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?

From sea to shining sea

On August 1st we went to Little River, CA on the Pacific Coast to celebrate with Holly and Dave when they got married.

Exactly one week later, we found ourselves on the Atlantic coast to celebrate with Beth and Max at their wedding on Cape Cod.


3 hour time change = late arrival.

The CA coast is cool and comfortable for men in suits, while we actually went to the beach in swim suits in Cape Cod to bask in the summertime.  The shutters on houses on Cape Cod are for real, unlike the shutters screwed onto our CA house (another post, another day).  The Cape Cod coastline was green with perfectly-scheduled weather while the CA coast was veiled in enchanting fog.  I actually wonder how they landed the original ships on the MA coast amongst all the overgrowth!  But both are amazing and beautiful, just like our friends at the weddings!

Coincidentally, it seems that America the Beautiful was actually written in Falmouth, MA (according to a sign we saw)…making this post title all that much more appropriate.

Needless to say, not much got done around the house these last couple of weeks.  A big congrats to Holly and Dave and Beth and Max!

Make your own shower – a window to the world

This post is about tiling around a window in the shower.  I originally tried to combine this topic with some information on sizing up a shower and buying our tile, but really the window deserves separate discussion on its own.  At least half of the time I spent tiling was just because of this window.  Here’s the window:

No way around it.

No way around it.


Many DIY posts about showers either don’t have a window, don’t describe what they did with the window or just acknowledge that some tiles will have to be cut into funny shapes.  But, like most things in home improvement, there is more than one design for how to actually tile around the window.

Short detour: I really wanted to take it seriously since I’ve had some pretty sketchy experiences with wet wood in bathrooms (helllllo $298/month room in Pittsburgh, PA, summer 2005).  The ceiling literally fell in while I was in the shower:

Bathroom Mess Ceiling

Ceiling of bathroom after wood gave away.  I wonder if that wire was live and wet…nice.  NOT in our current house!

Bathroom Mess 1

Contents of ceiling, including giant light, having fallen from ceiling to floor. Tub is to left of toilet.

I escaped to my cousins for memorial day weekend while the landlord fixed that guy back up.  That right there is pretty much my best story ever, so it’s all down hill from here, readers.  Now, obviously, the window sill wasn’t a matter of life and death like the photos above (glad I wasn’t brushing my teeth right then!), but between this and the mold in my rental house in Berkeley, I wanted to make sure this sucker is sealed up tightly!

But I digress.  I’ve seen people handle windows differently online.  The trick is to decide before you put up the backerboard so that you can get the backerboard in the right places (ie, over the window frame).  You’re also virtually guaranteed some ‘L’ cuts so make sure you have a power saw (recommended) or patience and good edges with a carbide rod saw (not recommended for ‘L’ cuts).  Here are two bad options: just ignore it and decide to let the wood rot and tile right over the window.  702 Park project has a lovely image of what that looks like down the road, about 6 images down the page in that link.  They cleaned it up and replaced it with a tiled/marble frame not made of wood.  Here (if you are patient) is a video that framed a window with marble entirely.  Another good option if you don’t fear wood in showers like I do is the method Mary and Jay used at Lemon Grove Blog to add a marble sill but leave the wooden frame, painted over with semi-gloss paint (thanks for the info, Mary!).

As you can tell from above, we took another route of tiling right around the frame, removing all wooden window sills – so now the “sill” is a continuation of the tile.  There is a nice diagram here about how to deal with the backerboard – you can read about our specific choices of supplies in the backerboard posting.  Here is a concise online tutorial I could find on this method, but nobody knew what “deck mud” was at the our local hardware stores so I just did my best with thin set to angle the bottom tiles back toward the shower and there will be a fair amount of caulk.  I did take them up on the taping tile up idea though:

photo 5

Taping tile over a window since there’s nothing below to support it.  And you can see that thinset I scraped off of the tiles later.  I haven’t put in the tiles on the underside of the upper frame yet.

Did you miss out on part one on how to put up backerboard?  Or part two about the influence of the tile we chose?