Make your own shower – grouting and sealing for the long haul.

This is it!  The home stretch!  Here’s where we left off:

photo 2 (2)

After the tiles are up, the shower was still not waterproof, nor was it very elegant.  To be functional and pretty (and to hide my mistakes), the gaps between the tile need to be grouted, which then gets sealed.  I noticed a lot of internet sites that point out the risks associated with grouting, but honestly, I thought this part of the project was actually pretty fun.  It’s more artistic and forgiving – no square corners, precise cutting or measurements.  There are several other good references (and multiple articles within each) on how to do this, like Young House Love, Bower Power and Lemon Grove.  As usual, I have several different solutions for the unexpected (and expected).

First lesson: it was time consuming to scrape up all of my rogue thinset from tiling and clear extra thinset out of the grout lines.  I recommend avoid this in the first place if you aren’t battling the tiles to stay in place around an awkward window.

Second lesson: Grout, regardless of how its mixed, is dramatically less removable than thinset!  It does not scrape or scrub off nicely once dry on tubs, tiles or windows.  It is a liquidy form of concrete (which contains cement, the stuff that chemically bonds).  Therefore, I thoroughly prepped the area with two cheerful picnic table cloths (with the plastic lining):

Before grouting

Before grouting – nice rustic tile spacings :)

At this point, Bryan wandered by and said, “Wow it looks like a mob scene in here.”

I responded, “What do you mean?”.

“Haven’t you ever seen a movie where they do a bathtub killing?   You want to line the tub for easy cleanup later.”

“I doubt they used ‘Sunshine Yellow’ tarps.”

In short: before grouting, confirm that your tub would be featured in a bad sequel to Good Fellas.  You can also see most of my supplies aside from the grout: two water buckets, two sponges, grout float, trash bucket, paper towels, clean/lint-free/white towels and buddy for lugging water (or tarp on your floors between bathroom and water supply).

Third lesson: by this time, I started learning things the easier ways rather than the hard way…I read that there is sanded and unsanded grout.  You want to use sanded grout when the grout lines are greater than 3/16″ thick and unsanded grout for thinner lines. Although I haven’t used anything but the sanded, reports are that it is a little more annoying to work with (and can scratch marble tile), but tends to shrink less with drying, especially if it is mixed too thin (the sand takes up space and does not shrink if the grout itself does).  Our tiles are spaced 3/16″ apart, so we went with Bostik sanded grout in white (not bright white) that I purchased at a local tile shop along with matching caulk.  I didn’t find the sanded grout bad at all.  As others have learned, Home Depot has a slightly more limited color selection in grouts, but the real downside was that the guy on staff couldn’t offer me as much advice on what I was doing.  I ended up purchasing 425 all-purpose latex admixture to use in place of water.  I figured anything that lowered my chances of grout shrinking was a good idea.

Next, I mixed up the grout.  Again, you can buy premixed grout, but frankly grout was easier to mix than I thought the thinset was.  To mix it, I once again used a clean bucket (this was a 5 bucket project) and a putty knife – no drill attachment was required for this one.  The motion is roughly what I imagine it takes to mix color into store-bought frosting.  I mixed no more than a quarter of the grout bag at a time.  The admixture had appropriate ratios of liquid to grout listed.  It was pretty different than mixing thinset, even though there was still a resting period.  In the case of the thinset or ardex feather finish, I learned not to add liquid after resting or the concrete will start to seize up.  On the contrary, each batch of grout required a little splash of liquid after resting to recover the appropriate peasnut-buttery thickness.  I also found that it thickened quickly as I was using it, so even my methods of application and time waiting before wiping changed slightly as the grout batch thickened.

There are many warnings about mixing it too thin, the consequence of which is that the grout cracks more easily.  What I discovered was: if the sanded grout was thick enough so that it could be pushed into the cracks, it was sufficiently thick for the project.

Grout application was basically three processes: dampen wall with sponge and put grout on wall, wipe down with sponge, polish with dry cloth.  I would grout a small ~2x2ft area, sponge it, then scrub the previous 2×2 area tiles (not grout lines) with the dry cloth to polish the tile.

To apply the grout, I pretty much used the grout float the way everyone else does.  I eventually found a rhythm once I struggled for a bit.  It was important to keep the float clean too since dried grout on the float makes the rubbery surface less effective – more use for the putty knife.  Re-stirring even ~15 minutes helped keep the grout consistent.  Similarly, I took periodic breaks from applying to wipe it off with a damp sponge.

