Removing tile leveling spacers with rubber mallet

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So, folks: I gotta be honest. I went into writing these posts about the primary bathroom fully thinking I would create painstakingly step-by-step posts about waterproofing, tiling, leveling, grouting, and installing the new hardware on my shower. Basically, a bunch of posts that broke each part down for you and answered every question I thought to myself during the entire thing — the way a homeowner who is worried about ruining it all would. I filled my phone and camera with photos. I even filmed video.

tiling the tub surround - tiling bathtub shower

(I’ve started throwing myself in front of the camera more — even when I have stray pieces of thin-set or whatever that is making my hair look I’ve got some kind of very weird gray patch — similar to how I used to get paint streaks… ha!)

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But then, reality called. And while my intentions were/are good to come through on that, after spending my entire 4th of July holiday week crammed into my bathroom’s back wall and the following week getting the actual job done, with all of those hours of sweat and frustration, I kind of need to let myself rest for a bit instead. Especially since I am now wearing a fun little accessory to keep me from overstraining my wrist over the next few weeks (thanks in part to all of the gripping on tools from tiling, plus the normal power tool and computer use I have on a weekly basis):

wrist brace for carpal tunnel - coffee table

Yeah, that whole “rest when you need rest” thing is a thing I’m still working on.

But rather than leave you hanging, I’m going to do a short (if you consider 3,000 words as “short”) recap first (that’s this post), and then as time allows, I’ll fill you in on each part in greater detail. I also don’t want to keep you waiting for all of those before I share the reveal; I don’t have the patience to keep that under wraps! It also might give me a sense of what kinds of questions you guys will leave in the comments (believe me, the tile advice you’ll find online is diverse, complex, and sometimes contradictory). That way I can include them along with the post it corresponds to. Ultimately, a lot of the steps involved will vary slightly in personal preference, but there’s also a general process as well (you can click to jump to these sections):

  1. Removing old tile
  2. Replacing the old drywall/tile backing with new board
  3. Waterproofing
  4. Tiling
  5. Grouting
  6. Sealing

Some of these steps may even blur together in terms of the product used, such as a tile backing that is also waterproofed or grouting that includes a sealer. All I can say to that is: deep breaths. You can still totally, 100%, do this project as a DIY, but second-guessing yourself with all of your options is bound to happen! You just need to gather research, build your confidence, and pick the products that sound right to you. I also have a friend of mine’s online courses listed at the bottom of this post, just in case you wanted a one-stop-shop and time is of the essence to get your project underway (he’s done a number of bathroom jobs versus my one time doing a shower tile start to finish, so he’s also the person I immediately went to for advice when I got stuck).

How to Tile a Bathtub Surround – An Overview

1. Remove the Old Shower Tile and Green board/Drywall

So, where I last left off, I had taken out the old shower tile and cut out the damaged drywall. The tile had been in decent shape, but I’d grown to hate it, and I finally had the budget to get a better bathroom. The reason removing the drywall, at first, was just because I thought that trying to tile over all of the mess that removing the tile created would be difficult, and putting in the same green board (which is just moisture-resistant drywall and coated in green paper, thus its name) would be easier. I had this assumption all the way through to putting new green board in the open space and taping up the seams (I’ve had a little practice at that from projects like this one). Tip: it’s easier to take off in large chunks, so don’t get overzealous with the hammer.

drywall coming off in large chunks

2. Replace with Tile Backer Board (of Some Kind…)

But the problem with that was that I shouldn’t be using green board drywall at all. Standards have changed, enough disastrous results have come from using it, that people now recommend a hardier option: cement backer board, aka its other names (usually in reference to the brand, and are often used interchangeably in DIY forums based on the individual’s preference and familiarity) such as Durock, Wonderboard, Hardiebacker, etc. Other types of tile board are made specifically to be waterproof, and those are also used by their specific brand names rather than the generic.

greenboard not the right material

Luckily, I caught my mistake before the waterproofing began, and wound up tearing out the brand-new drywall to replace it with even brandier-newer cement board. The process wasn’t even all that tough; it was just irritating and sweaty and cumbersome (since a small bathroom really isn’t the place for elbow room with a large piece of backer board). Also, of course, twice the spend to buy the wrong thing first and then buy the right thing. Learn from my mistake!

