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:



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