Fourth lesson: the time you wait before wiping varies quite a bit based on your brand of grout and how thick you’ve mixed it.  My first batch was ultra thick and it was difficult to wipe after even 10 minutes.  Later batches gave me up to 20 minutes leeway.  I rinsed the sponge in two buckets to keep the second one (and thus the sponge) cleaner, which seemed to help reduce the haze compared to other reports.  The grout adheres nicely to the tile, which means that wiping at a ~45 degree angle across the line with a sponge actually did a nice job shaping the grout in the lines.  Some dried caulk could barely be scraped off with a putty knife – which I would generally try if I ran my hand over the tiles and it felt gritty or sandy.

Fourth lesson: This is where the thinset shows through if you were cheap and bought grey thinset and had some squeeze up through the grout lines.  I mitigated this problem by scraping out set thinset with this grout saw:

tiling tools

The thing with a blue handle is a grout saw.  Non-first timers should think of it as a demo tool, not a tiling tool. ;)

Eventually, I got the whole shower grouted.  This went pretty fast (with water lugging help) and was fit into about 2-3 long evenings.

photo 5 (2)

post-grout, pre-caulk

Fifth lesson: don’t grout the corners.  That’s why they sell matching caulk.  Apparently it also helps if there is any slightly expansion or contraction over the years – the caulk has more give than hard grout.  After the grout dried for two days, I taped the corners that would receive caulk, as in this tutorial.  I applied caulk, then dragged my damp finger over it while still damp to shape it and immediately removed the tape.  Worked like a charm…until I ran out of caulk.  Twice.  This project, which required caulking the tub, two back vertical corners, all around the edge of the quarter rounds to the wall and that dratted window took just over two bottles of this matching caulk.

Then I had a real shower!


After it all: prep, tiling, grouting and caulking (no fixtures yet).

To seal the grout, I bought tile sealer at the same tile shop.  There are many schools of thought on how to apply it, but: 1. I wore a respirator.  Scary stuff.  2. I used a thin brush to apply from a Solo cup, and 3. wiped it with those lint-free cloths from OSH.  I mainly wanted to avoid sealing any stray grout that I hadn’t found to scrape off.  The sealing led to zero change in appearance and took an hour or two.  Although the tiling is a little imperfect (adds character), it was about $3K cheaper than quote by the contractor and this little shower appears to be robust and a far cry from where we started!  Our guests approved 2 weeks after this project ended. :)




The tiling is over!  Still required in the bathroom remodel:

  • Fixtures
  • Painting the walls
  • Painting the vanity
  • Towel racks
  • Decor
  • Shelf
  • Baseboard




JK Rowling’s commencement speech

“I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination…I was set free, because my greatest fear [failure] had been realised…. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

JK Rowling, May 2008, Harvard University

-by far, the most eloquent language on this blog-

Make your own shower – finally tiling

Today I’m finally posting about the actual process of tiling, from mixing thinset to tiling around obstacles.  Here I emphasize unusual tiling situations and mistake recovery while describing the thinset mixing process and a few bits of tiling basics.

I’ve procrastinated writing this post for three reasons:

  1. Work has been craaazy
  2. I couldn’t think of a cool title
  3. Writing the number of details that the engineer in me wants recorded sounded a daunting task to the creative part of me.

So, right down to business.  You can read the first parts of the tiling project here, here, or here.  The first thing we did is follow Home Depot’s tiling instruction video and screw in a wooden guide, as I show below.  The top of the guide was level and exactly 10 tiles+the quarter round from the top of the cement board.  Since we don’t keep a lot of scrap wood around, I bought this support board as broken door framing from a local hardware store for about $0.50.  It’s important that the board edge not be warped for this application.

photo 1

so happy…so innocent…so many more tiles to go

Using a brace like this has a couple advantages.  The first for me was that I could start building up while knowing that I wouldn’t have to end with a row of partial tiles.  The second is that such a board will provide a level surface to start tiling from if the tub doesn’t happen to be level (and apparently tiles should be floating about 1/8-1/4″ from the tub anyway in case the tub shifts when the water fills).