Just installing the new board by itself caused myself a few questions since the tub (which I planned to keep) has a lip on the top and nails jutting out just above it as a means of securing the tub to the studs. I later learned that it’s sometimes a problem when installing the backer board because the nail protruding out can make the backer board crooked, making the tile on the bottom not sit flush with the rest of the tile above it. My solution was to use these nails as a means of helping me to install the backer board by resting the bottom along the nails and just over the lip (so actually a help, rather than a hurt there). I read that the most important thing is to make sure that the studs are flush with each other and the lip of the tub, and things seemed good on my end to proceed with no potential for crooked tiles on the bottom. For once, my house wasn’t crooked as crap (if that had been the case, the solution would have been to use shims).

cement backer board

Rather than use joint compound like you would with drywall, it’s recommended to use thinset mortar and alkali mesh tape (not pictured) in the seams and corners. Some contractors might not actually use mesh tape because they complain that it creates a bump too difficult to overcome at the seams (a complaint I saw frequently on Youtube), but the risk there is that any movement could split/crack the tile or grout lines later on. And usually, you want to eliminate risk factors when doing all of this installation (because doing it twice sucks more). I made the mistake of not getting things smooth enough on the first attempt with thinset, so it took me a little work!

3. Waterproof the “Wet Area”

For this step, I decided on Redgard since I didn’t use a board that is already waterproofed (a lot of my choices were based on availability locally as well, such as at the big-box stores versus a specialty tile shop that required a lot more travel time). Redgard is basically both a waterproofing and crack resistant membrane, so even though the original green board seemed to do just fine on its own after 30 years (basically, no waterproofing but no big issues with mold), I’m not that worried about having problems in the future, but given that this was DIY I still wanted to do a little bit better than how I found it.

It seemed pretty user friendly and the demos online about its waterproofing abilities are pretty impressive, too. Basically: if you can paint walls, you can easily use this product — just make sure there is proper ventilation and give this stuff time to air out (according to the packaging, you can start tiling immediately once it’s dry, which takes about 1-1.5 hours based on humidity, but I waited a little longer because of the smell).

pink redgard

Application was relatively straightforward (rolling with a roller like paint or troweling it on), but I also used an old paint brush in corners and seams because I wanted to get every tiny uneven nook (and there were a few). Then, a second coat. I didn’t wind up going up to the ceiling with the product (even though I tiled to the ceiling) because it seemed only necessary in the original tiled parts.

Redgard waterproofing corners

As for taping off/protecting things, some folks wonder if you should need to protect the tub from Redgard with some painter’s tape. I did use it but didn’t find this to be much of a worry, since once it dries it has practically the same consistency as dried caulk or plastic and suuuuper easy to spot if you dripped somewhere. It peeled right off the tub with my fingernail, and the only spots I had difficulty with were two tiny spots that splattered onto the porcelain floor tile — since the drip was so thin and the floor tile isn’t a high gloss coat, it stuck more. I learned at that point that letting it dry as a glop might be better than a thin layer. I was still able to get it up with my fingernail though (you can also use a flat knife such as a taping knife, but it’s better to use plastic and not risk etching the tub or tile).

The funnest part about this product is actually the color. It starts off bright (almost neon) pink… and when dries, it changes to red. I’m not often much of a pink gal… but I honestly want a dress that is Redgard pink.

redgard goes on pink and then dries red

4. Begin Tiling, Starting at the Tub… and Grab a Level!

I’ve done tiling tutorials before, and this experience was really not unlike when I installed a ceramic subway tile backsplash in the kitchen or when I added one to the laundry room. There were a few differences:

