Bathroom remodel, 3 of 3: "Tackling the Tiling"

In the prologue to this series of posts, I gave an overview of how this bathroom remodel project came about.

In Part 1, "Damage and Demolition", I showed you the damaged shower wall and how I cleared it all away.

In Part 2, "Structure and Stuffing", I showed you the rebuilt stud wall, the insulation and the concreteboard.

In this third and final post, "Tackling the Tiling", I'll take you through the final steps of installing the tile, the shelves, the trim work and the shower unit.

Hypothetical reader of this blog post: You must really enjoy this DIY stuff, Tony.

Tony Noland: Yes, Hypothetical Reader, I do. It's taken a lot of time away from my writing, though.

Hrotbp: True, but everything takes time away from your writing, doesn't it? I'm beginning to question your dedication to your novel, and to writing fiction in general.

TN: I question that dedication all the time, Hypothetical Reader, but I keep writing while I do it. Anyway, angst and anxiety are next week's blog posts. This week is about the bathroom. Try to focus, OK?

Hrotbp: Sorry.

As this is marble, a natural stone, it had to be sealed before installation. Marble absorbs water, so each tile was wiped with a sealant. Without the sealant, the tiles would discolor and eventually start to crack.

When installing tile, you can't assume that the floor (or in this case, the lip of the shower pan) is level. I used a 4' level to mark a line at where the top edge of the bottom row of tiles would sit, plus the 1/8" space between the tiles. I then installed a board, called a batten, precisely on this line. The first row of tiles rested on this line. I set them in place with pre-mixed mortar. Remember, you can click on any of these photos to enlarge. Once they dried, they would be able to bear the weight of the rows above, supporting them until the mortar set.

The buckets of pre-mix are more expensive than the bags of conventional mortar. It's worth the price premium to me because, while it's convenient to have mortar that's already perfectly mixed to the right consistency, the pre-mix is also much slower to set up. This not only gives you more flexibility in the installation, it makes fixing mistakes a simple matter of scraping semi-flexible mortar off and re-applying, instead of chiseling off dried mortar.

Mortar, tile, spacers. Mortar, tile, spacers.
One thing that Mrs. Noland and I did on this project was to lay out all of the marble tiles on the living room floor and sort them by color and pattern. Unlike ceramic tile or patterned tile, natural stone has natural variations. Some tiles had more interesting grains and patterns, others were mostly plain. Some had a bluish tinge, others were yellow. We arranged them to have visually interesting tiles up near eye-level, boring tiles down near the floor. The tiles were color- and pattern matched, too, to make sure that no one area of either wall was out of balance with the rest of the installation. Finally, we oriented each tile so that the grain ran roughly horizontal.

Fussy? Detail-obsessed? Type A?

Possibly. The difference between something that looks good and something that looks fantastic is usually related to how much time was spent on those fussy little visual details. For example, it took a long time to select the decorative glass tiles that formed the accent, seen below in context and in close-up.

Left wall, no edges

Right wall, no edges
Right wall, edges in place
Right wall

Glass accents, with spacers. Lots and lots of spacers.
The spacers were 1/8", which proportionally suited these tiles quite well. These went between each tile and between each of that squares of glass in the accent strip. It was a tremendous pain in the neck to fit them all in the hundreds of little glass tiles, but it was worth it. This made all the spaces uniform throughout the entire wall.

There is an awful lot of measuring and aligning that goes into laying this kind of tile. I don't have pictures of all of that, but I don't want to let the moment pass by without acknowledging just how much time is spent on planning, measuring, drawing schematics of the installation and tweaking the design. This isn't the kind of thing you just slap up on the wall and assume it will look good. It's one of the reasons tile work is expensive to have done.

Hrotbp: Expensive? Really? How much money do you figure you saved by doing this job yourself?

TN: I got several estimates for repairing the damage and installing another cheap shower unit like the one I had. I also got an rough estimate of the cost of a tiled shower instead of a plastic shower liner. My best guess is that for a custom tile job like this, I'm saving around $5000.

Hrotbp: That would buy a lot of books!

TN: Yep. Also, since I'm now doing my master bath, the skills I developed on this job are saving me another $10,000-$12,000.

Hrotbp: Wow! And I bet the value of your house is helped by having a customized, marble tile shower instead of that plastic liner, huh? 

TN: You're a smart guy, Hypothetical Reader. 

Hrotbp: Thanks!

What are those spaces for?
Oh, right, for the shelves!
Multiple shelves...
... three, in fact.

Part of the measuring and planning involved leaving spaces to install some shelves. How many should there be? How high up from the floor? How far apart?How big should they be?

Since multiple people use this shower, there are several different kinds of shampoo, conditioner, soap, etc. that live in here. While the marble tiles and glass accent tiles were from Home Depot, the quarter-circle marble shelves we got from a custom tile shop. They're a standard size - they hold a lot, but don't stick out into the shower too much.

I spaced them up from the floor to align with the edges of the tiles, for simplicity of cutting and for visual appeal. To establish how far apart they should be, I measured the height of a bottle of shampoo, added a couple of inches and selected the next tile edge line. These are 6" tiles, so that means 12" between each of the first two shelves. Anything taller than 12" would go on the top shelf.

The shelves are angled at a 1:30 pitch, which I implemented during mortaring using the height of several spacers in back to a single spacer in front. This lets the water drain off without having the shelves look like they're leaning excessively. I probably could have gotten away with an even sharper pitch, but this looks good and it works fine.

Mortared, no grout.
Grout on the right, not on the left.
Grouted, both sides.
Cleaned and polished.

