4 inch putty knife scraping old caulk from a bathtub shower

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Originally, I had this post as a two-parter because recaulking the tub and shower in my guest bathroom occurred over multiple nights. But given how slow progress can be here at the Ugg-Duck with finals approaching, I decided over some time to combine the two posts into one; no sense making you jump to two posts about the same thing when one is more helpful to anyone trying to learn from this, right? So let’s jump in!

Recaulking a Shower Step by Step

1. Remove the old caulk first! (Yes, you should!)

Over the weekend, I wanted to re-caulk the tub and shower corners in the guest bath. I’d been avoiding this for weeks because the first step seemed like a giant pain in the ass (the rest are easy). All of the old caulk has to be removed before new caulk can go in. Removal can be labor intensive, especially if it’s crumbly and old.

You might think: really, all of it? Yes, ALL. of. it. Even the tiny frickin’ piece that refuses to budge. The reason why you want to remove it all is because for one, little bits of old caulk might compromise an otherwise waterproof seal; for another, little nubs of old caulk will ruin a nice crisp line of fresh new caulking if left in place. I bought a nifty caulk remover tool that was supposed to scrape everything away lightening fast. News flash: didn’t work. Liar liar, pants on fire. So, I went back to ol’ faithful: my 4″ putty knife. Now that baby worked like magic for all the little nubs and tiny pieces.

Scrub the surface to remove old caulk bits and dust and debris. Soap scum and mold will ruin a potentially beautiful caulk job. An old toothbrush does a pretty good job of getting all the crud out. If you’re messing with mold, you’re definitely going to want to use a bleach solution or a product sold specifically as a mold remover.

4 inch putty knife scraping old caulk from a bathtub shower

2. Tape around the tub and shower to allow your new caulk line

Then, it was taping time. Do you have to tape the caulk line? Technically, no. But for the neatest possible work, especially if you’ve never done this before (or do it so rarely that reading this post is interesting to you), I highly recommend the extra step to keep your shower caulk lines tidy. Instead of using the standard latex type of caulk you might be more familiar with, shower caulk has to be silicone based to help keep it waterproof (all of these areas are directly exposed to water regularly, so it needed a 100% waterproof seal that was mold and mildew resistant). But, silicone caulk is also very gooey and goopy (we’re getting very technical here, I realize). As such, cleanup is annoying and difficult, especially since you’re applying it at multiple angles that converge on each other. So, I wanted to use tape to keep my lines from getting smooshed all around when running my fingers along to smooth the caulk line.

For this project, I used a favorite tool: painter’s tape! But not just any: specifically, FrogTape. For reasons why I prefer this tape to other options, see my comparison post all about it here.

To keep this post short and sweet, I’ll share with you first how I take care of corners: I use a utility knife to square off the tape line directly on the roll (careful not to cut through multiple layers of tape). I take one piece (the piece that comes off first, with a jagged end and finishes with the squared end) and place it in a corner exactly as I want it to stick.

Then, I take the other side (the part that begins with the squared end), tear it off of the roll, and lay it on top of the first piece in the opposite direction so I have an L-shape in the corner exactly where it’s needed. (Update: a few people have made strangely passionate comments about whether to tape or not to tape the shower before caulking. The simplest explanation is that pure silicone caulk is stickier/gooier than normal acrylic latex caulk that you use for the rest of the house. I am a perfectionist and silicone caulk can’t be painted, so I’d rather take an extra step here to give myself a clean line. I tried it the other way with no tape, and I was less pleased when there was no crisp line at the tub thanks in part to this being an old house with imperfections to work around. But I agree that if the caulk is very similar in color to the tile (like in the shower corners, for which I later used almond-colored caulk), you might feel like it’s overkill. In your own home, it may come down to preference/perfectionist levels here. You guys crack me up!)

See that shadow in the above pic? It’s my new shower curtain, hung and bundled so I can see how it looks in the space without getting it gunky.

3. Apply new caulk and smooth with your finger

This step is quite simple: just start squeezing out the caulk in a straight line and smooth out with your finger. I highly recommend using a latex glove or a caulk smoothing tool to minimize getting silicone all over your skin.

I knew my bathtub was white, so when I bought a tube of caulk from the store, I went with white. Word to the wise: just plunk down the extra few bucks to buy a full, regular tube of caulk. I went cheap and bought a hand-squeeze tube which was a MISTAKE. It was enough for the shower, but I spend time on the computer all day at work and my hands are simply not very happy with me for having to manually squeeze out the bead of caulk around the entire tub (the tube makes it look as easy as squeezing toothpaste, but my hands disagreed). I felt old and silly. So next time, I’ll be buying a full tube and using my caulk gun.

caulk and gun are better than caulk tube
A caulk tube that needs a caulk gun is a lot easier to use on projects like this than a small caulk tube applicator.

MISTAKE #2: I ran into a snag when I realized that pure white caulk was fine for the tub, but too white for the corners of the tile shower. The grout and caulk lines for the shower tile were an off-white, almond-y color. So, I had to go back to the store to get a closer color match. That means when I came back home, I had to remove the brand new caulk I’d just applied from the corners and re-caulk. So essentially, I was re-caulking my re-caulked shower! But, lesson learned. The area around the tub I was able to leave alone because it matched the white caulk perfectly fine.

Re-caulking the shower

Here is a basic checklist of things to think about (forgive me for repeating any of the above, but it’s important for folks who like to skim):

Tips for which caulk to choose & cleanup options

  • You’ll want to use 100% waterproof silicone caulk for maximum moisture/mildew/mold protection in your shower.
  • Never never never use latex caulk for wet areas. It will hold every bit of dampness and peel right off. Say no to black mold growth!
  • You’ll also want to remove any and all old caulk to make sure there are no potential gaps or weak spots when filling the area in with new caulk.
  • Whether you choose to use painter’s tape or not, you want a protective line (but not too much that you have to clean up) to prevent any moisture from seeping under the tile. The tub and corners of the shower are weak spots, so this is why we caulk. I choose to tape since I get a nice, straight line without going back over and fixing mistakes when it’s dry.
  • While most acrylic caulk comes in a variety of colors readily available at the hardware store, silicone caulk can be a little more difficult. My choices at the store when I bought my tube were white and clear (though I later learned that Home Depot carries a greater color variety and went back to match it to my grout). And unlike acrylic, silicone caulk isn’t paintable. It also doesn’t like to stick to acrylic caulk (just in case you’re wondering, I have tried this and the caulk immediately turned from white to yellow and peeled right back off when dry).
  • Don’t forget that silicone caulk is the same whether the tube is labeled for kitchens or bathrooms (usually it says both). You want a permanent, waterproof seal — the label indicating the room is not as important. So don’t be afraid to look in the next section over in the store if you’re not finding what you’re looking for.
  • Wipe excess caulk and residue with a baby wipe. You’ll have cleaner joints and seams, fingers, AND no damp rags to rinse out. It’s probably my favorite caulking tip, first mentioned here.

Silicone caulk can also be used to patch up small patches of missing grout between your tiles. If you have an old shower like mine, sometimes you can get away with patching areas where the grout went missing over time. This is difficult to do if you do not have the exact color of the grout used (it will look splotchy). I originally thought I would use pre-mixed grout to fill in the areas where I found weak spots in the grout, but the caulk matched so well that I just took care of things ahead of schedule (gasp!). The process is pretty simple: just make sure you’ve thoroughly rid the area of any loose grout (which typically means making the hole a little bigger) with a blade or utility knife. And be careful not to crack or leave scratches on the tile. After that, it’s a simple swipe of silicone caulk (again, waterproofy-ness is key) will fix up a small spot. For larger problems, you’ll want to instead scrape the grout out with an oscillating tool (that has a tile blade) and re-grout.

silicone caulk patch grout
This is a temporary fix for a shower that will be replaced; for larger jobs, re-grout.

The reason I tell you this is simply because I’m a homeowner; not an expert. I make mistakes with this house all the time — even when I try my best. It’s totally normal and something I think we all deserve to see every once in a while so we don’t feel like we’re the only ones caulking things up (pun, hehe). Oh, and ignore the dirty tile areas in these photos — I have one final cleanup job before the shower is ready to use.

How long after a recaulk can I shower?

