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?  


Make your own shower – planning for tiling

This post is about some special discussion tile choices and how tile fit into our layout.  Many people pick their tiles based on design or decorating skill.  But when you are re-tiling your shower, chances are it is easier to redo just about any other part of the bathroom to match your tiles.  Therefore, one can pick pretty AND practical tiles.  I got lucky.

First, there is measurement to consider.  For some, the area of the shower and the size of the tile are totally independent; after all tile can be cut.  However, if one can nudge their shower to be a couple inches bigger or smaller to avoid cutting tiles, why not plan accordingly?

First lesson: The back of your shower is predetermined.  The sides are flexible and cane be chosen based on the width of your chosen tile – but once the backerboard is up, the size is determined.  When planning for the sides, we should not have forgotten about our corner grout line.  The tiles ended up kind of weirdly overlapping and our carefully-measured shower sides were just ~1/2″ too short since that corner grout line took up more space than I expected (and I sawed 1/2″ off of the 2×17 tiles that spanned the height of the shower).  For our 3/16″ tile, the corner line is ~3/16″ + thicknesses of the field tile because of how they line up.  Thank goodness for the power tile saw and caulk – but save yourself the grief.

crowded corner.  bad planning.

Crowded corner. The tiles on the right actually overlap those on the left.

Since the tiles on the left are too far over, it was also annoying because I ended up with a super skinny tile on the righthand side (which were also a pain to cut):

Thin tile set with thinset.

Thin tile set with thinset.

So, since the actual tile being used should influence some backerboard specifics for the measuring-inclined, here are some of my thoughts about which tile to use.  I relayed a lot about picking tiles here.  Then note that I had bought these particular tiles before I knew what Fireclay tile was.  For the shower, we picked a 4.25″ ceramic field tile called “Pepper White” by Dal (which you cannot see the speckles on in any pictures) because:

  1. We liked it.
  2. It had matching quarter rounds.  Many tiles, especially those made out of weird materials don’t have matching quarter rounds.  We needed quarter rounds for the window and all around the edges due to how our backerboard was not flush with the wall.  I didn’t want to have any alignment errors stand out because of a sudden color change.  Unusual tile materials and mosaics are less likely to have matching quarter rounds.  Also, the quarter rounds for this project cost basically as much as the field tile (~$150 for the quarter rounds)!  So, if you know you need ~90 quarter rounds, keep it mind that they charge by the piece for these special shapes.
  3. It was >35% recycled.  But I can do better next time this way.
  4. It was made in the USA.  Those freaking quarter rounds were not though.
  5. It wasn’t a solid white – I figured the freckles would distract from any of my alignment errors.  Judge for yourself
  6. It was cheap.  (And it’s clear why.  The Fireclay tile in our kitchen make these Dal tiles feel badly about themselves.)
  7. It fit well with the house – it’s not a modern tile in a not-so-modern house.  I like these stripy contemporary, wood-look-alike tiles, but it would look weird here with all of our real wood.
  8. It fit well with my wooden bathroom counter top – we are going for a sort of rustic look here.  At least that’s how I’m going to explain these grout lines!
  9. The tiles are still whitish so they should match nearly everything for a long time – what is the 2014 equivalent of pink tile anyway?

Here are the unexpected benefits.

  1. The 4.25″ tile plus our 3/16″ grout lines spanned the height of the shower perfectly, even when I had to consider the measurements of the silly window.  This was luck.  The height of our shower was chosen to be exactly 1 field tile + 2 grout lines + 2 quarter rounds.
    Tile around the window

    Tile around the window

    I don’t really want to spoil this, but it makes more sense with the picture.  I didn’t want an awkward half-height tile above the window, hence the choice of the total height.

  2. Stray thinset that dries on these glazed ceramic tiles scrapes off quite easily with a putty knife.  Remember that bit about learning from my mistakes?  This is not true for all pricier materials.  And with the quarter rounds, some of the thinset was not wipable while wet since I had to tape the quarter rounds into place.
  3. The tiles don’t scratch with sanded grout.
  4. The tiles cut easily with our power tile saw…which it was $80 to buy or $26/day from home depot to rent.  This project spanned at least 4 weeks so buying the saw was the right call!
  5. The tiles were sturdy enough were you can pry them off if, after the thinset dried, you determined rearrangement was necessary…

The next step of the process was mixing thinset and actual sticking these carefully-chosen tiles to our carefully-measured backerboard!

Did you miss out on part one on how to put up backerboard?

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.