  • The question on what tile adhesive products are fine to use (based on what the manufacturer says) versus what pro contractors advise on DIY forums is hotly debated, and important to gather information about since this is going in an area where water is going to be. To dig into it a little without making this entire post about it (I’ll have to try to go into it further in a later post), the general split between types of tile adhesive is usually based on where it’s being applied and that usually impacts whether the product is pre-mixed. In most cases, the pre-mixed stuff is called mastic (a somewhat outdated term) or ceramic tile adhesive (the newer term) and is used for dry areas like the kitchen backsplash. For “wet areas” like a shower floor, underwater, or a steam room, the solution is to instead use thinset and comes in a bag of dry powder you mix yourself. However, there are a small handful of products that say right on the packaging that they are okay for wet areas and sold by major retailers as long as it’s for an intermittent wet area, such as a shower wall or tub surround. They are a little thicker/grainier than how I remember mastic being, and cure time takes a while. The upside is obviously the convenience, but the risk is that unless the grout is sealed properly (and stays properly sealed!), there’s a chance water could get behind the tile and that would weaken its hold, as well as possibly lead to mold issues. Some folks agree that it’s fine to use, while others are strictly Team Thinset. I haven’t used a product like this before in a wet area, so I feel kind of weird giving an opinion on it other than saying the safer bet seems to be mixing your own thinset. Also, the color of the adhesive plays a role too (for instance, you should use white thinset if you’re planning to use a light grout because the gray might compromise the pigment of the grout color). I want to have a completely different post all about this at a later date because this decision alone made me nervous over and over again, but also, arm brace.
  • Tiling all the way from the tub to the ceiling took a long time. Much longer than I thought it would. It was exhausting, but so, so worth it! I can’t wait until I can take some final shots with how gorgeous the wavy gleam from the surface effect is.
  • I have a lot of things in all caps on this post, so I’m resisting doing it again, but I want to emphasize that getting the bottom row level is incredibly important! It’s a domino effect to the rest of the job if you don’t get that right, so take the extra time to double check that everything looks straight and level so each sequential row goes more smoothly. And every few rows, pull out the level again and check your work. Making minor adjustments every other row is a lot easier than trying to fix a visibly drooping section halfway up.
tiling master bathroom tub surround with long white subway tile - waterproofing and tiling bathtub shower
  • The tile I used was “handcrafted”, which gave both the surface of the tile and its edges a wavy effect, making it more of a challenge to work with, especially with spacers. Some areas needed a very narrow grout line to stay level, and some needed thicker spacers, but constantly checking for level was probably the only way I managed to stay sane! I wound up using little wedge spacers whenever I needed some flexibility. The shape also influenced the brick pattern I used.
tiling tub surround in master bath - qep tile leveling spacers
  • To keep the surface of the tile level, I used a new product I hadn’t tried before. I need to write a post on using these just by itself, but GO BUY THESE THINGS. These leveling tile spacers are a two-part system that basically fit around and between the tiles with a 1/16″ spacer. Part of it is permanent under the tile to help keep the surface level during installation (the trippiest part for me), and part goes on top to clip each tile level with the ones near it. I tried to install tile without at one point near the ceiling, and the difference was clear that they helped enough for me to consider these worth the cost. And the fact that I could do a little demo after the tile was installed was kind of fun (you have to knock off a certain part after the tile dries), since by this point the desire to swing a hammer to ease my stress of all that labor was pretty high! Note: I wound up using these only on the shorter ends of the tiles (so, vertical leveling only) because the horizontal spacing was so unpredictable. On a normal tile though, these would be great for both horizontal and vertical leveling.
  • As you work, you may see some of the tile adhesive or thinset squish out from under the tile and into the grout joints (in between the tiles). It’s important to remove this before it dries so that it doesn’t interfere with getting the grout in these narrow spaces. Remove the excess with the blade of a putty knife (and be gentle not to move the tile out of position).
Removing tile leveling spacers with rubber mallet

5. Grouting (and in my case, Sealing too)

I had a lot of self-doubt over choosing the grout color. I knew from my kitchen backsplash installation that I sort of wish I’d tried out gray grout, but with the uneven grout lines from the handcrafted tile, I also thought white-grout-on-white-tile might be the best (read: least eye-twitching as I shower) choice. I chose white. And I am far more confident with that choice than I ever was with the kitchen, so I think I’m in the clear for future regret!

grouting the tub surround - white grout on white subway tile

Grout is not everyone’s favorite thing, but I honestly think it’s a pretty easy step. It’s messy and I hate that it takes so much physical effort, but it’s also really soothing to do it. Again, because of the different widths in grout lines, I wound up using both a grout float as well as gloved hands to apply it to make sure I got it into each little gap (and definitely use gloves you are comfortable with disposing). I have a post all about my favorite gloves here. It’s a simple process of spreading it on with the grout float at a diagonal to the tile (you don’t want to remove the grout back out of the joint lines). The rubbery bottom of the grout float helps the grout glide over the empty spaces while sort of squeegeeing it off of the smooth tile surfaces. After a short set time, you then sponge off the excess. Even as you tidy your work, as it dries, a haze will form and you will wipe down the tile a second time to remove it. It’s important to wipe things as clean as possible before the haze step — you don’t want to learn the hard way that you didn’t wipe it off enough and now have dried grout on top of your tile that doesn’t want to budge!

