As you’ll read in this week’s bathroom renovation update on DIY Network, we spent all of days 5, 6, 7, and 8 covered in thin-set and installing tiles. Home improvement shows are clearly misleading, as I thought this part of the job might take 8-hours, tops. Boy, was I wrong.
Our first day looked something more like this:
In a quest to finish the shower and resume normal bathing habits, we dove into the boxes of subway tile eagerly soon after finishing the plumbing and cement board. I’ll state the obvious early; This whole post will just go to show that I had absolutely no idea how long it would take to tile anything because, come to realize, every case study that my brain has absorbed on tiling best practices has been condensed into part of a 30-minute TB show. Really, I thought the shower could be done in a day. Maybe 6-hours, 8 max. And then we would go to dinner and “cheers” our spicy tuna sushi rolls for a job well done.
Not so. This picture was snapped two hours in.
The tiling project took 4 days total (days 5, 6, 7, 8 of our overall remodel) but I’m happy to say that the results were great.
First things first, once the self-adhesive tape is applied to the seams, you can whip up a batch of thin-set mortar to coat the tape and seal the creases, screw heads, and in general, prep the wall for tiling.
We used two kinds of subway tile for our shower. One was the traditional 3″x6″ snow white manufactured tile, 23-cents/each, bought in cases of 10-sq. ft.. I also bought a bunch of 2″x6″ tiles with a rounded edge (a bullnose). The latter would be used to run up and down the edges of the shower where they meet the finished drywall. It’ll catch your eye in some of the later photos.
Day 5 was long.
I’m not exaggerating. Up with the sun. Still working at sunset. And even with the two of us chugging away, we only completed the full back wall of the shower (the “easy” wall with no obstacles or corners). Tile cuts were only necessary on the left and right edges of the wall, and we pretty much held this position all day long as we slowly worked up the wall.
The thin set mortar that we used was a pretty regular product; nothing special, though we did “splurge” for the polymer-fortified variety after reading that the non-fortified varieties were less trustworthy over time.
We prepared the mortar in small batches using a mixing paddle that I already owned. Working with the smaller batches allowed us to go at a comfortable pace without worrying about the bucket of thin-set hardening beyond use.
First, adding about 4 cups of water to a bucket, and then adding mortar into the bucket until it was mixed to a consistency of peanut butter, we found that we needed to make a batch every half hour to an hour… just another reason this project took days.
We bought a few new notched trowels for this job; because we were using subway tile, it was advised that we use 1/4″ notched trowels because smaller notches work better for smaller tiles. Quite simply, we worked on small areas at a time to prevent the thin-set from drying faster than we were working, first mudding the wall and then notching the mortar to prep for the tile. Thin-set begins to cure on the wall in mere minutes, so you have to be ready to GO.
Before you mush the tile into the notched thin-set, remember to lightly cover the complete back of every tile with thin-set mortar to give it one extra hope of sticking to the wall long and forever. I believe the common term is “buttering” the tile. Always makes me crave toast.
When you do push the tile into the notched mortar, wipe away the excess as much as possible as it oozes through the cracks. We used a tip of a nail, or the edge of one of the 1/8″ spacers to help scoop it clear before it dried onto the tile itself.
Having spent 12 hours on the first day mastering the art of subway tiling, we forged ahead with trying to tile the wall with two shelves beginning the next morning. Facing narrower falls proved more difficult for both of us to be working at the same time, so we tag-teamed efforts by having one person cutting tiles to size while the other person managed the mortar and installation. We had been keeping the wet saw in the basement because it’s messy when you’re cutting (literally) a hundred tiles, so there was lots of up-and-down all day.
The shelves themselves were a little different. The backs, sides, and tops of each shelf were going to be finished consistently with subway tile, but I decided that the base of each shelf should be a solid piece of tile, or granite, or something that wouldn’t have grout seams inviting stagnant moisture. The width of each shelf is 22″ and it’s hard to find 24″ tile anywhere; even a custom fancy granite shop was out remnants or thinner slabs. In a brief moment of brilliance, I decided that marble thresholds would be the perfect, affordable ($12/each), beveled, accessible (no custom orders) and consistent solution for our bathroom. I brought home two that measured 36″x6″ and cut them down to size for our shelves.
We installed both pieces of marble before working on any other part of the shelf. By adding a thicker layer of mortar in the back of the shelf, we effectively gave the marble a slight downward slope so that water wouldn’t be inclined to linger on the shelf, or worse, flow to the back of the shelf with no drainage options. It’s tilty, but not tilty enough to allow our shampoo bottles to slide away.
With those shelves in place and the thin-set beginning to solidify, I moved head with beginning to work the subway tiles up the wall.
It was pretty apparent right away that things weren’t going as planned. You’ll recall that I orchestrated the shelf placement down to a 1/8th of an inch with the hopes that the 3″ full tile would land in the area separating two shelves? It didn’t work out. At some point, I failed to account for the band running between the two shelves, and though it was just 1/8th of an inch off in measurements, it required us to do some custom cuts.
Luckily, it turned out nice.
We also spent a lot of time working the miter-feature on the wet saw to create angles for the shelf tiles that matched together flawlessly. Pete mastered this maneuver, I did not. As an alternative to special-ordering an assortment of bullnose and custom tiles, I’m really happy with how the shelves turned out. They look nicely finished.
The wall with the shelves actually took us two days due to all of the intricate cuts, but when it was done we were happy to move on to the last wall, which only had special cuts around the hardware.
Again, it was a tight space for us to work in together, so we alternated installing tiles and custom cuts, but we had gotten a bit faster by this point and had the whole wall done in 6 hours.
The final wall needed 24 hours to cure before we could begin grouting, but you’ll be able to see how it went in below post Day 9.
To read more stories about this renovation: