Make your own shower–the beginning

Our house came with two bathrooms, but the guest bathroom (ie, the bathroom not closeted inside of our bedroom) only had a tub with broken hardware, no shower.  So, I decided that we should put one in.  This seemed like a good opportunity for clean, comfortable guests (if you come to visit, it’s now probably best that you tell me just how enjoyable your shower was…) and a general home upgrade.  I’ll cover our adventure through several posts in time, with this being the first.  The rundown will be:

Here is the shower area in its original, 1956 glory:


These tiles are brownish. The pink tile is in the OTHER bathroom.

Not only is there no shower fixture installed, but the height of the tile was too short to just install the fixtures and call it a day (even if one liked the brownish tile).  Since we were losing the tub tile, we also said goodbye to the countertop on the vanity and replaced it (and the sink and fixtures) with this ensemble:

photo 2

The vanity cabinet still needs to be painted.

Our contractor, who we had hired to do the kitchen, kindly demoed all of the tile, leaving us with this:


The inspector hadn’t decided if she approved yet.

After this, the contractor installed drywall–actually greenboard that happened to be purple–on that lower half of the wall so that the whole wall was flush again.  This is where we took over to put tiles back up – and the goal was to do it for less than the quoted $3500.

First Lesson: Before doing anything, you should be measuring and planning.  And then re-measuring – buy a nice measuring tape.  Then calculating how much backboard to buy. Then dividing measurements by tile dimensions and remeasuring.  Telling the tile store your measurements and deciding how much tile to buy.  Then measuring backerboard and cutting it. I am terrible at measuring which made all of this very trying on my patience.  We had double the fun because you’ll note we have a window in the middle of our shower.  I didn’t want an awkward line of partial tiles above the window and I didn’t want to tile all the way to the ceiling so the dimensions of the tiled area had to be exactly 1 tile + edges above the window.  Tiling around that stupid window ended up taking about as long as it took to tile the rest of the shower, but we will get to the why on that later.

If you’ve been hunting around on the internet you’ll be noting right now that this tiling story is not beginning like other tile stories so far.  Most stories (such as that on Lemon Grove or Young House Love) go straight from the studs to backerboard (wonderboard, hardibacker, etc).  These bloggers battled with shimming and trimming backerboard to get it perfectly flush with adjacent drywall.  Our contractor suggested an alternative to us: line the drywall with water-proof paper, then put the backboard over the top of the studs, drywall and paper.  We were extra-convinced that this was a good idea since he had actually put that drywall back IN.  However, the waterproof paper is key – one absolutely should not put cement backerboard directly over drywall.  Cement backboard is porous and there is a possibility of water leaking through to the drywall without waterproof paper and then you get mold.  I was living in student-priced apartments long enough to learn more than once that mold is quite pesky.

By putting backerboard over paper over drywall over the studs, one does not have to deal with the same alignment perfection issues.  It’s not a total no brainer because there will be edges that need to be covered with quarter rounds (stay tuned for what it’s like to install these edge pieces) as opposed to the bullnose tiles that can be used with flush backerboard, but there are some advantages if you read on.

At our friendly & helpful contractor’s recommendation, we used GMCraft10 building paper, which is “weather resistant”.  I figure a roof in hurricane season has to keep water off of ALL of the dry wall in the house, so this should do the trick.  Building paper also cost less than paper sold for the same purpose in the tile department.  You’ll note that we papered around the window edges as well.  To put it up, I used a staple gun made for weaklings and cut the paper larger than I anticipated the backerboard to cover.  I tried not to be too staple happy since it was annoying to hit them with screws later, plus the paper will get seriously screwed down in the next step.  Later pulling staples out of the wall that weren’t hidden by the backerboard was a non-event.

photo 1

Here she is, all papered.

Supplies needed: building paper, staple gun + staples, knife, scissors, measuring tape.

Second lesson: Mark the studs on the ceiling and the tub before putting up paper over the screws marking the studs so that you know where to screw in the backerboard.  Fortunately, we learned this the easy way – before installing the paper. 🙂

Next up was the backerboard.  This makes for a nice, solid, water-tolerant surface to stick tiles too.  There needs to be backerboard everywhere that there will be tile, which, in our case, included those pesky window ledges (post forthcoming on dealing with windows in the shower).  We bought 1/2″ Wonderboard-brand backerboard & the longest backerboard screws at Home Depot.  We ended up buying 5 sheets (using 4.5) total for this space because we wanted to have the largest pieces possible to fill the space – did I mention that the window made things awkward?

To actually carry out this feat, we measured and calculated, then cut the backerboard to size outside.  It was actually pretty easy to mark the backerboard cuts with a chaulkline, scribe the backerboard with an exacto knife, flip it over and push down on one side – with the scribe line hanging off of the edge of the saw horse.


Setting up to scribe

I used a scrap board as a straight edge while scribing.  The trick was to use the knife to cut through the webbing that holds the cement board together, crack the cement, then scribe through the webbing on the back.  It gave nice clean cuts with minimal mess.  This is reminiscent of how I cleave small semiconductor samples actually, but a couple orders of magnitude bigger.  I completely wore out one knife blade so don’t hesitate to swap blades frequently.  We only used the jigsaw to cut out holes for the plumbing, which was nice to have (drill a hole for the jigsaw blade, then cut out the circle).  The cutting was fast.  The measuring was not.

Third lesson: If you can make your shower any size you want, make it something that is even multiples of your tile heights and widths – then you don’t have to cut the tiles later!  So, if you are measuring backerboard to fit the tiles, include the tile width, the grout line width, quarter rounds AND any excess width from the shower corner, which may be ever so slightly larger than the regular grout line.  One point for guessing which one I forgot.

Fourth lesson: it’s really annoying when your shower is 61″ inches long because backerboard is sold as 60″ long sheets.  There was one other decidedly sloppy advantage of having the drywall there: if one needs to add a 2″ extension of backerboard, there is (not-as-solid-as-studs) dry wall into which one can screw on an extra piece if one happened to miscut the first piece.  This is probably not the greatest for tile stability so I offer no warranties on these types of decision.  We don’t know anyone that would do that though… 🙂  Be sure that (as much as possible) the backerboard is screwed into the studs.

photo 2


Fifth lesson: Backerboard can be made slightly smaller to be crammed into certain spaces.  This can be done with a rubber mallet and chisel.  It is very annoying to remove 1 inch and less using the exacto blade method described above.  If one is not measurement challenged (how the heck do I have a PhD?!), one might not have this issue, but, in any case, Wonderboard is made of small particles “cemented” together, which my mallet and chisel did a nice job of disassembling into the pile of dust on the edge of the tub.  The mallet was also helpful for coaxing pieces flush against the wall and each other.  While my tiles do look a little rustic in the end, the seems were flat enough where, when combined with the thinset, the tiles lay flat.

In the photo, you can see gaps in the backerboard which are “mudded”.  In California, mudding actually means “thinsetting”.  So, I taped over the seems with webbing tape (also in the tile aisle at the ‘Depot), mixed up an early batch of thinset and spread the thinset over the cracks.  There’s a lot more to be said about thinset in a forthcoming post, but here is the effect:

photo 3

Backed and junctions sealed.

Note that it is now dusk outside.  It will continue to be depressing as you note the passage of time during my tiling.  I trimmed off the paper around the edges with an exacto knife before tiling so the quarter rounds would hide the edges entirely.

Supplies used: backerboard, exactoknife, chalkline, jigsaw with carbide blade, drill with large carbide tip, saw horses, measuring tape, rubber mallet, small chisel, backerboard screws, special drill bit that came with screws, shop vac, thinset supplies, strong human(s).

Next installment coming soon…applying the tile.


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