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Installing Ceramic Wall Tile Around a Bath Tub Enclosure

Believe it or not it is really very easy to install ceramic tile around a tub enclosure. It just takes patience, common sense and being somewhat handy. I recently did two bathroom tub enclosures using 4" X 4" glazed wall tile. The procedures listed below should help anyone who desires to tackle this job themselves.

Obviously, you need to start out by measuring each wall. Measure the height and width of each vertical wall and then multiple the width and height to get the square footage for each wall. Note the height of the outside edge along the tub if you are going to use a bullnose tile for finishing the tile. Bullnose are the tiles with one edge rounded for a truly finished appearance. The field tile is sold by the square foot and bullnose and other trim pieces are sold by the piece. Be sure to order at least 5% extra to allow for broken or chipped pieces. Also, check to be sure the field tile all have the same shade letter or number.

While picking out your tile think about intermixing different colored tiles or decorative tiles into the field areas. This can really enhance the appearance of your tile job and give you a very striking look.

To help you determine the amount of ceramic tile you need for your project, or to play around with various tile patterns I suggest you see the on-line ceramic tile tools at Daltile. You can also see the same thing at American Olean, see their "Tile Tabulator" and "Design With Tile" sections. Note: American Olean and Daltile are part of the same parent company, Mohawk Industries (who also sells under the brand called Mohawk Ceramic Tile). Both tile companies make exceptional ceramic tiles for residential and commercial applications. The wall tile I purchased for my bathroom projects came from Florida Tile another quality ceramic tile manufacturer. My choice was made by what the store had in stock at the time.

Before actually starting the job be sure to properly protect your tub from damage while working. I covered the entire tub with 4 mil poly and tapped it in place with duck tape. The pipes I had in place were temporary and the faucets were protected with cardboard tubes.

cement boardIf you are in new construction or are starting with the wood framing studs I would highly recommend doing it right and using cement board. Try to avoid using any type of plywood for a substrate to attach the tile too. Tub surrounds are considered wet areas and are accessible to high amounts of moisture. Cement board, like Durock is readily available at home centers and many specialty flooring stores. They come in several sizes and thickness, with 3 ft. by 5 ft. by 1/2 inch being the most common. For cutting the cement boards just mark the the lines with a pencil, score both sides with a utility knife and snap the board to size. You can also use a carbide-tipped blade with a circular saw to cut or score the boards.

If you are going to secure the tiles with a mastic type adhesive be sure the smooth side of the cement board is facing out. If you are going to secure the ceramic tile with thin-set mortar (portland cement mixture ) the rough side of the cement board should be facing out. Be sure to leave an 1/8" gap between all panels.

Follow the manufacturer's recommendations for securing the cement board to the wall. Normally this means using specially coated screws to attach the cement board to the walls. Screws should be every 6 to 8 inches along the wood studs. Be aware the cement board is not meant to add structure or reinforce the wall construction. It is used to give the adhesive and tile something to adhere too, not to reinforce the structure. Once the cement board has been secured it should be checked to make sure there is no movement, which may cause the tile to crack or fall off. For futher information i recommend you go to the USG Durock web site.

All seams between the cement boards need to be taped prior to installation. The special glass fiber tape comes in rolls and has a adhesive on the back side for sticking to the cement board. The tape is readily available for home centers, hardware stores and specialty flooring stores.

Okay, now we are ready to start dry laying the ceramic tile. Dry laying a row of tile along each wall will help determine if you need to adjust the tiles to make a better looking job and to avoid having to cut small slivers of tile where the rows butt up against adjacent walls. If the tile at the end of a row is less than one inch wide re-adjust the width of the starting tile to avoid trying to cut and fit narrow pieces of tile. Trust me, trying to cut narrow little tiles is frustrating and can waste a lot of tiles due to cracking. Drawing a small pencil mark where each tile starts and ends can then be extended up the wall. Using a plumb line (string with a weight) you can then see how true the tile lines will be. These lines will also help guide you as you work your way up the wall. A plumb line can also help you determine before installation if any of your vertical walls run off and what kind of cuts may be needed. Do the same thing going across the walls. Also, check to be sure the tile rows never end on a cement board joint.

I found it easiest to work in small sections as I installed the ceramic tile. Take a straight edge or chalk line and mark off the wall in smaller areas going across the cement board. I used a tile to mark the rows about 4 to 6 high. This gives you smaller areas to work within when spreading the mastic adhesive or thinset mortar. Use a straight edge and a level to continually check if the tile lines are running true or not. Doing this in smaller sections meant I could easily adjust across the width or height if the tile rows started running off. Adjustments are made by slightly increasing or decreasing the width of the grout joints. Since the 4" X 4" wall tiles had spacer tabs along all the edges of the tiles I did not have to set the joint space manually between the rows.