As for sealing, it’s optional to do this after the grout dries, but you can also buy grout that has sealer already mixed in or a product that you can mix into the grout to do things in one step. After reading a lot of reviews about how the product that has the sealer already mixed in is really tough if you’re not a seasoned installer (apparently the window of time to wipe it back off is really short and lots of people had issues trying to get it off the tile if they didn’t clean it up right away), I went with the mix-in version that was more forgiving. I actually think that because this grout is white that I might seal it again after the fact before its first use (I happen to have grout sealer in my garage anyway).

Do you see why writing individual posts was also on my to-do list? It gets detailed fast! And… since we’re over 3,000 words for today and I’m literally wearing a wrist brace as I type (bringing my words per minute down significantly), I’ll stop here. I still need to also share the mood board for the room with perhaps one unexpected element (at least, if you know my typical neutral-loving style) as well as the final reveal and the details about the new shower head and other fixtures.

P.S. If you’re wondering about the brace itself, I’m really liking it so far. This is the one I bought and it fits my small wrist well. It takes a little getting used to but it makes the ligament in my forearm feel a lot better.

P.P.S. The shower reveal is RIGHT HERE, and it’s just as beautiful as I’d hoped! You can click on the photos below for more on this room makeover. I also updated my primary bathroom house tour page if you want to see that, too.

master bathroom white and green shower makeover

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  1. Awesome. I can’t wait to see the final shower shots. I’m attending a Home Depot workshop this weekend where they will teach us how to tile a floor. It will give me the chance to decide if I’m willing to put the effort into doing it myself when we finally remodel our bathrooms and kitchen. LOL

    1. I think it’s totally worth it. At least in terms of how bad it wound up when I didn’t DIY. And if you use large enough tile, it’s actually pretty quick!

  2. Wow, no wonder your wrist is in a brace! (Had to use several times.) Love the tile and wholeheartedly agree on the white grout!

  3. Did you anchor the tub to the studs? I have done that and am concerned that tiling will be difficult because of the way the clip and screw jut out

    1. The tub was original to the house and I basically just left it installed as it was. It has settled a small amount as you’d expect with an older house, but I didn’t find anything about it that I really needed to mess with. If you’re worried about things being flush I linked to a great tutorial from Home Repair Tutor who used shims to get the studs flush with the bottom lip of the tub. I would definitely reach out to him if your situation is unique… wealth of knowledge about tubs and showers!

  4. Ok, dumb question (you may already mentioned this and I may have missed it) but I was wondering how long you have to hold the tile up on the adhesive before letting go. I have been thinking about retiling my shower but wasn’t sure how long it would take to put tiles up on a wall….thinking I would have to hold them up until the adhesive dried which could be several minutes per tile. How long do you think you held on to the tile before letting go and moving on to the next one?

  5. :( Hope your wrist feels better soon! I love these kind of posts and I’m so glad you made a handy little resource for us, even though it isn’t completely detailed. It still helps a ton!

    Question: how would you go about spacing oddly shaped tiles, like fish scale or wave tile? I’d assume use a spacer at the same point for each tile (like under the peak of the fish scale or under the lowest part of the wave), but I’m not sure. And for diamond shaped tile, it would be the same deal as regular brick tile, you’d just use the spacer in the bottom left/top right portion instead of the bottom/top portion?

    Thanks again Sarah! You’re awesome.

    1. Your instincts are spot on — I was originally thinking of going with a feather-patterned tile until I realized how much it was going to cost me per square foot for the one I liked best (ouch), so I can picture what you’re talking about. I would use a spacer in the same spot of each tile to keep the spacing consistent… in particular, I would definitely rely on those wedge tiles I linked to in the post. They are the most versatile and I’ve now used them in quite a few projects (and been able to re-use them multiple times). For diamond tile, the spacing would probably work well with those leveling spacers I linked to (as long as the tiles had enough symmetry to line up). Sounds like you’ve already got a handle on this well, and I think a cool shape would be awesome! If you complete your project send me pictures — I love to see reader remodels!