After applying the caulk, it’s time to let the bathroom rest for 24 hours. Now I know you’re looking at tubes of caulk that have “1-hour shower ready” or “30-minute shower ready” labels, and while that sounds great, every single one of them still says in the fine print that you really need to let things dry for a full 24 hours before use. Sure, I suppose if you’re in a shower emergency you can get the area slightly wet after that 30 minutes (or using the caulk to plug a leak in your sliding door), but in reality, every tube will tell you to wait an entire day for best use. I had a whole other bathroom, so I was willing to wait.

re-caulk shower

But, bonus? I also took the dry time to install a fancy new shower head for the bathroom. The old one was just gross, and this one will allow me to also use a spray handle to give Charlie a bath. Of course, I fully intend to clean the tub between dog washings in case a guest comes over. Which will be virtually never, but hey, Charlie will be a clean pup!

Other questions about recaulking a shower:

How often do you need to recaulk a shower? Every 5 years or so is recommended for when to recaulk a tub or shower, even if it’s not showing wear and tear. Homeowners ignore this rule of thumb plenty (or just plain don’t know it, because it’s normal not to seek out this kind of information unless your shower is old like mine).

Can I shower without caulking? Technically, you can fry bacon without wearing a shirt; I just wouldn’t recommend it.

What happens if you don’t caulk your bathtub? Mostly mold and mildew buildup. Frat houses all over the U.S. are great examples of this.

Is it easy to recaulk a shower? After having done it, it’s way easier than I thought at first. I wish I hadn’t avoided it as long as I did!

Can’t ya feel it? Just a little cleaning, and my bathroom will be ready to go. Wahoo! Update: here is my finished guest bath!

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  1. I need to do this so badly! Maybe this is inspiration to get going! Question: Do you leave the caulk as is when coming from the tube or do you tool it to make it flat or concave? I hope that made sense.

    1. Oh, you definitely want to smooth it out. I never use a tool, just my finger. I'll share some of those details on my Part II post (including the best ways to get that caulk OFF your fingers afterward).

    2. I'm so sorry! I jumped the gun! I see now that this is Part I. I will sit and wait for part II!

    3. No worries! It was a good question and reminded me I need to get on it to finish the darn shower (plus all of the other updates I haven't revealed yet!).

  2. Hmm. Why do you use tape? I've done tons of caulking, but never used tape for it; in fact, I've never even heard of anyone taping off caulk lines before! Color me intrigued. Have you ever tried to do it without tape?

    1. I usually caulk everything else in the house without using tape, but I also normally use acrylic caulk in other places of the house, which can be painted. Since I'm working with contrast (bright white caulk + gray-beige tile) and silicone caulk is not paintable, I want to keep things looking as pristine as possible and have a completely straight line.

  3. I've never taped, either. If I want a straighter line, I'll come back with a razor blade after the caulk has dried and cut a line in, but I rarely do that either.

  4. You read my mind. For some reason, the dirty caulk in my house has really been bothering me this week. It looks like there is a crack at the top of the caulk where it meets the tile, and I never noticed that before. It's been bugging me, and I've been wondering how to fix it.

    I only have one bathroom in my house though, so I'm worried about how quickly I can do this as a newbie. Maybe during the long Thanksgiving day weekend, just in case I'm showerless for longer than anticipated! Looking forward to reading your part 2 for the after picture.

    1. You need 24 hours for silicone caulk to cure before getting it wet (ignore the “3-hour shower ready” labels, they all say 24 hours on the back of the tube).

      I could have done this in an afternoon and just waited the 24 hours to use the shower, but my problem has more to do with aesthetics than anything else. So shower, let the room dry fully, apply the tape and caulk, remove the tape, and 24 hours later you're usually good to go!

  5. I have never even heard of taping to caulk but I should have done it in my bathroom. I gave white tile with grey grout and it is super obvious where the caulk smeared into the grout lines.

  6. I have read good reviews of a product to remove that old silicone caulk residue. It is called 'Silicone Be Gone' by DAP. I bought some via Amazon but have not used it yet. DAP has a new product that allows you to use the shower in only a few hours called DAP 3.0 http://www.dap.com/3point0/kitchen_bath.html It claims to be water-resistant in 30 minutes and is paintable!

  7. I have also heard that when caulking the bath tub, fill up the tub with water, to weigh the actual tub down, then caulk. Let the caulk dry, and remove the water after. This helps the space to be filled when the actual tub is in use with no gap.
    Also, with plastic gloves on, tip your guide finger in oil, water or Vaseline, and run your finger tip along the edge to smooth it, if you don’t have ‘the tool’ to smooth it.

    Love the tape idea. Will use that one.

  8. Newbie question: do you remove the tape while the caulking is still wet? Or after 24 hours? Thanks! I am about to embark on this project soon!