I chose to use a quality wall mastic for my tile work because it is easier to do for the non-professional. Yet, it will still give you years of performance and installs much faster for the do-it-yourselfer than mixing thinset in a bucket. (Note: thinset is better for adhering the tiles to cement board, but as a do-it-yourselfer I did not want the extra hassle.) By working in smaller areas you also do not have to do the job all at the same time. Although I did the the tub walls all in the same day you can do the job as time permits by doing it in sections. Just don't do too big of areas and rush trying to get the tiles on the walls. If you have excess adhesive than take a putty knife, scrape off the excess adhesive and discard it. I also used discardable trowels so I could throw them away if they became worn down too much.

The mastic manufacturer will specify the proper notched trowel to use with their adhesive. For wall tile be sure the adhesive is made for adhering tile to vertical surfaces. Wall tile adhesive should have better grab for keeping tiles from sliding around once pressed into the adhesive. Tiles should be pressed firmly into the adhesive. Periodically pop a tile to see if the adhesive covers the entire back of the tile. To help adhere the tile into the adhesive very slightly twist the tiles back and forth after pressing into the adhesive. (Do not over do this or you will push the adhesive into the tile joints.) This helps ensure the tiles are properly "seated" in the adhesive.

If adhesive gets into the tile joint area I used a thin wood wedge or a 1" plastic putty knife. I prefer plastic or wood so not to scratch the tiles.

The adhesive should be spread onto the cement board with the proper sized trowel. The trowel will have a saw-toothed edge. The teeth will allow the adhesive to be spread evenly in corn rows. Generally it is recommended to hold the trowel at a very slight angle. (If your knuckles are getting in the adhesive then you are holding the trowel wrong.) Never spread the adhesive with a flat trowel or flst edge. When the teeth on the trowel become too worn, stop and get a new trowel. Trowels are much cheaper than having to replace tile because of poor workmanship. Buy extra trowels and have them handy. Check often the notches for wear.

As you install the tiles you are bound to get some adhesive on the face of the tiles. Always have a clean bucket filled with lukewarm water and a sponge handy. Once you have completed installing a small section of tile, wring out the wet sponge and wipe the excess adhesive off of the tile. Be careful not to move the recently installed tile. Rinse the sponge out often and only use a damp sponge on the ceramic tile surface.

For cutting tiles I prefer to mark the tile before the adhesive is applied to that section. Using a tape measure, a pencil and a tile or two, mark the area on the tile that must be cut. For going around pipes I used a tile nipper and slowly snipped small pieces of tile. Tile nippers are available at home centers, hardware stores and specialty flooring stores.

For cutting tiles in straight pieces or in half I used a tile cutter. Tile cutters make cutting tiles much easier and keep the cut lines straight and square. The cutter first scores the surface of the glazed tile and then using the cutter handle and your arm pressure to easily snap the tile into two pieces exactly at the scored line. You can also use a glass cutter to score tile and then place a large nail under the tile to break it. Scoring and snapping tile by hand is a lot more work and breakage is much higher.

Tile cutters can be rented at most rental stores. Some home centers and flooring stores also rent tile cutters if you buy the tile and other materials from them. In my case, the flooring store was kind enough to lend me the tile cutter for a few days for no charge.

Once the tile was all installed I let the adhesive setup for 24 hours while I went and did the other bathroom.

Since I was using a wall tile with a very small grout joint I had to use a unsanded grout. Sanded grout is generally used for floor tiles with wider grout joints. I am a believer in doing the job right so I added a latex milk additive to the grout. Some people may suggest cutting the additive with 50% water to save some money - do not do it! Use the additive full strength the way the manufacturer recommends it to be used. The latex additive adds additional bonding strength and elasticity to the grout. The additive does make clean up more of a chore but the end result will be worth it in the long run. Mix the grout and additive as recommended and mix thoroughly. Generally you have to let the grout mixture stand a few minutes before using. Only mix enough to do the job. I prefer to do one wall at a time since I am not use to doing this work.

The grout is spread onto the surface of the tile by a special rubber float. The float should be held at an angle and the grout pushed into the tile joints diagonally. Going across the tile with the float diagonally helps keep the grout in the joints. Be sure the grout joints are packed full of grout. By the time you finish grouting a tub wall, you should be about ready for clean up back at where you started grouting first. Read the instructions on the grout bag for their recommendations.

Clean is tedious but rather easy. Have a bucket of clean, lukewarm water and a big sponge handy. Wring out the sponge and start wiping down the walls. Always wipe at a 45 degree angle to the grout joints. Never wipe parallel to the joints. This is to avoid removing the grout from the joints. I also used a clean old white tee-shirt to wipe the tiles off and using the sponge. This helps remove the haze from the tile.

To seal the grout it is recommended you wait at least 21 days before applying the sealer. Don't be surprised at the cost of the sealer, it is very expensive. We did not need to use the showers immediately and so I waited for 21 days before applying the sealer. I used a old dry while cloth to apply and wipe off excess sealer. I also used a bath caulk and applied al along where the tile met the tub, as well as around the holes cut for the pipes.