Bathroom remodel: Installing subway tile in the shower

Today’s post is about home decor, which, if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know is a topic I don’t write about very often. If you’re wondering why, allow me to introduce Exhibit A: “My Downstairs Bathroom, circa 2017.”

3/4 bathroom before remodeling

About the only good thing I can say about the room is that it’s slightly less ugly at the time that this picture was taken than it was when we first bought the house 20 years earlier. Back then the walls were covered in shiny robin’s egg blue plastic paneling.

We wanted to pull the paneling down as soon as we moved in, but the plaster walls underneath it were cracked beyond redemption. In order to avoid a full-on, down-to-the-studs remodel (which we were already doing in several other rooms at the time) we decided to just hang wallpaper over top of the paneling and call it done. (I believe this is what technically is referred to as “a half-assed job.”)

The wallpaper was supposed to be a short-term fix, until we had the remodeling finished in the other rooms and had saved up some cash to tackle the bathroom properly. But somehow two decades went by and we were still living with that “short-term” solution.

shower stall with plastic shower surround

Then last fall a pipe sprang a leak, and we had to take down the plastic shower surround to access the plumbling in the wall.

cracked plaster wall inside shower stall

Here’s what we uncovered behind the shower surround. Those aren’t ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics you’re looking at; they’re dried glue trails. Apparently the DIY’ers before us wanted to make extra sure the plastic was adhered securely. They succeeded. That plastic put up quite a fight as we pried it off the wall and wrestled it to the ground. By the time we got it down, it was ripped and cracked and destined for Shower Surround Heaven.

We figured the ruined surround was a sign that it was time to finally get serious about making renovations. So after Jim fixed the leaky pipe, we pulled the crumbling plaster off the wall and made plans to hang subway tile.

lath on walls inside shower stall

Here’s the old lath that was behind the plaster. Pretty, right? Unfortunately, we had to remove it, too, so we could hang concrete backerboard.

concrete backerboard inside shower stall

Here’s the backerboard, partially installed. You have to use this stuff (as opposed to regular drywall) in places like shower stalls because it’s mold- and mildew-resistant.

Once we had the backerboard up, it was time to start tiling.

shower stall with seven rows of tile laid

When it comes to Cestkowski family DIY projects, our general division of labor goes something like this:

Things that require brute force and/or the use of power tools: Jim.

Things that require patience and/or attention to detail: Lisa.

Ergo, most of the project up until this point was on Jim. Tiling was on me.

subway tile with plastic spacers between

For the most part, I just worked from the bottom up, setting the tile in a “running bond pattern” so that every other row lined up. To ensure that the tiles were equidistant from each other, I wedged these god-awful spacers in between each one.

In all fairness, our spacers were probably no worse than any other spacers out there, but I had tiled once before — in our upstairs bathroom — and the tiles I had used then had bumpouts on their edges. The bumpouts made spacers unnecessary. I didn’t know how much easier that made the tiling process until I started working on this project.

shower stall in the process of being tiled with subway tile in a running bond pattern

The plastic spacers were my nemesis. Every time I would nudge a tile one way or the other, the nearby tiles would shift, and all of the spacers around them would drop to the floor. Then I’d have to bend down, pick up the fallen spacers and replace them before I could set the next tile.

I wish I could tell you I eventually figured out a way to stop the spacers from falling, but I didn’t.

shower stall with subway tile being hung

Despite the cursed spacers, I eventually made progress.

shower stall before tiling inset shelf

Jim helped out by trimming the tiles to fit in all the spots where I needed partials,  drilling holes for the spigots and shower head, and, most importantly, nodding sympathetically every time I went off on a profanity-laden rant about the evils of plastic spacers.

shower stall after tiling inset shelf

When I got to the inset shelf, I had no idea what I was going to do. Then we found this 12-inch-by-12-inch mosaic tile at Menards. It filled the niche almost perfectly.  Maybe that’s what these tiles are designed for? I don’t know. I could write a book, or at least a blog post, about what I don’t know about tiling.

subway tile with grout

Eventually, I got the tiles all adhered — hallelujah! — and it was time to grout. This was actually my favorite part of the process. There’s something really satisfying about smooshing grout into the cracks between the tiles and seeing what the finished wall is going to look like.

I was more than a little surprised to see how straight all my lines ended up. It almost looks like I knew what I was doing.

chrome shower head inside newly tiled shower stall

With the grouting complete, Jim installed a new shower head …

close up of hot and cold water handles in shower

… and new hot and cold water taps.

shower stall with white subway tile

Ta-da. This project was a pain, but we were very happy with the results. In fact, we were so happy with it that we decided to keep going with the renovations. More on that in my next post.

And if you’re interested in seeing what became of that beautiful lath that we pulled down, check out this post.

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