilson from Fotolia.com)

Tiling a tub surround can be an intimidating process for most homeowners. For many years, all tiling jobs involved a labor- and skill-intensive Portland cement plaster mortar bed process. By using cementitious backer boards instead of a traditional plaster mortar bed, any homeowner with the will and some patience can install a beautifully tiled ceiling-height tub surround. Cementitious backer boards and thin-set tile adhesive can support a wide range of tile types and sizes. Following the same series of steps will yield beautiful and durable results no matter what tile size is used.

Things You'll Need

  • 15lb roofing felt.
  • 3/8-inch staples and staple gun
  • ½-inch cementitious tile backer board
  • Utility knife with scoring blade
  • 1 5/8-inch tile backer screws
  • Mototrized drill motor with screwdriver bit
  • Tape Measure
  • ¼” Masonry Drill Bit
  • Hammer
  • 2-inch adhesive-backed fiberglass mesh tape
  • Thin-set tile adhesive
  • ¼-inch square notch trowel
  • Ceramic wall tile
  • Wet tile saw (7- to 10-inch size)
  • Penetrating tile/stone/grout sealer
  • 5-gallon bucket
  • Tile Grout
  • Rubber grout trowel
  • Grout Sponges
  • 2-inch foam brush and 1-qt. bucket
  • Elastomeric tile joint sealant
  • Caulking gun
  • 2-inch painter’s masking tape

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Install a moisture barrier behind the entire area of the tub surround It’s important to protect the framing from moisture that may be transmitted through the tub surround. Building paper and roofing felt are commonly used for this purpose. Use 15lb roofing felt. Starting at the bottom, staple lengths of the felt to the studs. Let the felt overhang the tile flange integral with the tub. Overlap all the seams. Vertical seams should be lapped at least 12 inches and should not occur at corners. Horizontal seams should be lapped at least 6 inches. Lap each section of felt over the one below it and under the one above it.

Install cementitious tile backer board over the moisture barrier. These usually are sold in 3-by-5-foot pieces, so you will be cutting and installing several pieces to cover the entire tub surround. Dry-fit the tile backer panels over areas where plumbing occurs. Cut out holes for the tub spout and other plumbing penetrations by drilling several small holes (use a ¼-inch masonry drill bit) to form the cutout. Trace the shape with a scoring blade and knock out the center with a hammer.

Anchor the tile backer boards to the studs, using 1 5/8-inch tile backer screws. Backer board screws have ribs under the heads that help it dig into the backer board when they are tightened down. Follow the backer board manufacturer’s recommendations for spacing of the panels and screws and drive the screws solidly so that the screw heads don’t protrude past the face of the backer board.

Tape the tile backer board joints with fiberglass mesh tape and trowel in thin-set adhesive or mortar. Push the mortar in the joint and strike smooth with the trowel.

Design the layout of your tile tub surround. When tiling a tub surround, symmetry is king. The back wall should be symmetrical and the side walls should be mirror images of each other. To achieve this, place whole tiles along the outside edges of the tub surround to start the tile pattern. Additionally, locate and mark the center of the back wall. This will be your guide to center a column of whole tiles on the back wall.

Set the tiles on the backer board. Use a ¼-inch notched trowel to spread thin-set tile adhesive evenly across the backer board. It’s a good idea to limit the amount of adhesive you spread to about 9 square feet at a time. Use the straight side of the trowel to spread the adhesive and then wipe the adhesive again with the notched side, tilted at a 45-degree angle to create solid, consistent, well-defined stripes of adhesive. Set all of the whole tiles first. Spread the adhesive at the center of the back wall first. Push the tiles into the thinset bed firmly. Use 1/8-inch spacers between the tiles when setting them in place. Tap gently with a rubber mallet if need be.

Cut the remaining tiles with a wet tile saw to make straight and clean edges. Set them as you did the whole tiles.

Seal the tile after the adhesive has set for at least 24 hours – especially if you are going to use a dark color grout with lighter color tiles. This will prevent the grout from staining the tiles. Use a tile grout sealer.

Mix the grout in a 5-gallon bucket. Most grouts will require a two-step mixing process that includes some slaking time. Follow your specific grout mixing instructions, and mix the grout bucket occasionally throughout the grouting process to keep the grout from stiffening up.

Apply grout between the tiles. Using a rubber grout trowel, wipe the grout across the tile joints and push in grout with a back-and-forth motion while applying slight pressure to the edge of the trowel. Hold the trowel at a slight angle to push the grout in. Don’t grout the space between the bottom tiles and the tub or the inside corners. These joints will be filled with an elastomeric joint sealant later on.

Moisten and wring out a grout sponge (large handheld sponge with rounded edges) and glide it across the tiles and grout. Wait about 20 minutes or until the grout begins to stiffen before doing this. The sponge will pick up excess grout and will smooth out the grout line. Be careful to not make the sponge too wet, or you will wash out the grout. Rinse the sponge and repeat as necessary.

Let the grout set for another 30 minutes or until grout haze becomes visible on the tile faces. Wipe the tiles with cheesecloth fabric or a sponge. Rinse and repeat.

Apply a grout sealer over all exposed areas of grout after the grout has fully cured at least two days. Use a specialty grout sealant applicator bottle or a foam brush to thouroughly saturate the grout. Keep in mind the grout will absorb lot of sealer. Apply at least two coats of sealant and follow the tile sealant instructions.

Apply joint sealant to the inside corners and tub joints after the grout sealer has dried. These areas can experience slight movement or otherwise will crack easily if grouted. Use an elastomeric joint sealant that matches your grout color to fill these joints. Many home improvement stores sell siliconized grout sealant that matches the grout colors they sell.

Apply the sealant. Mask off the tile edges at the inside corners of the tub surround as well as the bottom tiles that are just above the surface of the tub. Mask off the tub as well, leaving the joints to be sealed exposed. Using a caulking gun. begin filling the tile joints with sealant. Tilt the nozzle slightly and aim it into the joint pressing the sealant in as you glide the caulking gun along the joint. The caulking gun should be pointing in the direction of travel. Squeeze the trigger evenly as you go.

“Tool” the joint for an even surface. Running your finger along the joint will work nicely in smoothing out the joint along its length. Run your finger along all the joints. Wipe off excess sealant from your finger with moist paper cloth as you go to keep your work consistent and clean.

Remove the masking tape from the joints once all the joints are tooled and given 24 hours to cure. Give the sealant another 24 hours to fully cure before wiping down your work one last time.

Tips & Warnings

  • Before you begin, make sure the wall studs forming the tub surround are framed solid in place, are straight, and aligned well with each other. It's important that you have a solid structural frame that can support the tile assembly.
  • Take care to protect the tub that is in place when you are tiling a tub surround. A lot of debris and cemetitious material can collect in the tub and scratch its surface if it is not protected. Cut a piece of 3/4-inch plywood that fits over the tub to use as a protective work platform. place soft cloth and masking tape between the plywood and the tub to make sure the plywood doesn't scratch the top edges of the tub.
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