  6. I get jobs like this all the time as a remodel contractor. Subway tile is in now and probably will be for awhile. I really think #5 is really important, grout needs to be sealed. Whatever you do, just don’t use a shiny, oil based sealer! I had a client who used this and it actually sealed water in behind the tile and caused serious mold. Love the article by the way!

  7. Patience is a virtue when using small tiles. The shower looks fantastic and was definitely worth the extra effort!

  8. Hello!

    I am in the water-proofing and planning stage now of tiling my basement shower. I love the way yours turned out! I am a rookie tile-er and want your expert opinion on some questions/problems!
    I originally wanted large tiles but am possibly changing my mind to subway tiles. I know a con with subway is having to lay more tiles down. But, I am assuming that cutting the subway tiles would be easier (and easier to get straight lines). Do you agree?

    Also, I am trying to figure out how to transition from the wall to the tile. I have an irregular ~1/2 gap between the cement backer and the green board on the wall. In your photo associated with Step4 you had green tape holding a thin white piece up between the tile and the wall. Is that a form of tile edging or is it a pencil tile?

    Thank you!! Love your blog! You are so helpful!!

    1. So glad you’re finding this helpful, Tara!

      Regarding subway tile: the more tiles, the harder it is on your body because you cover less square footage with every movement. It took me several days to do my shower tile, and my arms/shoulders were VERY sore. I am thrilled with the end result, and I consider it a workout well spent, but it was still a lot of work! Also, in keeping a straight line? I would think it would be easier with bigger tile simply because you have less tile to line up. But the only large tile I’ve ever done has been on the floor. I think in terms of easier, subway tiles are smaller and therefore less cumbersome when you’re working in a smaller area. Cutting big tile can get a little frustrating just because some spots might require more than one cut. I added subway tile to my kitchen backsplash before tiling my shower, and also tiled a few floors before that, so it’s really about building confidence, too.

      And yes, in Step 4, it was pencil tile. Now THAT was tricky to keep straight!

      Whether using big or small tile, tiling can feel like a lot. Each have their benefits and their challenges though, so don’t choose a tile you won’t be happy with just because you think it might be easier. With that amount of work, make sure it’s something you really love (and DO be sure to double check that your tile, adhesive, and all other materials are suitable for “wet areas” — some tiles aren’t made for showers).

      Hope that helps!

  9. Really pretty tile! I’m worried about the gap between your waterproofed backer board and your tub though! When I’ve tiled tub surrounds I’ve either shimmed behind the backer so it can overlap the tub flange, or I’ve ran fiberglass tape over the gap between the backer and the tub, and slathered it in Redgard. The idea is that if/when water gets behind the tile, it can run down that waterproof wall and over the top of the tub flange into the tub.

  10. Pro tiler here: Your information is spot on!

    As you mentioned, premixed “mortar” isn’t to be used over a waterproof membrane such as Redgard. It mentions this in the limitations section on the product data-sheet. Also, I love that you tore out the drywall once you found out that it doesn’t belong in a wet area.

    Nice job and looks great!

    1. Thanks, James! Believe it or not, it was an uncomfortable decision to tear that drywall out — when you DIY, your first instincts are always to try to find a solution for your budget! It’s been nearly 3 years since writing this post, and so far, so good! I can still see every DIY beginner-level mistake I made (no one else in the house does, of course), but I’m glad I took the time to learn the basics and corrected where I could when I realized I was wrong (pretty much the fundamentals of learning anything in home improvement!). Thanks for reading and weighing in!

  11. You obviously know a lot about tile and waterproofing. Maybe you can point me in the right direction.

    We have an indoor mosaic water fountain (made in Morocco). It leaks like sieve. I need a transparent, underwater, waterproofing product. I’ve been to Home Depot, Lowes and notable paint stores — no luck. (All the swimming pool products seem to white, light blue, etc. I can’t find a transparent one.)

    Any suggestions.


    1. I don’t know of any that are transparent (the two I know of for bathrooms are the red one I used and another is a dark green). I think you’re on the right track with looking into swimming pool places… that would be my best guess for talking to an expert who may know if such a thing exists. I doubt transparent options like decking sealer would be watertight enough. Good luck!