So, board went up, then I gathered tools.  There are many lists, such as this one, that list the supplies you need when everything goes smoothly.  Besides the obvious thinset and tile, I used two buckets (one for waste concrete/broken tile etc – bags break, one for thinset), a drill with mixer attachment, a power tile saw, 3/16″ spacers, a marker, a large putty knife and a standard thinset notch trowel.  Probably more importantly, there is also the list of things (pictured) that I found necessary for when things weren’t going so smoothly – like for dealing with crooked tiles or all of the thinset I splattered around.

tiling tools

That thing with the blue handle is called a grout saw. Also pictured are a mallet, small chisel, putty knife and tile scrubber.

Thinset is a whole topic within tiling.  I am no cement expert, and like other DIY’ers on their early tiling adventures, it is tempting to find a way to get out of mixing it. For about $40+/bucket, one can buy pre-mixed thinset, but then it’s technically mastic or some kind of organic adhesive, which is supposedly less stable and grows mold when wet (read: not good in a shower).  Actual thinset cement is more durable and is known to be more water resistant because the “setting” of true cement is actually a hydration chemical reaction between the cement binder and the water you mix in (read about this here in a basic article from my undergrad alma mater!).  It also notably costs only about $14 for a 50 lb. bag.

I’m cheap and a materials girl (not material girl) so I bought the thinset – 1.5 bags was enough for this project.

First lesson: if you will be using white tile, use white thinset.  It cost $2 more per bag and I didn’t see how it would matter anyway since the tiles and grout would cover it.  This is true if you use exactly the right amount and none squeezes through between the tiles…but some DID squeeze between my tiles and I have thin but funky gray lines decorating my grout.

Second lesson: mixing thinset is more like an art, not a science.  There are a lot of horror stories on the internet, but there seems to be a fair amount of flexibility since the mixture consistency is so dependent on temperature and the length of time the mixture has sat.  My rule of thumb became that if you are able to use it, i.e. it both spreads on the wall and holds tiles to the wall while applying them, it’s probably ok.  Thinset that is too thin can’t be spread on the wall – it’ll run off of the trowel or knife — and thinset that is too thick is hard to spread, won’t actually stick to the tiles and doesn’t squish out enough to coat the tile back.

I think there is an unwritten rule that thinset bags cannot come with clear directions.  The bags only give ratios for when you use the whole bag, but no first-time DIY-er has any business mixing up a full bag at a time since it’ll harden before you’re done.  Furthermore, the measurements are given in pounds of thinset and volumes of water.  I do not have a handy scale to measure pounds of thinset.

So, I did what I often do: I guessed.  I recommend using two of those red plastic Solo cups for measuring, one for water and one for cement.  I would add 1 red solo cup of water to the bucket (otherwise, the thinset clumps in the side of the bucket and won’t mix), then add about 6 solo cups of thinset.  It would take just under 2 more red solo cups worth of water and then I could actually mix it with the drill attachment.  Then I would add thinset and water until I had the amount I wanted with a consistency a little more watery than toothpaste.  The reason I went with a thinner consistency was that each batch allowed me to tile about 1.5 hours, over which it would thicken quite a bit.  I was willing to put up with a little thinner thinset at the beginning so that I could use the whole batch.  After the first mixing, I let it rest for 5 minutes, starting the thinset chemical reaction.  I learned with the bathroom countertop adventure that this wait is very important.  After 5 minutes, I mixed it again with the drill attachment.  I didn’t take a picture of it since it’s not a friendly environment for a camera, but I did watch this video (and then mix much smaller batches).

After this, I carried the bucket to the bathroom and began tiling.  There are many guides on the internet how to do this properly, including, and  When it was this thin, I found it easier to spread on the wall with a 6″ plaster knife or even a putty knife rather than a trowel.  I’d spread about 9 tiles’ worth on the wall and drag the notched trowel through it to make sure there was just enough thinset, then press the tile in and finally place two spacers in between each side of the tile and its neighbors.

Third lesson: I definitely ended with more thinset splatters than I see on other internet blogs.  I found that placing tiles without splattering cement was difficult, especially around awkward areas (window!) and wiping was hard.  It scraped off of our ceramic tiles pretty easily after it dried using the putty knife, dry tile scrubber and mallet/chisel for particularly stubborn bits, but this after-the-fact cleanup is an unnecessary step if one can juggle tiling and wiping with damp paper towels simultaneously – I could not.  It was surprisingly difficult to clean thinset off of the tub itself, so I recommend covering it if you plan on slopping thinset around.

crowded corner.  bad planning.