The pictures above are worth clicking on, to see them in all their detailed glory. Once the tiles and accent pieces are all in place, the spaces between are filled in with a special kind of cement, called grout. While the color of the mortar doesn't matter much (gray, white, etc.), the color of the grout should match the color of the tile. Not match as in "be exactly the same color", but rather "enhance the look of the tile". The grout should function in the same way a frame does for a painting - make the subject look even better than it would otherwise.

I chose a pre-mixed sanded grout in ivory white. The process involves troweling the grout onto the tile and using a special rubber float to force it into the gaps and spaces. There's a lot of elbow work involved in getting all the spaces filled properly. Once they're filled, you use a rough sponge to swab away all the excess, pressing hard enough to allow the water to smooth the surface of the grout, but not so hard as to gouge it. A light touch will feather the edge of the grout and make a smooth transition at the edge of each tile, but make it too light and you'll leave a ragged edge as well as a haze on the tile.

Hrotbp: Geez, you have to press hard, but not too hard? Go lightly, but not too lightly? How are you supposed to know how hard is too hard and how lightly is too lightly?

TN: Practice. You can read all the books, watch all the instructional videos, talk to all the most experienced people, but ultimately, the only way to really learn to do it is to take a deep breath and dive in.

Hrotbp: Are you kidding? That's almost as bad as writing!

TN: (sound of crickets in the distance as Tony lets the life lesson seep in)

Marble trim pieces, propped until the mortar sets.
Concreteboard: scraped, leveled & sanded.

Remember how back in Part 2 I talked about this problematic lower right corner? The concreteboard was standing about 1/8" higher than the drywall. I couldn't just leave a gap there and patch it with drywall later. The left side was no problem; I had an exposed stud to work with, so I could set a patch piece. I screwed it in place along one edge, then taped and mudded it. After sanding, it blended right in.

But what to do about this concreteboard?

In the end, I installed the trim pieces of marble tile over the concreteboard. Then I used a carbide-tipped cutter in a manner that is almost certainly not how God intended such devices to be used. I scraped away at the 1/2" thick concreteboard, slicing off the surface mesh of reinforcing plastic. Then, I gouged away at it to reduce its thickness to 1/4", which left it about 1/8" below the surface of the adjacent drywall.

With a polishing stone, I knocked down any lingering high spots. Then I mixed up some plaster of Paris and filled it all in. Yep, real plasterwork. I got seriously old school with this one. The plaster filled in the by now incredibly rough surface of the gouged concreteboard. After a day of drying, it was rock hard. I used the polishing stone again and sanded it down to be even with the drywall. After that, I gave it a skim coat of joint compound, primed it and painted it. Problem solved.


The edge tiling, first coat of primer.
Tiles, after sealing and polishing
Before final cleanup...
... after final cleanup.

We're coming to the end, now. Once all the tiles were in place and all the trimwork was finished, I applied another coat of sealant to the tiles, just to be sure. The walls were primed and painted to match the existing paint. I scrubbed the shower pan and cleaned away all traces of the old caulking. Then I put on a solid bead of pure white, waterproof silicon caulk along the bottom of the tiles and up the center line of the corner.

Hey, did I forget to mention that before I started doing anything at all on this project, I put tape over the drain? This prevented any screws, blobs of mortar, chunks of marble or anything else from falling down into the pipes where it could get lost or do damage to the plumbing.

With all of the tiles done, I got some glass-cutting bits and drilled holes into the tiles so I could re-install the shower unit. This process is just like how I removed it, except in reverse. It took me a long time to scrape away the dried old caulk and the encrusted hard water stains, but it all looks much better for the effort. I used waterproof silicone caulk under the frame attachment brackets. I also put a thin bead along the door gaskets, just to renew their performance a bit.

A shower fit for a king. Or queen. Or both.
And there you have it. From minimally functional, bottom-of-the-heap cheap plastic to an executive shower that makes me giggle with delight every time I use it.

Comments? Thoughts? Advice for the next project? Invitations to write a DIY book for your publishing house? Click the "Comments" button and let me know!

===== Feel free to comment on this or any other post.


  1. So my question is - why don't you write a DIY book? Go for it!

  2. Tony - I'm giggling at this series of posts as I'm in the midst of trying to orchestrate my own bathroom remodel. I plan to do exactly none of the work myself - except that I always act as my own general contractor.

    Right now I'm being driven mad by the inability to get the products I need within the timeframes required. Because I'd have to rip out drywall to get my old tub out and a new tub in, I've opted for the vinyl overlay option. Installation will be mid-January - or, if they have a cancellation - Christmas week. Have to get the flooring in before the tub surround is installed. Might take 21 business days to order in the flooring I like. Has taken four days to get a quote on my top choice of flooring. I have a flooring guy lined up who can do the floor install before Christmas - pretty much any time. Vanity I want is in stock - so I should buy it now it before it disappears - but the new sink top will take - you guessed it - 21 business days to arrive. Did I mention this is a one-bathroom condo? I'm trying to resign myself to the notion of having to brush my teeth in the bathtub for a month. I guess that's not so terrible, huh? ;)

  3. So what would you charge to come to Ohio and rehab a bathroom? :) Cool posts, Tony.

  4. Gorgeous. You are a brave man, Mr. Noland. I'm not sure I have it in me to tackle a bathroom, though we are preparing to redo counters and install a backsplash in the kitchen. You're not so far away... hmmm... need a day job? Peace...

  5. Finally grabbed some time to come back and finish reading this series.

    I've really enjoyed following along with your reno, and at times have felt hopeful of my ability to do similar tasks myself.

    If I can overcome my perfectionism and commit to completing the task regardless, I'll be coming back to re-read your tiling tips!

  6. Thanks for reading, everybody. I'm glad you liked the series!


Thank you for leaving a comment. The staff at Landless will treat it with the same care that we would bestow on a newly hatched chick. By the way, no pressure or anything, but have you ever considered subscribing to Landless via RSS?