See those splatters?  Scraped them after drying.

Fourth lesson: If you are going to cut a whole row of tiles down using a wet saw, it is best to do so all at once so they are all the same size.  I learned that exactly once, then I recut the tiles that were supposed to go on the bottom of the window.

Fifth lesson: gravity is not a friend for field tiling.  Tiles above windows have nothing supporting them…except the large amounts of tape that I used.

photo 5

Sixth lesson: For tiling around the fixtures, I used a carbide-coated rod saw blade on our hack saw to cut curvy shapes and holes, a trick I learned from here.

Seventh lesson: For tiling around the window, I almost exclusively used the putty knife and I found it helpful to back butter tiles, or spread a little bit of thinset on the tiles before sticking them to the wall.  I also did this whole project over a couple days (er, weekends).  I let the tile row above the window dry, then I did the tiles and quarter rounds underneath the window top.  This way I could tape the upside down tiles to the tiles above the window.

For tiling around the edges, I used quarter rounds.  I used the small putty knife to fill the quarter round as if it was a celery stick I was filling with peanut butter.  Then, I would turn it over and press it on the corner of the wall, and tape it to whatever was above it (the next quarter round up or maybe the window itself).  It is also key to install the quarter rounds with the tiles on one side of the corner in such a case in order to control the grout line spacing.  Even worse, if the two sides were tiled without the quarter round, there is a risk that the quarter round might not fit between them.

Eighth lesson: The meeting corners of the quarter rounds were kind of an adventure to figure out, but I finally noticed how the quarter rounds in our other shower were cut.  Our wet saw came with a plastic piece that allowed me to slide the quarter round through the saw on an angle, sort of like a poor man’s miter saw.  I recommend drawing the 45 degree angle on both quarter rounds for a corner with a marker to make sure they are at the right angles, then cutting them before shortening the quarter round to its final length.  The exact mechanics of this will depend on the wet saw being used, but this worked for me.  Also, if the length of the quarter round is along the z direction, mitered cuts can be made on either the x-z plane or y-z plane.  The edges on the top corner of the shower, for example, were cut by rotating the quarter round 90 degrees in the saw compared to the one pictured.

photo (1)

(after grouting)

Ninth lesson: Mistakes (aka crooked tile) can be fixed, even after the thinset is dry. This was important since the tiles near that upper fixture were super crooked when I finished.  Wearing safety glasses, I stuck that little chisel behind the top of the offending tile and whacked with the mallet.  The tile would pop off and I could remove it from the wall.  I then chiseled out the thinset and used fresh thinset with a new tile to keep the tile level with the surrounding tiles.  This took a few minutes, and I wouldn’t want to redo a wall, but it was good enough to fix a few gaps on that top row.  This was also a handy trick when I figured out how to miter the edges of the quarter rounds – after I had already placed several.

At the end of tiling but before grouting, even with my tribulations, I was left with the most beautiful wall of tile (something about everything being beautiful to their own creator….?).

photo 2 (2)

which is definitely progress from the beginning:



Today I got a call at work on my cell phone.  A nice lady who lives across the street said that she had corralled Tilley (our Aussie) on the street in front of our house.  That was very nice of her, but there was a major problem with this picture: when I left for work an hour earlier, Tilley was locked inside of the house with the windows shut and wearing a cone.  

photo 1

Tilley was wearing a cone because she wore out her paws last weekend at a lake and couldn’t stop licking them.

It turns out that Tilley opened the closed-but-not-latched door to our office, climbed up on the desk, stood on her hind legs to rip the screen, climbed out and jumped about 5 feet down…all while in the cone.

photo 2

How did the dog above fit through this hole?!

Despite overcoming at least 4 levels of redundancy meant to keep her in the house, she didn’t venture far from the house.  I guess Tilley’s elaborate plans ended with her actually getting out of the house.  I’m really grateful to our neighbor who took time out of her walk to get Tilley back under control.  Now I guess we have to figure out how to replace this screen too – the sliding door screen was already busted by Houndini while we were at home.

I really do wonder what goes on in that dog brain.  Can you imagine driving by a house with a dog in a cone climbing out of a window?